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The Great Hall is one of the most interesting buildings to visit in Winchester as it has an incredible history and is the last remnant of Winchester Castle. Winchester had a castle since the eleventh century, when it was built for William the Conqueror in 1067 as a defensive stronghold. A royal palace was also added soon afterwards.
These buildings needed repair in King John’s reign and so the Great Hall that stands today was built by Henry III between 1222 and 1235. The painted round table that hangs on the wall encapsulates the legend of King Arthur and was said to be the table that he and his knights used.
However the table was actually created around 1290 to celebrate the betrothal of one of King Edward I’s daughters. Henry VIII then had it painted with a Tudor rose in the sixteenth century.
Winchester was an important royal and administrative centre in the medieval period and the castle was a focus for this. The Treasury and the Exchequer were both based there and monarchs spent a great deal of time at the palace. Empress Matilda’s army was besieged by King Stephen at the castle in 1141, Henry III was born there in 1207 and Edward I and his wife, Margaret of France were nearly killed by fire at the palace in 1302.
The round table hanging on the wall today began as a standing table with 12 legs and a central support. It was built from English oak and weighs 1200kg. It is not known how it was used or displayed originally, but it is thought that it has been hung on the wall of the great Hall since at least 1540.
This was probably the point when the table was painted to portray Henry VIII as King Arthur on his throne, with the Tudor rose and 24 spaces for the Knights of the Round Table.
During the later medieval period Winchester lost significance as London became the centre of government, however the Great Hall was still an important location for court business. The Castle was captured by Parliamentary forces in 1646 and was demolished by Oliver Cromwell. The Great Hall was spared from this fate as it was useful for assemblies and the County Assizes.
After the Restoration, Charles II planned to rebuild the palace as the King’s House, designed by Christopher Wren. However the plans were abandoned by James II. In 1900 a new King’s House was built with the same design, and now the buildings contain private flats and Winchester’s Military Museums.
The Great Hall now contains a small but brilliant exhibition, showing the history of the castle and hall. Outside the hall is a recreation of a medieval garden, Queen Eleanor’s Garden, named after Queen Eleanor of Provence and her daughter-in-law Queen Eleanor of Castile, who may have used the garden.
The Hall also contains several monuments, including a bronze statue of Queen Victoria and two enormous stainless steel gates, designed by Antony Robinson to commemorate the Royal Wedding Charles and Diana in 1981.
If you’re visiting Warwickshire, the two historical attractions that are most eagerly advertised are Warwick Castle and Kenilworth Castle and they are both worth a visit. However do not assume that they are similar as although they both have fascinating histories, the experience of visiting each castle is massively different. I have visited both and although the experience differs at different times of the year, from the perspective of somebody interested in history, I would recommend Kenilworth over Warwick any day, and I’d like to explain why. Firstly a short explanation of the history of each castle:
Warwick Castle originally consisted of a burh built in 914 to protect the small settlement of Warwick. A motte and bailey was then built by William the Conqueror in 1068 and the first Earl of Warwick, Henry de Beaumont was appointed and his family held the castle until 1242. During the 13th century the castle was rebuilt in stone and over the course of the following centuries several improvements were made. In 1572 Queen Elizabeth I visited the castle. James I granted Warwick Castle to Fulke Greville who was murdered in 1628 and who’s ghost still apparently haunts the castle tower. During the Civil War, the castle withstood a siege and royalist soldiers were imprisoned there. During the 18th century the castle was developed into a country house with extensive work done on the dining room, conservatory and gardens. Queen Victoria visited the castle in 1858 and in 1978 the Tussaud’s Group bought the castle.
The Norman keep at Kenilworth was built in the 1120s by Geoffrey de Clinton, Henry I’s treasurer, and it was greatly improved by King John in the early 13th century with the enlargement of the lake surrounding the castle. It began to be transformed into a palace by John of Gaunt, Duke of Lancaster and was a favourite of Tudor kings and most famously Elizabeth I. Robert Dudley, Earl of Leicester had the castle in 1563 and spent time and money radically developing it into an impressive Renaissance ‘prodigy house’ for the Queen to visit on her progresses. At the beginning of the Civil war the Parliamentary army took Kenilworth and in 1649 it was ordered that the castle should be dismantled to avoid its use by other armies. Over the following years the mere was drained, interiors stripped and buildings demolished and the rest fell into decay. In 1665 it was returned to the crown and given to Laurence Hyde, the son of the lord chancellor, the earl of Clarendon, and it remained with the Clarendon until the 20th century. Tourists began to visit the castle from the late 18th century and by 1937 it was a full-time tourist attraction.
Now the first thing to point out is that the information I’ve provided here about Kenilworth I found out on my visit, while the Warwick information I’ve had to grab entirely from the internet. My day at Warwick castle taught me next to nothing about its history as there were no information panels, audio guides or leaflets full of fun facts. Kenilworth castle provided me with a fantastically detailed audio guide with so many stops I almost ran out of time. There is also a museum in the old stables next to the cafe which tells you everything you need to know to get the best out of the beautiful ruined castle. I learnt loads at Kenilworth and when it comes down to it, that’s what I’m there for.
Warwick on the other hand is aimed at kids and designed as an ‘experience’ rather than a real historical castle. It has walks through the castle rooms and dungeons with models of medieval people everywhere, it has an 19th century section with amazing rooms and actors paid to pretend we’re all guests at some Victorian party, it has archery, tournaments, birds of prey, and when I was there, an entire marching band! So although I have a big problem with the lack of history, I can’t pretend that Warwick castle doesn’t provide a good day out, especially if you’re with children.
Then again, Kenilworth is a real ruin and when I was there children were playing hide and seek in the many nooks and crannies of the massive castle. To be honest, give a child a wooden sword and a ruin to play in and they can have more fun than they ever would with all the falcons, actors and costumes in the world.
So overall, while on paper Warwick offers far more attractions, if you’re interested in history Kenilworth castle is infinitely superior – you get to see more of the castle up close, you learn more, and you’re not distracted by entertainers. And on top of that, children will have fun there in a far more exciting, natural and cheap way. If that doesn’t clinch it how about this:
- I visited Warwick castle in beautiful April sunshine; I visited Kenilworth castle in January with temperatures of -2 and I STILL prefer Kenilworth
- Warwick castle adult ticket price is £29.40; Kenilworth is £8!
Warwick ultimate castle refers to itself as ‘Britain’s ultimate castle’ – a claim I’d definitely question. I reckon this might say something about the difference between Merlin Entertainments Group and English Heritage in how they choose to run a historical attraction.