British people know their castles just about as well as they know their local pub’s happy hour specials — be it a motte and bailey mud fort or an extravagant estate labelled a castle just because the noble-blooded can get away with it. Just about everyone visits their ‘local’ castle on school trips to make pointless rubbings of old stone walls and learn about what child labor they’d have undertaken in the keep a few centuries back; just about everyone’s grandparents take them for a picnic at Windsor Castle over the summer holidays — but then maybe they threaten not to take you anywhere again after you eat all the sweets you bought in the gift shop on the journey home and make the car stop three times so you can throw up on the side of the road.
Oh, and just about everyone has some crazy friend with wealthy parents who insists on getting married at a castle for the fairytale photos — castles and estates increasingly rely on weddings, receptions, and corporate events to pay the bills. Why else would they let the peasants (back) in to poke around?
Castles, stately homes, old ruins and the like all bring out the best and worst in Brits simultaneously — the best being an otherwise odd sense of patriotism and pride at Great Britain’s illustrious heritage (everybody loves a hedge maze); the worst because fuck it, you’ll really never be able to live somewhere that big unless the plot of World War Z comes to life and barricade-able castles become the best refuge from Cockney zombies.
So in honor of Downton Abbey’s third season U.S. premiere and the reality that everyone loves a good castle, here’s an octet of Great Britain’s greatest castles (and stately homes masquerading as castles with their titles). The list features Downton of course, in reality known as Highclere Castle, alongside royal residences and broke-down coastal forts; I should note that I’m biased against those I’ve visited on a day trip only to be attacked by peacocks, which for some reason are almost always present in the well-kept grounds. (Rich folk trolling the proles with underfed exotic birds, basically.) Please let me know in the comments if I’ve left out your favorite pile of Medieval ruins.
Highclere Castle, stately home and 1,000 acre property on the border between Hampshire and Berkshire. Current building designed/constructed in the late 1830’s for the Carnarvon family. (They’re best known for archaelogical exploits, and the successful discovery of Tutankhamen’s tomb specifically. Highclere features a permanent egyptology exhibition.)
Does it have room for the servants? Well duh, Downton makes that pretty clear — in its prime Highclere held 60 staff for the family in residence. And as we know from the show, there’s even copious room for the servants to get feisty.
How about its royal pedigree? Absolutely, Queen Elizabeth is “a frequent overnight visitor,” though of course she had nothing to do with poor Mr Pamuk’s demise.
And its film and TV appearances? In addition to Downton, Highclere’s also popped up in Kubrick’s Eyes Wide Shut, an adaptation of The Secret Garden, and a John Legend music video.
Gossip for the high tea table? Well, a recently released book claims that the Countess Almina, a daughter of the wealthy Rothschild family and the fifth Earl of Carnarvon’s wife, had an affair with her husband’s best man, Prince Victor Duleep Singh, son of the Maharaja of Lahore. Duleep Singh might’ve even fathered her son, the Sixth Earl of Carnarvon.
Do I want to live there? Probably not — “Downtonia” is now too wide-spread. I do want to visit and walk around wearing a sparkly “Team Edith” t-shirt however.
Leeds Castle, Medieval castle and 500 acre property in rural Kent. Mentioned in the Domesday Book, the castle dates back as far as the early 1100’s (though its current style/condition reflects a round of remodelling in the 1820’s). Last privately owned by the daughter of a British noble and his American wife (how very Downton), a charitable trust now runs the castle to keep it open for the public.
Is it hard to find? Yes and no. While it’s a great castle, Leeds castle isn’t — as its name might logically suggest — in the city of Leeds in West Yorkshire. It’s near the village of Leeds in Maidstone, Kent. Your GPS will likely mess that up, which is a shame because the wrong turns will mean you miss out on a chance at seeing the castle’s dog collar museum.
Wait, what? Yes, Leeds Castle contains a museum wholly devoted to dog collars.
Has it been seen on screen? Doctor Who once filmed here, if you’re into that.
Royal pedigree? In the fourteenth century, Edward II besieged the castle (and eventually overtook it) after the owner’s wife refused to let his consort, Isabella of France, in for tea. (For some reason Isabella wanted to force her way in, which many British people — but not me, I’m too nice — would say is typical belligerent Eurotrash behavior, but the owner’s wife said “no thanks” and let her archers rip. A bunch of guards died.)
Gossip for the high tea table? This is a sad story from my childhood but in the interests of shameless narcissism, here goes: As an 8-year-old I visited the castle for a big Easter egg hunt held in its copious grounds. A number of special golden eggs were hidden; I forget how much they were worth and it was probably like $10 but I wanted one anyway even though as a fat kid I usually wanted chocolate. While lining up in tense anticipation for the hunt to begin, I spotted one half-covered in a dense pile of shrubbery not too far away from me. I warmed up my chubby little limbs and prepared to tackle the pig-tailed bitch to my left because she also seemed to have noticed it. But then I got too excited when the starting whistle blew and tripped over the starting rope and by the time I untangled myself all the good eggs were gone and so basically fuck Leeds Castle I still hold a grudge.
Do I want to live there? No, because of the above. Painful memories.
Eilean Donan Castle is a curtain-wall castle built in the mid-1300’s on an island in the Highlands of Scotland. It’s been mostly abandoned since a lot of fighting between rival Scottish clans in the sixteenth century (think West Side Story, except with most people too drunk to dance well), though a restoration project in the 1910’s proved successful in at least making the place look, well, attractively craggy.
Room for the servants? Yes. While the castle is in ruins, the island of Eilean Donan currently has one inhabitant. Forever alone, until a reality TV dating show catches wind of his/her plight.
As seen on screen? James Bond popped by in 1999’s The World Is Not Enough. Denise Richards’s character Christmas Jones didn’t make it, but that’s for the best because drunken Scotsmen would have probably taken the piss out of her nonsensical-even-by-Bond-film-standards name.
Spooky stories? The ghost of Mary Queen of Scots is said to haunt the castle, as are a bunch of Spanish soldiers killed there during a rather odd battle in 1791.
Do I want to live there? No — it’s pretty and secluded and all but you just know that little shit with the bagpipes is going to show up and play every Saturday morning when you’re nursing a fierce whisky hangover.
Bodiam Castle is a moated castle built in the 1380’s in the middle of a lake in East Sussex. Dismantled by Parliamentarians during the Civil War, Bodiam’s remained a pretty-looking ruin since.
Room for the servants anyone? Room, yes, rooms, no — Bodiam’s interior lies empty, in ruin. Having servants at all in those circumstances suggests delusions of grandeur beyond regular gentrified standards.
But is it zombie-free? All it takes is that drawbridge torn down and voila, freedom from the walking dead thanks to that handy water surrounding the castle.
Gossip for the high tea table? In ye olden days, folks used to poop in the moat. They also threw faeces-filled buckets into the streets, but still. Bodiam’s otherwise scandal-free.
Do I want to live there? Not until said zombie apocalypse.
Alnwick Castle, pre-Medieval castle and stately home with wings and turrets constructed as early as the 1090’s. The Percy family, Dukes of Northumberland, have owned Alnwick since the fourteenth century, and still live in part of the property. There’s a funky-looking “treehouse restaurant” in the castle’s grounds for visitors.
Room for the servants (and the cavalry)? For sure — after Windsor, Alnwick is the second-largest inhabited castle in England. Oh, and the Percy family own 120,000 acres around the castle too.
As seen on screen? As well as popping up in Blackadder and Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves, Alnwick “played” Hogwarts in the Harry Potter movies, thanks to some CGI wizardry to make it look even bigger — the interior grounds served as the backdrop for Harry’s classic first broomstick lesson. The castle’s gift shop does not, however, sell Nimbus 2000s because of health and safety concerns.
Spooky stories? Back in the twelfth century, a lord of the castle apparently became a vampire, rapidly developed an attitude as bad as Bella Swan’s, and attacked many local villagers. He even caused an outbreak of the Black Death.
Gossip for the high tea table? The current Duchess of Northumberland got into a heated public spat in 2003 with a gardening critic, who accused her of “vanity gardening” and soaking up public funds to prettify even more castle lands. Everyone loves it when wealthy women fight.
Do I want to live there? No, because I hate being a Muggle already. Living at Hogwarts but not, you know, properly would be too difficult.
Castle Howard: a 145-room stately home and 1,000 acre property with various wings and extensions built, slowly, over 120 years of construction from the early eighteenth through mid-nineteenth century, and residence of the Earls of Carlisle. A large part of the building caught fire in 1940 — not that its ornate design hasn’t always been pretty flaming (see gossip below) — but got restored nicely shortly thereafter.
Room for the servants? Yes, but that’s maybe a bad thing. Castle Howard is widely considered one of the grandest stately homes in Great Britain. Kind of a waste to use the attic rooms for a bunch of scullery maids, surely?
As seen on screen? Why, it’s Brideshead! Castle Howard featured in both the classic 80’s TV series and the campy 2008 movie.
Gossip for the high tea table? Frederick Howard, the fifth Earl of Carlisle, had a reputation as “a man of pleasure and fashion.” He nearly went bankrupt after repeatedly paying off his good friend Charles Fox’s gambling debts; his legacy to Castle Howard comes thanks to his love of Italian Renaissance artwork — he purchased a collection of paintings many of which remain on display today.
Do I want to live there? Yes. In this drawing room specifically.
Windsor Castle, motte and bailey castle and official royal residence in Windsor, Berkshire, dates back to the 1070’s. The castle alone spreads over 13 acres of land, and includes chapels, cloisters, wards, towers, and a grand block of state apartments for the monarch and his/her entourage. When the royals changed their dynastic name from the German-sounding Saxe-Coburg and Gotha during World War One, they picked Windsor as the plummy replacement. Like poor Castle Howard above, parts of Windsor also caught fire in 1992. A minor controversy ensued over who should pay for repairs — the public via taxes or Queen herself via the bulging wallet she carries in those twee leather handbags.
Room for the servants? Certainly — in recent years as many of 500 people have worked at Windsor. Of course, with over 1,000 rooms total in the castle that’s still around two per employee.
Royal pedigree? This is an easy one. Since being built by William the Conqueror in the eleventh century, Windsor Castle’s seen a millennium’s worth of British royals pass through its doors; it’s the longest-occupied palace in all of Europe. (Queen Elizabeth II likes to go for the weekend, after playing bingo on Fridays.)
Spooky stories? Ghosts of monarchs including Henry VIII, Elizabeth I, and George III (the mad one) are said to hang out there, where they get together and talk about how modern royals have it too easy.
Gossip for the high tea table? In 2009 a drunken, amorous couple were caught having sex in the castle’s front garden — while the Queen was in residence. Japanese tourists were seen filming the action, British tabloids reported, though Prince Phillip was not caught peeking from any of Windsor’s windows. Go figure.
Do I want to live there? No — if I’m picking one of the currently used royal family’s residences it would obviously be Kensington Palace, in an apartment right next to William and KMid’s.
27. Llansteffan Castle
Lllansteffan Castle is a Medieval hillside castle overlooking the Bay of Carmarthen in Camarthenshire, Wales. Now in ruins, the castle was built over an Iron Age fort back in the early twelfth century.
Room for the servants? Not necessary. True Welsh folk are way too hardy to have other people do the work for them.
Royal pedigree? Back in the day, absolutely: Owain Glyndŵr, famed fourteenth century Prince of Wales (the last native Welshman to hold the Prince of Wales title) fought over the castle a few times, presumably for the nice views and the knowledge that if he and his descendants held on to the place for 700 or so years they’d be able to pop down the road for fresh Welsh cakes at my grandmother’s house. (Getting past her cat would be a battle of its own, though.)
Gossip for the high tea table? While by far the least traditionally prestigious of the castles here, Llansteffan remains my personal favorite. The castle overlooks the small village — also named Llansteffan — in rural Wales where my good Welsh cake-baking paternal grandmother lived while I was growing up. On trips to stay with her, my sister and I would always climb the steep, winding paths up to the castle (sometimes I’d need to stop halfway up for a breather and yes, a Welsh cake) and then spend hours searching for the rumored secret passageway from within the castle’s grounds to a nearby big house. We never found it, but this one time my sis got stuck in a hole and I cried about it.
We’d also always play war games amid the ruins; it’s quite possibly the only heteronormative activity I enjoyed as a child, as long as I won the play-war in question. But then, to be fair, I remained far more excited about the small change we would find conveniently hidden around the ruins — left, my grandmother always explained, by the fairies.
Do I want to live there? With a little bit of restoration work, absolutely. I’m still looking for those generous old fairies.
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