Castles, for the romantics among us, personify the age-old ideals of chivalry and the loyalty that comes with epic wars, as well as selfless devotion to the throne. However, once we put the romantic notions aside, we can look at the important role castles have played in the world’s history, particularly European history. The word castle originates from the Latin word castrum, which literally means “fortified place” as the earliest parts of almost all the castles still standing today were built as fortresses to protect local inhabitants from invading armies.
When looking at the world’s oldest castles, it’s obvious that the grand buildings that still stand today were designed or completed in stages after the original fortress was built. Despite the fact that many have undergone substantial restoration work over the years, the majority of them are extremely popular tourist destinations and are open to the general public.
10. Alcázar of Segovia, Spain
The Alcázar of Segovia was built on the remains of a Roman fort and served as an Arab fortress until King Alfonso VI reclaimed the area around 1120 when the first written record of the castle appears. The castle became the primary residence of King Alfonso VIII and his wife Eleanor of England during his reign and they began the construction of the castle as it remains today. When looking at its exterior it’s easy to see why many people around the world actually believe that the castle’s design inspired Walt Disney’s creative direction for Cinderella’s castle.
The castle became one of the most significant strongholds for the Castilian monarchs right up until the capital’s move to Madrid. It was gradually returned to its former glory beginning in 1882 and was eventually handed over to the Ministry of War in 1896 by King Alfonso XIII to be used as a military academy. Today the Alcázar is a UNESCO World Heritage Site that is open to tourists all year round who visit its archives and museum.
9. Rochester Castle, England
The impressive Rochester Castle was constructed in the late 1080s after William II requested that Gundulf, Bishop of Rochester, build a stone castle in Rochester so that he could take control of a key river crossing. Gundulf was ahead of his times in many ways and was one of William the Conqueror’s greatest architects, building not only Rochester Castle but also the Tower of London. Most of the walled perimeter that can still be seen today dates from that era. Many of England’s early castles were made of motte and bailey, so this stone castle is one of the country’s oldest of its kind.
The castle was besieged in the early 13yth century by King John, who in the process caused significant damage to the outer wall and the main structure. According to historic records, the castle changed hands at least two more times during the 13th century and its prominence would continue to change with the times. Major repair work was undertaken during the 19th as well as the 20th century, to restore its original grandeur. Today, Rochester Castle is a prominent tourist attraction and is under the care of English Heritage charity.
8. Kilkenny Castle, Ireland
Kilkenny Castle claims the bragging rights when it comes to having one of the longest histories of continuous occupation throughout Ireland. The castle was established soon after the Norman invasion of Ireland and was expanded, remodeled, and altered for the next 800 years to suit each era. The first castle was constructed by the Earl of Pembroke and within one hundred years was replaced by a stone structure of which three original towers survive to this day. Damaged during the Cromwellian occupation, the castle was restored by the Butler family from around 1661.
Though the Kilkenny Castle of today is largely a remodeled version of the 13th century castle, it is open to thousands of visitors who visits every year to see its beauty and walk its fifty acre estate which include a magnificent picture gallery, drawing room, library, nursery, magnificent bedrooms as well as its gardens that include plenty of wildlife. The castle was bought for £50 by the Castle Restoration Committee in 1967 after Lord Ormonde decided to put a stop to its deterioration, and currently belongs to the people of Kilkenny.
7. Portchester Castle, England
Portchester Castle’s construction began as early as the 3rd century. It was initially a Roman fort, one of the famous Forts of the Saxon Shore – a series of coastal defenses constructed during the 3rd century to counter the threat posed by Saxon pirates who were raiding Roman Britain’s south coast at the time. The Roman defenses were later integrated into the medieval castle, which was designed in the late 11th century. Its remarkable 12th century Keep’s remnants are the most complete circuit still standing in the United Kingdom today.
The castle would later be used as a hunting lodge by King John, and as a launch site by Henry II when he decided to visit his French territories. Henry II also used the castle to incarcerate any important captives and to safeguard his treasury before moving it to France. The castle was likewise used for quick stop-overs by England’s rulers. Due to its rich history, professor Barry Cunliffe guided major archaeological excavations at the castle between 1961 and 1979. Thousands of artifacts dating from prehistoric times to the nineteenth century were discovered during the excavations, transforming our appreciation for its history.
6. Killyleagh Castle, Ireland
Northern Ireland is home to one of the world’s most ancient and iconic castles, Killyleagh Castle, which can almost be described as the biggest draw in the village of Killyleagh. King James I granted the land to James Hamilton, who later would become the 1st Viscount Claneboye, and he proceeded to construct remarkable perimeter walls and a single towered castle. It is the oldest inhabited castle in Ireland, with parts dating back to 1180.
In the early 1700s, James Hamilton acquired ownership of the castle. The original castle was expanded by different family members, who added buildings, towers, and walls. Today, Gawn Rowan Hamilton and his family live at Killyleagh castle. They have opened two of the towers to serve guests within the area with self-catering accommodation. Guests also have access to the castle’s swimming pool, rooftop patio, and tennis courts. The towers can accommodate up to 15 people at any given time and even includes modern comforts such as central heating. In addition, the castle nowadays also hosts live concerts and allowed the children’s show, Dani’s Castle, to be filmed on its grounds.
5. Hohensalzburg Castle, Austria
Fortress Hohensalzburg, one of Europe’s biggest 11th-century fortress complexes, towers over the city of Salzburg, fondly known as the city of Mozart. This grandiose masterpiece is an extraordinary expression of the prince bishops’ longing for recognition, as well as an exhibition of the cultural authority and political power they wielded. The defenses were constructed to protect the prince bishops from any and all attacks, though, in reality, the fortress never came under siege. The prince bishops spent the majority of their time in the “Residenz”, a palace in the heart of Salzburg.
The magnificent fortress was developed over 3 main historical periods in direct response to the advent of robust weaponry with increasing ranges as a means to further strengthen the castle. Under the regime of Archbishop Leonard von Keutschach around 1500, concentrated construction work finalized the castle as seen today, and it still houses “The Salzburg Bull,” a wheel-driven barrel organ that is over 500 years old. The organ has been restored numerous times over the centuries and continues to be heard daily at 7:00 a.m., 11:00 a.m., and 6:00 p.m. when it plays the marvelous pieces from the former conductors of the Salzburg court ensembles such as Paul Hofhaimer, Johann Ernst Eberlin, and Leopold Mozart.
4. Windsor Castle, England
Windsor Castle has been used by England’s ruling monarch since the reign of King Henry I, making it Europe’s longest-occupied castle. Even though there was a royal residence at Windsor during the Saxon period, around the 9th century, the building of the first castle began around 1070, following William the Conqueror’s Norman invasion of England. The original castle was constructed of motte and bailey, but stone fortifications were gradually added. When Henry III assumed power, he built a lavish royal palace within the castle, which was later rebuilt by Edward III to make it even grander.
The majority of the world’s oldest castles have become tourist attractions, but Windsor Castle remains a royal residence. It is, in reality, Queen Elizabeth II’s favorite weekend home. Since being built in the 11th century, 39 monarchs have used it as a residence, which is incredible. Even though the castle remains one of the queen’s preferred homes, parts of the castle are open to the public on certain days of the year.
3. Warwick Castle, England
William the Conqueror built the first castle on the current site of Warwick Castle in 1068. Every succeeding Earl of Warwick gradually reconstructed the castle into a stone structure over the next century, and by the late 1300s, the original building had been expanded to include a dungeon and two towers. Unfortunately, Warwick Castle fell into disrepair during the 16th century and would not be restored for several decades. In 1978, the Greville family, who had owned the castle for over 300 years, sold it to the Tussauds Group, and the castle and its grounds were restored to their former glory.
The castle’s ownership would change hands again in the 21st century, and today is leased by Merlin Entertainments from Prestbury Group. Seasonal shows, musical performances, and even Dragon Slayer evenings make it an incredibly popular attraction. In fact, the medieval castle is in all probability one of England’s most popular tourist attractions and provides tourists with a variety of lodging options that include knight’s village lodges, medieval glamping tents, and romantic Tower Suites inside the castle.
2. Reichsburg Cochem, Germany
Reichsburg Cochem, also known as Cochem Castle, is one of the oldest surviving castles in the world. The Palatinate count Ezzo is presumed to have founded the castle around the year 1000. According to the earliest documentation we have of the castle, Richeza, the former Queen of Poland and Ezzo’s oldest daughter, decided to give the castle to her nephew Palatine count Henry I in 1051. After King Konrad III forcibly seized the castle in 1151, it was designated as an Imperial castle. It was partly destroyed by French King Louis XIV’s troops in 1688, but Louis Fréderic Jacques Ravené rebuilt it in the Gothic Revival style in 1868.
This style reflected the romantic ideals common in Germany during the 19th century. The trend in Germany at the time was for aristocracy as well as other wealthy individuals to buy and renovate castle ruins as family summer residences. The Ravené family followed suit and used the castle as a summer retreat for their family. The Ravené family carefully acquired Renaissance and Baroque furniture, which is still present in the castle today. The town of Cochem has owned the castle since 1978, and it is managed by “Reichsburg Cochem Ltd.”
1. Citadel of Aleppo, Syria
We have only one Middle Eastern castle on this list, and it just so happens to be the world’s largest and oldest. The Citadel of Aleppo was founded on a hill within Aleppo’s Ancient City, which was designated a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1986. The significance and use of the hill can be traced back to 3000 BCE, but the majority of the current structure is believed to have been constructed during the Ayuubid dynasty in the 12th century. The majestic entrance bridge, high walls, and grand gateway of the city, all of which are mostly intact, provide a striking backdrop for the ancient city.
Until the conflict broke out in 2011, the Citadel attracted thousands of tourists each year. The Aga Khan Trust for Culture carried out large-scale field research and conservation endeavors on the citadel in the early 2000s. Their actions culminated in meticulous documentation of the site and incalculable conservation work. Some of the citadel’s most important structures were strengthened and preserved, in the process allowing them to be dynamically reused and fully interpreted for the site’s visitors. Regrettably, the citadel has been badly damaged in recent years as a result of the ongoing Syrian Civil War, and while repairs have begun, concerns about the citadel’s safety remain an ongoing concern.