Britain's Finest Castles

By Richard Moss
shows an aerial shot of Warwick Castle

Photo: one of the best-preserved medieval castles in Europe, Warwick Castle tops the list of Britain's finest. Picture © Warwick Castle

A firm favourite for school trips and overseas visitors alike, Warwick Castle is rightly regarded as one of the best-preserved medieval castles in England. Crammed full of dungeons, preserved walkways and towers with fascinating exhibitions it's a castle that offers plenty of things to do and explore.

Dominating the landscape, this truly impressive and imposing structure actually started as an earthwork in 914 before being rebuilt by William the Conqueror as a wooden Motte and Bailey castle. By 1260 the addition of stone curtain walls, towers and courtyards meant that Warwick Castle was practically impregnable.

It's a peaceful spot today (unless you visit during one of the many re-enactment weekends) but there's been plenty of treachery, imprisonment and ghostly goings on over the years. This long and bloody history and the exemplary system of battlements, towers and barbicans make Warwick Castle one of the most rewarding trips to a castle in the UK.

photo of a large castle atop a craggy hill

Photo: Edinburgh Castle towers protectively over Scotland's capital city. Picture © Edinburgh Castle

Sitting majestically above Scotland's capital, Edinburgh Castle is one of the best loved in the world - and it's easy to see why.

Soaked in over 800 years of Scottish history, the castle has a dynamic history of constant usage and building. The oldest part , St Margaret's Chapel, dates from the 12th century whilst the Great Hall in the heart of the castle complex was erected by James IV around 1510. The Half Moon Battery was added by the Regent Morton in the late 16th century whilst the Scottish National War Memorial was installed after the First World War.

The castle is also home to the Honours (Crown Jewels) of Scotland, the Stone of Destiny, the famous 15th-century gun, Mons Meg, the One o' Clock Gun and the National War Museum of Scotland.

In addition guided tours are provided by the castle stewards, and there are audio tours that explain its architecture, and tell its dramatic history.

shows a shot of the ruined castle of Tintagel

Photo: how about this for a stunning location? Tintagel Castle is perched precariously on the Cornish coastline. Picture © English Heritage

With its spectacular location on one of England's most beautiful coastlines, Tintagel Castle is one of the most awe-inspiring and romantic ruined castles in Britain. Joined to the mainland by a narrow neck of land, Tintagel Island faces the full force of the Atlantic and it's easy to see why the spot has fired the imagination for centuries.

On the mainland itself, the gaunt remains of the medieval castle, thought to date from the second quarter of the 13th century are breathtaking. Steep stone steps, stout walls and rugged windswept cliff edges encircle the Great Hall. Beneath the castle atmospheric coves add to the air of mystery and legend.

Reputed to be the birthplace of the legendary Celtic King Arthur, Tintagel is also the site for many a legend and unanswered question. As a hsitoric site the castle retains its capacity to constantly surprise us, even after years of investigation the site and its surrounds remain the subject for lively speculation.

Shows a photograph of Bodiam Castle in Sussex.

Photo: with its fairytale towers and moat Bodiam Castle in East Sussex is virtually everyone's idea of a romantic medieval fortress. Picture © NTPL/Andrew Butler

Probably one of the most picturesque castles in the UK, Bodiam Castle was built in 1385, as much as a comfortable home as a defence.

Today the exterior is virtually complete and the ramparts rise dramatically above a wide and fully surrounding moat.

Much of the interior was gutted during a Civil War era siege but there is enough surviving to give a good impression of castle life, and there are some excellent spiral staircases and battlements to explore.

shows a photograph of the Tower of London

Photo: is it Traitor's Gate or the Crown Jewels? Perhaps it's the Beefeaters and the Armoury? Whatever part of this Royal fortress excites you most the Tower of London is crammed full of things to see and enjoy. Picture, Crown copyright: Historic Royal Palaces

Founded by William the Conqueror in 1066-7 and enlarged and modified by successive sovereigns, today the Tower of London is one of the world's most famous and spectacular fortresses and a World Heritage Site to boot.

Visitors can discover its 900-year history as a royal palace, fortress, prison and place of execution. There is also information about the Royal Mint, arsenal, menagerie and treasury.

But no visit to the Tower of London would be complete without seeing the Crown Jewels but the there are also 11 towers to explore, as well as ravens, Beefeaters and 1,000 years of bloody royal history waiting to be discovered.

shows a picture of Eilean Donan Castle

Photo: the ultimate in romantic Scottish castles can be explored at Eilean Donan. Picture © Conchra Charitable Trust

Although the island of Eilean Donan has been a fortified site for at least 800 years, the present building largely dates from the early 20th century. Today's castle, which rose from the ruins of its predecessor, was re-built between 1912 and 1932 by Lieutenant Colonel John MacRae-Gilstrap.

It's an impressive mix of Victorian romanticism and medieval ruggedness, and visitors are encouraged to have a good look around - with everything from the banqueting hall to the bedrooms open for public viewing. An introductory exhibition also tells the early history of the castle and the days when the castle sat at the heart of the sea kingdom of the Lord of the Isles.

Its later history; particularly the castle's role in the Jacobite rebellions is brought to life in the great hall, where you can view an original lock of Bonnie Prince Charlie's hair. You really can't get more Scottish than that!

shows a picture of Windsor Castle

Photo: The Royal Collection © 2003, Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II

Windsor Castle is an official residence of The Queen and the largest occupied castle in the world. A royal palace and fortress for over 900 years, the Castle remains a working palace and its popularity is testament to the public's continuing fascination with the Royal family.

Visitors can walk around the State Apartments and the extensive suites of rooms that lay at the castle's heart. For part of the year visitors can also see the Semi State rooms, which are some of the most splendid interiors in the castle. Here treasures from the Royal Collection including paintings by Holbein, Rubens, Van Dyck and Lawrence as well as fine tapestries and porcelain, sculpture and armour.

shows a picture of Alnwick Castle

Photo: Alnwick has been the home of the Percys, Earls and Dukes of Northumberland since 1309. Photo Graeme Peacock

If you're in the north of the country and fancy a similar slice of regal splendour then the 'Windsor of the North' can be found at Alnwick Castle in Northumberland.

The seat of the Duke of Northumberland and the second largest inhabited castle in the UK (after Windsor) Alnwick features similarly grand staterooms and fine furniture as well as paintings by Canaletto, Van Dyck and Titian.

This atmospheric castle (a recent setting for the Harry Potter films) was much battered in the medieval period of border strife and it wasn't until the 16th century that the castle was rescued from its ruinous state by the 7th Earl of Northumberland.

Today these restorations and the Robert Adam renovations of the later 18th century earl dominate and give the castle a pleasing air of opulence much based on the castle styling of the the Italian Renaissance.

photo of a large medieval castle

Photo: the ramparts of Caernarfon Castle in Wales are one of the most extensive and best-preserved in Europe. Crown copyright Cadw: Welsh Historic Monuments.

With its seven polygonal towers, two gatehouses, and walls of different coloured stone, King Edward I wanted Caernarfon Castle to be a central Royal stronghold and his seat of government for North Wales.

Begun in 1283 under the direction of the renowned medieval castle builder Master James of St George, the castle has remained continuously in Crown possession ever since. As recently as 1969 the castle was at the centre of Royal Pageantry with the investiture of the Prince of Wales.

A listed World Heritage Site, there are three exhibitions including the in the Regimental Museum of the Royal Welsh Fusiliers; The Eagle and the Dragon audio-visual display.

There is also a complete circuit of Town Walls, including eight towers and two twin towered gateways, surviving in places to battlement height.

a photograph of a walkway along a castle wall

Photo: Conwy's network of walls run for three quarters of a mile and are guarded by some twenty towers.

We finish our run down of Britain's finest castles with one of the most brutally imposing castles to be found anywhere in the UK. Sitting authoritatively on a rock above the Conwy Estuary and exuding a menace and power, Conwy Castlein Wales is a massive medieval stronghold built to subdue and intimidate the local population.

The fact that it still casts a powerful spell is testament to the intention of its builder, Edward I, and his mission to subdue the Welsh with an'iron ring' of fortifications throughout Wales. Its huge walls are so thick and its siting so perfect that Edward was able forgo the usual concentric design, whilst its eight towers and sheer scale belie the fact that the structure was built in a mere seven years.

But it's more than just a castle, Conwy is really a walled medieval town, its circuit of walls is over three quarters of a mile long and is still guarded by no less than 22 towers, making it one the finest medieval fortification complexes in the world.

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