Modern architecture, skyscrapers, and other perfectly symmetrical buildings spring up like mushrooms after the rain. Howerver, it is not everyday that we get the chance to see grandiose medieval buildings that reflect the culture and vibration of the ages they’ve seen passing by. These are the real source of inspiration. Some are lucky enough to live in them with their families, as some castles have been perfectly looked after over centuries and have been passed on from generation to generation.
There are approximately 1,500 castle sites in England alone, which only stand to show how kings and noblemen rivaled in building bigger, stronger, and more majestic edifices. Unfortunately, only 800 are still standing today, more or less in ruins, out of which only 300 managed to preserve most of their original shape. They were once a symbol of power and wealth. Nowadays, they have become a symbol of living a fairytale. Besides their undeniable beauty, the castles on our list have seen royalty being brought to this world, have seen kings being crowned and being murdered, they hide bloody secrets and dungeons where the screams of the tortured can still be heard in the midst of the night, but they were also the inspiration behind Sleeping Beauty, Cinderella, Robin Hood, and Harry Potter; icons that can bring a smile on anyone’s face.
5. Berkeley Castle, Gloucestershire
The second oldest inhabited castle in England after Windsor, and the oldest to be continuously owned and permanently inhabited by one single family has its origins in the 11th century, when a mott-and-bailey fortification was built in 1067 by William FitzOsbern. The stronghold entered the possession of three consecutive Berkeley generations until it was reconstructed during the first half of the 12th century by the same Berkeley family. Most of the castle we see today was built by Thomas de Berkeley in the 14th century.
Berkeley Castle gained notoriety in 1327, when Edward II of England was placed in the joint custody of Thomas de Berkeley and his brother-in-law, who held the king in the castle for five months. After several escape attempts, Edward II was murdered in the same Berkeley Castle in 1327, most likely by suffocation. The dungeon where he was imprisoned and murdered can still be visited today. Berkeley Castle is currently the permanent residence of the Berkeley family, but it is also open to the public.
4. Alnwick Castle, Northumberland
Also known as “The Windsor of the North”, Alnwick Castle is the second largest still-inhabited castle in England after Windsor. You might say there’s something about it that looks awfully familiar, and you’re not wrong. Remember Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry in Harry Potter? This is exactly the same castle they shot the movie in. It was also the setting for Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves and Mary, Queen of Scots. However, Alnwick is also famous for being one of the oldest still inhabited castles in the world. For the last 700 years, it has been the ancestral residence of the Percy family. Henry Lord Percy purchased the Alnwick Castle in 1309 and moved his entire family inside. Built after the Norman Conquest, it served, and still does, as the Seat of the Duke of Northumberland. Nowadays, the Duke and Duchess of Northumberland, as well as their family, live here permanently, although they do not occupy the entire estate.
3. Chateau d’Usse, Loire Valley
Just like most medieval castles in Europe, Chateau d’Usse was built on the site of an old stronghold. Earliest documents date back to the 11th century, when the stronghold was fortified by Gueldin de Saumur, the Norman Seigneur of Usse. It was then passed on to the Count of Blois, who rebuilt the fortification in stone. Later, the castle was left in ruins, until the 1440’s, when it was rebuilt once more as a defensive castle. It was expanded in the 17th century, when Flamboyant Gothic style and Renaissance motifs were added, which resulted in the overall aspect we see today. In 1885, the castle was passed on to the count of Blacas. Nowadays, the fairytale-like castle is the property of Casimir de Blacas d’ Aulps, the 7th Duke of Blacas.
Considered one of the loveliest castles in France, standing proud over the Loire Valley, right at the edge of the Chinon forest, and overlooking the Indre River, it is safe to say that Chateau d’Usse is a picture perfect castle. With its numerous pointy towers, it seems as if it was ripped off the pages of a fairytale. Which is not too far from the truth, as it is believed to have been the inspiration behind Charles Perrault’s Sleeping Beauty. It has also inspired numerous Disney castles, such as the famous Cinderella castle, but there’s more to it than just stories. Chateau d’Usse is a remarkable example of elegance and luxury, furnished with the most exquisite pieces of furniture, all custom-made by the best cabinet-makers of the 18th century. Sleeping Beauty‘s castle was declared a historical monument in 1931 and, although it is still inhabited by the Blacas family, it is open to the public a few weeks per year.
2. Chateau du Plessis-Bourre, Loire Valley
One of the few French castles that are still inhabited by their owner, Chateau du Plessis-Bourre managed to withstand the test of time quite well, as it is one of the best preserved castles in Europe. Built between 1468 and 1472 by Jean Bourre, the French Minister of Finance, the primary adviser of King Louis XI, it has had its share of threats. Nevertheless, it had not once been modified externally since construction, unlike most castles, which makes it quite unique. In 1911, it was purchased by the Reille-Soult de Dalmatie family. It was later passed on to François Reille-Soult, the Duke of Dalmatie, and in 1978 to Antoinette de Ferrieres de Sauvebeuf, who took on the responsibility of maintaining the castle, moving in with her three children and her husband, Count Bruno de Sauvebeuf. The castle is now the family’s permanent residence, and they have assumed the responsibility of preserving its charm and authenticity.
It may give the impression of a fortification, a defensive castle, but there’s more to it than meets the eye. In fact, the interiors were designed from the very beginning to cater for the most luxurious and extravagant lifestyle. With a fully working drawbridge, surrounded by a moat, with castle dungeons and finely decorated chambers, this luxurious residence was featured in several historical movies, and is also open to the public.
1. Windsor Castle, Berkshire
Known as the world’s largest inhabited castle, Windsor is all about extravagance. Forget everything you knew about your average picturesque and intimate castles and think all superlative. The floor area of the Windsor covers an approximate 484,000 square feet, and there are almost 1,000 rooms in this gigantic palace. With more than 900 years of royalty encased in its walls, it has been continuously inhabited for almost 1,000 years, during which time it was modified and refurbished by the English monarchs themselves.
It was originally a wooden mott-and-bailey castle built by William the Conqueror high above the Thames, and the outer walls we see today are in the exact same position as they were in 1070. Henry II rebuilt the fortification in stone in 1170, and in 1360 Edward III built the enormous St. George’s Hall for the Knights of the Order of the Garter. Oliver Cromwell captured the castle during the Civil War in 1642 and turned it into a prison and headquarters of the parliamentary forces. Charles II restored the castle, but it was George IV and his fine taste in arts that transformed it into the opulent jewel it is today. On November 1992, a major fire started in the Private Chapel. Over 100 rooms were destroyed by the fire. Restorations took five years and cost $59.2 million.
A popular tourist attraction, associated with the British Royal Family and renowned for its architectural design, Windsor is one of the official residences of Queen Elizabeth II and can only be visited when her Majesty the Queen of England is not present in the castle.
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