They’ve been used as palaces, fortresses, schools, and much, much more. We’ll take a look at the 11 coolest castles in Britain and Ireland – from the decrepit to those still in use today (sorted by country).
1. Herstmonceux Castle
Location: Herstmonceux, East Sussex, England
This Tudor Castle in the south of England may not be the most historic or well known in the region, but it’s unique thanks to its purpose. The grounds were previously the location of the Royal Observatory – which has since been turned into a museum. Today however, the castle serves as an international study centre for students of Queen’s University and some other Canadian schools. Ever wanted to go to Hogwarts? Well this is the closest you can probably get. Throw in the well maintained and massive grounds, secluded location with quick access to nearby towns, and a private pub (emphasis on the last one) and you can that agree that Herstmonceux Castle deserves a place on this list.
2. The Tower of London
Location: London, Greater London, England
It’s one of the (if not the) most well known castles in England, and a lot of that is down to beheading. While the Tower of London has served as a fortress and a royal palace, it is most commonly remembered as a prison. Anne Boleyn, Catherine Howard, and many others who weren’t married to Henry VIII were all kept within the dungeons and met their untimely ends in the courtyard. Today, the Tower holds the Crown Jewels (the monarchy’s most prized possessions) and offers tours for interested travelers. Throw in a great view of Tower Bridge and close proximity to the City of London, and you have one of the most accessible castles on earth. It also served as the location for the Game of Thrones Season 5 premiere – arguably the bloodiest event yet in its long history.
3. Tintagel Castle
Location: Tintagel, Cornwall, England
There’s not much left of Tintagel Castle these days. While most of the structure has long since fallen to ruin, there are still remnants of the walls and fortifications thanks to excavation and maintenance. The reason Tintagel Castle is on here is thanks to perhaps the most famous king in the history of Britain – Arthur. Since Camelot is unfortunately a bit of a silly place, this is the next best thing. It’s generally considered the location of Arthur’s conception in the tales, giving a mythical quality to what remains. Thanks to Uther Pendragon and Igraine, Tintagel Castle will live on long beyond the lifespan of its walls.
4. Dover Castle
Location: Dover, Kent, England
Believe it or not, England hasn’t always gotten on with its continental neighbours. France, Germany, Spain, and others – England’s always had, shall we say, complicated relations with them. It helps then, that one of the first structures prospective invaders will see is Dover Castle. Known sometimes as the “Key to England” (no pressure), the castle has served as an important defense point and military base throughout centuries of warfare. Whether it’s staring out towards France or playing host to numerous WWII bunkers, the castle has always been a hugely strategic point. While its days of protecting England are past, it remains an enticing excursion for anyone interested in its long history.
5. Edinburgh Castle
Location: Edinburgh, City of Edinburgh, Scotland
There are few castles as imposing and iconic as Edinburgh Castle. While many European cities are home to such structures, few dominate the skyline like this one. Thanks to its position at the top of a central hill, the castle towers over the old town and the new, offering views as far as the eye can see. It’s also reputed to be the most sieged place in Britain, and among the most attacked in the world. Still, it has stood the test of time and is today a popular museum and tourist destination.
6. Stirling Castle
Location: Stirling, Stirling, Scotland
Another imposing structure built on a hill (it’s almost like the high ground was strategically important); Stirling Castle is one of the most important in Scotland. In historic Stirling, all roads lead to the castle and it remains open year round for interested visitors. Some of the most important events in Scottish history revolve around Stirling, with Bonnie Prince Charlie once trying (unsuccessfully) to capture it. Once you get a look at the view from the top and the passages it controls, it’s easy to see why the structure was so prized by kings, would-be kings, and great military minds alike.
7. Castle Stalker
Location: Loch Laich, Argyll and Bute, Scotland
Is it very big? No. Is it strategically important? Not really. Does it look really cool and has it become a favourite symbol of the Scottish Highlands and Scotland as a whole? Yes and yes. This four-story keep sits on a small inlet in the middle of Loch Laich, with an imposing backdrop of mountains – which is arguably one of the most picturesque locations on earth. It doesn’t hurt that the keep itself remains very well preserved, keeping much of its original shape. Oh yeah, it was also featured in the final scene of Monty Python and the Holy Grail as the aptly named, “Castle of Aaaaarrrrrrggghhh”.
8. Caernarfon Castle
Location: Caernarfon, Gwynedd, Wales
One of several castles built throughout Wales as a means of control against the populace, Caernarfon Castle still stands today as one of the marquee sights in the north of the country. With a prime location both on the water and next to town, the castle dominates proceedings around it. It, and the town, has been at the heart of many major events in Welsh history. It’s been sacked during rebellions, recaptured by the English, and used as the place of investiture for the Prince of Wales. Caernarfon Castle remains a symbol of the English conquest of Wales, while the town around it is a hotbed of Welsh nationalism.
9. Conwy Castle
Location: Conwy, Conwy, Wales
The choice between Caernarfon and Conwy was too difficult, so we figured why not just put them both on? Built during the same time period by the order of Edward I, Conwy Castle served a similar purpose – assist in pacifying the populace during the conquest of Wales. Its strategic location allows it to easily access the greater town and also be supplied from the sea. It remains one of the finest examples of medieval military architecture – not just in the British Isles but also in all of Europe. While the old city walls still remain, the castle remains the crown jewel of Conwy, and the biggest reminder of its tumultuous past.
10. Carrickfergus Castle
Location: Carrickfergus, County Antrim, Northern Ireland
Carrickfergus Castle is one of the best-preserved and most important Norman structures in the country. It has been of strategic importance not just in the late Middle Ages (when it was constructed), but even up through the early 20th century. The Nine Years War, the American War of Independence, and World War I – all these conflicts utilized the castle in some way. The moat used to surround three quarters of the castle, and while it covers only about a third nowadays it still helps to demonstrate the difficulty in capturing it. It may not be the fanciest castle in Northern Ireland, but it’s definitely one of the most important.
11. Kilkenny Castle
Location: Kilkenny, County Kilkenny, Republic of Ireland
What was initially a symbol of Norman occupation has since become one of the most visited and famous of Irish castles. The grounds are highly maintained, with the castle still very much a livable place. For centuries, it was the property of the powerful Butler family (who had family connections in both England and Ireland). The main uses for it nowadays are conferences and graduations (a pretty good place to receive a diploma all things considered). If you ever stop by Kilkenny, the castle is the first place to visit.
These are just a few of the coolest castles in Britain and Ireland – there’s so many more we could’ve chosen. What are you favourite across the islands? Let us know in the comments below!
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