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Dramatic Castles of England

By Dawn Rainbolt
More by Dawn

The Many Castles of England

Castles are one of the most fascinating and evocative sites in Europe. These ancient, imposing fortresses conjure images of knights and damsels, jousting matches, balls, royalty and boundless luxury, as well as darker images like sieges, battles and executions. Even today, we are still fascinated by these massive structures, be they in ruins or intact grand homes and museums. We are motivated to explore them, no matter whether they are on our doorsteps or we are visiting from far away. Who doesn’t love a good castle?

England has hundreds of impressive castles from various eras and styles scattered across the nation (and many more are found in Scotland, Ireland, and Wales – in fact, Wales is the most castle-dense nation in Europe!). Impossible to visit or mention them all, we’ve chosen a few of our favourite dramatic castles in England to feature below. Let us know if we’ve missed your favourites!

Bamburgh Castle

Bamburgh Castle is truly one of the most spectacular castles throughout England. Its bulk presides over the Northumberland coastline as it has done for over 1,400 years. It’s one of the largest still inhabited castles in the country and is open to visitors throughout the year. Bursting out of the rocky plateau that juts out of a volcanic outcrop overlooking the sea, it was built in the 11th century by the Normans, which still forms the core of the castle today. Like Tintagel Castle below, Bamburgh Castle also has some Arthurian connections – medieval writer Thomas Malory names Bamburgh as the mythical castle home of Sir Lancelot. Bamburgh Castle is also a good alternative to Alnwick Castle which can be quite popular.

Location: Northumberland

The magnificent Bamburgh Castle features on many of our trips. Visit it on:

The Border Crossing       Northumberland Coast        Northumberland & the Lakes

Lindisfarne Castle

Constructed in the 16th century, Lindisfarne Castle is accessed solely by a narrow causeway leading from the mainland Northumberland coast to the teacup-sized on Holy Island. The small island – just 3km in length – is famous for being the first place in Britain ever invaded by the Vikings, seafaring raiders who sailed out of Scandinavia in search of treasure, alighting at Lindisfarne in 793. The island is also home to a monastery, founded in 634 by the Irish monk, St Aiden. Built using some of the stones from the old priory, the castle (arguably less of a castle and more of a fort), is perched on a rocky outcrop, giving it a rugged appearance and offering a dramatic entrance along a steep, cobbled ramp overlooking incredible ocean views. Though small, the island packs a bundle – of course, there are the castle and the monastery, but there are also old lime kilns, a walled garden, a small village, several secluded beaches and undulating windblown hills across the far side of the island. Learn more about the amazing Holy Island of Lindisfarne here.

Location: Northumberland

Want to explore the island and its spectacular castle and heritage? Why not join a cycling trip out to the island and along the wonderful Northumberland coast or a waking trip through the jaw-dropping scenery of Northumberland and the Lakes?

Self Guided Cycling to Lindisfarne     Walking Northumberland & the Lakes

Broadway Tower

While Broadway Tower might look the part, it is a folly, not a true castle. However, we thought Broadway is an interesting one to include since follies are a somewhat bizarre concept across England. Basically, a folly is the 1800s version of owning a yacht or a Porsche. Many castles were abandoned from the 1600s when their usefulness started to decline (in favour of the English country house). But in the Regency and into the Victorian eras, castle ruins were now being romanticised. Everybody wanted one! But not everyone had a ruined castle on their land, so it became a practice to build your own ruined medieval – or in this case Saxon – castle. These were mere shells – some didn’t even have roofs or doors (though Broadway Tower does).

Broadway Tower was the work of the famous landscaper Capability Brown for the local earl in 1798. Since then, it has been used to house a printing press, as a country holiday retreat, a farm, a Cold War era aircraft observation post and even as a nuclear bunker! Today it is one of the Cotswolds’ most iconic sites.

Another famous folly is Sham Castle on a hill above Bath – the story goes that a wealthy gentleman living in Bath (a very fashionable place to be in the 1800s) regretted the view from his house. Surely a castle would improve it! So he commissioned a folly castle built on a hill he could see from his home. It’s literally just the front wall and fake towers – no door, windows, roof or even sidewalls. You can spot it easily from Bath. Curious about Bath, the gateway to the Cotswolds? Learn more about this great Roman and Georgian city here.

Location: The Cotswolds

Visit Broadway Tower on your self guided walking tour of the Cotswolds Way. 

Walk the Cotswolds

Highclere Castle

Highclere Castle is likely one of the most beloved and recognisable English landmarks. Whether or not you’re a fan of the show, most visitors will recognise Highclere Castle after it featured as the main house on the popular TV series, Downton Abbey. The stunningly impressive building was completed in the 17th century and is owned – and at times inhabited – by the Earl of Carnarvon. Downton Abbey has had a huge impact – not just in the uptick in visitors to Highclere Castle from fans of the show, but also in  educating the 21st century on the inner workings and lives of people 100 years ago.

Built first in 1679 and renovated in the mid-1800s, Highclere Castle sits amidst a vast park designed by Capability Brown on the earl’s expansive estate. The 5th earl was a friend of infamous archeologist Howard Carter and he accompanied Carter on his famous excavation in Egypt in which King Tut’s tomb was discovered. There are still Egyptian artefacts in the castle today.

Location: Hampshire

Kenilworth Castle

Once one of England’s most stately manors, Kenilworth Castle is an impressive ruin made of beautiful red sandstone. In 1266, it suffered a 6-month-long siege, thought to be among the longest in English history. The castle was a Lancastrian base in the Wars of the Roses, the place that saw the removal of King Edward II, and host to one of the most lavish receptions of royalty of the time: Queen Elizabeth I’s visit. The queen’s visit inspired huge walled gardens and dramatic renovations to the great castle. Kenilworth’s owner, Robert Earl of Leicester, was desperate to impress the queen in the hope of matrimony. Her visit in 1575 lasted for 19 days and involved a massive entourage of 31 barons and 400+ staff. The earl spared no expense – he massively extended and renovated the castle, constructed the famed Elizabethan gardens, and put on a massive show – banquets, pageants, fireworks, dramatic works, music, hunts, balls and more – nearly bankrupting the man. In the end, it was all for naught – she did not marry him. But the earl did leave behind some pretty mighty ruins for future generations to explore. Kenilworth is located just 25 miles from Chipping Camden at the northern end of the Cotswolds.

Location: Warwickshire

Visit either (or both) Highclere Castle and Kenilworth Castle on your way to or from your self drive tour of the Cotswolds. 

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Chatsworth House

Okay, so Chatsworth House is not a castle but it’s worth including! England is famous for its great manors and country houses, elegantly designed and lavishly lived in by the ranks of nobility. Chatsworth House is one of the great homes, a testament to another time. After castles used as defensive structures fell out of practice (thanks in part due to changes in warfare and the regular invention of guns and canons), they started to be used instead as statue symbols and luxury homes for the elite.

Many such elites actually preferred to construct new homes to meet changes in living. Chatsworth House was completed in the English Baroque style in 1708 as the seat of the Duke of Devonshire. Its claim to fame is largely due to Jane Austen – she visited the house during her lifetime, and it is possible that she used it as her model for Mr Darcy’s grand estate, Pemberley. It’s certainly true that the house was used in the 2005 Pride and Prejudice film as a stand-in for Pemberley. Learn more about English writers and the landscapes that inspired them here.

Location: Peak District

Visit the Peak District to learn “what are men compared to rocks and mountains” (Jane Austen), explore Chatsworth, the real-life Pemberley and also enjoy some exceptional hiking.

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Carlisle Castle

This impressive red-stone fortress is over 900 years old and is said to have endured more sieges than any other place in England, including the last English fortress to undergo a siege during the Jacobite Rising. Located near Hadrian’s Wall, this site has long been one of defence. The Romans chose this part of England in which to build their wall that separated Roman Britain from the less “civilised” north. In fact, Hadrian’s Wall is home to dozens of milecastles, forts and turrets (small lookout towers), though all are in ruin now.

Carlisle Castle was built in the Norman style in 1093 (during the reign of William the Conquerer’s son) on the foundations of a Roman fort, Luguvalium, which had been constructed in 72 CE. Not only was it built on a site chosen for its defensive purposes by the Romans, but it was built for the same reason as the Romans originally erected their fort: to secure the border to the north against the so-called “barbarian” invasion.

Location: Cumbria

Visit the castle as well as the ancient Roman walls and forts on our Self Guided trip along Hadrian’s Wall.

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Or, bike Hadrian’s Wall cycleway, starting with a visit to Carlisle Castle.

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Warkworth Castle

Superbly preserved, Warkworth is one of England’s finest castles and dominates the skyline of the quaint village. Set on a hilltop overlooking the River Croquet and the surrounding estuary, Warkworth Castle is a mighty fortress once long home to powerful dukes of Northumberland. Though its founding is uncertain, the castle has been in the hands of the Percy family since the Middle Ages. Now a picturesque ruin, its stunning silhouette captured the attention of renowned painter J.M.W. Turner, who painted the castle ruins in 1799 and appeared in several scenes in William Shakespeare’s Henry IV, Part 1 and Part 2.

Location: Northumberland

Visit Warkworth Castle on our self guided cycling trips.

Border Crossing        Northumberland

Dunstanburgh Castle

Dunstanburgh Castle is one of Northumberland’s most stunning castle ruins, standing on a remote headland not far from Warkworth Castle. The castle was erected in 1313, originally even larger than the present structure. Like Carlisle Castle, Dunstanburgh was used in defence from the Scots. The castle saw heavy fighting during the Wars of the Roses and as actually taken more than once before falling into decline. Today, it is a picturesque ruin – don’t miss the lovely coastal walk along to reach the castle.

Location: Northumberland

Visit Dunstanburgh Castle on a self guided cycling trip along the Northumberland Coast. Though a cycling tour, we recommend taking a break from the saddle to walk out to the headland to explore the magnificent ruins of Dunstanburgh Castle.

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Richmond Castle

While Richmond Castle might not look as dramatic on the outside as some other castles listed here, it’s generally recognised as England’s best-preserved early Norman castle, as unlike many other properties here, it wasn’t regularly renovated and modernised with each passing era. Tucked into a bend of the River Swale, the castle sits at the heart of the charming market town of Richmond. At one point, a military barracks was installed in the courtyard, and it was also used during WWI, but for most of the last five centuries, Richmond Castle was a romantic ruin, inspiring J.M.W. Turner and others to paint it. Like many other castles, it claims to have (tenuous) ties to the legend of King Arthur. There are ruins of an abbey nearby.

Location: Yorkshire

Walk along England’s amazing Coast to Coast hiking trail. Along the way, explore Richmond Castle and many other incredible heritage sites.

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Sudeley Castle

Sudeley Castle is a stunning and stately castle set in the beautiful Cotswolds hills. Today it remains the only private castle in England to have a queen buried within the grounds – Queen Katherine Parr, the final wife of the vicious King Henry VIII. Upon the king’s death, she went on to reside at Sudeley Castle until her death. Sudeley Castle was built in 1443 and was improved upon and renovated several times. The estate is quite large – some 1,200 acres – and comprises several gardens, pathways, and even a section of the Cotswolds Way.

Location: The Cotswolds

Visit Sudeley Castle on a tour of the Cotswolds yourself.

Cotswolds Self Drive     Walking the Cotswolds

Tintagel Castle

Tintagel is a household name and is famous for its Arthurian connection. Much is debated, but popular myth (started by the pseudo-historian Geoffrey of Monmouth in the 11th century) states that Tintagel is the place where King Arther was conceived. Little is left of the 13th-century castle clinging to the rugged Cornwall peninsula, but it can’t be denied that it’s one of England’s most dramatic castles. Built on two rocky spires, the castle sections are connected by a narrow bridge. Besides the wild ruin, there is also a medieval walled garden and a quiet beach. Tintagel was originally fortified as early as the 5th-7th century before the medieval castle was erected.

Location: Cornwall

Corfe Castle

For visitors to the stunning Jurassic Coast World Heritage site along England’s southern shores, discover the beautiful ruins of Corfe Castle atop a steep hill overlooking a quaint village of the same name. It sits perched between two chalk hills and is constructed out of limestone quarried nearby. The castle changed hands numerous times since its construction in the early 12th century and has served as both a residence and military garrison. Corfe Castle was famously defended by Landy Banks during the English Civil War. The location near the Jurassic Coast is jaw-droppingly beautiful, and there are some great coastal hikes in the area.

Location: Devon, near the Jurassic Coast

Bodiam Castle

Bodiam is probably one of the most famous castles in England. With its dramatic towers rising out of a lake, it is a picture-perfect fairytale castle. From its giant towers and imposing battlements, great portcullis and stunning spiral staircases, Bodiam Castle is a 14th-century moated castle that seems like the stuff of legends. Built at the behest of King Richard II to defend against the French in the Hundred Year’s War, everything about Bodiam Castle was built to intimidate and impress. It was besieged during the Wars of the Roses and sold during the English Civil War, from which it was abandoned and left to ruin until the 1800s when suddenly everyone wanted their own castle ruin.

Location: East Sussex

Skipton Castle

Skipton Castle is a remarkably well-preserved and impressive medieval fortress. The castle was famously under siege for three years during the English Civil War before yielding to Cromwell in 1645. It’s open year-round to visitors with access to large parts of the interiors and gardens. Be sure to check out the yew tree in the courtyard, planted by Lady Anne Clifford, who did much to restore the castle after the civil war.

Location: Yorkshire Dales

Less than 10 miles from the village of Grassington, Skipton Castle is a great option for anyone on our Yorkshire Dales Self Drive.

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Castle Bolton

Castle Bolton is a squat 14th-century stronghold in a quiet corner of Yorkshire, located in between the River Ure and Grinton Moor (the final climb on Stage 1 of the 2014 Tour de France). Though “slighted” (deliberately ruined) during the English Civil War, much of Castle Bolton still survives. Unlike so many other castles, this stout, impressive structure has never been sold – and it is still in the hands of the Scope family who have owned it since 1378 when Richard, 1st Baron Scrope of Bolton, started construction on this quadrangular castle. The infamous Mary, Queen of Scots was held prisoner at Bolton for six months. Legend has it that Mary escaped and made her way towards the nearby town of Leyburn but she lost her ‘shawl’ on the way. This story is remembered in the name of the cliffs that run westward, called ‘The Shawl,’ home to some excellent views.

Location: Yorkshire

Visit the castle on our self guided cycling Tour de Yorkshire.

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Lowther Castle

These striking ruins are well worth a visit. Built at the turn of the 19th century the castle was designed to be lavish and luxurious, with no expense spared. However, it fell into disrepair and ruin in the mid 20th century when the owners lost their fortune. It’s a popular visitor attraction today with splendid gardens and trails to explore. Its location at the edge of the Lake District means visitors can combine heritage with the bounties of nature from lakes to mountains and valleys. The closest lake is also one of our favourites – Ullswater. From here, there are also plenty of hiking options including St Sunday Crag and Mt Helvellyn. 

Location: The Lake District / Cumbria 

There’s time to explore Lowther Castle if you choose to on our Self Drive tour of the Lake District.

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Bradbury Rings

We wanted to include at least one Iron Age fort on the list. While not a castle in the medieval sense, these ringforts, which date from the 5th-7th centuries (so after the Romans left, but before the Vikings and Normans arrived), were important fortifications in their own right. In many cases, later castles were built upon these sites as they were in defensible positions, but Bradbury Rings is still in its original form. These were places of defence, of ceremony, of gathering, and of short-term residence, but not lived in year-round. Iron Age ringforts stopped getting built in the 7th century, and no one knows why. In fact, little is known about a lot of these forts and interest in them – and this era – is only now growing.

Location: Dorset (and Cotswolds)

Visit other sites from the same era like Beckbury Camp or Painswick Beacon on the Cotswolds Way. Though little is left, the mystery they left behind is fascinating.

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St Michael’s Mount

St Michael’s Mount looks like something out of Lord of the Rings. A small tidal island, St Michael’s Mount rises up dramatically from Mount’s Bay in Cornwall, culminating in a fortified castle and medieval monastery atop what was likely an Iron Age fort or cliff castle from the 1st century BCE. You might think something about it seems familiar…

St Michael’s Mount bears striking similarities to Mont-Saint-Michel in northern France – not only is the name the same, but both are fortified monasteries atop conical tidal islands reached by man-made causeways, under which a small village grew along the foundations. The French island is larger than its English counterpart though, being nearly three times its size. The French village, too, is older and more substantial – the village of St Michael’s Mount was a mere huddle of fishing cottages and monk’s quarters until the 18th century when it became a flourishing fishing port, with over 50 houses built along with schools, chapels and pubs. The castle can be reached by boat at high tide or by foot at low tide over the causeway.

Location: Cornwall

Join Us on An English Castle Adventure

Meet the Author: Dawn Rainbolt

American by birth but European in spirit, Dawn has called the US, Costa Rica, Spain, England, Poland, France and Ireland home over the years. While she has travelled to more than 30 countries, she is passionate about sharing her love of the UK & Ireland with visitors from across the world.

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