England is famous for its castles due to its rich, turbulent and often violent history, with many succumbing to the fate of brutal attack, rampant pillaging or long-term neglect.
Fortunately for today’s visitor many are still standing and in superb condition many centuries after being built and you can transport yourself back to medieval times to immerse yourself in the majesty of these architectural behemoths.
The many well-preserved historical castles that are still standing represent the many battles and wars that have made up England’s complex history. What remains is an often gruesome reminder as to the events which took place in English history and the bitter feuds that necessitated a strong defence from adversaries.
So, in classic form, here are our top 10 castles to visit in England
Warwick Castle, Warwickshire
Warwick Castle was built in 1068 by William the Conqueror to protect the Midlands from invasion and is located on the River Avon for this very reason. Although this castle is over 1,000 years old, it is in remarkable condition and tonnes for people of all ages to explore.
From the 64 acres of gardens and maze through to the ramparts and castle dungeon, the site shows just how well it has been conserved and turned into a magnificent day out. The view from the top of the tower over the city of Warwick is also rather special and makes a trek to the highest point of castle well worth the effort.
Lancaster Castle, Lancashire
Lancaster Castle is incredibly historic, dating back to the 11th century – it even has foundations from a Roman fortress. It is also one of the best-preserved castles in England. Lancaster Castle was once a prison and held thousands of prisoners over the centuries. In 1612 it was also the site of the famous trial of 10 people from Pendle and a further 9 citizens from other parts of the country who were charged with witchcraft. The defendants were tried and imprisoned in this castle, with 10 of them later hanged on the nearby moor. With the sheer volume of prisoners said to have hanged at Lancaster Castle, it is no surprise that the city achieved the rather macabre title of ‘the hanging city’.
Dover Castle, Kent
If military history is your thing, then Dover Castle needs to be at the top of your list. It was a prominent castle in the history of protecting the southeast of England from invasion from continental Europe. It was built by Henry II in 1180 and over the next few centuries, adjustments were made to ensure the castle was well-equipped for warfare. The walls are incredibly thick at up to 21 feet, which serve an excellent defensive barrier against aggressors.
More recently the castle served its purpose in WW1 and WW2 by acting as a lookout due to its strategic location high on the cliffs.
Windsor Castle, Berkshire
Windsor Castle claims the title of being the largest and oldest castle still used by the Royal Family. This mammoth of a castle was built in the 11th century and took 16 years to complete. It was originally built to protect London from the west but soon became a residence for royalty due to its location and proximity to hunting grounds.
Until her passing, it was still used by HM Queen Elizabeth as one of her primary residences, so it remains a real royal castle to this day. Windsor Castle is also only a 30-minute train ride from London so it’s easily accessible for a day trip from the capital.
St Michael’s Mount, Cornwall
St Michael’s Mount is a very different castle from the others listed here as it’s located on a small island off the coast of Marazion in Cornwall. It’s only accessible via a causeway at low tide, although if you need to cross when the water is up, there is a regular service from the mainland to take you there and back. If you’ve visited Mont-Saint-Michel in France, you’ll probably recognise some similarities with St Michael’s Mount.
Highclere Castle, Hampshire
If you’re a Downton Abbey fan you need to visit Highclere Castle in Hampshire as it was the backdrop for both the series and movie. This castle has medieval origins and was later developed in the 19th century based on the Houses of Parliament in London. You can tour the castle including some of the rooms that were used in the series as well as the gardens that date back to the 13th century.
The Carnarvon family has lived in the castle since 1679 and the 5th Earl of Carnarvon played an important role in discovering the tomb of Tutankhamun. His large collection of Egyptian relics is on display here and is definitely worth viewing.
Tower of London, London
The Tower of London is actually a Norman castle that was built in 1066 by William the Conqueror. It is also one of the oldest structures in London. At the Tower of London resides the Crown Jewels. If you don’t know what the Crown Jewels are, they are one of England’s most prized possessions, consisting of over 100 objects and over 23,000 gems.
The Tower of London also served as a prison from 1100 to 1952 and for those accused of the most heinous crimes, the subterranean entrance from the River Thames (known as Traitors’ Gate) was often the final view prisoners has of the outside world before being confined inside the fort.
Due to its importance in the violent history of the city of London, executions were common and many now report ghost sightings. If ghost hunting doesn’t appeal to you then you may instead enjoy viewing the Ceremony of the Keys which takes place by Beefeaters who guard the castle.
Tintagel Castle, North Cornwall
Tintagel Castle is a simply a magical place and its setting on the north Cornwall coast makes it one of the most enchanting places to visit in the South West of England. It was supposedly the birthplace of King Arthur and has a long history of connections to myths and legends.
This castle has no military history, but what it lacks in military history it more than makes up for in architecture. Half of the castle is built on the land and half on an island, accessible by a footbridge. If you’re feeling adventurous, head down to the beach below the castle where at low tide you may be able to spot Merlin’s cave.
Leeds Castle, Kent
Leeds Castle was important in military history as it served as a post during the Norman invasion. It also became a royal residence with King Edward I and Henry VIII both living here. Leeds Castle is set in over 500 acres of land and has an excellent exhibition centre.
Corfe Castle, Dorset
Corfe Castle is one of the oldest castles in England at over 1000 years old, having been built by William the Conqueror. Corfe Castle was built due to its important location (close to the south coast which allowed access to the homeland of William the Conqueror).
In 1572, it became a private residence when it was sold to a courtier, Sir Christopher Hatton by Elizabeth I before being destroyed in the Civil War. Although the castle now lay in ruin, you can still wander around the archways and soak up the views of the Purbeck countryside. You can also enjoy a 30-minute National Trust walking trail across Corfe Common for amazing views of the castle as well as to view burial mounds from the Bronze Age that are 4,000 years old.
About the author
Having worked across the heritage and tourism sector for over 10 years, Monty Beaumont is an expert when it comes to discovering new places to visit and great days out for the whole family.
He has previously worked for the National Trust as a General Manager in Cornwall, coordinated the complex operations of running a castle in Devon and the mastered the intricacies of providing exceptional hospitality and service at some of the finest historic houses in the UK.
As part of his vision and drive for Monty’s Guide, Monty travels across the country to find new places to visit and explore, and sharing his finding on montysguide.com, which is used by 1,000s of people each week to find their next great day out.
His experience and knowledge of the historic and cultural sector gives him a unique insight into the elements that make tourism and learning so important in our quest to understanding more about our heritage.