The origins of Warwick Castle date back to Saxon times, when it's believed that Ethelfleda (the daughter of Alfred the Great), built a fortification here as part of a network of defensive installations intended to protect the kingdom of Wessex from the Danes. This early "castle" was probably little more than an earthen rampart designed to protect the hill top settlement, and was established around 914AD.
When the Normans arrived in 1068AD, Henry de Newburgh was appointed as Earl of Warwick, and a motte and bailey castle was constructed, with defensive timber palisades. This served until around 1260AD, when the fortification was strengthened with a stone keep and curtain wall.
In 1264AD, during the Barons' Revolt, Warwick Castle was attacked and sacked by Simon de Montfort. In 1268AD, ownership of the castle passed to William de Beauchamp. The Beauchamps held the castle for the next 180 years, and were responsible for most of the improvements and additions made during the medieval period. This included the gatehouse, the huge towers of the curtain wall, and a range of domestic buildings constructed along the eastern curtain wall, atop the cliff that overlooks the River Avon.
The subsequent history of Warwick Castle is one of scandal, treachery and murder - far too great a catalogue to be documented here. Suffice to say it passed through the hands of many earls, surviving war and intrigue, being remodelled in every generation, until it eventually passed into the hands of the Tussaud group in the last century.
Warwick Castle today is said to be the most complete medieval castle in Britain. Despite Jacobean and Victorian additions and alterations, the essential fabric of the earlier fortress survives in remarkable condition, with the ramparts and 14th Century towers in near-perfect condition and all open to exploration by the public.
Despite its splendour, Warwick Castle is let down by the "theme park" approach that currently characterises the management of the site. It is very much a commercial venture, with the emphasis on entertainment and profit rather than history and conservation. This is reflected in the extortionate entrance fees.
For a family with young children, I imagine there's much to commend the castle as a tourist attraction, but for those interested in the history of medieval fortresses, it's a real effort to get past the clamour of school parties, themed burger stalls and costumed entertainers. I would strongly recommend visiting as far out of season as possible, when there may still be a chance of experiencing a little space for quiet contemplation and exploration.