Years ago I thought it would be a winsome idea to spend my summer vacation studying English history, with a nod to England's trio of frisky hinterlands, Scotland, Ireland and Wales.
Now, I'll admit that I bit off quite a chunk of history, 400 years worth: a plate of ghosts, scandal, execution, war, cruelty and creation. Some facts I've lost. But some have stayed. I remember reading a contemporary historian's account of the siege of Kenilworth. He was there. He saw the gilded banners, the blood-streaked horses; he heard the bleeding men cry; he smelt the bloody earth. He wrote how he saw boulders, propelled by the trebuchets, the 'Turkish Engines' of each army, colliding in mid-air. Did they crash into powder, or did the shards of stone propel to the ground, like medieval shrapnel?
Kenilworth castle was born with the Saxon kings as a fortress of timber, but it grew a body of rock after the Norman Conquest. Shortly after 1066 it was built into a massive sprawl of stone, with clutches of towers and a varied skyline of keeps, bastions, arches – all held within the stony embrace of a curtain wall. The largest ruin in England once cut into the soft hillside of Warwickshire like a granite axe.
Kenilworth was a licensed tournament ground, engaged in arranged wars barely contained within the walls of the courtyard, threatening to burst onto the grounds beyond and tumble into the lake, the 'Great Mere' which made an island of this complex of boldness and insolence. Not until the 16th century would the tournament become a controlled confrontation between two knights wearing armor of embroidered steel, with their ladies' handkerchiefs tucked inside their metal gloves.
Three hundred years earlier, in 1266, they had a chance to play for real. The barons of England were unkept, ignorant, crude and violent. Yet by some accident of heredity they were also dangerously powerful, owners of vast acreages of land far greener than would ever be seen again. And yet they felt aggrieved.
The policies of King Henry III – his Crusades, his campaigns against enemies across the border and across the sea – were putting a dent in their purses and their inescapable egos. And now they demanded payback. Named rebels by royal edict, the barons took refuge within Kenilworth's brick halls. They watched through arrow slits, bristling with arms and hurt pride. Perhaps the cold walls cooled the pretensions of one or two. And then they might have realized that they were trapped.
The siege began on May 24. Siege engines with names like mangonels, onagers, trebuchets, 'machinis et tormentis jaculatoris' and 'turres ligneas' were used by both sides, hurling projectiles that found their mark, or – like those boulders I read about so long ago – met harmlessly overhead, spending their force and velocity on each other.
Wooden siege towers, hinged with metal, swathed in animal skins, were monstrous – containing arches and trebuchets, pushed slowly on creaking wheels, casting shadows across the besieged, they must have appeared like the devil's creation, bursting through the earth to cry havoc on them.
Some rebels were able to escape by swimming across The Great Mere. Many were captured – the leaders were given a rebel's execution, and pieces of their bodies were displayed across the country.
The siege of Kenilworth was the longest in English history, lasting nearly a year. But it was not won by courage, or strengh, or military acumen. The castle keep and courtyard was choked with filth and death. Disease will always be the hand that closes the gate on war.
Kenilworth is now an impressive ruin. Tall and shattered, its thick walls are split open, revealing layers of brick which from a distance look as delicate as layers of pastry. It receives many visitors each year, and one day I hope to be one of them. And I'll try to ignore the parking lot by the drawbridge.