Here to return to
WARWICKSHIRE is a county of pleasant names and of many legends. The extent of the Forest of Arden lessened, in some degree, the influence of Roman or Saxon in the district, and retained for many of its villages and parks the Celtic names that strike so pleasantly upon the ear. Its romantic associations are no less intriguing than their setting. At Coventry is the home of the Godiva legend, at Warwick the saga of Sir Guy, at Kenilworth the Amy Robsart story, and at Stratford-on-Avon — may one say? — the legend of William Shakespeare.
At least, one may in such a fashion protest that the ample and prosperous acres of Warwickshire have been etherealized by the lovers of romance. From countries where Shakespeare gives precedence to Byron and Scott, pilgrims come to gaze at the ruins of Kenilworth, which Scott invested with glory in his inaccurate account of the tragedy of Amy Robsart. From America come equally enthusiastic Shakespeare lovers to Stratford-on-Avon; to the cottage of Anne Hathaway, which Shakespeare deserted for so long; and to Chalcote Park, where he hung up a lampoon. The true lover of Shakespeare will see Stratford, certainly, but he will seek the poet in all English countryside, in Southwark, and on the Thames Embankment, where Francis Thompson held horses’ heads.
Alas! that Godiva’s penance is a fiction! And Kenilworth’s ivy-mantled ruins bear nobler memories than that of the despicable Robert Dudley, or of his wife who died — by accident for all we know — in Oxfordshire. Nevertheless, it is for these more superficial associations that the romantic come to Kenilworth, and, in their dream-wrapt innocence, they desecrate the beautiful lanes of Warwickshire with char-à-banc and motor-bus.
“Kenilworth” the novel permanently changed the character of Kenilworth the castle, in the minds of men. The visitor brings with him his own impression of the graceful palace where the Earl of Leicester entertained the Renaissance court of Elizabeth with masques and pageantry. He is blind to the massive fortress in which the younger Simon de Montfort held out against Henry III after Evesham. Kenilworth is one of those castles in which the domestic element came gradually to overshadow the military aspect, but its history (except for those seventeen days of courtiers’ revels) was a stern one of civil war, and the ruins of Dudley’s flimsy additions should symbolize for the visitor their relative position, architecturally and historically.
Both Kenilworth and Warwick were Norman castles, members of the great Midland group, and in both cases the builders showed a keen sense of local geography. Kenilworth was erected at the beginning of the twelfth century upon a knoll of sandstone and gravel in the midst of low-lying ground intersected by many small tributaries of the Avon.
These conditions were turned fully to account as the science of castle building progressed, and the evolution of the fortress illustrates an interesting tendency for the castle itself to lose its earlier character of passive strength, and to take an active part in its own defence, by forcing the enemy to attack on a small number of carefully defended points.
The earliest buildings occupied the site of what was later the Inner Ward upon the mound, and they had, as their citadel, the rectangular keep, called Julius Cæsar’s Tower, built without the usual interior cross wall, but with massive square turrets at the four corners, and a fore-building to protect its entrance. These fore-buildings marked the principle just alluded to in its earlier stages. In the first keeps the defenders entered the door high in the wall by a ladder, drew up the ladder, and defied the enemy swarming around the unbroken base wall.
The fore-building gave a permanent approach to the door of the keep by means of a covered stair, defended by an outer door on the ground level, by wrong turnings often enough, by meurtrières through which the attackers shepherded together on the stair could be assailed at close range, and by a strong, easily defended door in the keep wall. The main principle still was to defend a citadel until relief came, but the besiegers were, in the meantime, discouraged by these methods of thinning their numbers.
In the completed Kenilworth the idea of active defence was further carried out. A curtain wall was built around the original buildings of the Inner Ward, making the castle roughly concentric in plan. Then it was necessary merely to connect the principal watercourses by ditches and to dam the main Finham Brook, in order to isolate the castle behind the almost impregnable defence of a lake half a mile in length, with a smaller lake on the eastern side of the dam. The parts of the curtain undefended by the lake were covered by broad moats.
These works narrowed the besiegers’ point of attack. The dam became a causeway leading to the principal entrance. On the landward end was an earthwork called the Brayes, with its own gatehouse and with mounds on which to place engines of war. Behind this was a moat, and a drawbridge giving access to the Gallery Tower, which held the head of the dam, while at the far end of the narrow causeway was the strong Mortimer’s Tower projecting from the curtain wall, a barbican in itself, forming a third line of defence. All these additions were probably made about the time of Henry III, so that they are contemporary in time and analogous in character to Caerphilly. Thus Kenilworth is an illustration of the many valuable military lessons brought home from the East by the Crusaders.
It might be expected of a Midland castle, which defended England against no foreign enemy, that its history would be one of baronial ambition and of civil war. The nationalism of this country was hammered out on her borders and in France; but it cannot be said that the Barons’ Wars and the Stuart Civil Wars did nothing for the development of her internal order.
The lordship of Kenilworth was granted by Henry I to his chamberlain, Geoffrey de Clinton, who, with his descendants, erected the castle. But the family soon died out. In the reign of Henry II the fortress had reverted to the King, who defended it against his rebellious sons, and it may be that the stone keep was erected by the monarchy. Certainly, John saw the value of the place. He expended the large sum of £937 upon its restoration and improvement, and naturally refused to surrender it to the Barons to whom he had promised it at Runnymede. Henry III also strengthened the castle, and in 1253 he granted it, foolishly enough, to his son-in-law, Simon de Montfort, Earl of Leicester, under whose followers it endured its memorable siege.
Kenilworth was one of the main centres of the baronial strength in the Midlands. Under its walls Prince Edward stole upon the forces of the younger Simon when they were resting after a tiring march; and Simon alone, clad in a shirt, managed to escape in a boat across the lake to the castle. A few days later came the news of the battle of Evesham, and Kenilworth was converted from a hotbed of revolt to a last refuge of the rebels. Nevertheless, it sustained a six months’ siege. Henry III brought up towers and siege engines to the north curtain, but could make no impression. He ordered barges overland from Chester and attempted an attack from the lake, but with no success, for the audacious rebels even kept the gates open day and night, making frequent and damaging sorties. When towers and barges had failed, the Papal legate, Cardinal Ottoboni, afterwards Pope Adrian V, was called upon to excommunicate the defenders, which he did; but they dressed one of their number in mockery of the legate, and from the battlements parodied the anathemas. In the end, although Simon himself submitted, the rest of the Disinherited, as they were called, held out until famine and dysentery compelled them to yield.
After its recovery to the Crown, Henry III granted Kenilworth to his son, Edmund Crouchback, Earl of Lancaster, through whom it descended ultimately to John of Gaunt. It is to the latter, a noble patron of architects, that Kenilworth owes the finer parts of its palace buildings, especially the hall, which may once have been the finest in England, even more beautiful than the well- preserved Westminster Hall, to judge from the oriel window, the panelled fireplaces, the high springing arches that remain.
But now we see only the hand of man, the destroyer, and of Time. Dudley “modernized “the keep and other portions after the Tudor manner, and the buildings that he erected were not fit to endure. The castle again suffered in civil war, and after being garrisoned by the Stuart Royalists it fell into the hands of the Parliamentarians, who deliberately ruined it. We have to thank one, Colonel Hawkesworth, and his Roundhead companions for the breached curtain walls, the towers blown up with gunpowder, and the keep laid open to the weather by the destruction of one wall. It was Hawkesworth, also, who drained the lake in order to cultivate the land around the castle. The water which had for so long mirrored the walls and towers ebbed away when the beautiful reality was shattered. And because the lake has disappeared, a modern visitor finds it nearly impossible to imagine either the strength or the majesty of the older Kenilworth. Let him try to visualize a tournament in progress in the Tilt Yard (half-way across the dam), with the towers behind and the water on either side. Or let him imagine Elizabeth’s brilliant cavalcade riding up the causeway to Mortimer’s Tower, being received by a person representing “one of the ten sibills, cumly clad in a pall of white silk, who pronounced a proper poesie in English rime and meeter.” Then he will realize what Kenilworth has lost by the draining of its lake, and what England has lost in the dismantling of Kenilworth.
The military history of Kenilworth ended appropriately with a civil war, and of its vast range of buildings, to-day only the very pacific gatehouse built by Dudley in the north-east enclosure is fit for habitation; while its neighbour Warwick has survived gloriously as a palace-castle.