WK-Castles-art - 11/9/97
"A Visit to Warwick and Kenilworth Castles" by Nicolaa de Bracton of Leicester.
NOTE: See also the files: castles-msg, bridges-msg, cities-msg, taverns-msg.
This article was submitted to me by the author for inclusion in this set
of files, called Stefanıs Florilegium.
These files are available on the Internet at:
Copyright to the contents of this file remains with the author.
While the author will likely give permission for this work to be
reprinted in SCA type publications, please check with the author first
or check for any permissions granted at the end of this file.
Mark S. Harris
AKA: Stefan li Rous
A Visit to Warwick and Kenilworth Castles
--Nicolaa de Bracton of Leicester.
On a rainy English day in early October, I visited two castles which stood
less than eight miles apart, but provided starkly contrasting views of the fate
of medieval buildings in England. Kenilworth, the larger and in many ways more
famous of the two, now sits in ruins, the spectacular "mere" or lake which once
surrounded it now regressed back to the simple brook which runs close by the
walls. Warwick Castle, on the other hand, was occupied by the current Earl of
Warwick as recently as twelve years ago, and is in splendid condition; it is
furthermore enhanced by a variety of historic displays. However, each was
special in its own way, as I'll elaborate.
The light misty rain falling that Saturday actually enhanced Kenilworth,
once called by Sir Walter Scott "the most romantic ruined castle in England".
My reason for wishing to see it was simple: it was once held by Simon de
Montfort, Earl of Leicester (and Nicolaa's liege lord). In that day it was
considered to be amongst the best built castles in England, and it proved its
mettle when de Montfortıs sons holed up there after his defeat at Evesham in
1265. The castle proved impregnable under siege, and finally, after it was
clear a stalemate was at hand, the two sides met and signed the "Dictum de
Kenilworth", a settlement whereby de Montfort's adherents, up to now faced with
confiscation of their lands for their part in the revolt, could regain royal
favour by meeting certain conditions. John of Gaunt was a later occupant, and he
added a splendid great hall. Kenilworth also is known by its association with
another Earl of Leicester, Robert Dudley, the favourite of Queen Elizabeth I.
Dudley had considerable additions made to the already-spectacular castle, and
Kenilworth was graced with a royal visit and tournament.
Unfortunately, the castle's fortunes declined soon thereafter.
Parliamentary forces blew a hole in the wall of the Norman keep during the
English Civil War--not an easy task, given that these walls were sixteen feet
thick in some places. The castle thereafter was left to ruin, with the
exception of the gatehouse built by Dudley, which was procured by a
Parliamentarian officer for a house and is today the only inhabitable building
(other than the stables).
The castle today is maintained by English Heritage, whose properties tend
to be relatively free of touristy glitz. Even though the ruins are open to the
sky and missing floors and other such wooden constructions, one can still get a
keen sense of how splendid this castle once was. You can still climb on the
ramparts and see how the castle commands the surrounding countryside, or marvel
at the massive walls in the Norman keep, from which you may view the
reconstructed Tudor garden. Well-worn stone staircases, green in places from
moss, lead to small chambers in some cases, or nowhere in others. Knowing as I
did a fair bit about Kenilworthıs role in history made it easy to visualize the
castle undamaged and bustling with life. Furthermore, the day I was there only
a few other people were touring the grounds. Under a leaden sky, the
countryside glistened an emerald green, and only the plaintive calls of birds
broke the damp silence. Scott was right: I found Kenilworth evocative in the
way that only a ruin can be.
Warwick Castle was a different world. It's considered by some to be the
best non-ruined English castle open to the public. Despite the same rain, it was
packed with tourists, all willing to hand over £8.50 ($17 CDN) to tour the
grounds. Warwick is now owned by the same folks who own Madame Tussaud's, which
has its pluses and minuses. Minuses, besides the steep admission price, were
the gift shops in every corner (although they did have some nifty things) and
the conscious attempts to "sell" the castle to the public (which seemed to be
working quite well, judging by the number of people there). Pluses were more
numerous, including the excellent condition of the property, the amount of the
castle open for viewing, and the two displays of life at different times in the
castle's history, staffed with Tussaud wax figures. The first was showed the
preparations for an Edwardian dinner party (with lots of famous folks getting
dressed) amidst rooms furnished in original items.
More interesting for the medievalist was the newer display, depicting the
preparations of Richard Neville, the Earl of Warwick (sometimes called
"Kingmaker") before a battle in the Wars of the Roses. One toured through the
various workshops and witnessed the preparations for the battle, walking right
amongst the wax figures, finally culminating in the scene containing the Earl
himself. A great deal of meticulous research had gone into this display, which
was accurate down to tiny details. Blacksmiths and fletchers had their proper
tools, as did a clerk wearing spectacles, who I inspected quite closely; he had
most of the proper scribal implements and was "writing" in a proper fifteenth
century chancery hand. A room of ladies mending clothing prompted me to check
the hosen hanging on a line in the corner to see if they were constructed in a
period manner--they were. The clothes worn by the wax figures had the
unmistakable look of hand-sewing, were as far as I could tell authentically
patterned, and there was not a synthetic item to be found anywhere. Even the
Earl of Warwickıs brocade robe was real silk brocade--I fondled it to be sure.
Just behind the Earl was his herald--wearing a tabard that would make the Laurel
Sovreign of Arms green with envy. Add to this the extremely realistic wax work
(and other details, such as the cat whose head occasionally moved if you watched
it for a while), and the end result was one of the best displays of medieval
life of all classes I have ever seen. It was quite refreshing to see money
being spent on meticulous recreation of history for
the tourist market, rather than taking the easy way out. There was also a
rather splendid (live) young man with long blond hair and the crimson Warwick
livery manning the door, but thatıs another story altogether....
Warwick also had a nice armoury full of swords, muskets, armour bits, and
a full suit of Italian Renaissance tournament armour, a dungeon complete with
rack, torture devices, and oubliette; two towers to climb, up winding narrow
staircases (I followed a gaggle of giggling French schoolgirls), the original
castle mound, left over from Conquest days, and acres of surrounding parkland
(which I did not get to enjoy much due to the weather). The Great Hall is full
of more interesting stuff collected over the years by former occupants.
It would be difficult to say which of these castles was "better". I give
Kenilworth the slight edge simply because it speaks for itself; even without
displays or guidebooks it would remain evocative. The fact that it was nearly
deserted while Warwick was packed was also a plus for me--it's difficult to let
your imagination soar when you're surrounded by German tourists and beastly
little boys. If you ever find yourself in England, I'd highly recommend seeing
both, however, and on the same day, if possible, to see the contrast between the
two. You won't be disappointed.
Copyright 1996 by Susan Carroll-Clark, 53 Thorncliffe Park Dr. #611,
Toronto, Ontario M4H 1L1 CANADA. Permission granted for
republication in SCA-related publications, provided author is credited
and receives a copy.
If this article is reprinted in a publication, I would appreciate a notice in
the publication that you found this article in the Florilegium. I would also
appreciate an email to myself, so that I can track which articles are being
reprinted. Thanks. -Stefan.
Copyright © Mark S. Harris (Lord Stefan li Rous)
All Rights Reserved
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