9. Romancing a Queen
There are just some days that will lodge in your memory bank and become one of the places you go to find your zen. Our day at Kenilworth Castle was one of those days, it was special, it was magical and the memory of it has become a "happy place" I go to. It's helpful that we had perfect weather, and it's helpful that it wasn't too crowded. Kenilworth Castle gave us the gift of sitting in the grass picking dandelions, of views from lofty heights, and tea for two in a medieval stables.
Though Kenilworth wasn't built by Robert Dudley, one of Queen Elizabeth I's great- and if you believe it- chaste loves, his time in the castle is what made it famous and the physical love letter we see today. Kenilworth got it's start in the early 12th century when Goeffrey de Clinton was granted the land by Henry I. The de Clinton family were only custodians of Kenilworth for two generations before the castle and lands reverted to the crown. It changed hands several times, most notably the House of Lancaster, until 1553 when the Dudley family took over. The castle stood witness to the Great Siege of 1266, where it withstood the bombardment of 300lb boulders hurled through the air by a trebuchet, and invasion by barges on it's mere- six months of hard siege. The castle only gave up it's occupants when disease and starvation forced their hand.
For the purposes of our visit we'll focus on the Dudley family's ownership of the magnificent house. For students of English History you may know the Dudley name for two reasons. The senior Dudley in this story was one, John Dudley, Earl of Warwick and Duke of Northumberland. His real claim to notoriety was his failed attempt to put his daughter-in-law Lady Jane Grey on the throne of England. She became the Nine Days Queen and for that same short time his son Guildford became de facto King until all three were executed by the lawful Queen Mary Tudor, aka Bloody Mary. You'd think a family couldn't bounce back from a failed coup and treason but with the death of Mary and accession to the throne of her half sister, Elizabeth I, what was left of the Dudley family rose to prominence again. Robert Dudley, Earl of Leicester and son of the aforementioned John Dudley is the second reason the Dudley name is known.
Elizabeth Tudor and her "sweet Robyn" were inseparable in her early reign despite the fact that Robert was married to Anne Robsart- which had started out as a love match. By 1559 Robert and Anne rarely saw one another with Robert living at court and his wife living in various parts of England. When Amy died in 1560 a scandal ensued which tarnished Robert's name and put a black cloud over his relationship and future prospects with Elizabeth. Amy had died by falling down a short staircase and many suspected that Robert arranged her murder so he would be free to marry the Queen. This accusation followed him the rest of his life. The scandal made it nearly impossible for the Queen to marry Dudley, lest she be implicated in the supposed murder too. They remained close and the court still considered him a suitor to the Queen.
As a sidenote since I went down the rabbit hole of researching Amy Dudley's fall- I had always believed the murder theory as it seemed too convenient that suddenly a 28 year old woman falls down a short flight of stairs and dies thereby freeing her husband to finally marry the Queen- but in 2008 the coroner's report of her death came to light and I stand corrected. The findings of her death and I would assume autopsy are compatible with an accidental fall or suicide. Apparently Amy was suffering from breast cancer. This fact was known in her lifetime, although at the time just referred to as a serious illness in one of her breasts, and this would have weakened her spine and neck as it mestaticized, causing it to break under very little strain. The other modern theory is suicide due to her depression over the terminal cancer. Her own lady's maid Picto, alluded to suicide when she said she heard Lady Dudley pray to God to deliver her from desperation many times and Picto confronted her mistress saying that Amy "might have an evil toy (suicide) in her mind". On the day of Amy's death she sent away her entire household to attend a fair and therefore she was left alone in the house. 458 years later we're unlikely to ever know the full truth of the matter.
The Queen would visit Robert and Kenilworth for the first time in 1566 and would visit 4 times total, the last visit being the catalyst for much of the improvements and gorgeous Elizabethan garden that we see today. As I said before, Kenilworth was a kind of love letter to Elizabeth from Robert. His additions to the castle were meant to woo and impress the Queen. A physical manifestation of his devotion to her.
We arrived at Kenilworth in the early afternoon after having a big breakfast at The Thomas Lloyd, a Wetherspoons pub in Warwick. Our weather luck was sticking and we arrived to brilliant blue skies and dry ground. The first view you get is of Kenilworth is from the tiltyard which used to be a dam. At one point Kenilworth was surrounded by a man made lake called a mere. From this vantage point you can see the Great Tower and a little bit of Leicester's Tower. This view just teases at what you're about to see. Further down the tiltyard you come upon the ruins of two towers called Mortimer's Tower. This was the medieval entrance to the castle. We walked through the Base Court and immediately walked up the hill towards Leicester's Building. We sat ourselves in front of the impressive east elevation on the edge of the dry moat and read about the grand ruin in front of our us.
What struck me the most and what photos don't *really* convey is the size and height of the windows in Leicester's Building. We got an idea of what it would have looked like in it's heyday when we quickly went to Harwick Hall later that day, but in that moment all I could do was imagine the structure intact, with glittering, tall, leaded windows. That eastern facade rises up from the dry moat quite dramatically and really towers over you. Once upon a time, 443 years ago, Queen Elizabeth stood at the windows of her room overlooking the Base Court below. How different was her view from what we see today?
We walked around to the left of the building and found a doorway to the basement and eventually found our way to the series of stairways and platforms that were built in 2014. I think this is also one of the reasons why this was a favorite day/place. I've been to quite a few ruined castles at this point but have never been to one that has modern stairs and platforms which allow you to ascend to a level where floors no longer exists. There was something pretty amazing about standing there looking out over the grounds, suspended but safe, admiring a fireplace that hovers 2 stories above the ground.
Our little pigeon friend and the view of the curtain wall outside
Looking to Gaunt's tower and the Great Chamber from Leicester's Building
After Leicester's Building we walked along the left court, passed the Saintlowe Tower and the Strong Tower and I settled myself quite nicely in one of the windows of the curtain wall near the Watergate. What is now fields outside these curtain walls would have been the man-made lake taking up 100 acres and one of the castles main defenses. At this point we went off into the forebuilding into what would have been the kitchens. Daniel wasn't feeling well so I took off on my own up the stairs of the Strong Tower. The view from the top of the tower was truly beautiful. It was such a clear day I could see for miles around. I made my way through the Great Hall and to the other tower, Saintlowe Tower. I nearly met my death in the Saintlowe Tower. I was coming down the narrow, stone spiral staircase and lost my footing. I managed to get my balance before I pitched headfirst down the short staircase. I nearly became the second woman associated with Robert Dudley to die by falling down a short staircase. It spooked me for sure and reminded me to keep my wits about me in these old buildings- there was no such thing as building codes in the 14th century. I took a few deep breathes and walked back over to where Daniel was waiting for me in the ruins of the State Apartments.
The Strong Tower to the left and the Saintlowe Tower on the right
The inner workings of the Strong Tower
View of the garden from the Strong Tower
If you want to feel like a posh aristocrat then I recommend wandering through an Elizabethan Garden. This garden is complete not only with a large fountain featuring two mostly naked men called Athlants, but also contains the first aviary in England. Some of you might ask what an aviary is, it's basically a very large bird cage. There are full sized trees inside and tiny domesticated canaries. I'm not ashamed to say I had a little chat with one. Maybe it was my near death experience on the staircase, but I had a new appreciation for all the things around me and felt that softly talking to a little bird was the right thing to do.
After walking through the garden we walked down to what used to be the Tudor stables which now houses the cafe and a little exhibit. It was a little bit surreal to be sitting with a cup of tea and a giant shortbread cookie while looking up at ornamental timber braces. We ate our treats, drank our tea and very reluctantly gathered our things to leave Kenilworth. I would have loved to have stayed and re-explored until we lost the light but alas, we needed to get on the road to make it to Hardwick Hall before they stopped tours for the day. Spoiler Alert- we arrived just as they were turning people away for the last tour of the day! Cue, sad trumpet...
And the gorgeous Hardwick Hall that we missed getting into. Give you an idea of what Kenilworth would have looked like in it's heyday...