10 June 2021 in History
Kenilworth lives and breathes history. But with so much of the past visible and accessible it can be bewildering to know where to start! Fear not, we’ve compiled all the key moments, places and people to give you the overview of our monumental story. Of course if you want to get hands on, grab a copy of either the Heritage Trail or The Castle & Abbey Trail and discover the story for yourself!
The very earliest record we have of anyone living in Kenilworth is a burial urn dating from the Early Bronze Age period, between 2500BC and 1800BC. Uncovered in Clinton Lane during a housing development the pot contains cremated bone fragments and is currently on display in the Abbey Museum (along with plenty more artefacts!).
Kenilworth as place really begins with the Roman occupation, although there are little visible remains from this age. There is evidence of brick making from this period as well as a Roman Road running across Abbey Fields. The site of the Abbey ruins MAY in fact sit on top of a Roman Villa or settlement, but there is little evidence for this. The Domesday Book does include Kenilworth but it was little more than a few farms and cottages.
Kenilworth’s history seriously begins in 1120, with Geoffrey de Clinton’s founding of Kenilworth Castle and the Priory (later to become the Abbey) of St Mary the Virgin on lands granted to him by King Henry I. Rumour sates that Geoffrey was buried in one of the two stone coffins found beneath the Abbey Chapter House (fragments of which can be seen in the Abbey Museum) but this is probably just a good story.
Kenilworth’s limelight moment! In the aftermath of the Barons revolt, the followers of Simon de Montfort refused to surrender Kenilworth Castle. This rather poor decision forced Henry III to besiege the castle for almost six months. Despite extensive bombardment the siege only ended due to starvation and disease amongst the defenders. During the Siege the King held court and convened a Parliament at Kenilworth, effectively making it the epicentre of England!
Through much of its functioning life, the Castle was held by the Crown, but was also owned at various times by some of the most powerful and interesting characters in English history, who all played a part in its development. King John reinforced the defences, John of Gaunt constructed the soaring Great Hall and Henry V built the secluded hideaway of the Pleasance far across the Mere. Robert Dudley, Earl of Leicester built the state apartments, the gardens and created a hunting forest in the chase. Dudley’s works were designed to impress Queen Elizabeth I on her visit in 1575. The Queen also stopped by St.Nicholas Church for two services during her stay.
Despite accommodating the King during the siege, the Priory of St Mary grew in status, becoming an Abbey in 1447. However 1538 saw its dissolution under the orders of Henry VIII, its wealth stripped and its stones reused elsewhere. You can still visit the ruins including the imposing Gatehouse, but we’d recommend taking the Castle and Abbey Trail for the full low-down!
Things went downhill from there however. During the Civil War, the castle was occupied by the Parliamentarians after King Charles withdrew his garrison. In the aftermath, Parliament ordered the breaking of the Castle defences, including draining the artificial lake of the Mere. Following the Restoration, Laurence Hyde, son of Lord Clarendon was granted the castle. His descendants retained the Castle until 1937, when Sir John Siddeley, first Lord Kenilworth purchased it. His son, who was the last private owner, gifted the freehold to the Town in the 1950’s.
With the Castle no longer a stronghold and royal place, Kenilworth stopped being a place of national significance. However, the success of Sir Walter Scott’s novel ‘Kenilworth’ (published in 1821) put it on the map once again. The Castle became a major tourist attraction, visited by the great and famous such as Charles Dickens. It was also a popular subject for landscape painters including J.M.W. Turner.
Kenilworth simply continued much as it had for centuries, as a market town and an agricultural hub for the region. It was also home to a number of industries like horn comb making (at its peak circa 1830), tanning and brick making. With the coming of the Railway in 1840 the town became a popular home for rich industrialists from Birmingham and Coventry. The industrial scale and population swelled, reaching 4000 by the 1870’s.
On this infamous night, a German bomber returning from a raid on Birmingham, dropped two landmines over Kenilworth. One detonated amongst the then crowded buildings of Abbey End, demolishing houses and leaving 25 dead and more than 70 injured. You can find a memorial to those who lost their lives at the now re-developed Abbey End.
That’s just the tip of the Kenilworth history iceberg! Do check out the Heritage & Castle and Abbey Trails, make a visit to the Abbey Museum or check out the other trails and walks we have (including Kenilworth during the Great War and a dedicated look at the local geology – all fascinating stuff!). You’ll also find far more history at the Kenilworth History and Archaeology Society Website – definitely worth a browse if history is your thing!