Kenilworth Castle

Norman Keep to Elizabethan Pleasure Palace

Chapter 5 : Tudor Age

Henry VII liked Kenilworth – perhaps it made him feel closer to his great-great-grandfather, John of Gaunt. He and Elizabeth of York visited it frequently, and he had a tennis court built there. Henry VIII, too, visited the castle on several occasions, and spent money on its maintenance.

In 1553, Kenilworth was granted to John Dudley, Earl of Warwick (later Duke of Northumberland), who built the stable block. Northumberland lost his head for trying to put his daughter-in-law on the throne, in place of her cousin, Mary, and his lands were confiscated. Under Elizabeth, however, the Dudleys, and Kenilworth, were to reach their apogee.

In 1563, Robert Dudley, Northumberland’s second surviving son, was granted Kenilworth, and the following year, the title of Earl of Leicester. Leicester was keen to emphasise his distant descent from the Beauchamp Earls of Warwick, and the even more distant de Clintons. The ancient symbol of the Earls of Warwick (the Bear and Ragged Staff) abound.

The Bear and Ragged Staff of Warwick

Leicester was Elizabeth’s closest companion from the day of her accession, to his death in 1588. For many years, it was thought that Elizabeth would marry him. The death of his wife, Amy Robsart, in 1560, however, although in one sense it removed an obstacle, made their marriage less likely, as Amy died in mysterious circumstances.

Nevertheless, it was some time before Leicester gave up hope, and he entertained Elizabeth at Kenilworth on four occasions – 1566, 1568, 1572 and 1575. The entertainment at Kenilworth in 1575 was the most splendid and extravagant party of the whole of Elizabeth’s reign. Lasting several weeks, it combined hunting, dancing, masquing and fireworks in an extravaganza that was never equalled. It failed, however, in its ultimate purpose of persuading Elizabeth to marry the Earl.

Much of the building, known as Leicester’s Building, contains apartments for the Queen.

Leicester's Building (1560s - 1570s), containing apartments for Elizabeth I

In the end, Leicester gave up hope of marrying Elizabeth, and, in 1578, married her cousin, Lettice Knollys, the widowed Countess of Essex, instead. Elizabeth was incandescent with rage, and refused to see the new Countess of Leicester. Lettice spent time at Kenilworth during her marriage, visited by her children, Robert, Earl of Essex, and Penelope, Lady Rich but Elizabeth never visited again.

After Leicester’s death in 1588, legal disputes hung over his inheritance. Eventually, Kenilworth reverted to the Crown.