Warwick and Worcester The Two Castles, Warwickshire Life.
PUBLISHED: 23:45 07 February 2010 | UPDATED: 15:34 20 February 2013
For 940 years Warwick Castle has loomed over the town. Yet just 40 miles away a similar castle built around the same time and to the same design has disappeared. In theory Worcester Castle was better placed, strategically, than Warwick.
For 940 years Warwick Castle has loomed over the town. Yet just 40 miles away a similar castle built around the same time and to the same design has disappeared. In theory Worcester Castle was better placed, strategically, than Warwick. Yet today just a handful of remains are all that mark the spot where a great castle once stood. So how did Warwick do it?
Chris Mowbray investigates. Photographs by Stuart Purfield.
The year is 1068 and William the Bastard, Duke of Normandy and now also King of England, is tightening his hold over his new realm. To help him do so, his engineers fortify an old Anglo Saxon castle at Warwick. They little realise that 940 years later, it will still be there attracting 800,000 visitors a year as one of Britain's best loved tourist attractions.
In the following year, William's engineers move on to the city of Worcester and build an identical castle to hold the important river crossing. By the 19th Century, it has disappeared and in 2008 most of Worcester's residents do not even know their city ever had a castle or that it stood on the site now occupied by Kings School.
How could two so similar buildings have such vastly different fates? This tale of two castles has resonance for modern governments, international finance houses and multi national corporations in this troubled epoch, for the answer is that one castle changed with the times and the other didn't.
Both Norman castles started life identically and were built to the motte and bailey design prevalent at the time. The system was a series of fortified earthworks with wooden buildings surrounded by a ditch and enclosing a high mound on which there was a look out platform. Both were gradually modernised and rebuilt in stone throughout the 12th Century.
Both castles saw considerable action in some of the great conflicts of Mediaeval history, particularly in the Barons Wars and also in the civil wars between the royal cousins, Stephen and Matilda, for the throne of England. From the early 13th Century, however, Worcester Castle slid gradually into terminal decline while Warwick rose to magnificence and played a pivotal role in the development of modern Britain.
This is frankly amazing because Worcester, as a place, really had the better pedigree. It was and still is a shire city with one of the most historic and oldest Cathedrals in the land, whereas Warwick has always been a town. Even today, Worcester has its own city council and a population in excess of 100,000, while Warwick is only a constituent part of a three town district council and has a population of around 40,000.
But it is when you consider what the castles were guarding that the course of events seems particularly strange. Warwick Castle held the crossing of the River Avon which did not become properly navigable until 1639. Worcester, however, guarded a crossing of the River Severn which for centuries was a tidal waterway vital to trade and linked to the open sea via the Bristol Channel. Comparing the two rivers is like comparing the M5 with the B4084. Logically, Worcester Castle should therefore have been the greatest.
The factor which appears to have made the big difference is that Warwick Castle was always the official home of the Earls of Warwick. The Earls of Worcester, however, appear to have had little contact with the castle bearing their name and, after the first 200 years of its existence, neither did any other noble family.
Worcester Castle was at its greatest in the early 13th Century during the reign of King John who ordered the main entrance to be rebuilt in stone and often used the castle as his base. He was living there when he died in 1216 and was buried in the crypt of the Cathedral. A few years later, the Beauchamp family, who had been Constables of the castle, moved their official residence to Elmley Castle and Worcester Castle's strategic and military importance waned.
By 1221, it had become the King's prison and during the Baron's War in 1263 was actually a weak spot in the city's walled defences. By 1459, the prison had fallen into serious disrepair and it had completely collapsed by 1540. The castle mound was briefly re-fortified during the Civil War between Crown and Parliament in the 17th Century, but then the site returned to being a gaol. It was replaced by the new County Prison in 1814 and the old gaol was demolished in 1826. Only part of a tower and two small pieces of the castle walls remain.
Warwick Castle, however, was the official home of the Earls of Warwick within 20 years of first being built and, although the title changed hands among rival families at least six times as they fell in and out of favour with the monarch of the day, there was an Earl of Warwick living there for most of the time.
The castle was therefore never just a workaday military citadel, but also home to a family who played a major part in the politics of the day and had an interest in continually modernising themselves. Earls of Warwick included Henry de Beaumont who was a friend of William Rufus, the son of William the Conqueror, the 15th Century Richard Neville known as "Warwick the Kingmaker" and John Dudley who engineered the brief, ill-fated reign of Lady Jane Grey as Queen of England.
At the dawn of the 17th Century, however, England was in a state of change. The great castles which had kept order throughout the Middle Ages and the Renaissance were becoming obsolete in the age of greater firepower. When Fulke Greville gained ownership of Warwick Castle in 1604, it was in ruins and he spent 20,000 (about 3,000,000 in today's money) on restoration work..
It was to be another 150 years before the Greville family also gained the title of Earls of Warwick to go with their castle and thereafter they entertained royalty just as their predecessors had done. George IV, Queen Victoria, Prince Albert and Edward VII were all guests there on a number of occasions.
It is one of the finest examples of a Mediaeval castle in the country, but there came a time when it was no longer feasible for such a building to be someone's private home. In 1978, it was sold to the Tussauds Group which has turned into an internationally renowned tourist attraction. Once again, Warwick Castle has ensured its survival by moving with the times.