Over the past year or so I have been on a quest to visit as many castles in England (and Wales) as possible. This has meant that I have seen some wonderful places around the country (although there are many more that I intend to visit). However, in this blog post I am going to focus on those places with which I have a personal connection, often from my childhood or early adulthood. Therefore, the castles I have chosen are not necessarily those which have the best architectural features or the most interesting histories, but merely those that I like the most on a personal level (as somebody from the south of England there is certainly a regional bias to my choices!). Narrowing down the options to ten was surprisingly difficult, but in alphabetical order these are my favourites:
Bodiam, East Sussex
Bodiam is often described as the most beautiful castle in England and with good reason. It is a small elegant courtyard castle which is framed by a picturesque moat. Bodiam was constructed by order of Sir Edward Dallingridge in the late fourteenth century, who obtained a licence to crenellate his manor of Bodiam in 1385 during the Hundred Years’ War when the prospect of a French invasion appeared to be a very real threat. The wording of this document states that it was built ‘for the defence of the adjacent country for resistance against our enemies’ (although Dallingridge’s real motive for building the castle have been fiercely contested by modern scholars, with recent archaeological investigations revealing that the surrounding area was carefully landscaped).
By the eighteenth century the buildings had fallen into ruin, by which time it had become a popular place for visitors. Bodiam’s current appearance owes much to the benevolent ownership of George, Lord Curzon (a former viceroy of India) who acquired the castle in 1917. Curzon had a keen interest in the preservation of England’s medieval heritage (he was also responsible for saving Tattershall Castle in Lincolnshire). His alterations included recreating the moat, which had since dried up, and installing floor boards into some of the towers.
I have a personal connection to Bodiam which means that it has a special place in my affections. One of the main reasons for my academic interest in castles was due to my decision to write my master’s dissertation on Bodiam. I quickly decided to focus on examining the career of its remarkable builder, Sir Edward Dallingridge (as there is next to no documentary evidence for the castle). After being awarded my MA I was lucky enough to be invited to take part in an archaeological survey carried out by the University of Southampton. Subsequently I wrote an article on Dallingridge which you can read here.
Corfe Castle, Dorset
Corfe is an attractive castle with a fantastic setting in the Purbeck hills. It was built during the reign of William the Conqueror, but saw little military activity until the Anarchy, the civil war between King Stephen and Matilda, when it was unsuccessfully besieged by the royalists. Later during the reign of King John large sums of money were spent on building operations at Corfe, including the construction of the Gloriette.
This interest in Corfe was shared by his son Henry III, who spent the large sum of £10,000 throughout his reign on completing and improving the castle. Despite this, following the death of Henry, the castle was relatively neglected until the reign of Edward III, when a survey was carried out of the castle and extensive repairs were undertaken. Corfe remained in royal hands but was rarely visited by kings, until it was sold by Queen Elizabeth I to Christopher Hatton, later Lord Chancellor of England, in 1572. The castle was held for the king during the First English Civil War and after its capture the Parliamentarians slighted the castle in 1646.
The thing I love most about Corfe is the strange shape of the ruins, with walls and towers leaning at bizarre twisted angles. This gives it an unusual almost fantastical appearance. It also adheres to the classical image of a mighty impregnable castle situated on the top of an imposing hill.
Dartmouth has a stunning setting at the entrance to the mouth of the River Dart. The current structure was built as an artillery fortification to protect the town of Dartmouth. It was constructed next to an earlier castle, known as Hawley’s Castle, which dates from the late fourteenth century. Advances in gunpowder weapons meant that the defences of this older fortress needed to be enhanced by the late fifteenth century. In 1481, Edward IV granted the inhabitants of Dartmouth £80 a year towards the construction of ‘a strong tower and bulwark of stone and lime’, that was to be kept armed with guns and other weapons. A metal chain was also to be stretched from this new structure to another tower on the opposite side of the River Dart, which could be raised to block the passage of hostile ships.
The defences of the castle were expanded during the reign of Henry VIII, with the addition of two new gun batteries and a bulwark. In the following century, Dartmouth saw military action during the First English Civil War. The inhabitants of the area declared for Parliament on the outbreak of hostilities and the castle was only captured by the Royalists after a month-long siege in 1643. Two years later, a Parliamentary force stormed the town in a surprise night attack, with the garrison of the castle forced to surrender soon afterwards. Dartmouth continued to be used as a fortress periodically throughout the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. It was last used as by the military during the Second World War.
I am fond of Dartmouth due to its attractive location and because of its importance in the development of gunpowder weapons in England (the subject of my PhD thesis). Little survives of the original fourteenth century castle, but the latter structure is a fine example of an early artillery fortification. You can also see another artillery fortress, Kingswear Castle, which is located directly opposite Dartmouth Castle on the other side of the river mouth.
Dover is a huge castle that overlooks the iconic White Cliffs of Dover, the closest part of England to the European mainland. It is clear to see why the thirteenth century monastic chronicler Matthew Paris described it as being the ‘key of England’. Dover has a long history of human occupation with an Iron Age hill fort located on the site of the later castle. In the Roman era the town of Dover was an important port, and the remnants of a lighthouse used to guide ships still survives. Materials from this structure was later used to partially build the church of St Mary in Castro in the Anglo-Saxon period. The first castle on the site was constructed by William the Conqueror who visited the town only a week after winning the Battle of Hastings in 1066.
Dover was rebuilt on a massive scale by Henry II in the twelfth century who wished to capitalise on the growing popularity of the cult of Thomas Becket in Canterbury (this was somewhat ironic as he had been at least partly responsible for the murder of the archbishop). The castle played a critical role in the civil war between King John and his disaffected subjects known as the Barons’ War. Inspired by the effective leadership of the royalist constable, Hubert de Burgh, the garrison heroically held the castle against the forces of Prince Louis on two separate occasions. Their success meant that the rebels were forced to divide their forces, leading to the royalist victory at the Battle of Lincoln in 1217. Later in the reign of Henry III, the outer defences of the castle were extended and strengthened. Dover continued to play an important role in the defence of England (and the United Kingdom) throughout the following centuries and was still used by the military up until the end of the Cold War.
Dover is one of the largest castles in England and has architectural features dating from the ancient to the modern period. It is the sheer variety of things that you can see at Dover that make it one of my favourite castles. Where else can you find a medieval castle with a Roman lighthouse, Anglo-Saxon church, early modern artillery defences and a huge network of tunnels begun in the eighteenth century and still in use for most of the twentieth century?
Dunstanburgh is a fine example of a picturesque ruin, with the shattered remnants of this once majestic castle situated on the rugged coast of Northumberland. The castle owes its existence to Thomas, earl of Lancaster, who ordered the construction of the castle in the fourteenth century. He was at the time the most power magnate in England and wished to build an impressive castle to demonstrate his wealth and status. The finest feature of this new structure was an imposing twin-towered gatehouse, whose towers were five storeys high (they are sadly much reduced in height now). However, the earl had little opportunity to enjoy his new castle. His strained relationship with the king, his cousin Edward II, led to him taking up arms in rebellion against him. It was while he was making his way towards Dunstanburgh that his army was intercepted and defeated by the royalists at the Battle of Borough Bridge in 1322.
Dunstanburgh was soon regained by Thomas’s heir, his younger brother Henry, in 1326, but afterwards passed into royal hands again when Henry Bolingbroke (the soon to be Henry IV), usurped the throne from his cousin Richard II in 1399. The castle was besieged on multiple occasions during the Wars of the Roses in the early 1460s. Damage inflicted by the Yorkist artillery may have contributed to the subsequent decline of the castle in later years. It remained in royal hands until 1604, but little was spent on the repair of the buildings, which fell into ruin.
The beauty of its location and the charming nature of the ruins makes Dunstanburgh a special place. It really does feel as though you are in a remote and alluring place. Even getting to the castle is a reasonably long walk from the official car park. I was unfortunately quite ill when I visited the site a few years ago but it still evoked (and continues to evoke) a strong reaction in me.
Goodrich is a well-preserved castle with an attractive location above the River Wye. The earliest form of the castle was built in the eleventh century, but it was subsequently rebuilt in stone. Goodrich’s current form derives largely from the ownership of William de Valence who extensively remodelled the structure in the late thirteenth century. Only limited alterations were made in later years therefore Goodrich is a fine example of a mostly unchanged late thirteenth century castle.
Goodrich was garrisoned during the Owain Glyndŵr rebellion in the early fifteenth century but faced its greatest test during the First English Civil War. The castle changed multiple times during the conflict, with a major siege taking place in 1646. The Parliamentarians eventually were able to capture Goodrich by bombarding the defenders into surrender, with their artillery including a mortar called ‘Roaring Meg’ (this mortar can be seen at the castle). In later years the ruins of the castle became a popular place for visitors.
I first visited to Goodrich at the end of my Duke of Edinburgh bronze expedition to the Forest of Dean whilst I was still at school. The fine red walls made a strong impression on me and I have further happy memories of having visited in late years.
Old Wardour, Wiltshire
Old Wardour is one of the earliest castles that I had the opportunity to explore and I am still very fond of it. John, Lord Lovell, was responsible for the construction of the castle in the late fourteenth century, with a licence to crenellate granted in 1393. The main feature of the building was (and still is) an impressive hexagonal tower keep, which was surrounded by a large bailey. In the sixteenth century it was acquired by the Arundell family who modernised the castle and added neo-classical features, such as shell-headed niches by the entrance to the tower keep.
Wardour was badly damaged during the First English Civil War in 1644 by royalist besiegers who ignited gunpowder placed in a mine dug under the tower keep. This was particularly unfortunate as their commander, Henry, Lord Arundell, was the owner of the castle (oops!). The Arundell family subsequently decided against rebuilding Wardour and instead built a new house, New Wardour Castle, a short distance away. The shattered ruins of the tower keep were kept as an ornamental feature to form the centre of formal landscaped gardens.
Today Old Wardour is a peaceful peace (most of the time) in a quiet part of the Wiltshire countryside. It is a charming place to explore (with or without canines!) as many of the rooms can still be accessed and it is very photogenic. As a fan of romantic ruins this is a firm favourite of mine.
Portchester is a fascinating place with a long and interesting history. In the third century the Romans built a fortress there, one of the so called ‘Saxon Shore’ forts constructed either side of the English Channel. It continued to be occupied in the Anglo-Saxon period and was the site of a high-status noble residence. Following the Norman Conquest of England, William the Conqueror granted the manor of Portchester to William Mauduit who built a castle in the north-west corner of the Roman fortress. In the twelfth century a two storeyed keep was constructed, which was later extended in height.
The castle played an important part in coastal defence in the Late Middle Ages and was frequently garrisoned during the Hundred Years’ War (to read more about this click here). It also has the distinction of being one of the earliest castles in England to have been equipped with guns and gunports. In the 1390s extensive building work was carried out to transform the inner ward into a palace, with the new structures including a great hall and great chamber. Henry V later stayed at the castle whilst he was preparing for his expedition to France, which culminated in the Battle of Agincourt in 1415. Whilst there he was said to have discovered the conspiracy being hatched against him known as the Southampton Plot, and a short time later set sail for Normandy on his flagship the Holy Ghost.
Portchester fell into decline in the Tudor period as little money was allocated for its repair and upkeep, resulting in most of the buildings falling into a dilapidated state. The castle found a new lease of life in the seventeenth century when it was used as a prisoner of war camp for prisoners during the Anglo-Dutch wars. It continued in this capacity throughout the wars of the eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries, with the prisoner population at times numbering thousands of people.
The thing I enjoy most about Portchester is the variety of architectural features from different historical periods, whether they be the Roman walls, Norman keep and church, late medieval great hall, Tudor lodgings or later. It also has an attractive coastal setting and as somebody from Hampshire I have a local connection to the area.
Scarborough, like Dover, has an impressive location on a cliff top overlooking its town. The site has a long history of human occupation from the Bronze Age onwards, with the earliest surviving structure being the remnants of a Roman signalling station. In the twelfth century William le Gros, Count of Aumale decided to construct a motte and bailey castle there that was later rebuilt in stone. Scarborough was captured after a siege by Henry I who subsequently decided to spend significant sums of money on rebuilding the castle. The construction work carried out at this time included the building of the impressive keep, which still survives albeit in a badly damaged state to this day.
Edward II attempted to keep his unpopular favourite (and possible lover) Piers Gaveston safe by sending him to Scarborough. This plan backfired as discontented magnates laid siege to the castle and captured it after a short siege. Scarborough saw further military actions during the rebellions and conflicts of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. The defences of the castle were badly damaged by Parliamentary besiegers in 1645, with half of the keep destroyed. Nevertheless, it was retained as a fortress by the Parliamentarians, with a military presence maintained there until the mid-nineteenth century. The castle last saw military action in the First World War when it was shelled by German warships in 1914.
Scarborough today is a romantic ruin that has the advantage of being situated in (or rather above) an attractive seaside resort town. I have many fond memories of the town and castle and it is still one of my favourite places to visit. As a child I often went on family holidays to Scarborough in the summer holidays and visited again last year after a very long gap.
Stokesay in my opinion is the prettiest castle in England. The history of the building began in 1281 when the manor of Stokesay was acquired by a wealthy wool merchant, Laurence of Ludlow.
It was only in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries that Stokesay began to be referred to as a castle on a regular basis (up until then it was generally described as a manor house). The castle was garrisoned for the king during the First English Civil War but was surrendered without any resistance being offered in 1645. Stokesay, unlike many other fortifications, was not fully slighted by the victorious Parliamentarians but its walls were reduced in height. Over the next two centuries the condition of the building gradually declined before restoration work was carried out in the second half of the nineteenth century.
Stokesay is a wonderfully quaint place. It is a small but charming and contains fine features such as the seventeenth century gatehouse, well preserved great hall, and panelling in the solar block.
Do let me know what you think of my choices. Are you also fond of these places? Or are there other castles that you much prefer?
All photos by the author
For the sources used in writing this post and for further information about these wonderful castles see below:
Jeremy Ashbee, Goodrich Castle (London: English Heritage, 2014)
Steven Brindle, Dover Castle (London: English Heritage, 2012)
Brian K Davison, Old Wardour Castle (London: English Heritage, 1999)
Jonathan Foyle, Bodiam Castle, East Sussex: A Souvenir Guide (Rotherham:National Trust, 2017)
John Goodall, Portchester Castle (London: English Heritage, 2013)
John Goodall, Scarborough Castle (London: English Heritage, 2013)
National Trust, Corfe Castle (London: The National Trust, 2003)
Alastair Oswald and Jeremy Ashbee, Dunstanburgh Castle (London: English Heritage, 2016)
Paul Pattison, Dartmouth Castle (London: English Heritage, 2013)
Henry Summerson, Stokesay Castle (London: English Heritage, 2014)