The town is renowned for the extensive ruins of Kenilworth Castle, which is a fine example of a semi-royal palace built over several centuries, from Norman through to Tudor times.
The Norman Keep (Great Tower) is the oldest part of the castle constructed in the early 1120s by Geoffrey de Clinton, Lord Chamberlain and treasurer to King Henry I (reign: 1100-1135), who was the fourth son of William the Conqueror.
Later, the castle was significantly enlarged by King John in the early 13th century. At the same time, huge water defenses were created around the castle known as the Great Mere (the artificial lake is now drained and forms a meadow). In 1266, the resulting fortification was able to withstand a siege lasting six months, thought to be the longest sieges in medieval English history. The siege was part of an English civil war, known as the Second Barons’ War (1264-1267), led by Simon the Monfort of Leicester against the royalist forces.
John of Gaunt, son of King Edward III, further expanded the castle with a Great Hall and State Apartments in the late 14th century, turning the medieval castle into a palace fortress. The design of the great hall was inspired by the great hall built at Windsor Castle by his father. Everything about the great hall – the magnificent high-pitched roof of great span, the unusually tall windows, the high number of fireplaces – demonstrate Gaunt’s ambition, status and wealth.
In 1563, Queen Elizabeth I gave Kenilworth Castle to her favorite courtier, Robert Dudley, 1st Earl of Leicester, and so began the last phase in the castle’s history as a great aristocratic stronghold. He expanded the castle with a luxurious block of state apartments known as the Leicester’s Building thus transforming Kenilworth Castle into a fashionable Renaissance palace. The main reason for improving the castle was to equip it for accommodating Queen Elizabeth and her entourage in suitable style on her annual royal ‘progresses’.
One of the greatest surprises to greet Queen Elizabeth on her arrival at Kenilworth in 1575 was a magnificent Privy Garden, a private place for her to enjoy. Dudley’s creation was intended to seduce visitors; every detail reflected his position as a prominent courtier and ambitious royal favorite. The garden you can see today is recreated based on the detailed description written by Robert Langham, an eyewitness to the events surrounding the royal visit.
Leicester’s Gatehouse was built as an imposing new entrance to Robert Dudley’s castle. After the Civil War of the 1640s, the parliament wished to prevent the castle falling into enemy hands. Hence the castle was deliberately destroyed – it has remained a ruin ever since – whereas the gatehouse was converted into a private residence by Colonel Joseph Hawkesworth. Today, some of the rooms have been furnished to evoke their appearance during the 1930s, when the gatehouse was last used as a house.
“The bed of the lake is but a rushy swamp; and the massive ruins of the Castle only serve to show what their splendour once was, and to impress on the musing visitor the transitory value of human possessions, and the happiness of those who enjoy a humble lot in virtuous contentment.”
Walter Scott: Kenilworth (1821)
ROYAL LEAMINGTON SPA
The once buzzing spa resort that attracted the most famous people of the time is now a quiet backdrop to the Regency architecture that remains.
The growth of the small village of Leamington Priors into the flourishing spa resort town of Royal Leamington Spa was largely due to the discovery of saline water. As the therapeutic qualities of the water were popularized, the town experienced one of the most rapid expansions in 19th-century England.
The historic town’s spa days are long passed, but it still preserves fine examples of Regency architecture in the town’s Clarendon Square, the Parade, Jephson Gardens and Lansdowne Circus. Leamington’s only surviving spa facility is the Royal Pump Room and Baths. Saline water can still be obtained from a fountain inside the building, which now houses the Leamington Spa Art Gallery & Museum and a public library.
There is a seemingly random motif popping up all around the old town: elephants. The first elephants were brought from Ceylon to the town by Sam Lockhart, the first elephant trainer in England, born to a circus family in Leamington in 1850. His circus was in a grand building by the river. There is only some anecdotal evidence that the elephants were washed in the River Leam. Regardless, the slipway down to the river is called the ‘Elephant Walk’.
Another curiosity is the town’s statue of Queen Victoria. Having a statue of the queen is not an unusual thing for an English town, but a surprising fact is that this one, situated in front of the Town Council, was moved one inch on its plinth by the blast during the German bombing on November 14, 1940. Moreover, probably as a sign of defiance, it was not returned to its original position.
Leamington Spa Art Gallery & Museum info panels
Kenilworth Castle info panels