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Royal palaces and medieval castles

Jo Carlowe / 19 October 2018

Some of our palaces and castles are still inhabited and used for royal occasions, others are in ruins and shrouded in mystery. Jo Carlowe picks the best.

Windsor Castle
The Queen spends many weekends at Windsor Castle

Windsor Castle

Founded in the 11th century by William the Conqueror, Windsor Castle is the oldest and largest castle that is still inhabited in the world. The Queen spends many of her weekends there. Highlights include the State Apartments – a grand sequence of rooms forming the centrepiece of the castle, and the Semi-State Rooms. Charles II set out to rival his cousin, Louis XIV, at Versailles in France, when he modernised the castle’s interiors. Later, George IV added the magnificent Waterloo Chamber to celebrate the defeat of Napoleon. As Windsor Castle is a working royal palace, be sure to check opening times, as sometimes the entire castle or State Apartments close at short notice. 

More information: Windsor Castle

Brighton Pavilion

Built as a seaside pleasure palace for King George IV – renowned for his vast expenditure on palaces, mistresses, parties and pageants – the Royal Pavilion is as colourful as its late occupant. It started out as a modest 18th-century lodging house, but in 1815 George, then Prince Regent, hired architect John Nash to redesign the building in the Indian style. The house mixes Regency grandeur with the visual style of India and China. Even the kitchens were given a ‘taste of the Orient’, with four cast-iron columns, ornamented with copper palm leaves, and the Banqueting Room houses a dazzling chandelier. It weighs one ton, and hangs from the claws of a silver dragon. [LINK] 

More information: Brighton Pavilion

Caerphilly Castle, South Wales

Surrounded by a series of moats and lakes, covering 30 acres, Caerphilly Castle is one of the greatest surviving castles in the medieval Western world. The brainchild of Gilbert ‘The Red’ de Clare – a redheaded nobleman of Norman descent – it was a highpoint in medieval defensive architecture with a concentric ‘walls within walls’ defence system, an extensive ring of lakes and mammoth gatehouses. The castle has become the backdrop for many TV dramas and films, including the popular BBC TV series Merlin. Caerphilly Castle is Britain’s second-largest castle after Windsor. 

More information: Caerphilly Castle

Hampton Court Palace

Hampton Court Palace was the centre of court and political life for more than 200 years. Originally built by Cardinal Wolsey, the opulent Tudor palace soon caught the attention of Henry VIII, who transformed it into a vast pleasure palace, including a bowling alley, tennis courts and more. Henry VIII’s kitchens at the palace were the largest in Tudor England, catering for around 400 people twice daily. The palace was opened to the public by Queen Victoria in 1838, and immediately became a popular tourist destination. The palace’s maze is perhaps the most famous in the world. Some 350,000 people get lost in it every year.

More information: Hampton Court Palace

Edinburgh Castle

From its position on Castle Rock, this historic fortress dominates Edinburgh’s skyline. Recognising the rock’s military potential, Iron Age warriors built a fort here. During the Wars of Independence the castle changed hands countless times. It’s also been the home to many kings and queens, and Mary Queen of Scots gave birth to James VI in the Royal Palace in 1566. From the 1600s onwards, Edinburgh Castle was a military base with a large garrison, and later held prisoners of war. Highlights of any visit include the Royal Palace, The Great Hall, St Margaret’s Chapel and the Crown Jewels.

More information: Edinburgh Castle

Kensington Palace

Kensington Palace became a royal residence during the reign of William III and Mary II, having been purchased as a rural, and relatively modest, retreat some distance from the city. Despite its humble beginnings, Kensington was a favoured royal home of the late Stuart monarchs, and at the centre of court life under the first Hanoverian kings. One of the palace’s best-known residents is Queen Victoria, who was born at Kensington on 24 May 1819. Eighteen years later, it was here that the Princess woke up on 20 June 1837 to the news of her accession to the throne.

More information: Kensington Palace

Warwick Castle

From its foundations as an Anglo-Saxon settlement through to its use as a medieval fortress, a Tudor prison, and stately home, Warwick Castle has a rich history. It controlled the middle of England for more than a thousand years. You can enjoy magnificent views from the Mound, built in 1068 and the oldest part of the castle. It was originally the perfect vantage point for defending against marauding troops. Other reminders of the castle’s sometimes gory history is the Gaol, built in the 14th century. It’s reached through a hatch in the ground and a single flight of steps. Age-old graffiti from the wretched prisoners is still visible.

More information: Warwick Castle

Eltham Palace and Gardens

The manor of Eltham is recorded as belonging to Odo, Bishop of Bayeux, half-brother of William the Conqueror, in the Domesday survey of 1086. The estate later became one of the most frequented royal residences, with the Great Hall built during Edward IV’s reign. Henry VIII spent much of his childhood at Eltham, but it soon fell into decay. Fortunately, in 1933, millionaires Stephen and Virginia Courtauld took on the lease. They created a masterpiece of 20th-century design when they built their mansion adjoining the medieval Great Hall. Completed in 1936, the red brick exterior of the house was built in sympathy with the hall, while the interior is an eclectic mix of Art Deco, ocean-liner style and Swedish design.

More information: Eltham Palace and Gardens

Tintagel Castle, Cornwall

Tintagel was an important power centre and trading port for early medieval Cornish rulers. Recent excavations have also uncovered evidence of Tintagel’s high status between the fifth and seventh centuries. However, the castle is probably best known for its links with the legendary King Arthur. In the 12th century, the writer Geoffrey of Monmouth named it in his History of the Kings of Britain as the place where Arthur was conceived, with the help of the wizard Merlin. While the castle is no longer complete, it’s worth making the steep climb up the dramatic headland to experience Tintagel’s history and myths, and to enjoy the stunning views. The castle is closed at the moment as they’re rebuilding the bridge, but it is due to reopen in spring 2019.

More information: Tintagel Castle

The Palace of Holyroodhouse, Edinburgh

Used by the Queen during official engagements in Scotland, the Palace of Holyroodhouse is also closely associated with some of Scotland’s best-known historic figures, such as Mary, Queen of Scots and Bonnie Prince Charlie. The State Apartments are famous for their beautiful plasterwork ceilings and unrivalled collection of French and Flemish tapestries. As you walk through the interior, the rooms become progressively grander, culminating in the grandest room of all —the King’s Bedchamber. Reached by a winding staircase, you can also visit Mary, Queen of Scots’ Chamber — the oldest section of the palace. It is famed for its decorative oak ceiling, painted frieze and extremely low doorway.

More information: The Palace of Holyroodhouse 

Leeds Castle, Kent

Leeds Castle has in turn been a Norman stronghold, privately owned by six of England’s medieval queens, a palace used by Henry VIII, a Jacobean country house, a Georgian mansion and a 20th-century retreat for the famous where its last private owner, Lady Baillie, hosted Charlie Chaplin and the Kennedys. In the 21st century, it has become one of the most-visited historic buildings in Britain. Set in 500 acres of parkland and formal gardens, complete with aviaries, vineyard, a grotto and maze, the castle rises majestically from an impressive moat. 2019 marks 900 years since a stone castle was first built on the site back in 1119.

More information: Leeds Castle

Buckingham Palace State Rooms

Recognised worldwide as the focus of national and royal celebrations, Buckingham Palace’s 19 magnificent State Rooms are open to visitors for ten weeks each summer and on selected dates during winter and spring. The Throne Room’s dramatic arch and canopy was the masterpiece of architect, John Nash, influenced by his background in theatre set design. The sumptuous White Drawing Room, perhaps the grandest of all the State Rooms, serves as a royal reception room for the Queen and her family to gather before official occasions. The rooms are furnished with many treasures, including sculptures by Canova, and paintings by Canaletto.

More information: Buckingham Palace State Rooms


The opinions expressed are those of the author and are not held by Saga unless specifically stated. The material is for general information only and does not constitute investment, tax, legal, medical or other form of advice. You should not rely on this information to make (or refrain from making) any decisions. Always obtain independent, professional advice for your own particular situation.

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