A hand-coloured impression of a print of Kenilworth Castle, Warwickshire, after J.M.W. Turner, published in 1832.

Literature and the transformation of topography: the case of Kenilworth Castle, 1700–1850

Dale Townshend examines the cultural transformation of the ruined Tudor palace at Kenilworth following the publication of Sir Walter Scott's tragic romance in 1821.

Tell me, ye ivy’d towers, can ye repeat,

The tales of revelry your lords have told?

Do ye remember ev’ry varied feat

Of chivalry, and gallant knights of old,

Who in these lower courts so fiercely battled,

Whose armour glistened, and whose truncheons rattled?[1]

Kenilworth Castle

A hand-coloured impression of a print of Kenilworth Castle, Warwickshire, after J.M.W. Turner, published in 1832.

A hand-coloured impression of Thomas Jeavons’s etching of J.M.W. Turner’s drawing of Kenilworth Castle, published in Picturesque Views in England and Wales, From Drawings by J. M. W. Turner ... Engraved Under the Superintendence of Mr. Charles Heath. With Descriptive and Historic Illustrations by H. E. Lloyd (1832).

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Of all the British nation’s crumbling castles, it was the ruins of Kenilworth Castle, Warwickshire, that enjoyed a particularly rich literary, pictorial and cultural afterlife over the course of the long 18th century. In The Antiquities of Warwickshire Illustrated (1656), William Dugdale provided what would become the standard antiquarian account of the ruins for the next 150 years. Eulogising them as ‘a place of such extraordinary strength and largeness’,[2] Dugdale described and traced the ruin’s layout, and recounted such key events in Kenilworth’s past as its founding by Geoffrey de Clinton in the early 1120s; the extensive programme of architectural improvements undertaken there by King John; the King’s granting of the castle to Simon de Montfort and the strategic role that it thereafter played in the Second Barons’ War (1263–4); the siege of Kenilworth by Royalist forces; John of Gaunt’s additions to the structure; and Queen Elizabeth’s visit to Kenilworth, then under the ownership of Robert Dudley, Earl of Leicester, in July 1575.[3]

Though Dugdale’s account of Kenilworth was rendered in the spirit of rigorous antiquarian documentation, it nonetheless proved crucial to more creative and imaginative responses to the ruins over the course of the following century. In Dialogues III and IV of his Moral and Political Dialogues (1759), for instance, Richard Hurd would use Dugdale’s study in his staging of an imaginary exchange between John Arbuthnot and Joseph Addison during their visit to Kenilworth in the summer of 1716: using Dugdale as their guide to the ruin’s history, the two men engage one another in a passionate yet speculative debate concerning the precise nature of the ancient Gothic past to which the imposing pile before them attests. For the nostalgic Arbuthnot, the histories that played themselves out there suggest a vanished Golden Age of cultural and political greatness, and drawing on George Gascoigne’s description of Elizabeth I’s visit to Kenilworth in The Princely Pleasures at Kenelworth [sic] Castle (1587), he patriotically defends the Elizabethan past as one of splendour, magnificence and venerable cultural achievement.[4] More circumspect in his musings, however, Addison regards the past that is incarnated in Kenilworth’s ruins as an age of darkness, tyranny and political oppression, the recollection of which makes him grateful to be living in the more enlightened times of the modern present. Though the debate between the two men is inconclusive, it is clear that Hurd’s sympathies lie with Arbuthnot, and in his later Letters on Chivalry and Romance (1765), Hurd would go on to provide a more influential defence of the virtues of recuperating, and revising an interest in, the art, literature and architecture of Britain’s ‘Gothic’ past. Beyond this, versions of the debate between the exponents of the competing versions of national history that we see in Hurd’s Political Dialogues would become crucial to literary responses to Kenilworth Castle throughout the eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries.

When William Gilpin visited Kenilworth Castle in 1772, he celebrated it as ‘one of the most magnificent piles of ruin in England’.[5] ‘Yet, magnificent as these ruins are’, he continued, ‘they are not picturesque’, since ‘Neither the towers, not any other part, nor the whole together, unless well aided by perspective, and the introduction of trees to hide disgusting parts, can furnish a good picture’.[6] For Gilpin, the ‘disgusting parts’ of the castle were those that had been slighted by Colonel Joseph Hawkesworth in 1649–50 in an attempt at rendering Kenilworth unusable to the Royalist cause;[7] as of old, Gilpin’s picturesque eye could not countenance in ruin the obvious signs of political and historical process. His doubting of the ruin’s picturesque potential, however, did not deter domestic tourists and day-trippers in search of picturesque vistas from visiting it, and Kenilworth Castle soon became the subject of countless amateur picturesque sketches. 

Kenilworth Castle

A lithograph showing the ruins of Kenilworth Castle.

The picturesque qualities of the ruins of Kenilworth Castle were celebrated throughout the 19th century. This lithograph was published as part of a series of topographical views of the Leamington Spa area.

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The uptake of the ruins in literature of the period was equally pervasive. Drawing upon contemporary accounts of the castle such as those offered in Dugdale, Sophia Lee set a portion of her historical Gothic romance The Recess; or, A Tale of Other Times (1783–5), in Kenilworth when, early in the narrative, her heroine Matilda, one of the two imaginary twin daughters of Mary, Queen of Scots, follows her lover Lord Leicester to his stately residence. Upon her arrival at Kenilworth, Matilda is struck by the expense to which Leicester has gone in rendering its ‘Gothic towers’, ‘swelling bastions’ and ‘gigantic statues’ an object of great ‘admiration’: ‘He had greatly improved this ancient seat, the gift of Elizabeth: its finely chosen situation, elegant architecture, and superb furniture, made it the model of a thousand others’.[8] As in numerous other Gothic fictions, architectural ruin in The Recess is charged with sublime effect.

The ruins of Kenilworth inspired a number of other, less distinguished writers of topographical literature in the late 18th century, too. In a section of his Miscellaneous Works subtitled ‘Local Poems’, George Hardinge included ‘Kenelworth [sic] Castle’, a poem of c. 1790 in which he reflected on the vicissitudes of national history that the ruin brought to mind. Foremost for Hardinge is the castle’s historical association with King Edward II, for it was at Kenilworth, so history relates, that the unfortunate King was imprisoned by his Queen Isabella and the wily Roger Mortimer:

Ill-fated Edward, in these Towers immur’d,

The chain of Treason’s conquering guilt endur’d!

A Rebel’s Captive, and, bereft of light,

Fear’d the new day, and yet accus’d the night.[9]

Shifting his muse from such dark reflections to England’s ‘proudest gem’, Hardinge’s persona turns to consider Kenilworth’s associations with the reign of Queen Elizabeth, celebrating in the manner of Hurd’s Arbuthnot a vision of the Elizabethan age as an epoch of unparalleled brilliance, splendour and light:

When Chivalry its bright achievements wrought,

When Burleigh rul’d, and gallant Sidney fought;

When Science could her Guide and Prophet know;

When Courage felt the zealous Patriot’s glow […][10]

If there is one thing for Hardinge that tarnishes the brilliance of the Elizabethan past, it is the Queen’s persecution of Mary Stuart, for ‘Mary’s doom’, he writes, ‘no virtues can redeem’.[11] It is precisely this aspect of history that Lee had fictionalised in The Recess, a novel in which the Protestant Elizabeth is consumed by bitter and jealous rivalry with the Catholic Scottish Queen.

Lee’s romance was not the only Gothic text to have featured Kenilworth in the late 18th century. In her ‘Elegy on the Ruins of Kenilworth Castle’ (1794), one Miss Darwall would exploit the mid-1790s craze for Gothic horrors and terrors by describing the vacant, ivy-clad ruins as being haunted by the ghosts of those who once lived there:

 O’er the rude walls the mantling ivy twines,

           And waves luxuriant round the nodding tow’rs;

Here skims the bat, the boding screech-owl pines,

            And the hoarse raven wakes the midnight hours.

Imagination crowds the vacant scene

            With glimm’ring ghosts, that haunt the dreary shade,

The mournful maid, – the warrior’s dreadful mien,

Flitting by moon-light thro’ the darkling glade.[12]

Kenilworth Castle

An aquatint of Kenilworth Castle published in The Royal Lady’s Magazine, 1831.

The gothic ruins of Kenilworth Castle inspired antiquaries and artists throughout the nineteenth century. This aquatint, published in 1831, shows an artist sketching amongst the ruins.

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Well aware of the treatment that Kenilworth had received at the hands of Lee and other literary forebears, Ann Radcliffe, undoubtedly the most popular and successful Gothic romancer of the late 18th century, would record the extraordinary imaginative powers that the ruins exerted over her when she recounted in her travel journals (excerpted in Gaston) a visit that she and her husband William made to the site in the autumn of 1802. Juxtaposing the scene of present ruin with the lofty structures that once stood there, Radcliffe’s description provides a clear insight into the neglected and somewhat rundown condition of the ruin at the turn of the 19th century:

Hence we looked up to the noble masses of ruin, that still stand proudly, and form three broken and irregular sides of what was once the inner court. Of the buildings that formed the fourth side, there are now no vestiges, except the knolliness of the ground, where they once stood, may be called such, and except part of the building still called Leicester’s, these having been built by him. These are a fine mass of ruined walls, covered with thickest ivy, on the left; on the right, stands a more noble mass, with three lofty arches in a row, going the whole depth of the wall, sixteen feet: this is called Caesar’s Tower, and, though the oldest part of the Castle, appears, on the outside, the freshest and newest. It is of a greyer and more solid stone than the rest.[13]

The description of Kenilworth as a picturesque, ivy-strewn ruin continues in her journal, but is soon interrupted by Radcliffe’s enthusiastic expostulation of its ability to inspire and generate the work of literary creativity: ‘They spoke at once to the imagination’, she records, ‘with the force and simplicity of truth, the nothingness and brevity of this life: “generations have beheld us and passed away, as you now behold us, and shall pass away: they thought of the generations before them, as you now think of them, and as future ages shall think of you”’.[14] Like many a perceiver of ruin before and after her, Radcliffe makes of Kenilworth a memento mori, seeing in it a deathly yet sublime reminder of the brevity of human life and the folly of human aspiration. A writer identified only by the initials H. C. expressed similar sentiments in ‘Lines, Written at Kenilworth Castle, Warwickshire’, a poem that was published in The Monthly Magazine in 1808: while lingering ‘midst the mouldering pile’, the persona is led to contemplate the ‘short-lived glories of unthinking man’, seeing in the scene of dilapidation signs of ‘The sad remains of fallen majesty’.[15] So struck had Radcliffe been by her experiences of Kenilworth that she would subsequently use them as inspiration for the writing of Gaston De Blondeville, her last and only truly supernatural Gothic romance set in 13th-century England, which was published posthumously in 1826. Restored from ruin to its former splendour, Kenilworth Castle in Gaston is the setting in which King Henry III holds court, a locale that, as it was for Hurd’s Addison, is the place of spectacular tournaments, jousting and colourful chivalric displays over the eight consecutive days of the action. When a ghost on a black charger enters the scene towards the end of the narrative, it is in order to demand from Henry’s judicial system the justice that it lacks: biased in favour of the nobility, the King is blind to the appeal of a humble merchant, a reservation with the political structures of the Gothic past that chimes with those of Hurd’s Addison. With the guilty brought to account and virtuous duly rewarded, so the ‘vision of the living world’ fades away,[16] but as it does so, Kenilworth itself re-emerges as a stony reminder of the lesson that Radcliffe had learned during her visit of 1802: the people and things of this life are wont to disappear, and all that will remain are the memories inscribed in such indelible monuments themselves.

Although there is no indication that Walter Scott knew Gaston De Blondeville, he certainly engaged with other fictions about the castle in Kenilworth, the romance that he published with the credit ‘BY THE AUTHOR OF “WAVERLEY,” “IVANHOE,” &C’ in January 1821. As John Gibson Lockhart’s Memoirs of the Life of Sir Walter Scott (1837–8) records, Walter Scott visited Kenilworth Castle upon his return from the war-torn continent in mid-September 1815.[17] So moved was Scott by the neglect and disorder in which the ruin then stood that the memory of it breaks through into his description of Kenilworth while composing the fiction some five years later. His musings are not without the moralising tendencies shared by so many other poets and novelists of ruin in the period:

We cannot but add, that of this lordly palace, where princes feasted and heroes fought, now in the bloody combat of storm and siege, and now in the games of chivalry, where beauty dealt the prize which valour won, all is now desolate. The bed of the lake is but a rushy swamp; and the massive ruins of the Castle only serve to shew what their splendour once was, and to impress on the musing visitor the transitory value of human possessions, and the happiness of those who can enjoy a humble lot in virtuous contentment.[18] 

Mervyn’s Tower, Kenilworth

A photograph of the ruins of the Strong Tower (Mervyn’s Tower) at Kenilworth Castle published in the 1860s.

This photograph by Stephen Thompson, published in the 1860s, shows the ruined Strong Tower (called Mervyn’s Tower) at Kenilworth in the latter part of the 19th century.

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Nonetheless, Scott, like Radcliffe and Lee, effects an imaginative act of rebuilding in Kenilworth, returning in the main narrative to the summer of 1575 when Queen Elizabeth was entertained there by Robert Dudley, Earl of Leicester. As it did for Radcliffe, for Scott Kenilworth speaks simultaneously to the past, the present and the future, for while it is a dazzling monument to its present owner and occupier, Dudley, and several English chiefs and rulers of the past, it also speaks subtly of the unfortunate consequences of Dudley’s political ambitions:

The lordly structure itself, which rose near the centre of this spacious enclosure, was composed of a huge pile of magnificent castellated buildings, apparently of different ages, surrounding an inner court, and bearing in the names attached to each portion of the magnificent mass, and in the armorial bearings which were there blazoned, the emblems of mighty chiefs who had long passed away, and whose history, could Ambition have lent ear to it, might have read a lesson to the haughty favourite, who had now acquired and was augmenting the fair domain. A large and massive Keep, which formed the citadel of the Castle, was of uncertain though great antiquity. It bore the name of Caesar, perhaps from its resemblance to that in the Tower of London so called. [19]

Though Kenilworth stands as a legible monument to the events of English history, it is also the place of romance; the ruins call forth in Scott’s novel, just as they did in the imagination of Hurd’s Dr Arbuthnot earlier, a fanciful vision of an Elizabethan age of marvel, spectacle and wonder, one rooted in the even more ancient annals of Arthurian legend. At the castle, the narrative’s tragic and anxiety-inducing sub-plot concerning the plight of Dudley’s wife, Amy Robsart, are overshadowed by three splendid entertainments, events that constitute the ‘bustle of pageants’[20] that is the novel’s historical vision. Together with Gascoigne, Dugdale and Elias Ashmole’s The Antiquities of Berkshire (1719), Scott’s other primary resource in the novel is Robert Langham or Laneham’s ‘A Letter: Whearin, part of the Entertainment, unto the Queenz Maiesty, at KILLINGWORTH CASTL, in WARWICK Sheer, in this Soomerz Progress, 1575, iz signified’, a source that he consulted in the first volume of John Nichols’s The Progresses, and Public Processions, of Queen Elizabeth (1788). Though Scott’s treatment of these and other antiquarian sources is not without irony, he nonetheless depicts in Kenilworth what Michael Dobson and Nicola J. Watson have described as ‘the never-never land of Merrie England’: the noble English age of ‘velvety meadows’, ‘royal oaks’, ‘Christmas cheer’, ‘quaffed October ales’, ‘moated castle’, ‘lofty turrets’ and ‘chivalry’ of ‘bonny old England’ that was invoked in several contemporary reviews.[21]

Scott’s Kenilworth was not the only fiction to be written about these ruins in the first half of the 19th century: the castle also featured prominently in J. S. Anna Liddiard’s Kenilworth: A Mask [sic] (1815); in Miss Prickett’s three-volume Warwick Castle: An Historical Novel (1815); in Louisa Sidney Stanhope’s four-volume The Siege of Kenilworth: An Historical Romance (1824); and in numerous topographical poems by now-forgotten writers. Nonetheless, it was Scott’s romance that was by far the most influential of literary treatments: more than any other fiction, antiquarian study or topographical description, it was Scott’s novel that successfully restored the ruins of the Castle of Kenilworth to cultural consciousness in the 19th century. Written only three years after the publication of Scott’s novel, Jane Webb’s ‘Lines, Written on Visiting the Ruins of Kenilworth Castle, After Reading the Novel of that Name’ (1824) gives some insight into just how immediate and far-reaching its influence was. More painfully aware now than ever before of the glorious scenes to which the castle was once home, Webb’s persona nostalgically expresses a sentiment of loss that runs far deeper than that of earlier poets:

And are thy glories sunk to this decay?

            And of thy boasted beauty is this all?

Alas! how sadly changed since that proud day,

            When regal grandeur graced thy princely hall:

When Leicester wander’d with the love-sick Queen,

            And waiting nobles gazed with envious eyes,

Whilst the fair Amy wept alone, unseen,

            And mourned her hapless fate with deep-drawn sighs.

Yes! this old ruin and these mouldering walls,

            Alone remain, to tell of days of yore:

In graceful festoons ivy o’er them falls,

            And sheep now graze where nobles walked before.[22]

Substituting the powers of his own storytelling for ivy, Scott had imaginatively festooned Kenilworth in the enchantments of romance, a move that did much to change the ways in which visitors henceforth perceived and responded to the ruins. Appropriations and adaptations of Scott’s novel in such chapbooks as Kenilworth; or, The Golden Days of Queen Bess (1823) or W. H. Oxberry’s Kenilworth: A Melo-Drama (1824) only further ensured its cultural dissemination and influence. Unlike the picturesque images of earlier amateur painters, J. M. W. Turner’s watercolour of Kenilworth (c. 1830) fell under the influence of Scott in nostalgically rendering the ruin as the faded relic of a vanished, more romantic past. After 1821, the ruins enjoyed widespread cultural appeal. In 1832, the young architect A. W. N. Pugin assisted the scene-painters William and Thomas Grieve to produce backdrops for Kenilworth, a ballet based on Scott’s novel that was staged to great acclaim at the King’s theatre, London, in March of that year.

Kenilworth Castle

An etching of Kenilworth Castle, Warwickshire, after J.M.W. Turner, published in 1832.

This etching of Kenilworth Castle after J. M.W. Turner was published as part of Picturesque Views in England and Wales, From Drawings by J. M. W. Turner ... Engraved Under the Superintendence of Mr. Charles Heath. With Descriptive and Historic Illustrations by H. E. Lloyd (1832).

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In his account of Kenilworth Castle in Examples of Gothic Architecture (1836), A. C. Pugin, Pugin the younger’s father, included a telling tribute to Scott’s novel, noting that ‘Kenilworth Castle was called into fresh notice a few years back, by one of the many fascinating compositions of the author of Waverley’.[23] A number of factors corroborate this claim. Before 1821, Dugdale’s study served as the primary guidebook to the site, the information that it contained reprinted in such locally printed tour-guides as A Concise History and Description of Kenilworth Castle: From its Foundation, to the Present Time (1776). After the publication of Scott’s Kenilworth, however, new tour-guides to the castle and its surrounding areas proliferated, a fact that suggests that the novel renewed and increased tourist activity at the site. Capitalising upon the story that Scott had narrated, an illustrated and edited reprint of Laneham’s and Gascoigne’s accounts of the festivities at Kenilworth in July 1575 was sold at the castle under the title of Kenilworth Festivities (1825), as if in an attempt at compounding and exploiting the romantic associations to the pile that Scott had set in place. A later tour-guide such as Guide to Kenilworth and its Neighbourhood (1858) served more as an architectural illustration of Scott’s novel at Kenilworth Castle than a guide to the historical landmark itself: as it claimed, the novelist had even succeeded in permanently christening as ‘Mervyn’s Tower’ one of the castle’s otherwise unnamed parts. Such prominent figures as Charles Dickens, Henry James and Queen Victoria visited Kenilworth between the 1830s and 1870s; in The Castle of Kenilworth (1872), E. H. Knowles argued passionately for the removal of the ivy from the ruin in the name of its preservation.[24] These and other developments were all in some ways the unforeseen consequences of Scott’s novel. Kenilworth had transformed local topography. When, after an absence of thirteen years, Scott himself returned with his daughter Anne to Kenilworth in April 1828, he was prompted to record in his journal the following observations: ‘Well! the last time I was here in 1815 these trophies of time were quite neglected. Now they approach so much nearer the splendor of Thunder ten-tronck [an allusion to Candide] as to have a door at least if not windows. They are in short preserved and protected. So much for the Novels’.[25] Though Kenilworth, Scott well knew, had done much to drive the conservation of the castle’s ruins, the novels of the author of Waverley themselves were regrettably subject to less protective measures.


[1] U.C.K.L.’E, ‘Lines to Kenilworth Castle’, The Pocket Magazine Vol. 2 (1830) p.168.

[2] William Dugdale, The Antiquities of Warwickshire Illustrated; From Records, Leiger-Books, Manuscripts, Charters, Evidences, Tombes, and Armes (London: Printed by Thomas Warren, 1656), p.159.

[3] Ibid., pp.159–69.

[4] Richard Hurd, Moral and Political Dialogues: Being the Substance of Several Conversations Between Divers Eminent Persons of the Past and Present Age (London: Printed for A. Millar, W. Thurlbourne, and J. Woodyer, 1759), p.107.

[5] William Gilpin, Observations, Relative Chiefly to Picturesque Beauty, Made in the Year 1772, on Several Parts of England; Particularly the Mountains, and Lakes of Cumberland and Westmoreland, 2 vols (London: Printed for R. Blamire, 1786), volume 1, p.40.

[6] Ibid., p.42.

[7] Richard K. Morris, Kenilworth Castle (English Heritage, n.d.), p.50.

[8] Sophia Lee, The Recess; or, A Tale of Other Times, edited by April Alliston (Lexington: University Press of Kentucky, 2000), pp. 68–9.

[9] George Hardinge, The Miscellaneous Works, in Prose and Verse, of George Hardinge, Esq, 3 vols (London: Printed by and for J. Nichols, Son, and Bentley, 1818), volume 2, p.48.

[10] Ibid., p.49.

[11] Ibid., p.49.

[12] Mrs. Darwall, Poems on Several Occasions, 2 vols (Walsall: Printed by F. Milward for the Author, 1794), volume 2, p.5–6.

[13] Anne Radcliffe, Gaston De Blondeville; or, The Court of Henry III Keeping Festival in Ardenne, A Romance. St Alban’s Abbey, A Metrical Tale; With Some Poetical Pieces, 4 vols (London: Henry Colburn, 1826), volume 1, p.37.

[14] Ibid., p.38.

[15] H. C. ‘Lines, Written at Kenilworth Castle, Warwickshire’, The Monthly Magazine No. 178, Vol. 26 (March, 1808): p.456.

[16] Anne Radcliffe, op. cit., volume 3, p.48.

[17] John Gibson Lockhart, Memoirs of the Life of Sir Walter Scott, Bart, 7 vols (Edinburgh: Robert Cadell; London: John Murray, 1837–8), volume 5, p.80.

[18] Walter Scott, Kenilworth: A Romance, edited by J. H. Alexander (London: Penguin Books, 1999), p.255.

[19] Ibid., p.254.

[20] Ibid., p.348.

[21] Michael Dobson and Nicola J. Watson, England’s Elizabeth: An Afterlife in Fame and Fantasy (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2002), p.141–50.

[22] Jane Webb, Prose and Verse (Birmingham: R. Wrightson, 1824), pp. 95–6.

[23] Augustus Charles Pugin, Examples of Gothic Architecture, Selected from Various Antient Edifices in England, Volume II (London: Printed for the Executors of the Late Augustus Pugin, and Augustus Welby Pugin, 1836), p.18.

[24] Richard K. Morris, Kenilworth Castle (English Heritage, n.d.), p.52.

[25] Walter Scott, The Journal of Sir Walter Scott, edited by W. E. K. Anderson (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1972), p. 453.

  • Dale Townshend
  • Dale Townshend is Professor Gothic Literature in the Centre for Gothic Studies at Manchester Metropolitan University.  The recipient of an AHRC Leadership Fellowship entitled ‘Writing Britain’s Ruins, 1700–1850: The Architectural Imagination’, he has recently completed a monograph and a co-edited collection of essays on the relationship between architecture and literature in the long 18th century.

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