Big House, Up Close: Magnificent Abodes Around the World #2: Warwick Castle

Next up in the “Big House, Up Close” series is Warwick Castle in Warwick, England.

Warwick Castle: History

This magnificent castle on a sandstone bluff along the River Avon in Warwick, England, was once the site of a burh or burg–an old fortified Anglo-Saxon settlement. The burh fortifications were built in 914 by order of Ethelfleda, daughter of Alfred the Great, against the Germanic tribe, the Danes. A drawing of a typical burh is below.

In the 11th century, Norman, Breton, and French soldiers invaded and occupied England, led by Duke William II, AKA William the Conqueror. This is now known as the Norman conquest of England, and was based on William the Conqueror’s belief in his claim to the English throne. William’s claim was rooted in his familial relationship with the childless Anglo-Saxon King Edward the Confessor, whose mother was sister to William’s grandfather, and who is believed to have promised William the throne. After a victory at the Battle of Hastings in 1066, William was crowned the King of England. William then built castles and took local lands, giving them to his followers who established feudal systems. William never spoke English but is known as a powerful and influential ruler who also added French and Latin words to the English dictionary. Here he is below:

It was not uncommon in this era for the construction of a castle to displace local communities. It is recorded that four houses were torn down to build Warwick Castle in 1068.  It was a wooden “motte-and-bailey castle” meaning that is was mainly a mound with a tower and a bailey, or enclosed courtyard, and it was meant to help guard the Midlands against rebellion. The River Avon wore away the rock that Warwick Castle stands on, leaving it with a neighboring cliff. Together, the river and cliff are natural defenses. In 1088 Henry de Beaumont became the first Earl of Warwick. During the 12th century the castle was rebuilt in stone.

Warwick Castle certainly saw its share of castle gore—take the story of Guy de Beauchamp, 10th Earl of Warwick, who was a chief author of The Ordinances of 1311, which ruled that the king’s powers would be largely handled or appropriated by a council of barons. These ordinances also banished Piers Gaveston, believed to be the lover of the king at that time, Edward II. When Gaveston returned to England, he was tried for treason and sentenced to death by Beauchamp at Warwick Castle (illustration below).

The dungeons were built in 1350 and the facade was refortified during the 14th century for the Hundred Years War. Richard de Beauchamp, a later Earl of Warwick Castle, supervised the trial of Joan of Arc in 1431. Several Earls were also executed over the years, believed to be treasonous. Warwick Castle remained a stronghold until the 17th century and its rich history cannot begin to be described here. For more important dates, see this timeline. In the 17th century it was granted to Sir Fulke Greville, who used it as a country house. The family sold the home to the Tussauds Group in 1978, who merged with Merlin Entertainments in 2007, and who currently own the castle in its incarnation as a historic site and popular tourist attraction.

Warwick Castle: Interior, Grounds, and Renovations

The interior and the grounds of the castle are visually astounding. The current site shares that the owners have “spent over £6,000,000 in the last 10 years alone on restoration.” It is a scheduled Ancient Monument and Grade 1 listed building and it relies on visitor revenue for its maintenance. The interior tour offers views of the Great hall, state rooms, and the Earl’s private chapel. The Great Hall once held a central fire pit and a great cauldron for feeding soldiers, known as Guy’s Porridge Pot, which is still present. Enjoy a 360° tour by selecting the image below.

The red drawing room below is famous for its 17th century red lacquered paneling. This richly blooming rufescent and ornately patterned room must be very saturating to the senses.

I would like to see the Blue Boudoir, which has silk lined walls and a portrait of King Henry VIII. The softer blue hues are, to me, most ethereal.

On a tour of the grounds, one can explore the majestic towers and ramparts, containing walkways for defensive archers. Stops that are popular with families include the playground, with a pint sized castle, and the Princess Tower. All ages can enjoy the peacock garden, which offers the lovely meeting of organic growth and symmetry that is commonly found in carefully designed and maintained estate gardens. I think I could wander there quite peacefully for a long time. There are 64 acres of gardens.

Warrick Castle also offers a variety of visitor attractions including a “Horrible Histories Maze” with special effects and sections including “Stormin’ Normans” and “Measly Middle Ages.” There is a recreation of a trebuchet or giant catapult (below).

Restorations to Warwick Castle have been numerous, including the Victorian Mill and Engine House restoration, the meticulous revealing of painted heraldic shields which were discovered accidentally while the Chapel ceiling was cleaned, and the south front river embankment wall repairs. I know further study and a tour of Warwick Castle would reveal countless more stories, mysteries, colorful spaces, and opportunities for adventures. Any estate this old and large that has survived wars, fires, and generations of inhabitants is bound to be full of complex histories, precious artifacts, and curious visitors. I look forward to seeing this castle myself some day in the future.

Julia Travers

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