Castle of the Week 7 – Leeds Castle

Leeds Castle has been described as “the loveliest castle in the world” and “the most romantic castle in Britain” and, while a debatable point, it is certainly a beautiful building on two islands surrounded by a large lake. Despite its name, Leeds Castle is nowhere near Leeds but is, in fact, near Maidstone in Kent, named after Led, Ethelbert IV’s chief minister. It has been a stronghold, a royal home for six of England’s medieval queens, one of Henry VIII’s palaces and now it is a residence and corporate conference centre with an adjacent golf course.

It was known for some time as “Lady’s Castle” after its royal residents, including Eleanor and Margaret, the wives of Edward I; Philippa of Hainault, wife of Edward III; Catherine de Valois, wife of Henry V; Catherine of Aragon, first wife of Henry VIII and Elizabeth I who was imprisoned there for a while before becoming Queen.

It was originally a manor belonging to the Saxon royal family – probably as early as Ethelbert IV’s reign (856-860). Over the next 100 years or so the castle was a centre of many sieges and much fighting, resulting in frequent changes of ownership. The Saxon castle was an earthwork enclosure with wooden pallisades and it was mentioned in the Domesday Book of the late 11th century.

Robert Crevecoeur started to build a stone castle on the site around 1119 to be an impregnable stronghold against the huge numbers of hostile English after the Norman invasion, although the only visible remains of this castle is the cellar. It is under a late Georgian house of 1822 and used to lead to the great hall. Stephen and Matilda, during their war for the English throne in the mid 12th century contested the castle. After a short siege Stephen took control of the castle and later the English throne.

In 1278 Edward I took possession. He rebuilt much of it and enlarged it, building a curtain wall round the edge of the larger island with two D-shaped towers and a water gate in the south-east of the island. He also enlarged the moat. He built the barbican, still to be seen today, which is unique in that it is made up of three parts, each with its own entrance – drawbridge, gateway and portcullis. A mill that had already existed on the site was fortified and became an important part of the outer defences. It could be used to flood the river valley via an aqueduct in the basement during invasions. He also built the Gloriette (the medieval keep) named in honour of Queen Eleanor’s influence. In the Gloriette was the great hall and in the centre a courtyard called Fountain Court. In the 14th century a system was devised to bring piped water in from springs in the park to supply the fountain. These springs still supply the castle today. In 1321 the castle was besieged and taken for the last time by Edward II’s troops because his Queen was refused entry.

Henry VIII is the most well-known of all Leeds Castle’s owners. He expended a lot of money enlarging and beautifying the whole castle, giving the work to his great friend Sir Henry Guildford. He retained the defenses, however, as he feared invasion from France or Spain. He left from Leeds for his famous meeting with Francis I of France at the Field of the Cloth of Gold in 1520.

In 1552 the castle was granted to Sir Anthony St Leger, the Lord Deputy of Ireland. It was then bought by the Smyths who built a Jacobean house on the site and sold to the Culpeper family in 1632. The family were Parliamentarians during the Civil War and used Leeds as a Roundhead arsenal. In the 17th century, the Keep was used to hold French and Dutch prisoners but it fell into ruins after the prisoners set it on fire. From the Culpepers, the castle passed to Lord Fairfax who ‘Gothicised’ the main house and entertained George III in 1778.

It has been constantly inhabited since then, parts of it being rebuilt over the years. Most of what you can see today is the result of 19th century reconstruction and addition and restoration carried out by Lady Baillie, an American heiress, who bought the castle in 1926. This final restoration took over 30 years and in her will the Leeds Castle Foundation was created to maintain the building, garden & park.

During the 2nd World War, Leeds Castle hosted many important meetings including one between Field Marshal Montgomery and Sir Bertram Ramsay. Cinema goers may remember it from Kind Hearts & Coronets.

Now it looks like a residence with a fortified barbican and drawbridge. It is a combination of royal palace, manor house and medieval castle with huge fireplaces, tapestries on the walls, much fine furniture and no draughty towers. It also houses Lady Baillie’s fine collection of 18th century Chinese porcelain. An aviary was opened in 1988 as a memorial to Lady Baillie full of many birds including black swans. In the 500 acres of surrounding parkland are a maze, vineyard, grotto and herb garden.

Written by GillB. Photos courtesy of Castles of the World