Castles ain’t what they used to be!
When I was a kid I thought I knew all there was to know about castles. In my mind these ancient, grim monstrosities were built for heroic defence in times of war. Their imposing ramparts were, I believed, always surrounded by an unfathomably deep moat and punctuated with soaring towers in which the lord could lock up captured enemy warriors, as well as random passing princesses. A single, rickety drawbridge crossed the moat and led to a sturdy gate, above which was one of those ominous holes through which the defenders could pour hot oil and other nasties onto the heads of their adversaries. This romantic image of castles inevitably beguiled and seduced my younger self.
In my innocence it never occurred to me that castles were also homes, that people lived out their daily lives in them. And of course, as the centuries passed and a fragile peace took hold across the land, castles outgrew their original purpose. No longer needed for defence, they were redesigned to become places where the wealthy and powerful could show off to their neighbours. Castles morphed into mansions meant for boasting rather than battles.
Arundel Castle in West Sussex is a case in point. Work began on the construction of the castle in 1067, just a year after the Norman conquest of England, and the towering walls and sturdy gates leave the visitor in no doubt that defence was once the main purpose of this place. But even the most well made of castles are not impregnable, as Arundel’s 800 Royalist defenders learned to their cost when besieged by Parliamentarian forces during the English Civil War in 1643. They surrendered after just 18 days, and in due course Parliament ordered the destruction of the fortifications to ensure that the castle could play no role in any future conflict.
The castle’s fighting days were over, and it languished in ruins for many decades, its owners – successive Dukes of Norfolk – having other priorities at the time. The 8th Duke eventually carried out a few repairs around 1718, and about 70 years later the 11th Duke (aka “the Drunken Duke!”) undertook some further restoration. And in the early 1840s the 13th Duke internally remodelled the castle in preparation for a visit in 1846 by Queen Victoria and Prince Albert.
Wealthy Victorians were never happier than when “improving” their homes, so it’s no surprise that between 1875 and 1905 the 15th Duke embarked upon yet another grand project to modernise Arundel Castle in line with upper-class fashions of the time. It is the 15th Duke’s legacy that is most visible to visitors today, and it’s thanks to him that Arundel Castle became one of the first English country houses to be fitted with electric lights, integral fire fighting equipment, service lifts and central heating. Although the walls and gates make the castle’s defensive origins abundantly clear, many of the internal fittings are grand – opulent, even – and obviously belong to a totally different, post-medieval world.
The Duke of Norfolk is still king of his own private castle, but a charitable trust maintains the buildings, grounds and contents, guaranteeing public access for at least 100 days per annum. The Trust seeks to
“maximise the public enjoyment and education by refurbishing and improving displays and the condition of artefacts, supported by hosting special events such as jousting, civil war re-enactments and other events in keeping with its history.”Source: Giving is Great retrieved 12 April 2023.
Arundel Castle is an interesting place to visit, but vastly at odds with the image of castles that so captivated my imagination as a child. On the one hand I guess we should be grateful that successive Dukes chose to preserve it, rather than simply bulldoze it to the ground and replace it with something extravagantly tasteless. But on the other hand no amount of jousting events or civil war re-enactments can mask the fact that – aside from the walls and gatehouses – the medieval world that gave birth to it is difficult for casual visitors to identify. I don’t think a trip here would have helped me much with that school history project on castles I wrote nearly 60 years ago!
Warwick Castle is perhaps an even more extreme example of a medieval masterpiece that has been ruthlessly repackaged for a 21st century audience. In many ways it feels more like a theme park than a historical site, a fact brought home to us when we encountered Zog the accident-prone dragon shortly after arriving for our visit last month. Zog is the creation of the wonderful children’s author Julia Donaldson, brought to life by illustrator Axel Scheffler. I have a lot of time for Julia and greatly admire her work – who doesn’t love the Gruffalo? – but I can’t feeling that Zog has his place, and Warwick Castle isn’t it.
Like Arundel, Warwick Castle’s origins lie in the 11th century, in the immediate aftermath of the Norman Conquest. And just like Arundel, it served as a fortification for several hundred years before being re-born as a lavish country house. In 1978 it was purchased by the Tussauds Group, which at one point managed a portfolio of over 50 tourist attractions including Madam Tussauds waxworks, Legoland theme parks, the London Eye, Alton Towers, Thorpe Park and Chessington World of Adventures. In 2007 the Tussauds Group was itself acquired by Merlin Entertainments, which in so doing, became the world’s second largest leisure group after Disney. And that, I suppose, tells us all we need to know about Warwick Castle’s 21st century offer!
Warwick Castle. Left: The Gatehouse. Top Right: Inside the walls. Bottom Right: Reconstruction of a trebuchet on land just outside the castle walls
As we learned when we were there, Warwick Castle today is all about “visitor experiences” – the Zog Playland, the Horrible Histories® Maze, falconry and archery displays, the Castle Dungeon immersive experience, live action performances, and over 200 “special event days”.
There are glimpses of history too – the walk around the castle walls, for example, is worth the considerable effort, unless, I suppose, you suffer with vertigo. The state rooms, many of them dressed as they would have looked at a “Royal Weekend Party” in 1898, are grand but not at all medieval. And the reconstruction of a full-scale working trebuchet (to the uninitiated, that’s a monstrous catapult for hurling missiles at besieged castles) is instructive, if perhaps overly theatrical. But you have to work hard to find serious history, and to avoid being distracted by the shallow 21st century frenzy that pervades Warwick Castle.
Don’t get me wrong, I know that places like this are a welcome attraction for many families, a fun, safe destination to take the kids for a day out. But how many of those young people return home with any real appreciation of what life was like in the medieval period? How many take an interest in understanding and learning more about history as a result of their visit? A few maybe, but not nearly enough, I suspect. To traditionally-minded history lovers like me Warwick Castle seems like a a bit of a lost opportunity, though I guess that most visitors – and shareholders of Merlin Entertainments too! – would strongly disagree.
Warwick Castle. Top Left: Medieval armour displayed in the Great Hall. Middle Left: Diorama depicting life “below stairs” in medieval times. Bottom Left: Part of a diorama depicting the Royal Weekend Party in 1898. Top Right: Part of a diorama depicting the Royal Weekend Party in 1898. Bottom Right: Part of a diorama depicting the Royal Weekend Party in 1898.
Warwick Castle may well be fun for all the family, but it’s not necessarily the place where aging, stuffy, academically-minded history graduates like me are likely to find much comfort. I won’t be going back there any time soon.
Castles ain’t what they used to be!
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Note for regular readers of this blog: Summer is fast approaching, and we already have exciting trips planned to Scotland, Norfolk, Surrey and Rutland. No doubt we’ll think of a few other places to visit too. All this will provide me with lots more material to write about, while at the same time eating into the time I set aside for writing! So, for the next few months, my schedule will be to blog once every two weeks, on alternate Wednesdays. Weekly posts should resume in November.