Kenilworth Castle, on the outskirts of the Warwickshire town of the same name, dates from the 12th century, but the period most closely associated with it is the Elizabethan period. Queen Elizabeth I granted the castle to her favourite, Robert Dudley, Earl of Leicester, in 1563. Dudley set about transforming it into an extravagant palace, and Queen Elizabeth was among the visitors. One visit in particular stands out, lasting 19 days from the 9th to the 27th July 1575. Dudley was after the queen’s hand in marriage, and for the 1575 visit he pulled out all the stops, making improvements to the state apartments, transforming the Gatehouse into a suitably grand entrance and making the surrounding landscape into “pleasure grounds” where a lavish fireworks display was laid on – these were just some of the lengths he went to to impress his queen. However, some years earlier in 1560 Dudley’s wife Amy Dudley, nee Robsart, died in suspicious circumstances and the scandal surrounding this put paid to any chance of marriage between the two.
|The Castle Keep|
It is against this backdrop that the novel Kenilworth was written by Sir Walter Scott, published in 1821. In the novel Amy secretly marries the Earl of Leicester, ditching her Cornish fiancé Edmund Tressilian. Leicester keeps the marriage secret from Queen Elizabeth, being her favourite, fearing the loss of his court position. Meanwhile, Amy is holed up in Cumnor Place in Oxfordshire, where she is a virtual prisoner. The novel is based around the resulting intrigues involving Dudley, Tressilian and Dudley’s Master of the Horse, Varney, with an awkward scene in which Amy makes her way to Kenilworth, where she comes face to face with the Queen. The novel was given a good write-up in The Edinburgh Review for its portrayal of Queen Elizabeth’s character “with the most brilliant and seducing effect”.
Kenilworth Castle is managed by English Heritage, and today is a ruin, though still with much of interest to visitors. Reminders of Dudley’s devotion to his Queen are still on view, such as the aforementioned Gatehouse, known as Leicester’s Gatehouse, built by him in 1571. The top floor of the Gatehouse houses an exhibition telling the story of Dudley’s relationship with Queen Elizabeth. There is also an Elizabethan Bedroom complete with a 16th century ‘tester’ bed. The fireplace in the Oak Room has the Dudley family motto ‘Droit en Loyal’ and the ragged staff and Leicester cinquefoil. The Elizabethan Garden provided for the Queen’s entertainment has been lovingly recreated. The mighty form of the Castle Keep is still on view – this was modified for entertaining by Dudley in 1570.
|The Elizabethan Garden|
Kenilworth is about 3 miles south-west of Coventry and a few miles from the M40. For a map of the area follow this link.