If you have an interest in the darker side of social history and want to see real dungeons, an internet search will not help you, as the focus seems to be on attractions filled with actors, jump scares and lots of fake blood. If however you want to see the real thing, you have come to the right place, as here we list the real life dungeons which you can visit across the UK, all with a genuine history as places of imprisonment and often torture.
The Tower of London
The Tower of London is the ultimate place of imprisonment in the UK. Throughout its 1000 year history it has been used as a castle, royal residence, armoury and treasury, but its name is often synonymous with its role as a prison and the famous historical people who were confined within its impenetrable stone walls.
The Tower of London is actually 21 towers, and across these you can see the living quarters, graffiti and execution sites of those locked away. The Wakefield Tower has several grisly torture devices on display in its basement, with manacles, a rack, a Scavenger's Daughter and more.
Pembroke Castle, Wales
Pembroke Castle is a large castle in the Welsh city of Pembroke, originally a motte and bailey castle which was rebuilt in stone in the 12th century. In the inner ward a Dungeon Tower was added in the 13th century, inside which you can still see one of the remaining medieval cells.
Known as an oubliet (from the French 'to forget'), it is little more than a hole in the ground into which a prisoner was thrown to be forgotten about. One of its occupants was the unfairly imprisoned John Whithorne, thrown there when the Earl of Pembroke was trying to steal his lands. Whithorne went blind and suffered terribly from his time in there with the continuous absence of food and light.
The castle is open to the public and being a very traditional looking stone castle with plenty to see and do, it is well worth a visit.
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Berkeley Castle, Gloucestershire
Berkeley Castle, Gloucestershire dates back to the 11th century, and is still lived in by the same family who have been in residence since the 12th century. It was where King Edward II was held prisoner for 5 months in 1327, kept in a windowless room above the dungeon, where the foul stench coming from below was all that he could breathe.
Photographs © Great Castles
The dungeon was little more than a 28 foot pit where the rotting carcasses of animals and sometimes peasants were thrown, creating a malodorous, wretched environment for any nobles held in the nearby cell. Edward II was eventually killed in Berkeley Castle, with a red hot poker shoved up his fundament. Apparently his screams could be heard far beyond the castle walls.
The castle is open to the public and unlike many castles, it is filled with furniture and artworks, an unusual sight to those of us who are used to castles being little more than empty stone rooms with the wind whistling through the open windows and round the spiral staircases.
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Lancaster Castle, Lancashire
Lancaster Castle, also known as John O'Gaunt's Castle, dates back to Roman times when the site protected the city of Lancaster from marauding Picts and Scots.
It was first used as a prison in 1196, holding a wide variety of prisoners - from the Civil War, to women incarcerated for witchcraft during the infamous Pendle Witch trials, political prisoners, Quakers and local debtors. It was the County Jail, site of execution, military prison and a 20th century Category C prison, until it was closed in 2011. The castle is still the location of the Crown Court.
Now open as a tourist attraction with a programme of restoration underway, visitors can tour the cells and dungeons from nearly 1000 years of prison history, with a unique view of the transition from dungeon to modern day prison. The Well Tower is where the Pendle Witches were held in the dungeon and dates back to 1325.
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Alnwick Castle, Northumberland
Possibly best known for its role as Hogwarts in the first two Harry Potter films, and as Brancaster Castle in Downton Abbey, Alnwick Castle was a long and varied history. Built in 1309 it has been home to the Percy family for over 700 years and they still live there today. Over the years the castle has served as a military outpost, a teaching college and a home for evacuees. It is still is use as a residential home to students from St Cloud State University in the USA, as well as open as a tourist attraction.
The dungeon is an underground cell, about three metres deep and 3 metres wide, where prisoners could be lowered through a grate in its ceiling. Other underground basements were also used to hold prisoners when the dungeon was fully occupied. The medieval dungeons can be accessed as part of occasional 'After Dark' tours, or can be seen through a grate from the room above.
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Pontefract Castle, West Yorkshire
A Norman castle built in 1070, it was later the castle tussled over by Richard II and Henry IV, the place where Richard II was imprisoned in 1399, and starved to death in 1400. Henry VIII's fifth wife had her first affair within the castle's walls and it was a Royalist stronghold during the Civil War until it was slighted by Cromwell, leaving the ruins you see there today. The cellars and dungeons are all that remain intact.
The ruins of the castle are now free to visit, but the dungeons can only be accessed by a guided tour. These run most weekends and cost about £3. They include the steep stone steps which take you right underground to the dark and damp dungeons where you can see graffiti from the Civil War prisoners who were incarcerated within, and which were once the most feared dungeons in the country.
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Chillingham Castle, Northumberland
Photographs © Chillingham Castle
A 13th century Grade I listed castle which has been in the same family since 1264, Chillingham Castle is a contender for the 'most haunted castle' crown. The dungeon has one small arrow slit in the wall for light and the walls are carved with prisoner's graffiti and the tallys they kept to mark their days in captivity. A trap door in the floor hides a child's bones in the vault below.
The castle also has a torture chamber equipped with tools of the trade which include an iron maiden, leg irons, thumb screws, traps and lots more. An executioner's block and branding irons complete the gruseome package.
The castle is filled with some impressive furnishings and antiques, and has extensive grounds. Uniquely, they offer visitors the chance to stay, either in coaching rooms or apartments within the actual castle, all with impressive views and close to the beaches.
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Carlisle Castle, Cumbria
Carlisle Castle has a long and bloody history, thanks to its location on the border between England and Scotland and the many invasions, rebellions and battles that have taken place between the two countries. Originally a motte and bailey castle, it was built in stone in 1122, when the stone keep was added. It changed hands many times over the next 700 years, until the army moved in to use it as a barracks, where they stayed until well into the 21st century.
The dungeons are at the bottom of the keep, and prisoners were kept cramped into the small, dark room. During the Jacobite Rebellion of 1746, up to 90 men were kept in the dungeon as they awaited trial. Starved of water, they would lick the walls to get some moisture, and the imprints of where they licked can still be seen today - these are now called the Licking Stones. Some died in the dungeons, others were tried for treason and hanged, drawn and quartered or sold into slavery.
The castle is now owned by English Heritage and contains military museums as well as holding regular events.
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Windsor Castle, Berkshire
The longest occupied palace in Europe, Windsor Castle has been home to the Royal Family since the 12th century. Originally a motte and bailey castle rebuilt in stone, one of the earliest parts of the castle is the Curfew Tower which contains the remains of the dungeon. This is a large, vaulted chamber with 7 recesses which were originally cells for holding prisoners. With a mud floor, apparently one prisoner dug his way out the night before he was due to be executed.
The dungeon held many prisoners over the years ranging from soldiers and gentry to Royalists held during the Civil War, which was the last time it was used as a prison. The Queen would sometimes sleep in the 'beetle-infested' Windsor dungeons during The Blitz.
Although the Curfew Tower is not open to visitors to the castle, weddings and events are held there which may give you the opportunity to see the dungeons up close.
Warwick Shire Hall, Warwick
Photograph © Coventry Telegraph
This dungeon in the county Shire Hall was used as a 'night room' for prisoners. An octagonal room below ground, built around a central cess pool, up to 60 prisoners could be kept in here, chained feet first to posts around the pool. It was built in 1680 to house those awaiting trial and conditions were grim, with the dungeon regularly flooding and people so packed in that they could only lie on their sides.
The dungeon still has its original features and vividly shows just how awful these rooms could be. The dungeon is only open on selected Heritage Open Days.
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Warwick Castle, Warwick
The only one of the popular dungeon tourist attractions which actually was once a dungeon, Warwick Castle is now owned by a theme park operator who has filled the site with rides, costumed actors and lots of fake blood.
It may be fun and entertaining for some, but is is also highly priced, crowded and no longer the place for anyone looking for some serious history. That being said, it could be a reasonable compromise if you want to see some history and the rest of your family like theme parks.
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