Castles have played political, military, and social roles in English history since the Norman Conquest of the 11th Century. The Normans built stone fortresses at the top of raised ground, often with rounded towers and an enclosed courtyard surrounded by a ditch or moat (these types of castles are termed motte-and-bailey).
With the advent of gunpowder warfare, castles required a greater degree of complexity. By the 1300’s, these castles had become more lavish royal or baronial residences, often with luxurious living quarters for the nobility and landscaped gardens.
By the times of Renaissance and the Baroque era that followed, the fortress-like quality of castle building had become mostly obsolete, both because of advances in warfare with heavy artillery, and because England had (mostly) subjugated its neighbors of Wales, Scotland, and Ireland, and the threat of invasion was not as present. As such, the nobility began to build expansive estates in the style of continental palaces like the French Versailles.
The United Kingdom is one of the only countries in Europe (or the world) to retain a monarchy, and as such, many of these English castles and English palaces remain functioning residences for the royal family, or serve state functions. However, many of them are also open to the touring public, while some are closed, but open to select visitors by invitation, or open to the public at select times of the year.
The styles of English castles and palaces ranges widely. Some of the older castle keeps from the Norman Conquest appear like the rounded medieval fortresses we think of when we read about knights and ladies in waiting (prior to the Normans, most castles were built from wood, so they no longer remain, though the hills on which they stood can be visited).
Over the years, a soaring Gothic style of pointed arches and stained glass emerged, which morphed into the unique look of English Tudor (often noted for its exposed timber construction). The sumptuous style of Baroque was not so long-lived in England (though it was more popular in Catholic countries), but the more conservative and harmonious look of the Neoclassical (turning to Greece and Rome for inspiration) prevailed into the Victorian era.
Without further ado, let’s take a look at 5 iconic English Castles and English Palaces that you will want to see or take a tour of if you are visiting the United Kingdom.
Buckingham Palace is a symbol of England, especially because of the daily ceremonial Changing of the Guard that takes place in its front courtyard, which is a much beloved ritual and photographed by visitors to the United Kingdom. Buckingham is also a focal point in national events for the British people, who gather in front of the palace for ceremonial functions. Buckingham House was originally built for the Duke of Buckingham in 1703, and just a few decades later King George III appropriated it as a residence for his wife, Queen Charlotte…and renamed it the Queen’s House. Architects John Nash and Edward Blore expanded the palace in a neoclassical style, and it became the official London residence of the British Monarchy with the advent of Queen Victoria’s reign. The East Front was a later addition, and contains the famous balcony from which the Queen of England (or other reigning monarch (gives her signature wave). Buckingham Palace has almost 800 rooms, the largest private garden in England, and magnificent state rooms, which are for entertaining politicians and foreign dignitaries, but are open to the public during select parts of the year.
Windsor Castle is another symbol of England and English history for the last 1,000 years. It was built by William the Conqueror and has remained the principal residence of the British Royal Family during that time, making it the longest continually inhabited royal residence in Europe. The original core of Windsor Castle was a classic motte-and-bailey fortress strategically placed along the Thames, and its fortifications were eventually replaced with stone. During the Middle Ages it was greatly expanded and became one of the largest building projects in England. St. George’s Chapel, located on the castle grounds, is an exemplary piece of Perpendicular Gothic, noteworthy for its soaring heights and vertical emphasis. Over the years, monarchs have each added their own touch to the castle, establishing period touches corresponding to the Gothic, Baroque, and Rococo. Another noteworthy feature is the Norman Gate, a portal that sits between a pair of two rounded towers in the style of the Norman Conquerors and their fortifications. St. George’s Hall is a magnificent long room that has provided a venue for functions like state dinners, and has undergone a number of stylistic renovations…most recently taking on a magnificent hammer-beam ceiling after a 1997 fire.
Hampton Court Palace
Hampton Court Palace was the seat of the English Monarchy from the 1500s to the 1800s, and as such it presents visitors with a fascinating combination of English Tudor and French Baroque styles. The Tudor style was arguably the culmination of England’s unique Perpendicular Gothic, and Cardinal Wolsey built this most splendid palace of his time in such a style. Unfortunately the Cardinal was compelled to hand the keys over to King Henry VIII in an attempt to curry his favor (though that proved to no avail). However, King Henry VIII enjoyed Hampton Court and moved there with his wife Anne Boleyn, expanding the palace to meet his royal tastes. Their daughter Elizaeth I also enjoyed the palace and collected exotic plants brought back by explorers such as Sir Francis Drake. William of Orange, a later monarch, commissioned Christopher Wren to transform the palace into an English version of Versailles, creating in the process an attractive red brick facade with many windows in a neoclassical arrangement. This wing of Hampton Court overlooks manicured gardens, which are home to the famous Hampton Court Maze made from yew hedges, and an attraction onto themselves.
Blenheim Palace is a Baroque masterpiece built by the Duke of Marlborough and funded as a gift from Parliament for his victory against the forces of the French King Louis XIV during the War of Spanish Succession. It is the only country house in England owned neither by the royal family nor a bishop to still retain the title of palace, and as the residence of the Spencer-Churchill family, it was the birthplace of Sir Winston Churchill. Duke Marlborough was deeply impressed by the work of amateur architect Sir John Vanbrugh with the Baroque Castle Howard, and commissioned him to design a stately country home. Working with architect Nicholas Hawksmoor, these masters of Baroque created an iconic piece of English country architecture that is well framed by various approaches through the seven acres of natural landscaping. Approaching the palace from the front, a columned portico with a classical triangular tympanum constitutes the center of the mansion, connected to square pavilions, each one crowned with a stately arrangement of ornamental features. The interior of Blenheim is noteworthy for the Great Hall, the ceiling of which contains a fresco of The Duke of Marlborough presenting his battle plans to the allegorical figure of Britannia.
The Tower of London
The Tower of London has today become a symbol of London and one of its most visited landmarks. But when its White Tower was first built by William the Conqueror in the 11th century, it stood as a symbol of oppression over Saxon London by the ruling Norman conquerors. Since then, it has functioned as a royal residence, a zoo, an armory, the home of the Royal Mint, and most infamously, as a Prison for notable inmates like Anne Boylen (second wife of Henry VIII before she was beheaded), who some have claimed to see wandering the grounds with her head under her arm. However, most tourists associate the Tower of London with its function as a treasury and home of the Crown Jewels, which have been housed in the Jewel House since the 13th century. These royal riches include scepters, crowns, and ceremonial swords. For centuries, the royalty used the treasure house as a means of raising capital and maintaining power over the other aristocracy, but with the English Revolution, the Jewel House was purged of its contents. All that remained were a few ceremonial swords and a silver spoon, which is still used in coronations to annoint the King or Queen. Today, the collection of Crown Jewels has been rebuilt and features more than 23,000 gemstones. The Imperial State Crown and the St. Edward’s Crown used in coronations at Westminster abbey can be viewed by the public.