From Conquests to Christians and Britain’s Best Castles

For a relatively small island, Britain is saturated with castles. In fact, there are estimated to be over a hundred and eighty of these stony strongholds built on British land. Why so? Because the Island Nation’s history is one that is characterised by change – most notably the change brought about by foreign invasion.

For instance, William the Conqueror built an abundance of castles during his reign in order to consolidate his sovereignty, protecting his throne from local Saxon insurrection and the threat of neighbouring armies. But William was far from being the only conqueror.

Britain’s history is a tumultuous tale of defeat and victory, wherein an influx of cultures from the invading Romans, Celts, Vikings and Normans means that each castle standing today is a symbol of heritage enriching the patchwork quilt of British Identity.

Beyond fortresses, castles also served as homes, churches, inns and centres for administration and jurisprudence meanwhile each evocation of a castle imbued the existing cultural precedents with the taste and beliefs of the respective ruling class.

Let us now explore some of the most bewitching castles that Britain has to offer and let’s see if they find a place on your next holiday’s itinerary or simply just a place to visit on a day out.

Corfe Castle, Dorset

Corfe Castle

Corfe Castle is a fortification which watches over a village of the same name and is situated on the Isle of Purbeck in the county of Dorset.

Corfe Castle was one built by the aforementioned William the Conqueror in attempt to consolidate his mandate and so dates back from the 11th Century. Or perhaps re-built is a more apt word. Built on a mound that guards the south of Purbeck from the rest of England, the site first housed a castle building comprised of earth and timber. In this structure, Kind Edward was treacherously murdered in a manner that would make Shakespeare himself convulse with inspiration. It is reputed that he was dispatched by his step-mother in order for her own son, Ethelred the Unready could ascend to the throne. Although the threat to the monarch was from his trusted relatives rather than public rebellion, William the Conqueror still saw fit to construct a stone colossus on this Purbeck mound. The Castle he built was used as a royal fortress for the next six hundred years until Elizabeth 1st sold it to Sir Christopher Hatton in 1572, her dancing master and ‘Queen’s favourite’.

From there, Lord Chief Justice, John Bankes bought the castle in 1635 and it was defended by his wife, Mary Bankes during the English Civil War. Although it withstood a 6-week long siege by Parliamentarian forces in 1643, Corfe could not do so a second time when a deceptive garrison allowed a Parliamentary force to march into the castle in February 1646 and so, one of the last remaining royalist strongholds was demolished on Parliament’s orders.

However, I would not advocate a trip unless there was truly something to behold. Owned by the National Trust, the ruins of Corfe Castle alone are dramatic and haunting and sing with the memories of its vivid past. The ruins are open to the public and award the traverser with stunning panoramic views of Poole harbour, the Swanage train line and the countryside, let alone views of the majestic exterior. Although a fragment of its former self, the fact that Corfe Castle is not whole merely adds to its atmosphere. Its incompleteness is a reminder of its tumultuous past.

St Michael’s Mount, Cornwall

St. Michael's Mount

The ‘Grey Rock in the Woods’ is a tidal island about 400 yards off of Mount’s Bay in Cornwall. The romantic and enigmatic island is one laced with a history full of folklore and intrigue, no doubt due to Castle-come-Church that finds itself crowning the mound at the end of a winding cobbled pathway.

The Castle in question is not just a destination for contemporary holiday-makers but found itself as a site for pilgrimage due to its fabled beginnings. Giving the mount its name, an apparition of the Archangel Michael was said to have appeared to fisherman in 495AD. The faithful soon flocked and the mount became a thriving religious centre. William the Conqueror comes in to play again and after his invasion, he granted the existing Celtic abbey to the Benedictine monks of Mont St Michel in France. The Church was subsequently built by a French Abbot, Bernard le Bec and reputed to have housed four miracles between the 1262 and 1263. The nature of the miracles remain elusive, however their mystery merely add to the spiritual draw of the monastery.

St Michael's Mount Castle

St. Michael’s Mount isn’t only a sight of Christian Legend however, but of local folklore. According to Cornish mythology, a giant named Cormoran once lived on the mount, sustaining himself by feasting on the cows and sheep from the nearby mainland. To battle this colossal foe, a young boy named Jack rowed out to the island and dug a pit in the mound whilst the giant was asleep. Upon dawn, Jack blew upon his horn to startle the awaking giant who subsequently stumbled into the pit and died.

For those preferring ‘vampire legend’, the Mount was the setting for the 1979 version of the film, Dracula and the monastery became the exterior for Castle Dracula. Although this was merely cinematic licence, the connection to the world of the occult proves how universally appealing the Castle is and acts as an interesting countermeasure to the Christian fables and proves to be a further point of reference for all fans of the horror-fantasy genre.

The Castle itself is more than just a stunning exterior but has a lot to offer within its many walls. Most notable are its named rooms, the first being ‘the Chevy Chase Room’. The Room receives its name from the 17th Century plaster frieze of hunting scenes that traverse across the walls, all of which pertain to the ‘Chevy Chase’. The Blue Drawing Room, exhibits portraits of the St Aubyn family and landscape paintings by the ‘Cornish Wonder’, John Opie. The Garrison Room devotes itself to weaponry and houses an outstanding collection of medieval weapons and armour, ranging from muskets to Cromwellian breastplates to even a suit of Samurai armour gifted to Lord. St Aubyn.

Blue Drawing Room

Tower of London

The Tower of London

The Tower of London is in fact not a single tower but a fully-fledged castle, or to be precise a royal palace/ fortress and so qualifies for this list. The reason it is known as the Tower of London is due to the eponymous white tower which was again a remnant of the Norman Conquest and built by William the Conqueror, this time to serve as a symbol of oppression and strengthen his mandate in London.

This dominating monolith was, as legend dictates not only used to deter criminals but to punish them and served as a prison from 1100 to 1952, incarcerating names such as the legendary ‘Princes of the Tower’, Ranulf Flambard and the Kray twins, each with, what I like to imagine, a flippant outburst of ‘send them to the Tower’ and a nonchalant royal wave.

The castle most prolifically used as a prison however, during the 16th and 17th centuries, wherein many figures whom had fell into disgrace were placed, including Elizabeth I herself before her coronation. The infamy of the prison was also in part due to the wealth of propaganda released, particularly in the 16th and 19th centuries where religious reformists and romantic thinkers understandably saw an issue with the tenets of torture and execution that were exercised there. The propaganda although not wholly of a fictitious nature did exaggerate the numbers, and there were only seven people executed in the Tower before the World Wars of the twentieth century. In fact executions were commonly held on the Tower Hill, a place that shares a name but is distinct from the castle. After a hiatus as a prison, the Tower once again took in inmates during the First and Second World Wars, and bore witness to the execution of 12 men found guilty of espionage against the British Crown.

However, the Tower’s primary purpose was not to solely imprison criminals but in its early history acted as a royal residence, affording the palace both a sense grandeur and an undercurrent of eeriness that only perpetuates its fabled reputation. The Tower’s rich history is also permeated with sieges and expansions that factor into the many roles the castle had to play. These roles include being an armoury, a treasure, a menagerie, the home of the Royal Mint and a public records office. It is no surprise therefore, that with such a swash of life and death, the castle is reputed to be home to several ghosts.

One of these alleged ghosts is the ghost of Anne Boleyn, Henry VII second wife and the first one to be beheaded. Beheaded in 1536 for treason, the ghost is said to haunt the chapel of St Peter and Vincula in the castle, an ethereal but disgruntled apparition who carries her detached head under her arm. Most of the sights of ghosts in the Tower of London are not reported by visitors however but the night staff working there. Whether or not this is the result of an arduous and sleepy night shift or proof of spectral possession has yet to be confirmed but what is sure are the claims of the presence of the ghosts of Henry VI, Lady Jane Grey and the Princes in the Tower.

Situated in the National Gallery, London, Paul Delaroche's 'Execution of Lady Jane Grey' is a theatrical recounting of the noblewoman's final moments in the Tower of London.

Situated in the National Gallery, London, Paul Delaroche’s ‘Execution of Lady Jane Grey’ is a theatrical recounting of the noblewoman’s final moments in the Tower of London.

Hopefully, the ghoulish tales of death, punishment and phantoms don’t deter you from your visit as the Tower is now home to its most famous inhabitants, those of which definitely warrant a visit wholly on their own merit, the Crown Jewels.

Situated in the aptly named Jewel House, the Crown Jewels have recently been re-curated since the Queen’s diamond jubilee in a manner that has only increased their lustre and magnificence as emblems of the British throne.

These spectacular exhibits are embroidered with some of the world’s largest and most lucrative and as ornaments that both document the history of the monarchy yet are continued to be used in official royal functions, are removed in any other case for maintenance. What you’ll find on display are the legendary Imperial State Crown, the Sovereign’s sceptre and even an 800 year-old coronation spoon.

Tintagel Castle, Cornwall

Tintagel Cstle

Tintagel castle is a second ruin of a once standing medieval fortification, which is situated on the Peninsula of Tintagel Island, next to the village of Tintagel in Cornwall. However, the fact that it is a ruin is what makes the castle such a prime destination to visit. The lack of evidence of what the castle was built for and what is was exactly like to be inside it only adds to its appeal. This because the castle has a long association with Arthurian legend, and if one believes the legend was the castle that sat in the Kingdom of Camelot. The association of Arthur and Tintagel began with the publication of a book named The History of the Kings of Britain by a man named Geoffrey of Monmouth in the twelfth century, since then, myth became doctrine and the idea that King Arthur was born there became hugely popular. Poets such as Tennyson, whether as a part of a clandestine group of enlightened individuals on the matter or simply adopting artistic license, relay Tintagel as a crucial in the Arthurian myth. A further claim is that a pool beneath a nearby waterfall names St Nectan’s Kieve is where King Arthur and the Knights of the Round Table anointed themselves before their expedition to find the Holy Grail.

Whether or not King Arthur is wholly a fictitious character or was an actual ruler whose reign has been adapted and distorted with years of history, Tintagel castle is abundant with intrigue and a sense of mystery; all the more so as many tour guides devote themselves to un-coding the mystery of the middle ages in the area yet armed with a knowledge of the certified history of the area.

Nonetheless, climbing the area to experience panoramic views of the Cornish coastline is rewarding and all the more special with the sense of the numinous that is found in a place that is so richly imbued with lore and legend.

It is no mystery why the enchanting area, laced with ruins which are mounted on verdant undulating hillsides have captured the heart and imagination of many a writer and visitor.

Britain is not just a nation with stimulating architecture but houses vestiges of times gone by, in the ruins and remaining castles that punctuated our history. It is no surprise that Britain receives millions of tourists a year, it has a unique selling point most of the World simply can’t replicate.