Tuesday, August 20, 2013

Kenilworth Castle

by Katherine Ashe

Kenilworth, the name rings with the romance of Tudor England, with images of the great feast and water festival staged by Robert Dudley, Earl of Leicester, for Queen Elizabeth I.

But of course the castle’s history begins long before that. Perhaps in those pre-history times when a castle was a hill or mound, for just such a mound is enclosed within the masonry of the great tower. A favorite retreat of John of Gaunt and Richard III, its courtyard filled in late medieval and renaissance times with elaborate buildings whose stone filigree now reaches roofless to the sky.

And before that, it was the most secure castle in England, withstanding siege, in 1265-6, for eighteen months until the defenders surrendered to what seemed at the time generous terms.

The castle was never taken. So formidable was it that, lest it be used by the royalists, Cromwell had its walls destroyed and its massive tower packed with dynamite. Three walls of the tower still stand, mighty looking even in their dissolution.

It was Simon de Montfort who turned the neglected royal holding into an impregnable fortress. In his autobiography (Montfort Archive, Bibliotheque Nationale.) he complains that the property, as given to him in 1238, was in severe disrepair and cost him much just to make it habitable. By the following summer, having offended King Henry III, Montfort had fled to France and Palestine.

King Henry III found he rather fancied the place and continued the repairs. His accounts record his cutting a large window to give view of the Mere, repainting of chapel and furnishing it with two seats decorated with the royal arms. A pretty boat was added to the Mere, the lake formed by the dammed stream surrounding the castle on three sides. (The fourth side has a channel, completing the waterworks, and the defenses.)

Returned to royal favor, in 1244 Montfort again received Kenilworth. He was married to the king’s sister and was Earl of Leicester, so the gift was no more out of the ordinary than Henry’s bestowing numerous other royal properties upon his relatives.

By 1258 Montfort was one of six baronial leaders demanding a revolutionary reorganization of the government to offset King Henry’s disastrous incompetence. Henry had pledged the Crown of England to the Pope, if he failed to pay in coin for a papal army to seize Sicily for his son Edmund. Henry failed to pay and the Pope was about to claim England as a papal fief, much as he’d claimed Sicily and offered its Crown to Henry.

The meeting the barons summoned to Oxford, a meeting of all England’s lords and high clergy, supposedly was to raise the needed funds. Instead it produced the Provisions of Oxford, the template for Parliament and modern elective government. The lords and clergymen refused to raise a special tax for Sicily, instead demanding that all properties given from the royal holdings be returned to the Crown. Montfort was first to respond, and volunteered Kenilworth. And the castle became again a royal holding. Which is not to say the Montfort family vacated. They did not.

Simon de Montfort was the foremost military strategist in England. When the royalist faction managed to organize themselves and bring an army against the reformers, it was Montfort who was the leader of the baronial side. To provide a refuge, prepared for the worst should the royalists prevail, Montfort used the tax monies raised by the new Parliament to develop Kenilworth along the lines of the crusader castles he had seen in Palestine: castles impregnable, and defendable by just a few knights.

Kenilworth’s bailey wall -- fronting the Mere and separating the tower, its chapel, cook and laundry buildings and immediate gardens from the barns, stables, orchards and paddocks the occupied the rest of the island -- was strengthened. The causeway that crossed the Mere was walled, with barbicans at either end, the furthest one reinforced to protect the sluice that kept the Mere from draining to a little stream trickling through a meadow (as it is today.) And the entire island, bounded by the Mere and channel, was walled and studded with towers.

The decorative banquet halls and ranges made in later times have been destroyed by pilferers, weathering and time. The fortress walls that the Earl Montfort created merited demolition by Cromwell. But three walls of the tower stands to this day, grand with their soaring arches and massive red masonry.


Katherine Ashe is the author of the acclaimed four volume Montfort series on the life of Simon de Montfort, the founder of England's Parliament in 1258. Montfort is available in soft cover and Kindle e-book format from Amazon. Her animal population, formerly including horses, sheep, goats, geese, peacocks, and of course dogs, in now reduced to just three dogs, three cats and two Koi.

1 comment:

  1. It's easy to understand why you find Simon de Monfort an endless source of interest, Katherine! Certainly he was a fearless adventurer. I love the casual reference that he "fled to France and Palestine"...would he have known the latter from participation in the Seventh Crusade?


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