Tuesday, September 17, 2013

English Historical Fiction Authors Celebration: Castles

English  Historical Fiction Authors Anniversary Celebration

A Tour of Castles: Kenilworth

by Katherine Ashe


Kenilworth, the name was chosen by Sir Walter Scott for his novel of romance and murder set in Elizabethan times. Did Robert Dudley, Earl of Leicester, have his pregnant wife hurled down the stairs and killed so he might be a widower and free to marry Queen Elizabeth? Historians doubt it now, but Amy Robsart did die at an opportune time for the Queen’s favorite to be available should she chose him for her consort.
Scott chose his title from the central episode of Dudley’s wooing, the great Progress and the glorious feasts and entertainments held for Elizabeth at Kenilworth. What was that banquet hall that now reaches up but a small part of its stone frame, gaping with fretted windows, when those long lancet windows were filled with colored glass, when the groined ceiling, painted like the night sky, arched above the tessellated floor and rank upon rank of tables where the Queen and her courtiers dined in costumes more elaborate with gems and tissues of gold than ever glorified the human form before or since?

And the entertainments on the Mere, the lake that now is no more than a trickling stream through a grassy meadow. There, magnificently staged allegories from antiquity, in floating tableaus, gave courtly compliment to the virtues and accomplishments of Gloriana.

Was this perhaps the greatest moment for lavishness in England’s history? It was intended to capture a Queen’s heart. But it failed. Perhaps Elizabeth, having observed the marital state as practiced by her father, had no liking for it. Perhaps she suspected in Dudley a similarity to her wife-murdering father?

While Dudley’s extravaganza was no doubt Kenilworth’s most glittering moment, it was not the most significant. That was in 1265-6 when the castle withstood siege for 18 months and proved itself unconquerable: the defenders surrendering only to what they were deceived into believing would be generous terms. The promises were broken and Kenilworth’s defenders became known as the “dispossessed.”

But they, and Kenilworth, had proved the castle’s fortifications were as strong as any in the world. We see the result of that: Cromwell had the surrounding towered battlements destroyed and the massive central tower packed with explosives. Yet three of that tower’s walls still stand, defying ruin by the hand of man and the erosions of weather.

Kenilworth’s history as a castle may be quite ancient. That four-square tower is built upon a small man-made hill such as constituted “castles” in Britain’s prehistoric times -- those nearly mythic times before Julius Caesar got there to record what he saw.

Surrounding and rising from that mound is the edifice built by Geoffrey de Clinton, Chamberlin to King Henry I. With the Clintons’ fall from royal favor the castle became part of the royal demesne, a favorite of John of Gaunt and Richard III.

It appears from the outset that the tower was intended both as a home and a defensible structure. Massive walls enclose the nearly square structure, with square towers at each corner rising a story above the main roof. These corner towers contained a three-story latrine (each seat-ledge cantilevered out beyond the one below so the user would be in no danger of what might be falling from above), a staircase and small rooms. Beneath the tower to the left of the entrance is a pit, used for wines and, apparently, occasionally for prisoners. When Simon de Montfort told his rebellious sons that he would “put them where (they’d) have the benefit of neither sun nor moon” this is no doubt what he had in mind.

The main hall is one of the handsomest of Norman buildings. Its artistry, free of ornament such as graced the later banquet hall, relies upon the perfect proportions of the three soaring arches that pierce the north and south walls. Clean half-circle curves not even elaborated with the rickrack bas relief of which the Normans were so fond. On the inner side the arches narrow to defensive arrow-slits with high steps rising to form window-seats. An attached foyer building covers the entrance staircase from the courtyard.

The floor above the hall (and we know there was one from the holes for floor-joists in the high walls) was reached by the tower staircase which must have opened on a passage giving access to a corridor that’s cut within the thickness (the walls are 16 feet thick at base) of the south wall. Wooden partitions, no doubt decoratively carved and sometimes hung with tapestries, formed three chambers. The chamber overlooking the Mere was improved by King Henry III, during the period 1240-44, with larger windows, a chimney and hearth. For this room, the chambers in the corner towers opening into it would have served as bedchambers for waiting servitors. Only the corner towers rise another story, the three chambers there opening onto the battlements.

In 1238 Simon de Montfort received Kenilworth as his home, upon his marriage to King Henry III’s sister Eleanor. The Chronica Majora records the Montforts’ residence at Kenilworth in 1238. Montfort’s ancestor Robert de Beaumont, Earl of Warwick, was the enemy of Geoffrey de Clinton and may have been the reason why Clinton felt a need to build so strong a structure. Nonetheless, writing a brief autobiography in 1260, Montfort records that when he received Kenilworth the building was deteriorated past habitation and he had to spend much money on repairs.

He’d lived there only a year and a half when King Henry, at the ceremony of the Queen’s Churching after the birth of the Crown’s heir, astonished everyone apparently but Montfort and the Queen. As reported in the contemporary Chronica Majora, he accused Simon, his closest friend, of a list of wrongdoings, all of which had been resolved. Montfort fled for his life across the Channel and remained in exile for four years, returning only after the King, in need of his military expertise, promised restoration of his confiscated titles and holdings, and Kenilworth became the Montforts’ principal home again.

But the friendship Henry had felt for Simon never revived. While making use of Montfort’s considerable abilities -- to subdue rebellious Gascony, to negotiate with France -- Henry periodically not only worked against his own agent, but twice tried him for treason and, when that failed, attempted to contrive his death. By 1258, when England’s lords rebelled against King Henry’s incompetent rule, Montfort joined them.

At Oxford, when the lords framed the first constitution for a bi-cameral elected government – the original model for modern Parliament and all modern democracies – it was agreed that, instead of the King’s levying onerous extra taxes, all lands formerly belonging to the royal demesne should be returned to the Crown, enabling Henry to function reasonably within his own finances. Montfort was among the first to renounce the King’s gifts to him, and Kenilworth became again part of the royal demesne.

King Henry, while agreeing, of necessity, to observe the new form of government created by the Provisions of Oxford, raised forces abroad to counter what he saw as usurping rebellion. Montfort led the baronial forces – in the name of the King based on Henry’s vows to the Provisions. It was Montfort who designed and built, at the expense of the royal taxes, the surrounding walls studded with towers, the walls of the causeway crossing the foot of the Mere, and the powerful barbican defending the causeway’s gate – the defenses that made withstanding a siege of 18 month possible.

When the siege took place Montfort already had been killed at the battle of Evesham, his limbs dismembered, his head sent to his enemy Roger Mortimer’s lady, a purported witch. But his sons and followers held out for the cause of the newly created Parliament. And Kenilworth was long known, not as the site of an expensive party, but as the stronghold of England’s democracy.

Free on Kindle, September 23, 24 and 25: Montfort The Early Years 1229 to 1243

For Castles, Customs and Kings, the anniversary collection of the best articles on some of the most interesting, and usually obscure, elements of English history, contributed by numerous authors on the English Historical Fiction Authors site:  http://www.amazon.com/Castles-Customs-Kings-Historical-ebook/dp/B00FCEJ10Y/ref=sr_1_2?ie=UTF8&qid=1379884396&sr=8-2&keywords=Castles%2C+Customs+and+Kings+debra+Brown