The story of Warwick Castle is incredible and it's almost as old as the history of England itself. This stunning castle has been home to many medieval warriors, royal mistresses and even a Hollywood actor. It’s big and it’s beautiful but it has a nasty habit of bringing its owners to its knees.
Warwick Castle is a massive fortress with serious financial obligations. It was built on a natural cliff on a bend of the river Avon, pretty much smack in the middle of England. Today it has beautiful lawns and picturesque gardens and it’s surrounded by a huge 500 metre wall and an impressive gate house with 7 great towers.
But it wasn’t always this pretty.
It was first built here in 1068 by William the Conqueror during the Norman conquest. Back then it was little more than a wooden fort on top of a hill but it was a crucial military base where William could control Wales to the west and Scotland to the north with rivers all around. Two years after the conquest, he left his most trusted men here as constables of the castle and eventually these men were awarded the titles of earls. With that title, they were expected to be loyal and true to the king.
At the end of the 13th century, around 1268, Edward 1 made William Beauchamp the Earl of Warwick and his descendants became one of the most important and wealthy families in the land. He was the guardian of the king, a friend to the king and one of the greatest soldiers of his day leaving Edward free to fight his brutal wars in Scotland.
The Beauchamps kept the caste for seven generations serving nine kings and queens. As well as collecting gold and jewels, the Beauchamps piled money into Warwick Castle by putting up these enormous towers and massive walls that still stand today. But all this wealth and power came at a cost. As one Beauchamp discovered, you can go from being a king’s friend to an enemy in a very short amount of time.
In 1307, Edward 1 died and his feckless son Edward II survived him to the throne. This Edward was nothing like his father. He was idle and naïve and obsessed with his best friend Piers Gaveston. And Gaveston was loathed by Guy Beauchamp. Suddenly, Warwick Castle became the centre of a covert plot to get rid of Edward’s toxic companion.
No one is really sure if Edward and Gaveston were lovers, although it was highly likely if we can believe most historians, but what we do know is Gaveston annoyed the hell out of the nobles. He was rude, he was obnoxious and the ill feeling was returned. And he kept Edward away from what he should have been doing. Fighting wars. To a man like Guy Beauchamp who had built his name, his reputation and his castle fighting in wars, Edward’s obsession with Gaveston was incredibly frustrating. It forced Beauchamp and a group of other nobles to do something that they believed had to be done. Get rid of Gaveston.
In 1311, a group of earls led by Guy Beauchamp and Edward’s cousin, Thomas Earl of Lancaster, drew up a document called ‘The Ordinances’ which set out a set of rules to pull the king into line and get rid of Gaveston. Gaveston’s punishment was to leave England and never to return but it wasn’t long before he was back from exile believing he had Edward’s protection. He was wrong. It forced the nobles to an even more drastic solution. And Warwick Castle would be the key to it all.
The next year, as Gaveston passed through a local village just 25 miles from Warwick, Beauchamp and his men kidnapped Gaveston and took him back to the castle. He was brought to the giant hall to face the same barons he’d spent so much time insulting. As soon as he entered, his fate was sealed. He was convicted of treason, sentenced to death and then dragged kicking and screaming to be beheaded in the castle grounds.
There’s a monument on Blacklow Hill north of Warwick off Coventry Road on Blacklow Road. It’s hidden in a wood and it’s not easy to find. You have to climb over a gate and cross the field and then go through the woods with no footpath. The really odd thing is you’re right next to the A29, you can hear the traffic even when you’re in the thick woods off the beaten track. The monument doesn't mention which 'hateful king' but we know exactly who the nobles were talking about.
When Edward found out, he was furious and swore to take revenge on the men who’d done it. Lancaster was dead 10 years later and Beauchamp died within 3 and it looked like the family name was ruined forever. But the Beauchamps had a stroke of luck.
12 years later, Edward II had himself been deposed and murdered and his own son Edward took over as Edward III. Guy Beauchamp’s son Thomas soon had the new king’s ear and the Earls of Warwick, and their castle, were on the rise again.
Edward III transformed England into one of the most formidable powers in Europe and Thomas fought alongside him in some of the most important battles of the 100 Years’ war – Crecy, Agincourt and Poitiers. He became known as ‘The Devil Warwick’ and French towns would flee in terror when they heard he was coming. For his loyalty and his bravery, Edward awarded Thomas money, land and titles and every scrap of money he earned he put straight back into the castle.
One hundred years later, the male line of the Beauchamp heirs ran out and the Warwick title and castle passed in marriage to one of the most notorious men of the whole middle ages. Richard Neville.
Neville was at the control panel during the War of the Roses, the bitter conflict between the rival royal houses of Lancaster and York. Both of them claimed the crown for themselves and a ruthless struggle tore England apart in one of the most dramatic events in history. At the centre of it was the highly ambitious man Richard Neville who is remembered simply as 'The Kingmaker'.
He was a calculating manipulative man who knew how to play factions off against each other and come out with the best possible result for himself, his family and the dynasty he was trying to create. This meant he would go to any lengths to achieve his ends, including high treason.
In 1450, Neville and a small group of nobles rebelled against the ineffectual and weak king, Henry VI from the House of Lancaster, who was simply not cut out to be a king. Neville had Henry replaced with a new king – Edward Plantagenet or Edward IV as he would become – of the House of York and as a reward Neville expected limitless power, territories and titles. To Neville’s Machiavellian mind, Edward was going to be a puppet he could push and pull around.
But it didn’t work out that way. At the beginning of his reign, Edward married in secret and Neville watched his power drain away to the king’s new in-laws, the Woodvilles. You can imagine what Neville thought about that. The pair had a spectacular falling out which resulted in Neville masterminding another plot, but against Edward this time. The king was defeated in battle and taken prisoner right here in the tower of Warwick Castle.
Ultimately, Neville was forced to let Edward go free but you can bet Edward wasn’t about to forget the issue. No one, NO ONE, locked up kings in their castle and got away with it. Six months later, Edward was back with the Duke of Buckingham and his troops and Neville was captured and cut down. For generations, the Earls of Warwick had been close to the crown but in his ambition, Neville had taken it one step too far.
During the century and a half following Neville’s death, the castle fell slowly into disrepair. By 17th century, Warwick Castle was in a sorry state. The mighty castle was literally falling apart.
Then in 1604, James I gave the castle to a politician by the name of Fulke Greville for his loyalty, along with the titles of Earl of Warwick and Baron Brooke.
Fulke Greville wasn’t just a politician. He was a poet, an author and a friend of William Shakespeare, Queen Elizabeth I’s favourite. But along with the titles came the hugh expense of refurbishing the castle. He put in £20,000 (that’s 4 million today) and set it on the road to what it is today.
Fulke lived to the ripe old age of 73 but he didn’t die peacefully. One evening, when he was coming back from the toilet, his manservant whipped out a long dagger and stabbed Fulke twice before turning the blade on himself. He’d just found out how much money he was being left in his master’s will and it wasn’t anywhere near what he expected for his long service to the Lord of Warwick Castle.
Fulke never married and his titles passed to his cousin, an adopted son by the name of Robert Greville. It stayed in the family for generations, during the Civil War where Robert was a key commander with Cromwell’s army, turning Warwick Castle into a prison and a garrison full of weapons. Prisoners were held in the towers and they had plenty of time to think about where their loyalties lay.
The Grevilles profited greatly from being on the winning side and they began little by little to restore the castle. What had been a fortress became a castle filled with the most expensive furniture and art of the day. By the end of 17th century, the castle was literally fit for a king, built on the spoils of war.
But the expense of the upkeep was phenomenal. By the turn of the 18th century, the family was in debt for £115,000. That’s about 9 million today. It left the Greville family teetering on the edge of bankruptcy. As the Victorian era approached, the Greville family’s fortune hung in the balance.
But beneath all this history, lies a truly scandalous story. One family member who was determined to enjoy the glamour was Frances Evelyn Greville, wife of the 5th Baron Brook and Countess of Warwick, better known simply as ‘Daisy’. She was a famous beauty who was connected to royalty but beneath her glamorous lifestyle, things weren’t as they seemed.
Daisy and her husband were members of the elite Marlborough set, the gathering of high society led by the Prince of Wales, the future Edward VII. Daisy drank with them, associated with them and in many cases, slept with them. Some of her amorous conquests were played right there in Warwick Castle in the blue Boudoir. If her name reminds you of a certain song about not affording a carriage and looking good on a bicycle built for two, then it’s because that song was written about her.
Daisy was a woman of many affairs and for nine years, she was the mistress of the Prince of Wales. She was so indiscreet, she was known as ‘babbling Brooke’ and she was so broke, she even tried to sell her memoirs on sleeping with the heir to the throne. In 1928, she submitted her ‘kiss and tell’ story to a publisher and today it’s regarded as the best account of Victorian society. But as with her ancestors, Daisy found the lifestyle and the upkeep an endless drain on finances.
It was Daisy’s 16-year-old grandson, Charles Greville, who became the last earl of Warwick. Not that he spent much time there. Charles wanted to be a film star and he went to Hollywood to crack the movies using his stage name, Peter Brooke, although he was better known by his nicknames of 'Duke of Hollywood' and 'Warwick the Filmmaker'. But his film career never really took off and it took a nose dive and he was forced to sell armour, paintings and heirlooms to cover the cost of the castle’s upkeep.
In 1978, Warwick Castle was sold to one of Britain’s most famous entertainment companies and the Earls of Warwick are long gone. It’s now a tourist attraction, open 364 days of the year. Aside from the entertainment, outrageous, notorious stories still remain of its 1000-year history. It’s this memory that keeps the turnstiles turning today.
I like to remember the past earls of Warwick who played their part in the dramas of England. Agincourt, the War of the Roses, the rising of Lady Jane Grey and the war of the Parliament against Charles I. They have been the hosts of kings and queens and also their executioners. They have dictated the policy of their country and they have perished miserably on the scaffold. They have been generals and admirals and their history does not lack variety.
If castle walls could only talk.