Britain is known for its stunning and vast collection of historical sites. Castles form an integral part of the story of the British Isles and its people. From the time when early earthworks were constructed for defense, magnificent structures were created to keep enemies at bay and friends and family safe. Welcome to the world of baileys, keeps, and portcullises. Come with us to explore British castles, some of Britain’s most popular visitor attractions. From moats with a smelly secret to six month sieges and epic romances, we’ve got tales to tell.
Castle Facts and Figures
How many castles are there in the UK?
There are thought to be between six and seven hundred castles in the United Kingdom. But it does depend how you define castles, and whether you include earthworks and ruins.
Can I stay in a castle?
Absolutely you can. There are hotel-style rooms and apartments in many castles, including some of those featured here. There are also some cottages in castle grounds where you can stay. And if you’re traveling onward, here are some fairytale castle hotels in Ireland to enjoy.
What’s the oldest castle in England?
It depends whether you count the early earthworks. Windsor Castle, built in the eleventh century, is the longest occupied palace in Europe. Corfe Castle also dates back to the eleventh century and is one of the oldest castles in England.
Are castles in England for sale?
Yes. And in Scotland and Wales too. You’ll find out more at the end of this piece.
A quick History of Castles
From the first days when settlements realised that they needed defense, the idea of the castle was born. At first earth was scooped up to form a raised mound called a motte. Scooping up that earth made a nice deep ditch to keep assailants at bay; this moat could be dry or filled with water. A fortified structure – the keep – was built on top of the motte. This was the last point of defense, and where the castle lord lived. Enclosing the space on the top of the mound created the bailey. This was the place for the lord’s household, complete with barracks, stables and workshops.
Later castles were built in stone, often replacing the original wooden structures. More towers were added. A portcullis, a wooden grid reinforced with metal, helped make the gatehouse secure. Arrow slits were included to enable attack from the castle walls. So called murder holes were most likely used to drop items on advancing enemy forces.
Proving that disputes over construction costs are nothing new, here is an explanation of the costs of castle building by Master James of Saint George, responsible for Beaumaris Castle:
“In case you should wonder where so much money could go in a week, we would have you know that we have needed – and shall continue to need 400 masons, both cutters and layers, together with 2,000 less skilled workmen, 100 carts, 60 wagons and 30 boats bringing stone and sea coal; 200 quarrymen; 30 smiths; and carpenters for putting in the joists and floor boards and other necessary jobs. All this takes no account of the garrison … nor of purchases of material.” Quoted from Tom McNeill, English Heritage Book of Castles
Windsor Castle: Oldest Official Royal Residence In The World
Windsor Castle was built in the 11th century by William the Conquerer after the Norman invasion. Its location was selected to protect London from approaches to the west. It was considered to be a day’s march (twenty miles) from London. Windsor is a spectacular site with a small town, a palace and the fortification itself contained within its grounds. There are also two working farms, the Long Walk, and Windsor Great Park.
Windsor Castle has continued to evolve since the original Round Tower (which isn’t actually round) was constructed in the Middle Ward. The Upper Ward has the State Apartments (weekend residence of Queen Elizabeth II), with rooms variously following Gothic, Rococo and Classical styles. St George’s Chapel is the spiritual home of the Order of the Knights of the Garter. Windsor Castle is now a major tourist attraction, receiving just under 1.5 million visitors last year, three times as many as visited Buckingham Palace. It’s been home to 39 monarchs over nine centuries.
St Michael’s Mount: Tidal Island Castle off Marazion, Cornwall
Linked by a tidal causeway to the town of Marazion, St Michael’s Mount is the smaller counterpart of Mont St Michel in Normandy. Set in Mount’s Bay, the passage to the island is open between mid-tide and low water. Once you have crossed the granite causeway, you’re in a tiny world of castle and chapel, with buildings dating back to the twelfth century.
The Mount has a tumultuous history of sieges and occupations. Its population peaked in 1821, when 221 people occupied its four streets. The St Aubyn family retain a lease to occupy the castle, and the Mount is now managed by the National Trust. If you think it looks familiar, you may recognise St Michael’s Mount from a number of films, including the James Bond Never Say Never Again. The castle hosts a series of interesting curiosities, including a very useful tidal clock, stained glass, art by Gainsborough and Reynolds and a 16th century picture map of Cornish giants.
Corfe Castle: English Civil War Battleground
The remains of Corfe Castle overlook the village from which it takes its name, sited on the Isle of Purbeck in Dorset. Another castle built by William the Conqueror – who it has to be said was clearly an early construction giant – Corfe guarded the gap in the Purbeck Hills between Wareham and Swanage. The first phase of castle construction was one of the earliest uses of stone while other castles were being constructed of earth and timber.
During the English Civil War, Lady Mary Bankes held the castle as one of the remaining Royalist strongholds in southern England. She successfully withheld a siege by Parliamentarian forces which lasted six weeks. After betrayal by one of the garrison, she succumbed to a second attack in 1645. Corfe Castle was then slighted on Parliament orders. Now the castle is a Scheduled Ancient Monument, and receives around a quarter of a million visitors each year.
Bodiam Castle: Moated Medieval Magnificence
Bodiam Castle near Robertsbridge in East Sussex is your quintessential moated medieval castle. It was built in 1385, ostensibly to defend the area against French forces in the Hundred Years War. But its lack of a keep, and its splendid setting indicates that it was built for design as well as defense. Unlike many castles, Bodiam was built all at one time, giving it an integrity in its design. Marked by classic castle crenellations, and with a collection of fine towers, it’s a beautiful and imposing place.
Bodiam is thought to have surrendered without prolonged resistance during the Wars of the Roses, when the castle was confiscated. It was largely dismantled after the English Civil War, when it was sold to pay fines levied against its Royalist owner by Parliament. But this castle with a penchant for choosing the losing side struck lucky in the nineteenth century and beyond, seeing a string of owners who undertook restoration works. I was amused to read that the beautiful moat has a stinking secret; it was also the sewer for some thirty toilets situated throughout the castle.
The Tower of London: Ravens, Jewels and Beefeaters
Officially known as Her Majesty’s Royal Palace and Fortress of the Tower of London, this imposing building and UNESCO World Heritage Site on the bank of the River Thames has a long and chilling history. Built in 1066 after the Battle of Hastings, the White Tower was built by – yes, you guessed it – William the Conqueror. It was used as a prison from 1100-1952, housing the Princes in the Tower (more happily resident in Ludlow Castle beforehand), Sir Walter Raleigh and Elizabeth I before she ascended to the throne.
In its time, the Tower has also been an armoury, treasury, menagerie, a public records office, royal residence, home of the Crown Jewels and the Royal Mint. Now managed by the Constable of the Tower, it’s the most visited paid attraction in England, receiving just under 3 million visitors each year. If you can, purchase your tickets online, and choose an early weekday morning to visit at a quieter time. Keep an eye out for the ghost of Anne Boleyn, said to haunt the White Tower. And don’t forget to call in on the 37 Yeoman Warders, otherwise known as the Beefeaters.
If the ravens leave the Tower, the kingdom will fall.”
Leeds Castle: Royal Residence
The lovely Leeds Castle is built on a series of islands in a lake formed by the River Len. It’s actually in Kent rather than Yorkshire. There has been a castle on this site since 1086. It was a favoured residence of royalty; King Edward I loved Leeds, and Henry VIII chose it as the residence of his first wife, Catherine of Aragon.
It was Edward I’s love of the castle that saw the creation of the lake, and the building of a barbican spanning three islands. Leeds Castle escaped destruction during the English Civil war, as its owner sided with the Parliamentarians. Later the castle was used as a hospital during World War II. You’ll recognise Leeds Castle from its film role as Chalfont in the classic Ealing comedy Kind Hearts and Coronets. It’s one of England’s most visited castles with attractions including a maze formed from more than two thousand yew trees. You can linger here awhile, staying overnight in one of the splendid State or Battlement bedrooms.
Alnwick Castle, Northumberland: Hogwarts Location
This castle, built in 1096, guards an important road crossing over the River Aln. It has a long history of sieges and captures, mostly from its presence near the Scottish Borders. King David of Scotland and William the Lion of Scotland were two successful victors over Alnwick’s “strong” defenses. During the Wars of the Roses, it was one of three castles held by the Lancastrian forces.
After Windsor Castle, Alnwick is the second largest inhabited (by the Duke of Northumberland) castle in England, and receives around 200,000 visitors each year. Most of the rooms on show to the public are decorated in an ornate Italianate style. At Alnwick, you’ll also find interiors and exteriors familiar as Hogwarts from the Harry Potter films; The Philosopher’s Stone and The Chamber of Secrets were filmed here.
Ludlow Castle: Fashion And Feasting
Ludlow Castle, the early home of the Princes in the Tower, was built by members of the de Lacy family on lands acquired by patronage and favour from – yes – William the Conqueror. The stone for the castle was quarried from nearby Clee Hill, and the castle has a commanding view across the Shropshire Hills.
Ludlow Castle was chosen as the seat of the Council of the Marches of Wales, meaning that it was essentially the capital of Wales in the fifteenth century. It was extensively refurbished in the next century, and has a Great Tower and a large Outer Bailey. By 1722, author Daniel Defoe visited and noted that the castle was in “the very perfection of decay”. Ludlow became increasingly fashionable, with the decayed castle an attraction. Now Ludlow is famed as a foodie town, filled with destination shopping and a whole lot of Tudor and Georgian architecture to enjoy. The castle now hosts the annual Ludlow Food Festival in its grounds. You can read more about historic Ludlow here.
Stokesay Castle: Fortified Shropshire Manor House
Deep in the wilds of the Shropshire countryside, you’ll find the spectacular fortified manor house of Stokesay Castle. Built by Laurence of Ludlow, then the leading wool merchant of England, it was constructed in the late thirteenth century. Stokesay like so many other castles saw action during the English Civil War. Due to its Royalist support, it was ordered to be slighted, but damage was minimal.
Visit now, and you’ll see how beautifully the castle was designed to be a home. It has changed very little since the thirteenth century, and has a nearly complete set of medieval buildings surrounding its central spaces. Stop off for coffee and cake in the cafe, and enjoy your spectacular surroundings. If you’re very lucky, the local birdlife will stop by to put in a request for cake. Learn more about the beauty of Shropshire’s countryside here.
Kenilworth Castle: Home To England’s Longest Siege
The Siege of Kenilworth in 1266 is believed to be the longest siege in English history, lasting for six months. Construction of the castle began in the Norman times and continued through the Tudor period, creating a set of buildings described as “the finest surviving example of a semi-royal palace of the later middle ages”.
Kenilworth’s got romance and history in its soul. In addition to the aforementioned siege, it was the setting for the purported royal romance between Elizabeth I and Robert Dudley, and also inspired Sir Walter Scott’s novel Kenilworth: A Romance. Visit Kenilworth today and you can see entirely how it inspires the heart. From the magnificence of the Castle Keep to the ruined Great Hall and the splendid Elizabethan Gardens, it’s an imposing and lesser known castle to enjoy. You can read more about Kenilworth and other Warwickshire attractions here.
Warwick Castle: Of Knights and Jousting
Another castle forming part of William the Conqueror’s great castle-building tour, Warwick Castle is situated on a bend in the River Avon in the county town of Warwickshire. The original motte and bailey castle was rebuilt in stone in the twelfth century. The river and cliff form natural defenses to the castle, and its site dominates Warwick.
Here at Warwick you’ve got all your classic castle components and then some: towers, a gatehouse, a barbican and a dungeon. The beautiful facade to the river was likely designed for show rather than strength. There are plenty of historic tales associated with the castle, including the theft of horses from its stables to help the failed plotters of the Gunpowder Plot escape. Prisoners after the Battle of Edge Hill were held in its towers. Today Warwick Castle is one of Britain’s top ten historic houses and monuments for visitors, with attractions including jousting.
Arundel Castle: Gothic Masterpiece
Arundel Castle (another William the Conqueror grace and favour site) has been the home of the family of the Duke of Norfolk for over 400 years. Originally constructed with a motte and double bailey, the castle was once the possession of Richard the Lionheart, and was later visited by Queen Victoria and Prince Albert.
Between 1870 and 1890, Arundel Castle was largely rebuilt in the Gothic style. Visit, and you’ll be walking through nearly 1000 years of history. That’s impressive and immense. This was one of the first fine residences to benefit from electric light, central heating, service lifts and fire-fighting equipment. Arundel Castle is open from the end of March to the end of October.
Tintagel Castle: Legends and Folklore
Set on a dramatic peninsula adjacent to the village of Tintagel, the castle has long been associated with legends of King Arthur. Clinging spectacularly to cliffs, the castle was originally settled in the medieval period and is now ruined.
Geoffrey of Monmouth described Tintagel as the birthplace of King Arthur. Uther Pendragon, having been disguised by Merlin, was able to visit Igraine, Arthur’s mother, to impregnate her. It’s not difficult to imagine Tintagel as the scene for such tales. Today you’ll find the castle ruins visible from the village. This is one of English Heritage’s top five most visited sites. You can read more about Cornwall, the Land of Myths and Legends here.
Edinburgh Castle: The Most Attacked Place on Earth
Sited on Castle Rock and an extinct volcano, Edinburgh Castle dominates the city’s skyline. There has been a royal castle here since the twelfth century. The castle has played a pivotal role in the key events of Scottish history from the Wars of Scottish Independence to the Jacobite Rising. It’s been described as “the most besieged place in Great Britain, and one of the most attacked in the world” having been subject to 26 sieges in 1100 years. St Margaret’s Chapel, dating back to the twelfth century, is one of the earliest surviving parts of the site.
Over 2 million people visit the castle each year. It forms an iconic and recognisable symbol of Scotland from its role as the backdrop to the Edinburgh Military Tattoo. Visitors can explore the castle including its education centre. Don’t forget the One O’Clock Gun, fired exactly on the hour, and originally a time signal for ships in the harbour at Leith.
Eilean Donan: Castle at the Meeting of the Lochs
There are few more breathtaking sights than taking to the road in the Highlands and arriving at Eilean Donan Castle. Situated at the meeting point for Loch Duich, Loch Long, and Loch Aish, the castle sits perfectly positioned on a tidal island. Whether you spot it on a legendary misty morning or at sunset, the vision will stay with you a long time.
There are no residents on the tiny island, which can be reached by footbridge. The castle itself was founded in the thirteenth century as the stronghold for Clan Mackenzie. Mackenzie involvement in the Jacobite Rebellion led to the destruction of the original castle. What you see now is a twentieth-century reconstruction. You’ll recognise it from the film Highlander and also as the Scottish headquarters of MI6 in The World Is Not Enough. Visiting from Canada? The Macraes sent the Douglas Fir that forms the beams of the banqueting hall. You can stay here in a cottage or apartments. We took the overnight sleeper train to the Scottish Highlands, then hired a car in Inverness to visit this beautiful place.
Conwy Castle: UNESCO World Heritage Site
Conwy Castle is a big hitter when it comes to castle spending. Built by Edward I during his conquest of Wales, the bill for the castle and the walled town came to £15,000: a stunning sum in 1289. It has a history of participation in wars and sieges, being slighted by Parliament having been a Royalist stronghold in the English Civil War.
The castle became an attraction for painters and subsequently visitors in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. Restoration work began at this time, and Conwy is now a UNESCO World Heritage Site. It contains the best preserved set of medieval private royal chambers in England and Wales. It is commended by UNESCO as one of the “finest examples of late 13th century and early 14th century military architecture in Europe”. Visit today and you’ll get breathtaking views of mountains and the sea from the battlements. It’s also very easy to imagine yourself in medieval garb as a resident of the castle in its heyday.
Carrickfergus Castle: Attacked by Nations
Besieged by the English, the Irish, the Scots and the French, Carrickfergus Castle has had every opportunity to test its defenses. Small wonder the meaning of Fergus is strong man. Situated in County Antrim in Northern Ireland on the north shore of Belfast Lough, the castle maintained a military role until 1928. Originally surrounded by water on three sides, land reclamation has reduced its waterside area to one third of its site.
Today the castle hosts a variety of historic displays, and a collection of cannons from the seventeenth to nineteenth centuries. A reconstructed medieval banqueting hall entices you to imagine castle life as it was once lived. There’s a visitor centre at the castle.
Buying A Castle: British Castles for Sale
If the magnificence of these castles has made you rustle deep in the crevices of your piggy bank, I can let you into a few castle purchasing secrets. If you’re looking to learn how to buy a castle in England, I can advise you that they appear on estate agents’ websites just the same as your house or mine might. A quick reconnoitre identified a collection of castles, castellated houses and Gothic mansions in England, Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland. Very few had the dreaded “price on application”, indicating that the number of zeros in the price would call for some rapid breathing. While they aren’t exactly cheap, some castles are priced at under £1 million, which might set your fantasy house purchasing heart aflame, especially if the alternative is London. I also spotted a castle ruin for offers over £130,000.
If living in a castle appeals, I can highly recommend the property website Unique Property Bulletin. It contains every type of unusual property you could imagine, and many beyond your imagination’s scope. Think castles, watermills, water towers, subterranean bunkers and more.
For more unusual architecture, check out our guide to Follies – unique and eccentric buildings.
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