As I glanced across the massive stone walls of Kenilworth Castle, I noticed a couple embrace in the shadows of the ruined Great Hall — a not-so-subtle reminder of the romantic history of this medieval ruin.
Castles are magical structures that inspire romance in modern travellers who wander their silent halls and courtyards.
This is even truer of ruined castles whose crumbling bricks are echoes of lives lived and past triumphs. These fanciful expressions of power and wealth are at the centre of many classic fairytales, making it difficult to explore a ruined castle without sensing a little of the romance that lingers inside its ancient stone walls.
Although there are certain elements of romance linked to virtually every ruined castle, some ruins have a history behind them that certifies them as legendary romantic sites.
Others have such beautiful architectural features and surrounding landscapes that even amidst decay, they can transport you back to an era in time when knights and ladies sought refuge inside their walls.
The U.K.’s three most romantic ruined castles
There are more than a thousand castles in the United Kingdom — the majority of which are in ruins. Everyone who visits ruined castles has a favourite — a castle that evokes a powerful sense of history or romance for them.
Here are my picks for the top three romantic ruined castles in the United Kingdom.
Kenilworth Castle, England — One of the most spectacular castle ruins in England, Kenilworth Castle has been associated with many great leaders, but it owes its greatest romantic fame to Robert Dudley, Earl of Leicester, who was the favourite courtier of Queen Elizabeth I.
Elizabeth came close to marrying Dudley in 1560, after the death of his first wife. Their courtship lasted for nearly 20 years and it was she who granted Dudley his title and gifted him Kenilworth Castle.
She visited him there on four occasions — the longest occurring in the summer of 1575. Her 19-day visit was the longest stay at a courtier’s house during any progress and it is believed that Dudley used every opportunity during the visit to tempt Elizabeth to marry him.
Modern visitors to Kenilworth can tread the footsteps of a queen not only inside the castle’s crumbling walls, but in its beautifully recreated Elizabethan garden.
The gardens were commissioned by Dudley as a surprise for Queen Elizabeth’s summer visit and highlights include a bejewelled aviary and a 5.5-metre-high carved marble fountain. The gardens were re-created to appear exactly as they would have in 1575 from drawings and archeological evidence found on the site.
Although Dudley was unable to convince Elizabeth to marry him, there is little doubt that he was the love of her life.
Although Elizabeth never came to Kenilworth again, Dudley continued to visit regularly and stipulated in his will that the “castle’s contents were not to be altered or removed” perhaps in an attempt to immortalize the events of 1575.
Urquhart Castle, Scotland — Situated on a rocky peninsula on the banks of Loch Ness, Urquhart castle is one of the most romantic and mysterious of all the ruined castles of Europe.
It is not the castle’s checkered past or unique shape that holds the key to its appeal, though. It is the fact that Urquhart is surrounded on three sides by a lake whose waters contain the answers to the age-old question of the existence of “Nessie” that makes this castle the definitive romantic ruin.
Looking out on Loch Ness from the top of the castle’s five-storey tower, it is easy to imagine the waters suddenly bubbling up and parting to reveal an ancient monster. With its unimpeded views and easy access to the edge of the loch, it is little wonder that many reported Nessie sightings have taken place near the area of Urquhart Castle.
There are few castles in Scotland that have a more turbulent history than Urquhart.
For more than a thousand years, the castle was one of the largest strongholds of medieval Scotland. A strategic point along the major route to the Scottish highlands, the English as well as various Scottish clans fought to have power over what was widely viewed to be the key to the highlands.
From around 1230 AD when the castle was constructed, until 1692 when it was blown up by Williamite troops to prevent it from becoming a Jacobite stronghold, Urquhart changed hands and allegiances many times.
There is no doubt that Urquhart Castle would be a lovely day trip wherever it was located.
The trees, the lush grass, the history and the ruins of the castle against the blue waters of the loch are a beautiful and intriguing combination. But the chance, however faint, that the deep cool waters may actually conceal a mythical creature completely unknown to science makes Urquhart one of the most romantic and popular castles in all of Scotland.
Caerphilly Castle, Wales — Covering an area of three acres, Caerphilly Castle is the largest ruined castle in Britain. Built in the 13th century by Gilbert de Clare, lord of Glamorgan, its immense size, unique architecture (it was the first truly concentric castle built in Britain), and its use of water as a means of defence make it one of the most dramatic castles in the United Kingdom.
This astonishing fortress was an architectural wonder in its day, but its most striking feature today is its leaning tower, which manages to out-lean even the Tower of Pisa.
Although it is very romantic to imagine that the instability of the tower was created by a great battle, most experts agree that the tower was likely a victim of subsidence.
Regardless, the castle and its famous leaning tower remain one of the most imposing structures in southern Wales.
Debbie Olsen is a Lacombe-based freelance writer. If you have a travel story you would like to share or know someone with an interesting travel story who we might interview, please email: DOGO@telusplanet.net or write to: Debbie Olsen, c/o Red Deer Advocate, 2950 Bremner Ave., Red Deer, Alta., T4R 1M9.