Kenilworth Castle was one of the greatest castles in the land – and still is despite being ruined. The first castle was built in the early 1120s on land granted by Henry I to Geoffrey de Clinton. This work seems to have been at least partially funded by the king himself judging by the phenomenal scale of the great tower or keep. Henry II took the castle back into royal ownership from Clinton’s son and he commissioned chambers for himself and his queen. In 1266 when the castle was in the custody of Simon de Montfort is suffered the longest siege ever mounted on English soil.
After the surrender of the castle Henry III granted it to his younger son, Edmund Earl of Lancaster and from this point on, for nearly two centuries, Kenilworth was a Lancastrian possession. In 1361 the castle was inherited by John of Gaunt the fourth son of Edward III, inheritor of the Dukedom of Lancaster with all its lucrative estates, and the most powerful man in English politics. Between 1373 and 1380 Gaunt transformed Kenilworth into the most spectacular non-royal residence of its age. The main influence was his father’s new lodgings at Windsor, themselves the most splendid ever built by an English king.
When John of Gaunt’s son became Henry IV Kenilworth became a royal castle again and was most favoured by Henry V, VI and VII. Henry VIII chose Kenilworth as one of the great ancestral castles of the realm that he wished to see maintained at all costs. Queen Elizabeth granted the castle first to John and then to Robert Dudley. Robert, earl of Leicester was Elizabeth’s great favourite and the gift of Kenilworth was the most lavish sign of her favour. Leicester modernised the castle adding a new tower, lodging wing and gatehouse.
Leicester died without heir and the castle reverted to the Crown and James I gave it to Prince Charles in 1612; he passed it on to Henrietta Maria as part of her marriage jointure in 1626. It was visited several times by the early Stuart kings but during the Civil War the castle was occupied by Parliament and then slighted in 1649-50. Although restored to the crown in 1660 the castle was granted to Laurence Hyde earl of Rochester in 1665 and passed out of royal ownership.
The bones of John of Gaunt’s spectacular lodgings survive including the shell of his great hall, great chamber and presence chamber. To this monumental curving suite of apartments the earl of Leicester added a privy chamber and other privy lodgings in a tower and a gallery which linked the tower to the Norman great tower via a gallery. By the end of Elizabeth’s reign Kenilworth was one of the most lavish residences in the midlands and the north.