England is famous around the world for its castles, and hundreds are still standing that are worth a visit. From Dover Castle, in Kent, to Tintagel Castle, in Cornwall, here are some of the country’s oldest, most beautiful and most important castles.
Dover Castle, Kent
Almost as famous as the white cliffs it sits atop, Dover Castle is known as the “key to England” and has been at the heart of national defence for almost 1,000 years. It’s the largest castle in the country, and equalled in its long-standing defensive role by only Windsor Castle and the Tower of London. It was garrisoned from 1066, following William the Conqueror’s victory at the Battle of Hastings, up until 1958, resisting sieges and providing a key lookout across the English Channel. During World War II, the subterranean tunnels beneath the castle were converted into air-raid shelters, a hospital and a military command centre, from which the evacuation of Dunkirk was directed. Today, English Heritage owns the castle, which is open to the public.
The oldest and largest inhabited castle in the world, Windsor Castle is one of the official residences of the Queen, the latest in an almost 1,000-year-long line of monarchs who have called it home. The Queen spends many of her weekends here, as well as a month at Easter, while the castle also hosts visits from overseas heads of states. The original castle was built by William the Conqueror in the 11th century for strategic defence of the Norman powerhouse in London, with Henry III turning it into a luxurious home.
Today, romantic Bolsover Castle is more of a stately Stuart house than a castle (though its design mimics the embattled appearance of a fortress), with the Cavendish family having built a luxurious mansion in the early 17th century. A castle was first built on the site, however, in the 12th century by the Peverel family. The tower that’s visible today is known as the Little Castle and was completed around 1621. It was donated to the nation in 1945 and is owned and run by English Heritage. Sitting atop a hill in scenic Derbyshire, Bolsover Castle offers stunning views across the countryside.
The massive structure that is Middleham might be mainly ruins, but with most of its walls still intact, it’s not too difficult to get a sense of this once-grand castle, formerly known as the Windsor of the North. In the 15th century, the palatial castle was home to some of the nation’s most prominent lords and was the childhood home of Richard III — an unpopular king cast in an infinite state of villainy by the hand of William Shakespeare. The scale of Middleham alone makes it a fascinating place to explore.
London’s famous castle was founded towards the end of the Norman conquest in 1066. It went on to become one of the most important castles in English history, synonymous with its monarchy, as controlling the castle has always been deemed necessary to control the country. However, despite its role as a grand palace and official royal residence, over time the castle has come to be primarily associated with its function as a prison — hence the phrase “sent to the Tower”. Prisoners were held here from 1100 until 1952, when the Kray twins, notorious gangsters, were incarcerated within its walls, while the last execution to be held here was of a German spy in 1941. The castle has many parts that have been modified, rebuilt and expanded by a succession of rulers. Today, the Crown Jewels are housed here and on show to the public, along with the tower, which has become one of the country’s most popular tourist destinations.
Another of the seeds planted by William the Conqueror, Warwick Castle was originally built as a wooden motte and bailey in 1068, before being replaced by stone around 200 years later. Warwick Castle was recently named as one of the nation’s most loved castles, as it has become a major tourist destination filled with attractions, courtesy of the Tussauds Group. Visitors are even able to stay overnight within the medieval walls. The castle itself is truly magnificent and remarkably well preserved, and it sits beside the River Avon in the heart of the city of Warwick.
Sitting on a volcanic outcrop and natural throne on the Northumberland coast, Bamburgh Castle offers some seriously dramatic aesthetics. The site was once home to the kings of ancient Northumbria long before the Normans built a castle, with settlements having stood here since prehistoric times — making it an important archaeological site, as reflected by ongoing digs. Thanks to its close proximity to the Scottish border, Bamburgh Castle has been an important English outpost throughout history and the target of Scottish raids. Its magnificent appearance makes Bamburgh a popular location for filming.
After the Norman conquest of England, William the Conqueror went castle-crazy, placing fortifications all over the country to help enforce the new feudalist regime. Hedingham is one of the most well preserved, if not the most, and stands as a testament to this strange chapter in British history. Virtually the entire keep is open to the public, and tours teach visitors about the castle’s strategic significance, including two sieges – one in 1216 and another in 1217, during the disputes between King John and rebel barons.
First referred to in 1136 and described as “very strong” by the then King of Scotland, Alnwick Castle became a site of major strategic significance during subsequent conflicts between the English and the Scots. In fact, in the Battle of Alnwick, William the Scot was captured, turning the tide of the war. It became a strategic site once again for the forces of Lancaster during the War of the Roses. Now it is open to the public, although still partly occupied by a current Duke and his family. The towers play host to various exhibitions, displaying artefacts from all over the world, including Egypt, Pompeii and Roman Britain.
Sitting just on the edge of the village that it lends its name to, the Corfe Castle area has been occupied for more than 8,000 years. The castle itself is another that was built following the Norman invasion in 1066. It’s one of the only castles that fits the stereotypical hilltop position, in part because it was actually quite rare to build one on the highest point in the area. The castle has been added to and rebuilt in various ways throughout the years, and it now stands as a patchwork ruin with different areas immortalising different stages of British history. Each year, it sees hundreds of thousands of visitors, who walk the ruins and learn about the castle’s long, colourful past and various occupants.
Tintagel Castle is everything you’d want from a castle – set on a small island, split by a long footbridge across a sheer cliff face, and home to more than a millennium of fascinating history. The island was initially a Roman settlement, before becoming the head of the Dumnonia region and then a landmark of the seat of Cornwall, as well as the subject of various Arthurian legends. Now, visitors can access the castle via the footbridge and, as well as exploring the ruins, see various references to the Arthurian legends, including a carving of Merlin commissioned there to mark the supposed site of Merlin’s Cave from the epic poem “Idylls of the King” by Alfred Tennyson.
Now serving double duty as a tourist attraction and a hotel, Chillingham Castle has a very particular reputation that its name somewhat hints at: it is said to be the most haunted castle in Britain. It was built as a monastery in the 12th century before being converted into a full defensive outpost in 1344 by King Edward III. It was only after this that the ghost stories began. Among the castle’s spectral residents are Lady Mary Berkeley, some mysterious men who talk in the chapel, and the ‘blue boy’ – a wailing child whose appearances are preceded by the glow of a blue halo. The castle runs ghost tours, and you can stay in apartments within both the castle and the grounds.