Tower of London at Night

Best Castles in the UK

Medieval castles are the iconic military fortress of the Middle Ages. We’ve picked what we believe to be the three best castles from around the UK.

Best Castles in the UK

20 February 2023

Castles are the iconic fortified structure of the Middle Ages, and today they remain historic symbols of power, wealth, and military might.

Many exceptional examples of medieval castles exist throughout Europe, but England is famous for its castles for good reason, as it is home to some of the finest.

The use of castles as a military fortification has waned in the modern age. Today's weapons, tactics, and new technology have largely made them redundant from their political and battlefield roles, but a castle can still be part of modern life. The castles that have endured the test of time have become examples that can teach us about the history and architecture of their age.

The Tower of London

The Tower of London was built almost a thousand years ago in the 1070s by William the Conqueror, as a symbol of the new military power of the age. The modern castle began as the White Tower, which is the square keep in the middle of the site today. It was named after Edward I began whitewashing the building in 1240. Over the next three centuries, successive monarchs expanded the castle by adding new defensive features like concentric curtain walls and new towers.

No enemy military force has ever taken the Tower. In fact, the only time the Tower was ever occupied by a hostile force was during the Peasants Revolt of 1381. The Tower of London has been a statement over London’s city skyline for centuries and has always been more than a simple fortress. The castle was used as a prison for over 800 years, with the unluckiest inmates finding their way to Tower Hill next door for public execution. Fortunately, these stopped in 1780.

Not only is the Tower still standing after a thousand years, but it is also still in regular use today as a thriving tourist attraction. The castle performs the traditional and essential role of protecting the Crown-quite literally, having been the home of England’s Crown Jewels since 1994.

Even though London has been built up around it and modern skyscrapers now dwarf the ancient structure, the Tower of London stands proud. UNESCO awarded the castle world heritage status in 1988, and it continues to be a part of modern life in the capital.

Edinburgh Castle

Edinburgh Castle

Edinburgh Castle in Edinburgh, Scotland, is built on the ancient volcanic plug of Castle Rock. It is the most popular tourist attraction in Scotland and the second most popular attraction in the United Kingdom.

Castle Rock juts over the Edinburgh skyline, so naturally, it has been used for defensive fortifications for centuries. Although historians are still unsure exactly when the first structure was built upon the plug. Ptolemy’s writings suggest there could have been a settlement there as long ago as the 2nd century. Later documents suggest a stronghold existed there around the year 600, but the earliest documented evidence of a castle we have today wasn’t written until the 11th century.

The castle, as it appears today, began to take shape following the Treaty of Berwick in 1357, which ended the Wars of Independence. David II began construction on David’s Tower ten years later. Royal apartments, Crown Square, and a Great Hall were added throughout the 1400s. Edinburgh Castle first became a royal residence in the 12th century and retained this distinguished role until the 1630s. In the 17th century, its use shifted to a military role.

Edinburgh Castle holds the distinction of being the most besieged place in Britain. While it valiantly defended itself against many of these attacks, it has occasionally failed. In 1639, it fell to invaders after just 30 minutes of battle. Another attempted capture failed in 1715 when it turned out the ladders brought by the Jacobite army were too short to scale the castle ramparts.

Like all great castles, prisoners were sometimes held here. In 1479, the Duke of Albany was one such figure, although he successfully escaped after getting his guards drunk and climbing through a window. The last prisoner was released from Edinburgh Castle in 1814, and following this, its role gradually changed from fortress and palace to a much-loved national monument.

Today, Edinburgh Castle houses the Scottish National War Memorial and the Scottish National War Museum, as well as acting as a popular tourist destination, welcoming over two million visitors a year. This ancient castle continues to watch over the city below and stands tall upon the foundation of Castle Rock.

Windsor Castle Courtyard

Windsor Castle

Windsor Castle is the second English Castle on our list, built by William the Conqueror in the 11th century.

Until her death in 2022, Windsor Castle was the official residence of Queen Elizabeth II and is today the largest and oldest occupied castle in the world. Windsor Castle has been home to dozens of monarchs since it was built. It is also a popular tourist attraction, offering a glimpse into the life of the monarchy over the years.

Construction began in 1070 when Windsor Castle was built as one of a series of defensive wooden fortifications surrounding London. Since then, the castle has regularly been extended and rebuilt to suit the taste of the reigning monarch. Henry I was the first to use the castle as his personal residence in 1110; and it was his son, Henry II, who repaired and improved the fortifications by remaking them in stone. These fortifications were well-tested over the years, with Windsor Castle surviving sieges in 1193 and 1216.

In the middle of the 13th century, Henry III added the palace as part of an extensive rebuilding program, transforming what had once been a military building into a luxurious home. Further developments followed thanks to Edward III, who gave the castle a gothic makeover during the 14th century.

The Tudors and Windsor’s have added their own touches too. Henry VII added his namesake gate, and Elizabeth I added a new gallery so she could take walks even if the weather was bad. Following the civil war and restoration of the monarchy, Charles II redesigned the royal apartments in baroque style and later, George IV raised the round tower and cemented the famous skyline of Windsor Castle we see today.

Despite fire, war, and plague, Windsor Castle has never fallen into disrepair or been left to ruin. Today, it is the burial place of over 40 kings and queens who have called this castle home over the years.

Tragically, in 1992, a fire destroyed large parts of Windsor Castle, including Queen Victoria’s chapel, the Crimson Drawing Room; the State Dining Room, and several other rooms. The restoration work was completed within five years, and although parts of the castle are now lost forever, this chapter is simply another entry into the thousand-year story of this magnificent castle.

Image credits

Tower of London: Photo by Ian Probets:

Edinburgh Castle: Photo by Aleks Michajlowicz:

Windsor Castle: Photo by Михаил Лазаренко: