Address: Leeds Castle, Broomfield, Maidstone ME17 1PL, UK

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Phone: +44 (0) 1622 765400

 

Leeds Castle History

The history of the site can be traced back to 855 when it was known as ‘Esledes’, meaning the ‘slope’ or ‘hillside’ and was an area that was owned by the Saxon royal family. Over the years it’s changed hands many times, often under royal ownership, and in 1974 was left to the Leeds Castle charitable trust.

Today, the castle has thousands of visitors and the tranquil surroundings today are in sharp contrast to the turmoil that has taken place in the past.

Before the Norman conquest, the manor, or area on which the castle sits, was owned by the family of Harold I, the king defeated by William the Conqueror in the Battle of Hastings of 1066. In 1090 William’s son, William II, ceded the land to his cousin Hamo de Crevecoeur and in 1119, his grandson Robert built the first stone fortification on two islands in the river Len. This design gave the castle a natural moat which provided a marvellous defence. The main building was on the smaller island, accessed via the larger island, and various drawbridges and portcullises were built.

Despite being taken briefly by Stephen du Blois, the future Stephen I, the castle remained with the de Crevecoeur family until it was sold to the wife of Edward I, Eleanor of Castile, in 1278. This was the start of three hundred years of royal ownership and began the trend of becoming a retreat for the Queen, retained until her death. In total, six Queens took ownership, Eleanor, Margaret, Isabella, Anne, Joan and Catherine.

The trend stopped briefly in the 14th century when Edward II gave the castle to the Lord Steward of the royal household, Bartholemew de Badlesmere. Edward then became unpopular with the nobility and Bartholemew turned against him. This led to the castle’s second siege, in 1321, when Edward’s wife Queen Isabella and her party were refused entry by Bartholemew’s wife, Margaret. Margaret was possibly fearful of an attack, but it gave Edward the perfect opportunity to reclaim the castle, which he did, and following his death, Isabella continued the royal tradition of remaining in the castle.

Both Richard II and Henry IV gave the castle to their respective wives, Anne of Bohemia and Joan of Navarre, with the latter ceding the estate to the Archbishop of Canterbury, Thomas Arundel, in 1412.

Since it was first built, the various owners added or modified various parts of the structure and as the queens were often of European extraction, certain French or Spanish architectural details were employed.

Henry’s son, Henry V, fell out with Joan, his stepmother, and had her imprisoned at Leeds, charging her with witchcraft. Henry eventually revoked the charge and returned her possessions and the Wardrobe Book she used can be seen today in the castle archives, detailing her captivity.

Henry V passed the castle on to his widow, Catherine de Valois in 1422 and she held it until 1437. She was the mother of Henry VI, and her grandson, Henry VII, became the first monarch of the house of Tudor.

The reign of Henry VIII saw much change, upheaval and action in British history and the effect on Leeds Castle was no different. Henry undertook major alterations between 1517 and 1523, transforming it from a major stronghold and fortification, to a royal palace. He set aside one part exclusively for his first wife, Catherine of Aragon, and a room named after her remains today. In 1520, on his way to France for a meeting with the French King, Francis I, Henry and his wife spent the night at Leeds with an entourage of over 5,000 people.

Under Henry’s rule, the castle changed hands and became a private residence and in 1552 was granted to Anthony St Leger for an annual rent of £10, this in return for his part in quelling the Irish uprising.

The castle then continued to change hands many times as the huge cost of purchase and upkeep put pressure on the owners’ fortunes, and as their wealth fluctuated, the castle had to be sold on with death duties often a major reason.

The St Leger family lost much in supporting Sir Walter Raleigh’s unsuccessful expedition to find El Dorado, the legendary land of gold and riches, and in 1618 they sold the castle to Sir Richard Smythe. Although Smythe only held it for 14 years, he embarked on much structural change, demolishing all buildings at the north end of the main island and replacing them with a Jacobean house.

Smythe sold it to the Culpeper family in 1632 and when a family member received 5 million acres of land in Virginia from the crown as a reward for loyalty, a long standing connection between the castle and America had begun. Culpeper leased the castle to the government who were after a place to detain 17th century French and Dutch prisoners, but during their incarceration, the prisoners set fire to parts of the castle, causing much long-term structural damage.

Through marriage in the late 17th century, the estate passed onto the Fairfax family and much renovation and improvement took place, although some of the cosmetic changes, particularly to the Jacobean House, were questioned in later years. The estate stayed with the Fairfaxs for over 100 years, with the 6th Lord Fairfax moving to America to manage the Virginian acquisition. 1793 saw lands on both sides of the Atlantic move out of the Fairfax family and through a series of exchanges over the next 30 years, move into the hands of Fiennes Wykeham. The estate was given to him by General Martin, and in recognition of this fine gesture, Wykeham adopted his name and became Fiennes Wykeham Martin.

Martin had a full survey done of the castle and the report was a shock as it revealed the full extent of the structural problems that had built up over the years. The Gloriette needed almost a total rebuild following the fire damage from the 17th century, so whilst Leeds was a fine acquisition, it needed a vast amount of money spending on it. Martin demolished the main Jacobean house and replaced it with a Tudor design.

In 1925, a hundred years after taking ownership, the Wykeham Martins were forced to sell to pay death duties. The castle was bought by Anglo-American heiress the Honourable Olive Paget, who later became Lady Baillie. This was her dream project and she transformed the estate, often using the finest French architects and designers. Rooms were redesigned and decoration and furnishings completely overhauled. The cost was enormous, but the effect was stunning.

The castle and estate then became one of the great country houses of the 1930s, hosting royalty, statesmen, nobility and famous stars. The parties were legendary and its reputation grew.

The Second World War saw Lady Baillie offer the new castle as a hospital for injured servicemen, and her family withdrew to the Gloriette to accommodate them.

Lady Baillie was keen for her great legacy to be looked after and open to the public, so before her death in 1974, she established the Leeds Castle Foundation as a charitable trust and bequeathed them the castle and surrounding land.

Today hundreds of thousands of visitors enjoy the stunning spectacle and amenities on offer.

 

Leeds Castle Visit

I’m sure many people that have been to Leeds Castle have seen pictures of the castle and the River Len that winds its way around, before they visit, so are prepared to a degree. But when you see it in reality, certainly on a fine summer’s day, it really does take your breath away!

The visit starts when you park on the grassy area near the adjoining road and this is the place, in the forest, where the ‘Go Ape’ tree top adventure is located if you fancy a more strenuous activity.

After you walk through the ticket office and shop, you then have a leisurely stroll along the paths, bridges and riverbanks to the castle. It’s a ten minute walk, and there’s the land train to ferry you if you need it. But walk if you can – it’s idyllic. The gardens are vast and whilst plenty of food is available, it’s a great place for a picnic!

The castle itself is less of a castle and more of a mansion and you can see the effect of regal occupation in the olden days coupled with the splendour of Lady Baillie’s 20th century transformation. It’s one of those places in which it’s good to take your time as there’s much detail to see in the house.

Places like this rely on visitor revenue and they need to put on a good show to keep the tourists coming as the running costs must be enormous. The problem with such houses is that whilst many, particularly adults, are fascinated by the main residence, children, with a low boredom threshold, need entertaining. So in most castles and country houses these days you’ll find a play area and other attractions, and Leeds is no different.

Next to the castle is the aviary, where there are dozens of birds in large outdoor cages. It’s really quite interesting as there are birds from all over the world. These are a nice addition to the thousands of birds in the grounds, particularly on the riverbank. Near the aviary you’ll find a type of courtyard, and this looks to be the stables or outbuildings from the old days. They’ve turned it into a food shop with tables outside. Also in the area is a ‘dog collar’ museum – possibly the only one of its kind! It’s very interesting, particularly if you have a fondness of dogs.

There are also gardens near the castle. The Culpeper garden, near the aviary, and Lady Baillie’s garden next to the river are obviously named after previous owners. The gardens take you down to the river from where it’s a great walk over to the maze and the children’s play area. Near the play area is a ground level ‘mini maze’ and a small cafe, with the adjoining grass and riverbank being a marvellous place to relax and have a picnic.

The play areas look really good for kids and the Knights Realm is an enclosed castle type enclosure with play facilities that include a zip wire.

For the adults (and kids), there’s a proper maze with seven foot hedging. It’s good fun and there seems to be a marshal for anyone lost. From the centre of the maze, there’s a tunnel through a grotto back to the outside area.

The castle really does offer a lot and is equally exciting for young and old. It’s a great day out and if you go, take your camera!