5 Strange Secrets Of Britain’s Castles

If their walls could talk, they’d speak of royal witchcraft, dastardly murder and the world’s oldest contraceptives…

Leeds Castle

Leeds Castle

1. LEEDS CASTLE AND THE WITCH

Surrounded by a mirror-like moat and lined with picture-postcard battlements, Leeds Castle looks like something from a fairy tale. Which is oddly fitting, when you consider that it was once the prison of the only Queen of England ever to be jailed for witchcraft and necromancy. She was Joan of Navarre, wife of Henry IV. They had no children of their own, and things soured for Joan after the king died and his son from a previous relationship, Henry V, came to power.

In a strange twist, despite having always had a close bond with her stepson, Joan somehow fell into massive disfavour, and was accused of using witchcraft to devise the "destruction of our lord the king in the most treasonable and horrible manner". After being imprisoned in Leeds Castle, and other fortresses, Joan was fortunately released by a repentant Henry. Which was more than can be said for one of her accusers, who was himself tried for sorcery and apparently died in the Tower of London during a brawl with a "mad priest".

Castles: Britain's Fortified History

2. BERKELEY CASTLE AND THE MURDER OF A KING

Located in Gloucestershire, Berkeley Castle is notorious for being where Edward II was allegedly murdered in the most painful way imaginable. Edward, who had already been forced to abdicated the throne, was apparently held captive there by his enemies and subjected to awful tortures, such as being starved and left to lie in a heap of corpses. As the story goes, he was then killed by having a red-hot poker shoved up his backside.

Or was he? Historians still disagree about what really happened to Edward at Berkeley Castle. Some believe the poker story to have been a fabrication, dreamt up by writers eager to slur the king because of his apparent homosexuality. There's even a school of thought that Edward escaped the castle to live in exile in Europe, and another man was killed and buried in his place.

3. DUDLEY CASTLE AND THE CONDOMS

Dudley Castle is a handsomely ruined landmark in the West Midlands, ravaged over the centuries by humans and the passage of time. As well as being known for its craggy grandeur, the ruins have another, less likely, claim to fame. This was where archaeologists were surprised to discover the world's oldest existing condoms.

Found in a medieval toilet, the condoms are thought to date back to the 1640s and are composed of fish intestines and other animal bits. It's only by a quirk of fate that they have remained in a recognisable state after so many centuries.

4. CARLISLE CASTLE AND ITS CARVINGS

Situated so close to the border between Scotland and England, Carlisle Castle was the epicentre of many sieges and battles, but still stands now as an ominous example of a British fortress.

Carlisle Castle is home to some mysterious carvings.

Carlisle Castle is home to some mysterious carvings.

Its aesthetic interest goes far deeper than the walls, though. Deep inside its Keep, the walls are adorned with mysterious stone etchings, depicting a series of seemingly random images.

The carvings include mermaids, stags and warriors, and were long thought to have been painstakingly carved by prisoners kept in the castle during its long and violent history. Now, however, experts believe they were more likely made by their bored guards. In either case, they help make up for the crude exterior, which the poet Keats infamously dubbed "ugly".

5. GLAMIS CASTLE AND THE MONSTER

Glamis Castle is, according to some true believers, one of the most haunted buildings in Britain. This Scottish pile, which was the childhood home of the Queen Mother, is also the subject of a long-standing legend, known as the Monster of Glamis. This dates back to 1821, the year the estate owners had a son, Thomas, who died soon after he was born.

But according to the legend, Thomas didn't die at all. He was, in fact, deformed, and deemed unfit to inherit the estate. Instead, the unfortunate infant was raised in secret, and hidden away in a secret room somewhere in Glamis Castle. One Victorian report described him as "half frog, half man", while writer and ghost-hunter James Wentworth-Day alleged that the secret castle dweller was "fearful to behold", "hairy as a doormat" and with "toylike" arms and legs. There is also an account of Rose Bowes-Lyon, the Queen Mother's sister, saying of the legend: "Our parents forbade us ever to discuss the matter or ask any questions about it. My father and grandfather refused absolutely to discuss it."