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8-08-2015, 16:22

FROM FORTRESS TO PALACE: THE CASTLE OF KENILWORTH

The Castle of Kenilworth carries to a logical conclusion the role of the castle as a symbol and setting for the dramas of life. Geoffrey de Clinton built the original castle in the twelfth century—probably a motte and bailey, with the motte where the stone tower stands today (see Figure 10). The town of Kenilworth and an abbey grew nearby. In the thirteenth century the king ordered the walls to be replaced with stone and an earthen dam to be made to form lakes and a marsh (the Great Mere) around the castle. The causeway leading to the castle gate also served as the tiltyard. The monastery used the water to fill its fish ponds. In the fifteenth century the marsh was transformed into a lake leading to a pleasance that could be approached by a boat. The pleasance could be a residence, a hunting lodge, or a pleasure palace. In the thirteenth century, Simon de Montfort owned the castle. An active politician as well as a warrior, he helped set up the first parliament, led a failed rebellion, and died at the battle of Evesham in 1265. His followers escaped to Kenilworth, where the royal forces laid siege. Kenilworth, considered impregnable (like Richard’s Chateau Gaillard), fell to the king’s forces. The operation demonstrated yet again the weakness of the great tower in siege warfare. By the end of the century, as we have seen, commanders used castles as headquarters but fought in the open field. In the late Middle Ages Kenilworth was transformed into a fabulous palace by its new owner, the younger son of King Edward II, John of Gaunt, Duke of Lancaster (1340–99). John of Gaunt had enormous power and wealth, which he chose to display in his architectural commissions. Through marriage to Constance, the daughter and heir of the Spanish king Peter the Cruel, John of Gaunt claimed the kingdom of Spain in 1369. He rebuilt Kenilworth as a true royal palace, with an extraordinary great hall, a private range of buildings on the south, and huge kitchens on the west side of the inner courtyard. Although severely damaged, the ruins allow us imagine the splendor of the original buildings. Gaunt’s enormous hall stands on the site of the earlier hall (Figures 27 and 28). The remaining stonework shows that it is an early example of the perpendicular style, where geometric tracery spreads over walls and windows to create the effect of paneling. All of John of Gaunt’s build ings were built in this simple and efficient new style, giving a unity to the different building types. From the outside, two towers flank the hall and create a symmetrical composition although the spaces function differently. A long and impressive external stair from the courtyard up to the second floor entrance made a dramatic approach. These stairs lead up through a sculptured gatehouse into a waiting room and then into a huge hall. Inside the hall, tall windows open to both the courtyard on one side and the “great mere” on the other. From the seats flanking each window the visitor or guest could admire the lake and deer park but could not see the pleasance. Views and viewing platforms (there may have been such a platform at Kenilworth) were an important part of late medieval planning. Staircases became important architectural features. A grand staircase was built in the royal palace in Paris, and can still be seen at the bishop’s palace at St. David’s, Wales (see Figure 25). After passing through an outer gate, one enters a vast open court and is confronted by not one but two enormous halls, each with a grand staircase. This magnificent palace suggests the imposing appearance of later medieval buildings. In the sixteenth century, construction began again at Kenilworth. By the 1530s the monastery had been suppressed, and its stone was used to construct buildings in the town and castle. The timber from the buildings of the pleasance also was reused in the courtyard of the castle. New stables, visitor’s quarters, and gatehouse were added; the Norman great tower was transformed with a gallery; and a formal Italianate garden was planted. Kenilworth became the site of the most spectacular pageantry of the Elizabethan age. The Norman tower, although modernized with huge windows punched through its walls, played an important role in establishing the antiquity and importance of the family. The open gallery or loggia, on the other hand, demonstrated that they knew the latest fashions. The loggia, an amenity recently introduced from Italy, was known in England through pattern books. (The new technology of printing made the spread of ideas and images fast and easy.) From the loggia visitors could admire the formal gardens, just as they would in an Italian renaissance palazzo. Even the stair leading down into the garden was designed so that the garden could be admired at each landing and turning. The garden had fountains, topiary work (plants clipped into shapes), arbors, alleys of green grass, and carved obelisks, spheres, and sculptures of heraldic bears. A garden pavilion provided a comfortable place to sit and chat. The finest moment in Kenilworth’s history as a palace was the extraordinary party given by Robert Dudley, Earl of Leicester (1533–88), for Queen Elizabeth I. Elizabeth had given Kenilworth to him in 1563. Leicester organized an elaborate visit and entertainments for her in July 1575. When the queen arrived in the evening, she was welcomed by the “Lady of the Lake” who proclaimed that, in Elizabeth’s honor, she arose from the lake for the first time since the days of King Arthur. The Lady of the Lake then recited the history of the castle. Along the causeway Leicester placed gifts for the queen. Time stood still for the queen, or so said the earl, who stopped the hands of the giant blue and gilt clock on the Norman tower during the queen’s visit. Gossips noted that Elizabeth did not emerge from her lodgings until five in the afternoon, but she was not resting. She worked so hard that twenty horses a day were needed to transport the paperwork between Kenilworth and London. Elizabeth was a conscientious ruler, although she played the role of the unattainable lady, the object of desire in the medieval game of courtly love. Architecturally, Kenilworth also alluded to past medieval glories. The palace-castle was the perfect stage setting for Elizabeth and her court. Only fifty years after Leicester’s festivities the royal drama came to an end. Oliver Cromwell’s army blew up the great tower with gunpowder. Then his men destroyed and made the palace uninhabitable, and in 1649 the lakes were drained. But the romance of Kenilworth continued. Sir Walter Scott’s novel, Kenilworth, ensured its place in the public imagination, and today the place is a much-visited park-like ruin. With Kenilworth, the era of the castle as a fortress, home, or romantic setting comes to a close.

 

 

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