The Top 10 British Castles have Been Revealed and the Winner May Surprise You

Leeds Castle in Kent revealed as Britain’s most popular castle according to data from almost three million heritage travellers across the world.

The picturesque Leeds Castle in Kent has been revealed as Britain’s most popular castle with heritage tourists. The striking fortification, which was built by the Norman Lord Robert de Crevecoeur in 1119, came in ahead of both Windsor Castle and The Tower of London in the results released as part of our 2015-16 Global Heritage List, to be released later in the year.

While a number of Britain’s most famous castles featured prominently in the list, heritage travellers were also focused on less frequented fortifications, such as the part-Roman Portchester Castle in Hampshire and Anglesey’s Beaumaris Castle which crept in at number ten.

The 2015-16 Global Heritage List looked at data from almost three million heritage travellers who use Trip Historic to research and explore the world’s cultural sites.

Our top 10 list of the best British castles is below.

The Top 10 British Castles have Been Revealed and the Winner May Surprise You: Editor's Picks

Photo by dicktay2000 (cc)

1. Leeds Castle

Leeds Castle in Kent was a twelfth century stronghold which has since served as a royal palace, a prison and as a stately home. Leeds Castle passed through numerous royal hands over the coming centuries, hosting a myriad of important guests including Henry VIII, who also extensively renovated the castle for his first wife, Catherine of Aragon. Eventually falling into private ownership, Leeds Castle survived the English Civil War in the hands of parliamentarians and later acted as a prison for Dutch and French prisoners of war.

DID YOU KNOW?

Leeds Castle was originally constructed as a fortification in 1119 by Robert de Crevecoeur, a lord under William the Conqueror.

In 1278, Leeds Castle took on a different role, as a royal palace to King Edward I, who expanded it, adding further elements such as an impressive barbican.

Leeds Castle passed through numerous royal hands over the coming centuries, hosting a myriad of important guests including Henry VIII, who visited it on several occasions. Henry VIII also extensively renovated the castle for his first wife, Catherine of Aragon.

Eventually falling into private ownership under King Edward VI, Leeds Castle survived the English Civil War in the hands of parliamentarians and later acted as a prison for Dutch and French prisoners of war.

Today, Leeds Castle is a leisure facility, housing an aviary and a maze along with a dog collar museum. Guided tours are available for groups and schools and audio tours are also available.

Photo by Historvius

2. The Tower of London

The Tower of London is a famous fortress and prison originally commissioned by the first Norman king, William the Conqueror in the 1070s. It was designed as a fortress-stronghold, a role that remained unchanged right up until the late 19th century. The Tower of London was also used as a residence for monarchs of England. The Tower had many famous prisoners within its walls - from the little known Ranulf Flambard, Bishop of Durham who managed to escape in 1101, to the most famous prisoners, such as Anne Boleyn, second wife of Henry VIII, who was executed within the walls in 1536, as Henry went off to woo his third wife, Jane Seymour.

DID YOU KNOW?

The Tower of London, originally known as the White Tower, was commissioned by the first Norman king, William the Conqueror and work on it was underway by the 1070s. It was designed as a fortress-stronghold, a role that remained unchanged right up until the late 19th century.

The Tower of London was also used as a residence for monarchs of England, and it was traditionally used by monarchs in the run up to their coronation. However the Tower is most famous for its use as a prison.

The Tower of London held prisoners for over 850 years - from Ranulf Flambard, Bishop of Durham who was imprisoned for extortion in 1100 and who managed to escape  to infamous East London gangsters Ronnie and Reggie Kray in 1952 for going AWOL from the army.

Anne’s daughter, Elizabeth I was imprisoned here by her half-sister Mary I. She sat on the steps by the watergate (known now as Traitor’s gate) and wept. She was later forgiven and released.

Only seven people were executed within the Tower’s walls - including Anne Boleyn -  but the list of people who at one time or another were imprisoned in the Tower of London reads like a who’s who of 1,000 years of Britain’s history and includes:

William ‘Braveheart’ Wallace, Scottish knight in 1305
Richard II of England in 1399
James I of Scotland in 1406
Henry VI of England in 1471
Edward V of England & Richard of Shrewsbury – The Princes in the Tower in 1483
Saint Thomas More, Renaissance humanist in 1534
Anne Boleyn, second wife of Henry VIII in 1536
Thomas Cromwell, Reformation advocate in 1540
Thomas Cranmer, Archbishop of Canterbury in 1553
Lady Jane Grey, uncrowned Queen of England in 1553
Queen Elizabeth I in 1554
Sir Walter Raleigh, explorer, writer, poet and spy in 1603
Guy Fawkes for his part in the Gunpowder Plot in 1605
Samuel Pepys, diarist in 1679
Sir Robert Walpole, future Prime Minister in 1712
Rudolf Hess, deputy leader of the Nazi party in 1941

Also at the Tower are mysteries, for example, what did happen to the Princes in the Tower? It also supposedly boasts ghosts, notably Arbella Stuart, cousin of James I who was imprisoned and possibly murdered in the Queens’ house in 1615.

There is a great deal to see and do at the Tower: the beefeaters, ravens, site of the menagerie and just walking around it to soak up the history. Allow plenty of time for your visit. This site also features as one of our  Top 10 Tourist Attractions of the United Kingdom.

Photo by aurélien (cc)

3. Windsor Castle

Windsor Castle is the oldest occupied castle in the world and the official home of the Queen. Covering an area of approximately 13 acres, it contains a wide range of interesting features. These include the State Apartments, Queen Mary’s dolls house and the beautiful St George’s Chapel. It is also the burial place of ten monarchs, including Henry VIII and his beloved wife (the one who gave him a son), Jane Seymour. The building of Windsor Castle began in the 1070s at the behest of William the Conqueror, with the intent that it was to guard the western approach to London. Since that time, the structure of Windsor Castle has been embellished by many of the monarchs of England and the UK.

DID YOU KNOW?

Windsor Castle is the oldest occupied castle in the world. Covering an area of approximately 13 acres, it contains a wide range of interesting features. These include the State Apartments, Queen Mary’s dolls house and the beautiful St George’s Chapel. It is also the burial place of ten monarchs, including Henry VIII and his beloved wife (the one who gave him a son), Jane Seymour.

The building of Windsor Castle began in the 1070s at the behest of William the Conqueror, with the intent that it was to guard the western approach to London. Since that time, the structure of Windsor Castle has been embellished by many of the monarchs of England and the UK. Notably, in the 1170s, Henry II (the first Plantagenet) rebuilt most of the castle in stone instead of wood, including the round tower and the upper ward, where most monarchs have had their private apartments since the 14th century.

In the mid-fourteenth century, Edward III, who had recently founded the Order of the Garter, built St George’s Hall at Windsor Castle for the use of the knights of this Order. A further addition, St George’s Chapel, was started by Edward IV, but was not finished until the time of Henry VIII. It is here that the ten British monarchs lie buried.

During the English Civil War, Windsor Castle served as a prison and it was to St George’s Chapel that the body of Charles I was brought for burial after his execution. Charles II and George IV (formerly the Prince Regent) made further contributions to the architecture of Windsor Castle in the 1650s and 1820s respectively.

Queen Victoria and Prince Albert loved Windsor castle, and Prince Albert died there of typhoid in 1861. Queen Victoria built a mausoleum in the grounds of the castle, Frogmore, where Albert and later Victoria herself were buried.

In the Second World War, Windsor Castle became home to our present Queen, Elizabeth II, and her family, George VI, the (future) Queen Mother and Princess Margaret. It remains a favourite home of Queen Elizabeth, and she spends most of her weekends there. There was a huge fire at the castle in November 1992 which took 15 hours and one and half a million gallons of water to extinguish. It began in the Private Chapel and soon spread to affect approximately one fifth of the area of the castle. It took five years to restore the Castle, and it was finished by the end of 1997.

There are numerous exhibitions and tours at Windsor Castle. In fact, a typical visit can take up to three hours. This site features as one of our Top Ten UK Tourist Attractions.

Photo by Historvius

4. Dover Castle

The medieval Dover Castle is one of Britain’s most significant fortresses and has a fascinating and diverse history. Perched high on the England’s coastal white cliffs overlooking the shortest crossing between the island and mainland Europe, Dover Castle has been seen as the first line of defence from invasion. In fact, even before the castle was erected, Dover’s cliffs were a popular site for building strongholds over the centuries with evidence dating back to the Iron Age.

DID YOU KNOW?

Dover Castle has been a vitally important fortress in English history, leading it to be known as 'the key to England'. Dover Castle’s location is a central aspect of this history.

Perched high on the England’s coastal white cliffs overlooking the shortest crossing between the island and mainland Europe, Dover Castle has been seen as the first line of defence from invasion. In fact, even before the castle was erected, Dover’s cliffs were a popular site for building strongholds over the centuries with evidence dating back to the Iron Age. Two other such sites, an Ancient Roman lighthouse and an Anglo Saxon fort, are still visible nearby.

The first incarnation of Dover Castle was itself built in the eleventh century by William the Conqueror. Fresh from his victory at the 1066 Battle of Hastings, he built a castle of timber and earth. Over the centuries, Dover Castle would be improved, expanded and renovated, but throughout this time and until 1958 it would be continually garrisoned.

It was King Henry II who gave Dover Castle its recognizable form as a stone fortress in the twelfth and thirteenth centuries, with further adaptations being made over time to cope with ever changing threats. One of the most interesting parts of Dover Castle is its labyrinth of underground passages.

The Tunnels

Designed by William Twiss and constructed within the cliffs themselves in the eighteenth century, these underground tunnels and barracks were intended to defend Britain from a perceived threat of invasion during the Napoleonic Wars. Despite never being needed for this purpose, the tunnels have proved eminently useful in other endeavours, including as a headquarters in the fight against smuggling and, upon being adapted to become bomb-proof, as secret wartime tunnels during World War Two. Dover Castle’s tunnels continued to play a military role and, in what is known as their finest hour, they formed a base during the Dunkirk evacuations in 1940.

Dover Castle Today

Today, Dover Castle is managed by English Heritage and is open to the public, providing a fascinating insight into the fortress’s history. Visitors can explore the medieval castle and its underground tunnels, viewing numerous exhibitions which immerse them in the lives of Dover Castle’s former inhabitants and tell its fascinating story. Much of this extremely well preserved castle has been restored to its original state or to show what it would have been like at different points in history, offering a truly authentic experience. Fans of ancient history can also view a well-preserved Roman lighthouse. Guided tours are available, some free, some at a charge.

Photo by scalespeeder (cc)

5. Portchester Castle

Portchester Castle has been a Roman fort, a Norman keep and even a wartime prison. Built during Roman times, probably in the third century AD, Portchester Castle is the country’s only example of a Roman fort whose walls still stand complete up to around six metres. Over the centuries, Portchester Castle has been renovated and rebuilt many times and its use has altered to suit the needs of its owners. In the eleventh century, parts of Portchester Castle were rebuilt into a Norman keep and in the fourteenth century Richard II transformed it into a palace.

DID YOU KNOW?

Portchester Castle in Hampshire offers a fantastic insight into various periods of British history and originally dates back to the Roman era.

Built during Roman times, probably in the third century AD, Portchester Castle is the country’s only example of a Roman fort whose walls still stand complete up to around six metres.

Over the centuries, Portchester Castle has been renovated and rebuilt many times and its use has altered to suit the needs of its owners. In the eleventh century, parts of Portchester Castle were rebuilt into a Norman keep and in the fourteenth century Richard II transformed it into a palace. Like their Roman predecessor, both of these incarnations served a defensive function.

Yet, during the Napoleonic Wars, the role of Portchester Castle changed, as it became a prison for around 7,000 French prisoners of war. This change was due in large part to the reduced importance of Portchester Castle as a defensive structure following the building of the Portsmouth Royal Dockyard by King Henry VII.

Today, Portchester Castle is run by English Heritage who offer audio tours and exhibitions about the site as well as children’s activities.

Photo by Historvius

6. Stirling Castle

Stirling Castle is an iconic royal palace, a medieval stronghold and a focal point for many of the most important events in Scotland’s history. It was the site of royal deaths such as that of King Alexander I in 1124 and William I in 1214, the subject of a tug of war between the English and the Scottish during the Wars of Scottish Independence and even the scene of an assassination. During the Wars of Scottish Independence, Stirling Castle was fought over by some of the most famous figures in Scottish and English history, including William Wallace and Robert the Bruce.

DID YOU KNOW?

Stirling Castle is an iconic royal palace and stronghold, seen to represent Scottish independence and a focal point for many of the most important events in Scotland’s history.

Famous Events at Stirling Castle

It was the site of royal deaths such as that of King Alexander I in 1124 and William I in 1214, the subject of a tug of war between the English and the Scottish during the Wars of Scottish Independence and even the scene of an assassination. This latter event, the murder of William the eighth Earl of Douglas, occurred when he was invited to dinner there in 1452. A skeleton found at the castle in the eighteenth century is believed to have been his.

During the Wars of Scottish Independence, Stirling Castle was fought over by some of the most famous figures in Scottish and English history, including William Wallace and Robert the Bruce.

Royal events at Stirling Castle included the coronation of Mary Queen of Scots (1543) and the baptism of her son, James VI (1566), both at the Chapel Royal.

Strategic Location

At least part of the reason for the prominence of Stirling Castle over the centuries must be attributed to its location. Situated atop the flat top of an ancient volcano, it forms an imposing sight and a formidable stronghold. Furthermore, it is located at a vital strategic point at the centre of various routes across Scotland.

Architecture

The first mention of Stirling Castle dates to 1110, when Alexander I endowed a chapel there, but many believe the site has been fortified since prehistoric times (although this is disputed).

The current grand incarnation of Stirling Castle mostly dates from the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries onwards. Some of the highlights include the King’s Old Building, constructed in 1496 for James IV, the Great Hall, which was medieval Scotland’s largest banqueting hall built by James IV in the early sixteenth century and the Royal Palace, built by James V in around 1540.

One of the most well-known parts of Stirling Castle is its Forework Gate, a turreted stone fortification built by James IV in the early sixteenth century.

Visiting the castle

Today, Stirling Castle offers tours around its buildings and grounds. Visitors can tour with an audio guide or with a tour guide and there are a range of exhibitions to see. Not least of these is the Regimental Museum, a military museum dedicated to the Argyll

Photo by Ryan Lea (cc)

7. Bodiam Castle

Perhaps one of England’s best known moated castles, Bodiam Castle was built in 1385. The castle suffered during the English Civil War and was restored before being bequeathed to the National Trust. It now ranks among the most beautiful castles in the world.

DID YOU KNOW?

Perhaps one of Britain’s most picturesque castles, Bodiam Castle was built by Sir Edward Dalyngrigge in 1385 and is now a popular tourist attraction operated by the National Trust.

Originally a manor home, Bodiam was converted into a castle by Sir Edward Dalyngrigge, who was granted a licence by Richard II to crenellate the walls and fortify Bodiam. Dalyngrigge fought during the Hundred Years War, and, upon returning to England in 1377, married Elizabeth Wardeux, through whom he came into possession of Bodiam Manor. The castle served a dual purpose, both as a status symbol for Dalyngrigge, and as a defence against a potential, albeit unlikely, French invasion.

The castle itself, of quadrangular design, is characterised by a great moat and courtyard. The living quarters were built into the walls, which surround an open courtyard. The construction of a significant moat was made possible by technological advances which allowed the moat to be filled by springs. This lent the castle a modern edge, as prior to this most moats would have been fed by nearby rivers.

The moat thus served as an almost impregnable defence, and although the castle was never attacked, the moat would have negated the effectiveness of siege warfare. Indeed, apart from when the then Lancastrian owner Sir Thomas Lewknor surrendered to Yorkist forces, Bodiam Castle was never taken by force.

However, Bodiam’s tough defences did not always save the castle from damages. The interior of the castle was almost entirely destroyed by Parliamentary forces during the English Civil War, to avoid the castle being used by the Royalists. During this period the façade was also allowed to fall into ruin, although a succession of owners in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, notably Lord Curzon who purchased the site in 1926, contributed to the restoration of Bodiam Castle to its current state.

Today, visitors are invited to explore this beatiful castle and its surrounding grounds. Families and school children are also welcome, and there are a wide range of events and activities taking place throughout the year. For a full calendar of events check out the National Trust Bodiam Castle events page.

Contributed by Chris Reid

Photo by Peter Broster (cc)

8. Warwick Castle

Built by a king, the seat of a kingmaker and vital stronghold in the Wars of the Roses and the English Civil War, Warwick Castle has played an important role in British history. Warwick Castle would undergo centuries of change, some due to altering styles, but others for military reasons or due to necessity such as after a fire in 1871. It was also at Warwick Castle that Edward IV was held prisoner in 1469 and it was later held by future King Richard III, the Duke of Gloucester in the 1480s. In 1642, Warwick Castle also played its part in the English Civil War, withstanding a Royalist siege.

DID YOU KNOW?

Built by a king, the seat of a kingmaker and vital stronghold in the Wars of the Roses and the English Civil War, Warwick Castle has played an important role in British history.

Saxon Origins
Before Warwick Castle’s existence, the site on which it sits was the location of a Saxon fort built by Alfred the Great’s daughter, Ethelfleda in 914AD. Its aim was as a defence from Danish invaders.

Construction and Change
It was in 1068 that the initial visage of Warwick Castle began to take shape, when its construction was ordered by King William I, better known as William the Conqueror. At this point, it was a wooden motte and bailey construct, eventually to be turned into a stone castle in the 13th century.

In fact, Warwick Castle would undergo centuries of change, some due to altering styles, but others for military reasons or due to necessity such as after a fire in 1871. For example, while its two vast eastern towers date to the 14th and 15th century renovations and the Great Hall to the 14th century much of the interior, such as the State Dining Room, was redone or created in the 18th century.

Vital Stronghold
A major part of what makes Warwick Castle truly exceptional is its story and those of the people and dynasties for which it formed a backdrop. For example, it was owned by the Earl of Warwick Richard Neville, a central character in the Wars of the Roses who history has named the Kingmaker.

It was also at Warwick Castle that Edward IV was held prisoner in 1469 and it was later held by future King Richard III, the Duke of Gloucester in the 1480s. In 1642, Warwick Castle also played its part in the English Civil War, withstanding a Royalist siege.

Warwick Castle Today

The seat of the Earls of Warwick until 1978, Warwick Castle then opened to the public and today offers a range of things to see and do. Visitors can tour the site and its grounds, learning about its history and enjoying its architecture. There are also often children’s activities. A full visit can last around 4-5 hours.

Photo by donnamarijne (cc)

9. Carrickfergus Castle

Carrickfergus Castle is a Norman-built fortification which was in continual use as a military stronghold for over 700 years. Today a number of exhibitions about the history of the castle and the local area are on show within the castle itself.

DID YOU KNOW?

Carrickfergus Castle was established in 1177 and remained a prominent stronghold in Northern Ireland for over 700 years.

Originally built by the Anglo-Norman nobleman John de Courcy, Carrickfergus Castle was modified repeatedly over the centuries as new weapons, tactics and threats brought fresh challenges to those defending the area. Significant works to Carrickfergus Castle were carried out in the 13th, 16th and 17th centuries.

Notable events in Carrickfergus Castle’s history include a successful siege by King John in 1210, the arrival of William of Orange (William III) to Ireland in 1690 and a raid by French forces in 1760. Carrickfergus Castle even witnessed a small naval encounter fought during the America Revolution.

Later uses of Carrickfergus Castle included being used as a prison, armoury, military garrison and an air raid shelter during World War II.

Today Carrickfergus Castle is an historic site run by the Northern Ireland Environment Agency and is open to the public. Notable areas of Carrickfergus Castle that are worth seeing on a visit include the restored banqueting hall, medieval life exhibits and the 17th-19th century cannons which once formed part of the castle’s defences.

Photo by lyng883 (cc)

10. Beaumaris Castle

Beaumaris Castle was to be the largest of King Edward’s iron ring of castles intended to encircle Wales. Begun in 1295, this was the last of the king’s ring of castles which he commissioned so as to affirm his conquest of Wales. Designed to be the largest of this imposing circle, Beaumaris Castle was never completed.

DID YOU KNOW?

Beaumaris Castle is an incomplete but nonetheless striking medieval castle on the Isle of Anglesey built by King Edward I.

Begun in 1295, this was the last of the king’s ring of castles which he commissioned so as to affirm his conquest of Wales. Designed to be the largest of this imposing circle, Beaumaris Castle was never completed.

Despite its unfinished state, Beaumaris Castle did play a military role, being besieged and captured by Prince of Wales Owain Glyn Dwron in 1403 before being retaken by the English in 1405. Charles I also used it as a base for moving supplies and troops during the English Civil War.

Today, the picturesque ruins of Beaumaris Castle offer a glimpse into its real and potential grandeur. Together with three of Edward’s other Welsh strongholds, Beaumaris Castle is a UNESCO World Heritage site.