Historical Musings #18: Castles!

Historical Musings One of my current reads is Rebellion by Livi Michael, the second in a trilogy of novels set during the Wars of the Roses. A few chapters in, I came across the sentence “My Lord of Warwick lies at the castle of Warkworth and he rides daily to all these castles to oversee the sieges”. With my interest in history, you won’t be surprised to hear that I enjoy visiting castles! Warkworth Castle is one of my ‘local’ castles (less than an hour’s drive away) and I have visited it more than once, the first time as a ten-year-old on a school trip. As someone who reads a lot of historical fiction, castles feature regularly in my reading but I haven’t been to most of them so it’s always nice to see a mention of one that I am familiar with.

Lindisfarne Castle
Lindisfarne Castle

Like Warkworth Castle, most of the other castles I have visited are in Northumberland. Bamburgh Castle is surely the most dramatic; as you drive along the coast, you just seem to turn a corner and there it is, almost on top of you. Lindisfarne Castle is atmospheric too, due to its location perched on a hill on Holy Island. Then there’s Chillingham Castle, famous for its ghosts, and Alnwick Castle, still the home of the Dukes of Northumberland and better known to Harry Potter fans as Hogwarts. I’ve also been to Belsay Castle (for an English Heritage ‘Knights Tournament’) and to Newcastle Castle – yes, there’s a castle in Newcastle upon Tyne!

Auckland Castle
Auckland Castle

In Cumbria, I enjoyed visiting Carlisle Castle (being close to the border with Scotland it has apparently been under siege more times than any other castle in England) and Muncaster Castle in remote Ravenglass, of which my abiding memory is not so much the castle itself as the Hawk and Owl Centre and the birds of prey display in the castle grounds. In County Durham, among others, there’s Auckland Castle, which was the seat of the Bishops of Durham. I can also highly recommend Raby Castle, with its coach house, deer park and walled gardens (this is the castle I have used in my ‘Historical Musings’ image which is displayed at the top of this post).

I’ve been to Edinburgh Castle and have seen Cardiff Castle from the outside, but I sadly haven’t managed to visit any of the other castles in Scotland and Wales yet, which is something I would like to change. I’m hoping someone can tell me which ones I should put at the top of my list! There are still many, many more castles for me to see in England too, as apart from Leeds Castle in Kent and the Tower of London, most of my castle-visiting so far has been restricted to the north. And of course, there are castles all over Europe and beyond just waiting to be explored as well.

Hazlewood Castle
Hazlewood Castle

A few years ago I had the opportunity to stay for two nights at Hazlewood Castle in North Yorkshire, which is now a hotel but also has an interesting history and overlooks the site of the Battle of Towton. The bedrooms are accessed through a secret passage behind a bookcase in the library (you can see the door handle in my picture).

Visiting a castle today, as a twenty-first century tourist, it can be difficult to imagine what it would have been like to actually live or work in the castle when it was newly built. Apart from the castles like Alnwick which are still inhabited, and the ones which have been kept largely intact and furnished by private owners, many of the others have fallen into ruin and are now not much more than empty shells. Historical fiction can breathe new life into these ancient buildings and help us to picture what they were like when they were still in use.

At the beginning of Diana Gabaldon’s Outlander series, her time-travelling nurse, Claire Randall, sees a ruined castle restored to its former glory:

Castle Leoch. Well, at least now I knew where I was. When I had known it, Castle Leoch was a picturesque ruin. It was considerably more picturesque now, what with the sheep huddling under the walls of the keep and the pervasive smell of raw sewage. I was beginning to accept the impossible idea that I was, most likely, somewhere in the eighteenth century.

Leoch is a fictional castle, but there are plenty of real castles which appear in historical fiction. I have already said that Warkworth Castle is mentioned in Rebellion (and so are lots of other castles), while Raby Castle was referred to in Red Rose, White Rose by Joanna Hickson, a novel about Cicely Neville, mother of Edward IV and Richard III, known as the Rose of Raby:

Dominating the upper reaches of this fertile basin was Raby Castle, the ancestral home of the Neville family – my family. Renowned as one of England’s great northern fortresses, Raby’s nine massive towers sprawled below me like the giants of legend; they loomed over the meagre mud-plastered cotts of the village beyond its moat. I had lived most of my seventeen years within those soaring walls. To my mother it was a palace, a great haven of security and splendour demonstrating infallibly the enormous wealth and power of the Nevilles, but to me it had become a prison.

Edinburgh Castle with Nor' Loch in foreground
Edinburgh Castle with the Nor’ Loch in the foreground

In The Game of Kings, Dorothy Dunnett brings Edinburgh Castle to life in one perfect sentence:

Tonight the Castle on its pinnacle was fully lit, laying constellations on the water.

Moving away from castles I have actually visited, there are far too many other examples of castles in historical fiction to list here. Castles always feature strongly in the medieval novels of Sharon Penman and Elizabeth Chadwick, for example: I remember there were some great scenes involving trebuchets in Chadwick’s To Defy a King. Mary of Carisbrooke by Margaret Campbell Barnes is the story of Charles I’s imprisonment in Carisbrooke Castle on the Isle of Wight, and in Robyn Young’s Robert the Bruce trilogy, castles are constantly being attacked or besieged. As I’ve said, there are so many castles mentioned in historical novels that I would be here forever if I wanted to talk about all of them!

My questions this month, then, are:

Have you visited any castles? Which ones? If not, would you like to? Which books have you enjoyed that are set in castles or with memorable scenes involving castles?

I have concentrated on British castles here because they are the ones I know most about, but I would love to hear about castles in other countries too!

*All pictures used in this post are my own, apart from the painting of Edinburgh Castle which is in the public domain.

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28 thoughts on “Historical Musings #18: Castles!”

  1. Great post! I’ve visited countless castles but I think Stirling is my favourite although Elcho Castle in Perthshire is lovely, like something from a fairy tale but it isn’t habitable. Linlithgow is well worth a visit too, but that’s really a palace. I hadn’t even heard of Raby Castle, I must do some research.

    1. I had a feeling you would have visited lots of Scottish castles, Katrina! Stirling is definitely one that I would like to see. I hadn’t heard of Elcho Castle but I’ve just looked at some pictures and it does look lovely. 🙂

  2. I love Stirling Castle beyond all others, since I was born in Stirling, and lived in Bannockburn. Edinburgh Castle was very familiar when I lived in Fife, since I went by train to Edinburgh often. Stirling has been restored but I haven’t been back in Scotland recently to see how it is going. The Tapestries were being handwoven, replicas of the originals, the last time I visited Stirling. It is a long way from where I live now. The Upper Fraser Valley, near Vancouver, B.C. Canada.

    1. I would love to visit Stirling Castle one day. I’ve always thought it looked impressive and it has so much history too. It’s a shame you haven’t been able to come back and see the tapestries but it would be a very long journey!

  3. Stirling is a great castle, but my favourites up here in Scotland are Eilean Donan, which is a restored castle and really gives an idea of what life was like, and the castle on the Isle of Skye, Dunvegan, more for it’s location than the castle itself – you can also go on boat trips from it to see the seal colonies. In England, Warwick Castle is also run as if it was a working castle, with staff in period costume and lots of interesting shows and so on – it’s brilliant! And if you ever get the chance to visit some of the chateaux in France, my top pick is Chenonceau – a real fairy-tale castle with the most gorgeous ballroom…

    1. I’ve always wanted to go to Warwick Castle. I’ve heard mixed reports of it, but it sounds great to me. Chenonceau looks beautiful! I haven’t had the opportunity to visit a French chateau yet, but I’m certainly making a note of that one.

      1. Chenonceau is gorgeous – when we visited, many years ago, they did an amazing son-et-lumiere spectacle. Warwick is very commercialised, very expensive – it’s run by the same people who run Madame Tussauds, which may give you some idea. When we went with our kids, about fifteen years ago, there were lots of displays on but you got no sense of what it might have been like to live there in its heyday. The boys enjoyed the falconry and the longbowmen, though.

        1. That’s what I’d heard about Warwick – that it’s over-commercialised and over-priced. I would still like to go, though, and if I was in that part of the country I would also want to see Kenilworth Castle. And it sounds as though I definitely need to visit Chenonceau!

  4. Welsh must-see castles, in no particular order:
    Caernarvon — deffo, as kaggsy recommends
    Harlech — ditto
    Caerphilly — pretty impressive, and largely intact despite Oliver Cromwell
    Pembroke — Henry VII was born here. Also impressive, especially as it’s in private hands
    Roch — if Lory’s suggestion is the Pembrokeshire Roch Castle, this too is in private hands, after recent restoration a boutique hotel and conference centre but dramatic on its outcrop of rock (it rhymes with ‘gauche’, by the way)
    Kidwelly — also surprisingly intact; defended in Norman times by a notable Welsh princess, Gwenllian
    Cardiff — hugely restored in the 19C but the interior of the Marquess of Bute’s remodelled living quarters is worth admiring for its almost-but-not-quite-kitsch Gothic Revival decoration
    Manorbier — used for exterior shots in the film of Dodie Smith’s wonderful I Capture the Castle

      1. You’re welcome! I could have added Carew (someone else mentioned that), Carreg Cennen (never been but I’m told it’s spectacular) and Usk (private, but with an honesty box, and very idiosyncratic) … the list is endless!

  5. I’ve been to lots of castles over the years – probably my favourite is Manorbier. In Wales, there are also Carew, Goodrich and Pembroke. On the other side of the country is Orford, you can get a magnificent view of the Suffolk coastline from the top of the keep. And I love Corfe, have some special memories of trips there. You can’t reach the ruined castle on Loch an Eilein, in the Cairngorms, but it’s amazingly atmospheric.
    First prize for the most grim and sinister, though, is won hands down by Hermitage. There are some terrible stories about that place, and when you go there, you know they all must be true.

    1. I’ll have to make visiting Manorbier a priority as you’re the second person to recommend it here! I haven’t been to Hermitage Castle but it does look sinister in the pictures I’ve seen. It’s not too far away from me so hopefully I’ll be able to go and see it at some point.

  6. I think I have visited more cathedrals than castles in my travels, but of course having been raised in the 50s like most little girls I always wished I could live in one. I love this post. When I read Wolf Hall I just skimmed over all the castles Henry and his entourage were moving around to, but when I read Bring Up the Bodies, I decided to get some visuals on them and do my map study. Since then I have wished I could do a castle tour.

    1. I often find myself looking for pictures of castles and other settings while I’m reading – I think it can really add to the experience of reading the book. I like visiting cathedrals too, so maybe that could be a subject for a future post. 🙂

  7. My current favourite is Berry Pomeroy. It was a random choice one day and although it’s mostly due to the location it’s stunning (and very haunted apparently). I also love Rochester and Old Wardour because there’s so much to see even if both are a bit repetitive in their ruined state (the rooms all look the same and with Rochester you’re walking round and round).

    Books – like you, Elizabeth Chadwick, also Elizabeth Fremantle.

    1. I hadn’t heard of Berry Pomeroy so thanks for letting me know about it. I’ve been to Rochester (the town) and saw the castle from the outside but didn’t go in. Maybe another time!

  8. I spent part of every summer holiday in North Wales and I have visited, more than once, Caernarfon, Harlech, Conwy, and Criccieth castles. I was also very lucky to live just up the road from Warwick Castle and we even have a small castle in my hometown 😀

    1. I’ve only been to South Wales but would love to visit North Wales and would like to see all the castles you’ve mentioned, particularly Caernarfon. I’m envious that you lived so close to Warwick Castle!

  9. I find castles fascinating – the size of them and the manpower it took to amass the building materials and then to build them. I’ve only had the opportunity to visit a few in England – Dover, Hastings and Scarborough – and one in Germany, Hohenzollern Castle near Stuttgart. This is not an ancient castle as most of it was built in the 19th century, but it is on the site of a much older one, and is a quintessential fairy-tale castle.

    1. I’ve been to Germany but only to Berlin so I haven’t had a chance to visit any German castles yet. I’ve just googled Hohenzollern Castle and it looks beautiful. 🙂

  10. You list all the great castles of Northumbria – but not my all time favourite, Dunstanburgh! Fabulous atmosphere, with stone walls built on stone crags with the sea crashing against the bottom, John of Gaunt as a former owner, weird natural stone formations and no out of place modern tat – wonderful!

    1. I think Dunstanburgh is one of the few castles in Northumberland I haven’t been to yet. I have seen it in the distance from Craster and we did set off to walk to it, but decided there wasn’t time (we had stopped en route to somewhere else). You make it sound wonderful so I must have another attempt at visiting it!

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