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Pictures: Uncover the Surprising Legacies of Britain’s Most Majestic Castles

Uncover the surprising legacies of Britain’s most majestic castles, and journey from King Tutankhamun to Downton Abbey in fortresses that still offer luxury accommodations.

Balmoral Castle

Wonderful theaters of history bursting with stories of royals, nobles, and aristocrats, Britain’s iconic castles have shaped the famous landscape for almost a century. A symbol of power, majesty, and wealth, many of these fortresses proudly still stand today. From its medieval roots to modern times, Britain’s castles have hosted decadent banquets and ceremonies, where the royal courts would be filled with music, dancing, and sumptuous feasts.

Queen Elizabeth II and Prince Philip, with their children, Prince Andrew (center), Princess Anne (left) and Charles, Prince of Wales, outside Balmoral Castle in Scotland in 1960

Historic moments have long been witnessed within castle walls and none more significant than the death of Queen Elizabeth II last month. It was at her favorite home, beloved Balmoral Castle in the Scottish Highlands, where the British monarch fittingly spent her final days. The private residence was bought by Prince Albert in 1852 for him and his wife, Queen Victoria, who lovingly referred to it as “this dear paradise.” Architects John and William Smith were commissioned to renovate the Scottish baronial castle to royal standards. While owners through the ages have put their stamp on the interiors, the ballroom where the young Queen once danced, and most poignantly where her coffin lay, has still retained its air of vintage grandeur with its custom crystal chandeliers, mounted stag heads, and trefoil designs. So entwined in British history, the property even had a starring role in the Netflix drama The Crown with an episode titled The Balmoral Test last season. “I think Granny was most happy here,” Princess Eugenie, the Queen’s granddaughter said of Balmoral Castle.

Windsor Castle

For royal residents, castle life is still filled with state dinners, garden parties, and family nuptials. Prince Harry chose St George’s Chapel within the walls of Windsor Castle for his wedding to Meghan Markle in 2018. Built by William The Conqueror, the 900-year-old fortress is the oldest and largest inhabited castle in the world, with quintessential external touches such as turrets, towers, and moats.

Lady Carnarvon, Countess of Highclere castle

Royals aside, few castles passed down through generations remain in the family. Highclere Castle is an exception. The eighth Earl of Carnarvon, George Herbert, inherited his family seat after the sudden death of his father in 2011. From its humble Anglo-Saxon roots to a resplendent residence designed by architect Sir Charles Barry, who famously designed the Houses of Parliament in London, Highclere has evolved over the years – as has the role of lady of the manor. Highclere is Countess Carnarvon’s home, but the astute businesswoman doesn’t rest on her laurels as the upkeep of the estate runs into several thousands of pounds each year.

The library in Highclere

Arriving at her majestic ancestral home, it’s evident restoring the sprawling Berkshire estate, which boasts over 250 rooms and 80 bedrooms, has been a labor of love. “Everyone who has lived here knows the house and the house knows you. It’s a stately home, not a museum. It’s about stepping slowly with changes,” she shares over light refreshments as her Labrador Stella lies at her feet. From the grand entrance hall punctuated with pointed arches and marble columns, she offers a tour of the wonderful labyrinth of opulent state rooms brimming with precious artworks, antique heirlooms, and family photos – including a black-and-white print of the current Earl’s godmother The Queen holding him at his christening.

King Henry VIII suite in Thornbury Castle

Guests such as the monarch would traditionally gather in the library, spectacularly filled with over 5,000 books dating from the 16th century. Common to all grand estates, it has a secret door concealed among the bookcases. Like her predecessors, Lady Carnarvon has been instrumental in transforming the fortunes of Highclere, now the backdrop for the acclaimed TV drama Downton Abbey. She shares how a former castellan’s dowry served as a crucial link to preserve the family’s pile and fund the excavation of King Tutankhamun’s tomb, which the fifth Earl of Carnarvon discovered with archaeologist Howard Carter in 1922. “We’re still here because of Lady Almina who married the Earl. She was a wealthy heiress, so her dowry was in something wonderful called cash, about £50 million in today’s terms,” Lady Carnarvon adds. “The Tutankhamun discovery is a defining moment for Highclere and our story.” This November marks its centenary and alongside the cellars, which have been converted into the Egyptian Exhibition, Lady Carnarvon is also releasing a new book, The Earl and The Pharaoh. A gracious host, she gushes on her decision to welcome visitors for seasonal tours and soirees: “It’s a privilege to call Highclere Castle my home and I am delighted to be able to share it with others.”

Highclere Saloon

The royal adventure continues in full force at Thornbury Castle, which is located in southwest England (, a charming 90-minute train ride from London, near the Cotswolds. Built 500 years ago by Edward Stafford, the Duke of Buckingham – the only man to rival King Henry VIII in terms of wealth and status – it is now the only Tudor castle that historophiles can experience for the night from £619 for a suite. Following its recent multi-million-pound refurbishment courtesy of its new UAE-based owners, GTArchitects was commissioned to channel the 1520s grandeur of the Relais & Châteaux boutique hotel. Behind its heavy wooden doors lie rare artefacts, silk wall hangings, enormous open fireplaces, and a hand-painted ceiling, which took a team of Italian fresco painters eight months to complete.

The Highclere Drawing Room

The 27 spectacularly appointed bedchambers range from deluxe rooms to suites, all named after key figures from the Tudor era including the Henry VIII chamber where the King famously stayed with his wife Queen Anne Boleyn in 1535. The decadent Catherine of Aragon suite sits at the top of the tower and can be accessed by going up an ancient spiral staircase. It features evocative lighting, antique chandeliers, and wooden window shutters, which open to reveal the castle’s ruins and rolling Bristolian hills. Boasting a sumptuous one-of-a-kind three-meter four-poster bed, which is the handiwork of local craftsman Steven Edgar, it naturally takes center stage with his exquisite detailing and stately size. An imposing portrait of Henry VIII’s first wife Catherine adorns the rugged stone wall, while the vast bathroom with its traditional roll-top bath brings an atmospheric feel to the stay.

The gardens at Highclere Castle

By day, immerse yourself in Tudor life with the ultimate regal pastime: falconry. Guests can spend the morning with Walks with Hawks founder Clare Lott and her birds of prey, such as mischievous falcon Sid and golden eagle Finnerty. Expertly guided by the region’s bird whisperer, learn to handle and fly the birds as Lott delivers a masterclass on her prized pets. Bespoke experiences like these are key to Thornbury’s appeal, and tours with a local historian will delight the most curious visitor. “We’re a small country and we’re full of history so you trip over it wherever you go. It’s interesting that the families who once owned the castle were a microcosm of the Tudor era as it was all about politics, religion, and beheadings,” Tony Cherry, author of A History of Thornbury Castle, shares. “Ultimately, Thornbury’s charm is its Tudor heritage; to be able to say this was once owned by Henry VIII and built during his reign is appealing.”

Thornbury Castle

As during medieval times, dinner is a sense of occasion. Guests dressed in their finery enjoy canapes in the drawing room, before heading to the European oak wood-paneled restaurant. Curated by executive chef Carl Cleghorn, the fine dining tasting menu showcases fresh, seasonal produce, with the seabass ceviche and the Creedy Carver duck particular standouts. Blending medieval architecture with contemporary luxury, Thornbury Castle with its fairytale turrets, grandiose suites, and Tudor opulence, makes for an enchanting and unforgettable stay.

Library, Thornbury Castle

Catherine of Aragon Suite, Thornbury Castle

Originally published in the October 2022 issue of Vogue Arabia

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