Tuesday, 3 September 2013

Kenilworth Castle in Warwickshire

My debut novel as Victoria Lamb was The Queen's Secret, a Tudor story set almost entirely at Kenilworth Castle, Warwickshire.

I chose Kenilworth as the setting for my first Tudor novel because I had lived nearby for many years, often walking the castle grounds at dusk or on a sunny morning with the kids, and found the place enchanting.

Kenilworth Castle is marvellously atmospheric at any time or season, though I admit to preferring the quieter moments when few people are about. At dusk on a summer's eve, the shattered remains of the old Norman keep, partially destroyed during the Civil War, stand out black against the sunset. Bats come swooping out of the trees to flit above your head as you walk about the castle walls. There is a hush about the place at such moments, broken only by owl hoots from the nearby woods or the hoarse bark of a fox.

Visiting in autumn or winter, the oak leaves and withered reeds are stiff with frost alongside the long foot bridge that used to be the medieval tiltyard, iced puddles cracking underfoot, only the stream still gurgling as it tumbles into the mere. A thick cloak would have been necessary in Tudor times to keep out the winter's cold, not to mention several layers of woollen underclothes even indoors. A brazier no doubt kept the guards warm at night on the entrance gate. Climbing the stairways of the keep to look out over the small Warwickshire village of Kenilworth and the white-frosted countryside beyond, your breath steams out like smoke.

The castle and its grounds are maintained by English Heritage; it is an excellent place for visitors interested in English history. The gatehouse built by Robert Dudley, Earl of Leicester, has been renovated, with a lift installed and a museum exhibition on the top floor, while the old stable block - Dudley was the Queen's Master of the Horse for many years, and known for his riding skills - is now jointly a cafe and exhibition centre.

Elizabeth I came to Kenilworth several times during her reign, for Robert Dudley was her court favourite, and rumoured by many to be her lover. In The Queen's Secret, my story follows her most famous visit to Kenilworth, which was in July 1575, when Robert Dudley wooed the Virgin Queen with the most lavish festivities imaginable: hundreds of entertainers were employed by him to enact plays and recite poems (many composed specially for the occasion), dance and sing, perform acrobatics, and generally amuse. Beyond this were jousting tournaments, and almost daily hunts in fine weather, for Elizabeth was a keen huntswoman, plus the popular but gruesome Tudor sport of bear-baiting. There were fantastical feasts laid on, with a huge salt cellar in the shape of a silver galleon being presented to the Queen, birds stuffed live into the bellies of roast beasts so they could be released at table Roman-style, and sugar-goblets that could be eaten after the mead or wine inside was finished.

Then there were the awe-inspiring firework displays, which became legendary in Warwickshire and passed into folk-tale. Perhaps J.R.R. Tolkien, a man of the Midlands, was thinking of those when he wrote the great firework display scene at the beginning of The Fellowship of the Ring. Many believe that Shakespeare and his father may have come to the castle from nearby Stratford, along with many of the local families in that part of Warwickshire, to see their queen and enjoy the entertainments. Later Shakespeare plays mention some curious oddities, for instance a mermaid on a dolphin's back, which we know formed part of the festivities that summer.

A courtier called Robert Laneham, who came to Kenilworth in Elizabeth's train that summer, later published a 'Letter' describing these festivities in intricate detail, including the astonishing firework displays, some of which took place on floating rafts or islands out on the castle mere, a vast lake surrounding the castle walls. He describes one of these water displays with great enthusiasm: 'with blaze of burning darts flying to and fro, leams of stars coruscant, streams and hail of fiery sparks, lightnings of wild-fire on water and land, flight and shooting of thunderbolts ... that the heavens thundered, the waters surged, the earth shook.'

The Queen's Secret is the first in a trilogy about Shakespeare's "Dark Lady"
Many of the festivities in The Queen's Secret were closely described in Laneham's Letter, which often gives dates and times as well as incredible detail, even down to the clothes the courtiers wore and the food they ate. But of course even a contemporaneous work of non-fiction cannot properly capture the atmosphere of a place. For that, an historical writer must visit in person where that is possible. I was lucky that so much of Kenilworth Castle still stands today, despite its partial destruction during the Civil War, and that I was able to wander the grounds at will, talking to the highly knowledgeable staff and getting a 'feel' for the place.

I thoroughly recommend a visit to Kenilworth Castle if you get the chance. And as you wander about the beautiful castle, imagine yourself back in the summer of 1575, with Queen Elizabeth herself watching an outdoor acrobatic display only a few feet away ... and Robert Dudley at her side, waiting for the perfect moment to propose.

It can also be purchased as a paperback edition in the States, where it is published by Berkley.


Many thanks for visiting my website and commenting! Victoria.