From the haunting beauty of isolated ruins to the majesty of some of Britain’s most ostentatious buildings, here are some of the most picturesque castles in England
This 13th-century double-moated castle is a place that really must be seen to be fully appreciated. But why stop at a day trip when you can also stay the night? With 28 bedrooms across two Edwardian wings – many with four-poster beds and roll-top baths – it’s the perfect place to unwind after exploring the house and grounds of Anne Boleyn’s childhood home.
Looming mysteriously over the Purbeck countryside, if the ruins of Corfe Castle could talk they would have some interesting – if bloody – stories to tell. Throughout its 1,000-year history, the castle has seen its fair share of battles (some say Edward the Martyr met his grisly death here). It has also served as a Saxon stronghold, a Norman fortress, a prison, a palace and a family home. It was under this last guise that its Royalist owner, Lady Mary Bankes, bravely fought off two sieges by Parliamentarians during the English Civil War.
Once a forboding fortress, it was behind these very walls that Mary Tudor, later Queen Mary I, plotted her claim to the English throne. Mary’s claim, following the death of her half-brother King Edward VI, scuppered the ambitions of the ‘nine-day queen’, Lady Jane Grey, to become the first queen regnant of England.
This wasn’t the only power struggle to centre around the castle. In 1572 Mary’s half-sister, Queen Elizabeth I, ordered the execution of the castle’s then owner, Thomas Howard, 4th Duke of Norfolk. Norfolk’s crime? Plotting to marry Mary, Queen of Scots, and undermine Elizabeth’s position.
If you believe the legend, it was on this small island in north Cornwall that King Arthur was conceived, with the help of Merlin, who lived in the cave below. It’s true that in the period that Arthur is said to have reigned (5th and 6th centuries), Tintagel was a prosperous site. However, from the 7th century onwards little is heard about Tintagel until Geoffrey of Monmouth’s romantic depiction of the Arthurian legend in the 12th century. The ruins that you see today date from the 13th century but that didn’t stop it becoming a popular pilgrimage site on the King Arthur trail. Standing on this dramatic headland it’s easy to buy into the idea that if he did exist, this could very well be Arthur’s spiritual home.
Described as ‘the loveliest castle in England’, even if there’s a castle that pips it to the post in your mind, there’s no denying the sheer romanticism of this picture-perfect setting. It was a favoured retreat of King Henry VIII and his first wife Catherine of Aragon. the couple even stopped here on their way to northern France for the ceremonial meeting with Francis Iof France that became known as the Field of the Cloth of Gold. It was under Henry’s orders that Leeds Castle was transformed from a Norman stronghold into the Tudor palace that we see today. You can trace the castle’s history in The Gatehouse Exhibition or visit during one of the special ticketed events, such as its summer open-air theatre or for the dazzling annual fireworks event, for a truly memorable experience.
The outside of this 14th-century moated castle looks impeccably preserved and you’d be forgiven for thinking you could expect much of the same inside, but sadly no. Like so many other historic buildings, the English Civil War reduced the interiors to ruins, though mercifully the exterior was saved. Throughout the 17th and 18th centuries as ivy grew around the building, Bodiam’s form of dilapidated beauty was celebrated. Today the castle is in the hands of the National Trust and it has been restored where possible. Among its most notable features are spiral staircases and a rare original wooden portcullis.
In 2017, the family seat of the Duke of Norfolk celebrated its 950th anniversary – not bad for a castle that was almost obliterated during the English Civil War when it was besieged twice, first by Royalists and then by Parliamentarians. The damage remained until the first of several restoration projects began in 1718 and when Queen Victoria and Prince Albert visited for three days in 1846, both the library and bedroom furniture was specially commissioned for the occasion. The castle as you see it today owes much of its grandeur to the 15th Duke of Norfolk, who oversaw a major overhaul that was completed in 1900, which turned Arundel into one of the first English country houses to have electric lighting and central heating.
The family seat of the Duke of Northumberland, Alnwick is the second largest inhabited castle in England after Windsor. Today it is a beautiful (albeit lavish) home, rich with Italianate interiors, including walls hung with Italian-style silk and artworks by the likes of Canaletto and Titian, but its role has not always been defined by its aesthetics.
Due to its strategic location on the border between England and Scotland, for much of the Middle Ages Alnwick was used as a garrison to ward off Scottish invaders, while during
the War of the Roses it was held by Lancastrian forces in 1461 and 1462. Visitors to Alnwick may recognise the castle from both the small and big screen – it doubled as Brancaster Castle in Downton Abbey, a fact celebrated in its permanent Downton Abbey Exhibition – and it starred as Hogwarts in the first two Harry Potter films.
The largest and oldest occupied castle in the world, if you want to gain insight into the Royal Family and more than 900 years of Royal history then there really is no better place to visit than Her Majesty’s riverside home. It was here, after all, that King Charles II set out to rival the opulence of King Louis XIV’s Versailles, to create the grandest state apartments in England, while King George IV added the mighty Waterloo Chamber in celebration of the defeat of Napoleon Bonaparte in 1815.
It may not be a ‘real’ castle, but with arched windows and a crenelated tower, we’re pretty sure after a night’s stay here you really won’t care. Looked after by the National Trust, originally Doyden was built as a pleasure house in around 1830 for bon-viveur Samuel Symons. Symons hosted nights of feasting here, and with its enviable clifftop location and access to beautiful beaches, we’re sold on the fantasy.