Kenilworth, though a castle in name, was converted by Robert Dudley, earl of Leicester, into the first great Elizabethan progress house. This article aims to provide the first thorough account and assessment of his architectural works at Kenilworth. It is based primarily on the author’s long acquaintance with the castle’s building fabric, supplemented by the opportunities afforded by the recent programme of works undertaken by English Heritage and by new documentary information. Among the discoveries are several works (previously attributed to Leicester) which can be assigned to his father, the duke of Northumberland (c 1553) and also evidence for an early phase of work for Leicester himself (c 1568–9).
His most important architectural achievement, Leicester’s Building, is shown to have been built specifically to accommodate Queen Elizabeth, and the functions of its rooms are reconstructed. Evidence is assembled to show that Leicester’s Building was erected between 1570 and 1572, in anticipation of her 1572 visit. Archaeological analysis of its standing fabric shows that it underwent considerable modification subsequently, presumably in readiness for the 1575 progress. The physical evidence for Leicester’s other architectural works at the castle is assessed, including the remodelling of the great tower and the south and east ranges of the inner court.
The reasons for Leicester’s grand scheme are considered, as well as the importance of his architecture in the period and the roles of his architects and craftsmen, particularly William Spicer. It is argued that Leicester’s Building was the prototype for the midlands ‘high house’ (of which Hardwick New Hall is the best-known exemplar) and was probably the most significant model for the eclectic, linear style which came to dominate great houses in the second half of Elizabeth’s reign.