The Finest English Castles (Updated November 2022):
English castles are some of the most popular tourist destinations in England.
These castles, like their counterparts in Wales, are great monuments to England’s long history. Visitors flock there in droves, no doubt filled with stories of the knights and kings who lived there, and the events they have witnessed.
However, there are over 1,500 castles in the UK (according to the Castellarium Anglicanum, the definitive list published in 1983) and so we thought we’d help out by choosing the best to visit.
So then here is our choice of the best twenty castles in England.
(NB We’ve just published a post some of the many haunted English Castles. Check it out here >>> Haunted Castles In England.
For centuries, these grand structures have graced Great Britain with their imposing stone features and large aristocratic and royal estates.
Let’s look at them in more detail, and list the best castles in England (twenty of them)…
The Best Castles In England: 20 English Castles To Visit Next Time You’re In In The UK
Many of the oldest castles in England date back to the Norman invasion in 1066.
In the centuries following the Norman invasion, castles in England continued to grow in sophistication and comfort.
By the 14th century, English castles not only provided superior defensive features, but also boasted sophisticated, luxurious living arrangements, and beautifully landscaped formal gardens and parks.
Throughout the Renaissance Era, a small number of castles were built for the wealthy to enjoy extravagant feasts and grand celebrations. During the 17th century, widespread religious and civil conflicts meant that castles, and the defence that they offered England, played an important role in protecting the nation’s interest.
Today, the great castles of England pay homage to the past. The noble structures stand erect as a living memorial to the centuries that have passed, the battles that have been fought, and the people that have come before. Take a look at some of the most monumental English castles and learn about the rich history of these awe-inspiring structures.
No 1: Dover Castle, Kent
Dover Castle is one of the most iconic castles in England. It also has the distinction of being among the oldest; it was originally fortified by William the Conqueror following the Battle of Hastings in 1066.
Before it was turned into a fortified castle it was a general stronghold for the Saxon forces. It also served as a lighthouse for the Romans during their conquest of England.
The History of Dover Castle
It was vital that Dover be fortified because it offered the shortest distance between England and mainland Europe. In times of war, it would be the first place anyone attacked, and in times of peace, it would serve as a vital trading and sailing hub.
Dover Castle itself has had a long and eventful history to say the least. Dubbed the “Key to England” the fortress has been the first line of defense for England for over 900 years. The only castles that have had a life as long as this are the Tower of London and Windsor Castle.
The Birth of a Castle
As soon as William the Conqueror won the Battle of Hastings in 1066 he ordered that the defences at the castle be fortified with earthwork and stockade with timber. The castle was garrisoned as soon as it was ready and was garrisoned without interruption (meaning there was always some military force there) until 1958.
King Henry II remodelled the castle in the late 12th-century. He planned on making the great tower of Dover Castle a palace in which he could entertain important guests. He also planned on making the tower the last redoubt for the castle; one of the most strategically important in the country. The tower stands 83 feet tall, 100 feet square, and the walls are 21 feet thick. It houses three floors, with the top-most floor being reserved for the king.
With such an impressive and imposing showpiece the king was able to welcome distinguished visitors – in particular noble pilgrims on a pilgrimage to the Canterbury Cathedral of Thomas Becket. Thomas Becket was an archbishop who was slaughtered before the altar at the castle by Henry’s knights on December 29th, 1170; ten years before the work on the tower began. There was a chapel dedicated to the late archbishop on the second floor, made with beautiful decorated stonework.
Construction on the tower continued into the first half of the 13th century under the watch of King John and Henry III. It was finally finished by Henry III.
A Castle Besieged
The defences of the castle were put through their paces in 1216-1217 when the castle was besieged. It was attacked by Prince Louis of France, who supported English barons in their rebellion against King John. The defences at the castle withstood ten months of bombardment by the French siege engines and every other attempt the French made to invade the castle.
The castle was further improved after the siege. Henry III added three new gatehouses and a fortified spur extension to the castle. The castle as we know it today was completed by the 1250s and it has remained a symbol of the power of the English royal family ever since.
The castle was once again besieged in October 1265. This time, the castle was besieged by Henry III’s own son; Prince Edward. The castle was held by the king’s sister, Eleanor de Montfort. Eleanor was the widow of the baron Simon de Montfort, who rebelled against the king and had been killed at the Battle of Evesham. Besieged from within and without by royalists, Eleanor petitioned for peace and was exiled to France.
A Castle Transformed
Dover Castle remained garrisoned even after the Middle Ages and would stay garrisoned until the late 20th century. While it became less important after the 16th century, the castle still played host to royals including Henry VIII, Elizabeth I, Charles I, and their guests. It was less important from a military point of view but the fact it played host to so many important people necessitated continued protection.
The castle was reshaped in the 1740s to better defend against artillery warfare. When England was under threat of invasion by Napoleon and the French forces in the 18th century, the castle was added to even more. A series of tunnels was built into the cliffs of Dover to serve as barracks for the multitudes of soldiers needed to protect the castle.
Dover During the Wars
Technological advances from the turn of the 19th century allowed for coastal artillery to be commanded from a central Fire Command Post on the cliff edge. The position was deemed important enough by the Admiralty for them to commission a signal station on top of it in 1914. The Navy were able to use the station to command the flow of ships in and out of Dover harbour.
The tunnels built during the Napoleonic war were used again during the Second World War. From 1939 onwards they were the location of the command centre that controlled all naval operations in the English Channel. This is where Vice Admiral Bertram Ramsay orchestrated the evacuation of British troops from Dunkirk with Operation Dynamo.
The tunnels were expanded upon to serve as a bigger headquarters and as a hospital for the war wounded. The hospital was combined with the headquarters and the castle was an important part of defending the Straits of Dover and preparing for the invasion of mainland Europe in 1944.
The network of tunnels underwent a further transformation during the Cold War. It was planned that the tunnels would serve as a secret location for one of Britain’s Regional Seats of Government so that things could resume as close to normal if England was hit by a nuclear attack.
Modern Dover Castle
The modern Dover Castle is managed by the English Heritage group. It is open to the public and offers visitors a stunning look at the history and experience of the fortress. Visitors can tour the castle and the underground tunnels.
They can enjoy all the exhibitions that put them in the shoes of the former inhabitants of the castle and learn all about the rich history for themselves.
The castle has been preserved really well and has been mostly-restored to the original state. Some of the castle has been modified to reflect how it may have looked at different points in history to offer an authentic experience.
Ancient history fans can also experience the original Roman lighthouse that laid the foundations for the castle.
Here’s our post on Dover Castle: Dover Castle: Its History From William The Conqueror To The Modern Day
No 2: Tintagel, Cornwall
This 800-year-old castle is best known for its connection to the legendary King Arthur and his Knights of the Round Table.
Originally built by the Earl of Cornwall, brother to the then King of England. The Earl built the castle to resemble King Arthur’s infamous court at Camelot. Today, the castle is the site of many Arthurian re-enactments and mock battles.
Every summer, the castle becomes the home of thousands of Arthurian enthusiasts who come to experience the days of King Arthur and his knights.
No 3: Carisbrooke Castle, Isle of Wight
At the heart of the Isle of Wight is the romantic castle of Carisbrooke. The glorious castle has been many things over its long history.
Once an armed fortress, the castle has also been a king’s prison and a royal summer retreat.
Today, visitors to the majestic castle find an entertaining museum, a lovely Edwardian garden, and many wonderful events.
Here’s our post on Carisbrooke Castle: Carisbrooke Castle | Magnificent Fortress On The Isle Of Wight, England
No 4: Bolsover Castle, Derbyshire
Originally built in the 12th century, Bolsover Castle was given a makeover by Sir George Talbot in 1553 after years of neglect. The earl later became known for his marriage to ‘Bess of Hardwick’, who was probably the most astute business in the 16th century.
Today, the castle intended for luxurious living has been restored. The castle’s battlements, venus garden, and fountain have been given a second life.
Visitors are able to tour the grounds, visit the castle’s Discovery Centre (located in the castle’s riding stables), partake in one of the many events held throughout the year, or just enjoy a picnic at the lovely site.
NB We have a separate post on Bolsover castle here: >>> https://englandexplore.com/bolsover-castle/
No 5: Leeds Castle, Kent
Claiming to be the “loveliest castle in the world”, Leeds Castle in Kent (and, confusingly, nowhere near the city of Leeds in Yorkshire) is one of the most famous castles in England.
Appearing in the Domesday Book, Leeds Castle has been a stronghold for the Norman armies, a royal residence, and a royal palace occupied by kings and queens.
The location of the castle is nothing short of stunning, with it being situated on two islands in a beautiful lake. Here’s our guide:
History of Leeds Castle
Leeds Castle began life as a Royal Manor. Built in 857 AD, the manor was owned and lived in by a Saxon royal family. After the Normans invaded and conquered England they began construction on the original stone castle at the site of the manor.
The Castle became the royal palace of Edward I and Queen Eleanor in 1278. Edward made several improvements to the castle during his reign.
One notable thing from this time is the Barbican, which stands out because it is made up of three different parts. Each part of the Barbican has its own entrance, gateway, drawbridge, and portcullis. The Medieval Keep, which houses the Great Hall, is named the Gloriette in honour of Queen Eleanor.
King Edward II awarded the castle to his Royal Steward in 1321. When his wife Queen Isabella sought shelter at the castle she was turned away by the people. She was actually fired upon by the archers stationed at the castle.
Needless to say, Edward was not happy about the situation. He laid siege to the castle and reclaimed it for himself and Isabella. Edward was murdered six years later, but Queen Isabela kept the castle until her own death in 1358.
Leeds Castle has housed six medieval queens in all during its history. It housed Queens Eleanor, Isabella, Philippa of Hainhault (and wife of Edward III), Joan of Navarre, Catherine de Valois, and Catherine of Aragon.
It also technically housed Elizabeth I. She was imprisoned in the castle for a time before her coronation and ascension to the throne. It’s thanks to this history of housing queens that the castle is also called the “Castle of Queens, Queen of Castles”.
Of all the kings and queens to have lived in the castle, perhaps none are more famous than Henry VIII.
Henry VIII transformed the castle for Catherine of Aragon, his first wife. While touring the castle be sure to keep a lookout for the Field of the Cloth of Gold; a painting that commemorates when King Henry VIII met King Francis I of France in 1520.
The castle was later purchased and owned by the Culpeper family. This meant that the castle was not destroyed during the English Civil War because the Culpeper family sided with the Parliamentarians. It would later be used to house Dutch and French prisoners of war.
The last person to privately own the castle as a residence was Lady Baillie. She purchased the castle in 1926 and employed the services of French interior designers so that they might improve her new home and make it even better.
She dedicated much of her life to the restoration and improvement of the castle. It was her that set up the Leeds Castle Foundation too, to conserve the castle for years to come. Leeds Castle would be opened up to the public in 1976.
Visitors to the castle are welcome to enjoy the stunning architecture and landscaping of the grounds, which is set into a 500 acre landscape of parkland complete with a maze, grotto, vineyard, and aviary.
The maze is one of the most popular tourist attractions at the site, with a secret grotto tucked away at the centre for anyone who can safely navigate their way through.
Staying at Leeds Castle
If you want to get the most out of your stay to the castle then you should consider staying for a night or two. This gives you a lot more time to enjoy the castle grounds and also allows access to the gardens when the castle isn’t open to the general public. Stay in the State Courtyard Bedroom and enjoy a full English breakfast served at the 17th century Fairfax Hall Restaurant.
Don’t feel like being treated like royalty? Want to try something different? The castle lets you experience the life of a knight with Knight’s Glamping. Stay under the stars in a luxurious four-poster bed with cotton bedding and wake up ready to do battle on the morrow.
If you’re looking to stay at the castle for an extended period of time then try out one of the holiday cottages. These cottages house between 2 and 10 people. There are five of them all across the property and they are all self-catering. Be sure to book yours ahead of time. Staying in the cottages means you are able to explore the grounds freely long after other guests leave.
One of the best things about visiting Leeds Castle is that tickets are valid for up to a year. You’re welcome to visit the grounds as many times as you want in that time. Think of it like every ticket is a season ticket.
During your stay be sure to have a hot air balloon flight, a ferry boat ride, a round of golf, and many of the other exciting activities that are fun for the whole family.
How to Get to Leeds Castle
Leeds Castle is around 4 miles east of Maidstone.
It’s off Junction 8 of the M20 motorway and around an hour and a half from London – or half an hour from the Channel Ports and Channel Tunnel.
No 6: Windsor Castle
20 miles west of London, The 900-year-old Windsor Castle is the oldest official royal estate, and the largest currently occupied castle in the world.
However, this residence is much more than just a castle. The grounds at Windsor contain a large church, several homes, and the royal palace.
(We now have a separate post on Windsor Castle: Windsor Castle | The Queen’s Favourite Home
No 7: Hever Castle, Kent
The 700-year-old Hever Castle was once the childhood home of Anne Boleyn is home to a fine collection of beautiful furniture, antiques, tapestries, and an impressive collection of Tudor paintings.
Additionally, the castle is home to more than 125 acres of glorious gardens and award-winning landscape. One thing is for sure, at any time of the year, the stunning castle’s exteriors and interiors are sure to take your breath away.
No 8: Bolton Castle, Yorkshire
Bolton Castle in Yorkshire was once a defensive fortress as well as a luxurious family estate. Today, the castle is a well-preserved home to many outstanding rooms and features and is one of the best castles in England to visit.
Visitors of the castle can peruse rooms like the old kitchens, the nursery, the great chamber, Mary Queen of Scots’ bedroom, the armoury, and even the dungeon.
No 9: Richmond Castle, Yorkshire
Stunning views of the Yorkshire Dales elevate the Richmond Castle into its rightful place as one of the most beloved attractions in North Yorkshire.
Originally built to keep the peace in the unruly northern region, today, the castle is one of the most inspiring Norman fortresses in Great Britain.
No 10: Skipton Castle, Yorkshire
If you’re travelling to the Yorkshire Dales, why not stop on the way to see this lovely medieval castle…
One of the most well-preserved and complete medieval castles in England, the 900-year-old Skipton Castle is a place where one can easily encounter remnants of the nation’s rich history around every corner.
From the dungeon to the watchtower, Skipton Castle was made to last. In fact, the fortification withstood a three-year log siege during the nation’s Civil War. As it stands now, the castle will be around for many years to come.
No 11: Corfe Castle, Dorset
The once majestic Corfe Castle now stands in ruins guarding the Purbeck marble quarry.
At one time, nothing could pass forth from the rocky outcrop without first going past Corfe.
The centuries-old hillside castle is the centre of many stories of the kings and queens who passed between its walls.
One of the most dramatic tales reports that the castle is where King Edward was murdered by his stepmother in 979.
No 12: St Michaels Mount
The majestic St. Micheal’s Mount is connected to the mainland by a rocky causeway. As the sea waters pour in and the tide rises, the mount becomes cut off from the nearby village of Marazion.
Pilgrims have poured to the island’s jagged shores since the 5th century when Micheal the archangel appeared before a group of people at the mount. The holy site was honoured, and a Benedictine monastery was built over the plat in the 12th century.
Still today, true believers travel to the mount and follow in the footsteps of the ancient Pilgrims to the medieval monastery located at the top of the hill.
No 13: Norwich Castle
The 900-year-old Norwich Castle is one of Norwich’s most beloved landmarks. Originally built by the Normans as a royal palace, the castle was later used as a prison.
Today, the castle is home to exquisite collections of fine art, antiques, and the collections of the Royal Norfolk Regimental Museum collections.
No 14: Ludlow Castle, Shropshire
First a Norman fortress, Ludlow Castle was improved upon for centuries and eventually became a royal palace. Originally, the fortification served to hold back the Welsh.
Today, the castle is open for all to enjoy.
No 15: Barnard Castle, County Durham
Sitting high on a rock above the River Tees, the Barnard Castle is named for its founder, Bernard de Balliol.
First built in the 12th century, the castle was later the property of Richard III.
Visitors to the estate are able to enjoy the castle’s famed ‘sensory garden,’ which contains a variety of scented plants and tactile-rich objects.
No 16: Warwick Castle, Warwickshire
Less than 100 miles from London, the stately Warwick Castle is known for its superb medieval interior and great period re-enactments.
The Castle has been through a lot over the years. A few notable moments include when it was attacked in 1264, the siege of Warwick Castle in 1642, and the fire that tore through the castle in 1871. Despite all of these setbacks, the castle has endured throughout history and still stands today.
It was kept by the Earls of Warwick before becoming the private residence of the Greville Family until 1978, when it became the property of the Tussauds Group, who later became Merlin Entertainment Group, in 2007.
It remains with the Merlin Entertainment Group to this day and they have turned the castle into a fun and interesting tourist destination. Indeed it’s one of the few English castles of its size that welcomes overnight visitors, as we shall see.
In the meantime, let’s have a look at the castle’s long and varied history…
History of Warwick Castle
Warwick Castle was built by a king, became the seat of a kingmaker, and played a vital part in the War of the Roses and the English Civil War. Needless to say, it’s had a long and important history. It even housed a royal prisoner at one point.
The records of there being a walled-building in Warwick date back to the Saxon foundations built by the daughter of Alfred the Great, Ethelfleda.
The foundations were built to protect the area from invading Danes. It was constructed in 914 A.D. It’s incredible to think that the huge castle started life as a small fort built by the Saxons.
The Warwick Castle that we know and love today slowly came to life from 1068. The castle was a construction project for King William I, better known to historians as William the Conqueror.
It didn’t take long after the Battle of Hastings – in 1066 – for William to begin making his own mark on the country. The “castle” at this point was a wooden motte and bailey. The project to turn it into a stone castle wouldn’t be complete until the 13th century.
While the castle served William the Conqueror well it wasn’t until the Hundreds Year War that it became a notable footnote of British history.
It was during this war that it became an example followed by the architects of castles in the 14th and 15th centuries. The castles from that period were based on the best of the best and Warwick Castle was included among that list.
The castle has undergone several changes across the years. Some of those changes were because of changes in styles and tastes, some were for military reasons, and others were because of disaster.
One of the most famous changes to the castle came when following a fire in 1871.
While the two eastern towers of the castle can be traced back to the 14th and 15th centuries and the Great Hall was renovated in the 14th century, much of the interior of the castle – in particular the State Dining room – was remodelled in the 18th century.
Warwick Castle was where Edward IV was imprisoned in 1469. It would be held by the Duke of Gloucester in the 1480s before he would go on to become King Richard III.
It was an important part of the English Civil War in 1642 when it withstood a siege by the Royalist forces.
Who has Owned Warwick Castle?
Something that makes the castle so important and a key part of history is the story of the people – not to mention dynasties – that it has played host to over the years.
It has been owned by some prominent people throughout history, including the Earl of Warwick Richard Neville. Neville was a key figure in the War of the Roses and has been dubbed The Kingmaker by historians because of how important he was to the war.
Several families have been the custodians of Warwick Castle throughout history. It has always been closely connected to the royal family in some way or another.
It played an important role in the advancement and further development of castle design and construction.
It has been host to nobility from around the world and also hosted knight games that became a key part of the history and culture of medieval European history. It has since gone on to become one of the most popular tourist spots in England.
Some of the most famous families that have lived inside the walls as the Earls of Warwick are the Newburgh family (11th – 13th century), De Beauchamp (13th – 16th century), Dudley (16th century), Rich (17th to 18th century), and Greville (18th century to 20th century).
The castle has been taken over by the royal family twice across history. These days it is in the possession of the Tussauds Group, which now goes by the name Merlin Entertainment Group. The group is the second large leisure group in the world behind Disney.
They purchased the castle from the Greville family in 1978. The Greville’s had owned the property for almost four centuries (374 years) at the point of sale.
Visiting Warwick Castle
Warwick Castle was opened to the public and now represents a key tourist attraction in England.
Tourists are able to go through the castle itself, the keeps and stables, as well as the 18-meter high trebuchet; the largest trebuchet in the world. There are daily displays and shows happening all the time.
As tourists explore the castle they will learn about the history and architecture of the castle. There’s also plenty of activities for children and adults happening with events scheduled all year round.
Take a look at the schedule to see what’s happening and prepare yourself for a lengthy stay as it can take up to 5 hours to see it all.
Staying at Warwick Castle
Visitors can even stay at the castle overnight if they want.
Families are sure to love the Knight’s Village which has themed accommodation including medieval-themed lodges and glamping tents.
To travel back in time book a stay in the Tower Suites. As the name implies, these suites are located in the 14th-century Caesar’s Tower. Enjoy a beautiful bed and breakfast stay in a 4-poster bed, private castle tours, 24-hour concierge services, complimentary champagne, and two-day tickets to the dungeons.
So, then, Warwick Castle is one of the finest and historic castles in England. And, even better, you can stay there…
No 17: Lincoln Castle, Lincolnshire
William the Conqueror first constructed the fortress on the site of an existing Roman fortification. Since that time, Lincoln Castle has remained a symbol of power throughout the ages.
Today, the castle is on display and is the home site of an original 1215 Magna Carta.
No 18: Alnwick Castle, Northumberland
The stately home of the Duke of Northumberland, Alnwick Castle was first built following the Norman Conquest.
However, the expansive home has been remodelled and renovated many times throughout the years and is today often featured in films, shows, and popular entertainment.
The castle was used as a stand-in for Hogwarts School. Additionally, the castle has also been used as a location for feature films such as Robin hood: Prince of Thieves, The Black Adder, and Becket. Alnwick Castle was also used as the location for part of the filming of Downton Abbey.
No 19: Bamburgh Castle, Northumberland
On the cliffs high above the Northumberland coastline, Bamburgh Castle extends nine acres across a rocky plateau and is one of the largest castles in England that is currently inhabited.
Today, the awe-inspiring fortification sits on a throne of volcanic rock known as dolerite more than forty-five metres above sea level.
No 20: Scarborough Castle, Yorkshire
With nearly 3,000 years of history, Scarborough Castle has proudly defended the country’s inlet area and has endured medieval sieges, Civil War, and German naval bombardment.
Today, visitors can climb the embankment and enjoy sweeping views of the dramatic coastline below.
NB We now have a post on British Castles such as Scottish Castles here: https://englandexplore.com/scottish-castles/ and one on Welsh castles: https://englandexplore.com/castles-in-wales
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