Visually, Warwick Castle has it all: towers, turrets and battlements, a drawbridge entrance over the castle ditch (which would have been filled with sewage rather than water), dungeons, sumptuous living apartments and spectacular views. Historically, you can’t ask for more…
The very first settlement at Warwick Castle was constructed under the rule of Princess Ethelfleda in 914 AD after the Danish invasion. One can only imagine the grim conditions our Anglo-Saxon ancestors had to contend with. The natural mound at Warwick provided the perfect setting for this defensive garrison against the Vikings. The first true castle was built on the site at the behest of William the Conqueror in 1048, and since then it has been fortified, expanded and improved, providing shelter and protection for noble houses down through the centuries.
The new ‘Time Tower’ shows in great visual detail the entire ancient and amazing history of Warwick Castle.
Throughout its colourful 1100 years of history Warwick Castle attained its zenith of power and prestige during the tenure of Richard Neville, husband of Anne de Beauchamp, who was the daughter of Richard de Beauchamp, the 13th Earl of Warwick.
Richard de Beauchamp was one of the wealthiest men in Medieval England – worth around 34 billion pounds in today’s money – he occupied a position of power as Captain of Calais and England’s lay representative at the Council of Constance. He was active on behalf of Henry V in the Hundred Years War, when he captured and ransomed many prisoners, as well as overseeing the trial and execution of Joan of Arc in Rouen in 1431. He is buried beneath a lavish brass effigy in St. Mary’s Church, which is clearly visible from the castle.
His son-in-law, Richard Neville, was bestowed with the title 16th Earl of Warwick by King Henry VI in 1450. At this point in time the quest for power became truly complex and Machiavellian, when Henry VI’s reign came under threat of civil war from the Yorkist faction. Due to his family connections Neville supported the Yorkists, thus Richard Neville, aka ‘The Kingmaker’, had the power to depose the Lancastrian King Henry VI and back his rival cousin, the Yorkist Edward IV in what was known as the ‘War of the Roses’. After Henry VI was captured in 1455 at the battle of St Albans, as a reward for his support, Neville was granted a seat of power by the Yorkist king.
All was not smelling of roses for the ‘Kingmaker’ however, because Edward IV later married Elizabeth Woodville and Warwick’s influenced waned. He then plotted against Edward IV with his brother, the Duke of Clarence, raised an army, captured Edward and temporarily imprisoned him in Cesar’s Tower. Warwick then fled to France, having completely ditched his Yorkist alliances and later returned with an army to restore the imprisoned Henry VI to the throne. The ‘Kingmaker’ fought his last battle against Edward’s Yorkist and Burgundian forces in 1471, when he was killed at the Battle of Barnet.
His daughters Isabel and Anne were married to Edward IV’s brothers, George Duke of Clarence and Richard Duke of Gloucester respectively. Richard and his wife Anne Neville took ownership of Warwick Castle in 1478. After the mysterious murder of Edward’s sons, (the Princes in the tower), he became King Richard III in 1483. He commissioned the construction of the Bear and Clarence Towers. The Bear Tower has a pit which kept a bear for the cruel sport of bear baiting during festive tournaments. After Richard III’s untimely death at the Battle of Bosworth in 1485 the Bear and Clarence Towers were unfinished, remaining at the height visitors still see today.
The new Tudor dynasty didn’t want to be associated with Warwick Castle and it fell into ruin over the following 118 years. It wasn’t until the rule of King James I of England, when it was gifted to the Calvinist Sir Fulke Greville, 1st Baron Brooke in 1604 for his services as treasurer of the navy, chancellor of the exchequer and commissioner to the Treasury, that Greville’s investment of £20,000 towards household improvements returned Warwick Castle to its former glory. During Greville’s ownership the castle was transformed from a military fortress into a stately home.
The Grevilles of Warwick Castle:
When the English Civil War broke out Robert Greville was aligned with the Parliamentarians. He placed guns atop the mound to defend Warwick Castle against Royalist invaders in 1643. This was the last siege that the castle endured. Originally the mound formed an important Norman fortification of the motte and bailey defensive system. The earliest stonework which replaced the Norman wooden walls dates to 1260.
I climbed the mound with the girls, and the view from the top is stunning. Low placards indicate places on the landscape, pointing out the direction and distance of Oxford, The Cotswolds, Stratford-upon-Avon, the grounds landscaped by Capability Brown, the hunting lodge and the church of St. Mary. The grounds that visitors can stroll in today are a living work of art dating back from Capability Brown’s first independent commission for gardens, which helped to pave the way for his future career.
William found the dark, dank gaol which is lit only by a small shaft high on the wall and the even darker, tiny oubliette fearsome and fascinating in equal measure. If you weren’t ransomed you weren’t much use to the Beauchamp family and would have been left to rot in that airless, fetid environment.
We peered under the grates of the pit in Bear Tower, scaled the ramparts, climbed to the top of Guy’s Tower, Cesar’s Tower and went round the Kingmaker displays in the oldest quarters of the castle.
A short documentary about the rich history of Warwick Castle:
There’s plenty to see and do both indoors and outdoors at Warwick. We spent two days there and on the Sunday when it poured with rain we saw the Great Hall and its historic armoury, as well as exploring the state apartments where Daisy, Countess of Warwick used to host her infamous ‘royal weekend’ parties in the late 19th Century.
The girls also enjoyed the special show and story in the Princess Tower!
Outdoors there are regular displays of the castle’s birds of prey, consisting of eagles, owls and an Andean condor, the largest bird of prey in the world, whose aerodynamic skills are demonstrated with the guidance of the professional resident Falconer. The kids absolutely loved this show.
Unfortunately the Trebuchet wasn’t working when we visited, (I hope it wasn’t because of this recent incident), but usually the world’s largest modern working siege machine, which measures 18 metres high and weighs 30 tonnes, does a daily display of medieval warfare by slinging a fiery canon to demonstrate its effectiveness at catapulting all kinds of unsavoury ammunition at castles under siege.
There’s also a Horrible Histories show (which we missed), and the Great Joust tournament re-enacts the medieval sport of choice for brave knights throughout August.
We all enjoyed the humorous and knowledgeable demonstration by Lewis Copson, the bowman at Warwick, who took his audience back to the 14th Century and the incident that inspired the creation of the longbow by two Welsh men walking through the forest. One tripped on an elm branch, and losing his temper decided to snap the branch. When he couldn’t he decided to attach some string and fired a twig at his laughing companion. Elm was used successfully by the Welsh, and later adopted by the English and their armies, eventually evolving into Yew longbows that were known for their strength and flexibility.
A bowman in battle had to be able to fire a few hundred yards, and have the strength to pull back 125 lbs of draw weight. The Warwick bowman’s Cariadus (Welsh for beloved) had a draw weight of 75 lb, the most he could physically pull and (he was no slouch). The command to put the arrow in, pull back and fire was knock, draw, loose.
In medieval England boys from the age of six would practice after church and before the pub on Sunday. Their bones hadn’t yet fully developed and fused, which meant that they developed oversized shoulders from pulling back over the years, and grew up with one side slightly higher and beefier!!
It was the bowmans’ expertise (along with bad weather and freezing mud) that meant the French were defeated at Agincourt in 1415. We also learnt that to test his bow was correctly strung the bowman would curl his fist, put his thumb up and place it in the curve of the wood. If there was a small gap between the end of his thumb and the string that was good. Hence the origination of the thumbs up sign to indicate that all is well!
Under the stewardship of the first Earl of Warwick, Francis Greville (who inherited the estate in 1727), Warwick Castle was ushered into the age of enlightenment and transformed into a civilised country house. He built a new state dining room, commissioned Lancelot ‘Capabiltiy Brown’ to landscape the gardens and paid Canaletto the sum of £58 to paint five informal landscape scenes of the castle.
The next three generations of house Greville: George, Henry and George spent a fortune on works of art collected from their travels in Europe, amassing one of the largest private collections of art in the world, containing paintings by Van Dyck, Rubens and Rembandt.
We had a two day pass to the castle and an overnight stay in a King’s Tent, with full English breakfast in the big banqueting tent. These posh tents are right at the southern end of the grounds, and ours overlooked the River Avon.
William and I even managed to play a game of chess. It would have been wonderfully peaceful had it not been for the heavy machinery that arrived at 5.30am on Sunday morning to take down the stage from the music performance the night before.
Sounds in the grounds
On Saturday night we were treated to a concert by the Royal Philharmonic Concert Orchestra with Lucy O’Byrne singing some lovely arias in between their orchestral pieces. It was a relaxed atmosphere, families had brought picnics and the Pageant Field was brimming with concert goers.
When they played Walton’s Spitfire Prelude and Fugue to commemorate the 75th anniversary of the Battle of Britain an ace pilot came zooming above us doing acrobatics in his spitfire.
Lucy O’Byrne singing Ebben Ne Andro Lontana at Warwick Castle:
At the end of the concert there was a firework display and we managed to get back to the tent just before the heavens opened.
All in all a fun weekend of learning, exploration and culture.