Discover the history of the castle and uncover the lives of those who owned and commanded Leeds Castle from generation to generation
The first mention of Leeds is in the Domesday Survey of 1086 where it is called ‘Esledes’. Neighbouring Broomfield is also mentioned and called ‘Brunfelle’. ‘Esledes’ is an old English word meaning slope or hillside.
The first historical record of a building is listed in the Domesday Survey of 1086, where the ‘Manor of Esledes’ was owned by Odo the Bishop of Bayeux, who was also the half-brother of William the Conqueror. Just a few years later Odo’s nephew, the newly crowned King William ‘Rufus’ II, became displeased with his Uncle’s behaviour and granted the estate to Hamo de Crevecoeur, whose descendants continued to own the estate for the next 175 years.
In 1119 the first stone Castle was erected by Hamo’s grandson Robert, who took advantage of the natural rocky outcrops that formed two islands in the River Len. The main fortification called a Keep was on the smaller island where the Gloriette now stands, and the domestic buildings that supported everyday life, were located on the larger island, known as the Bailey.
The two islands were linked by a drawbridge over the water that could be drawn up to protect the Keep if the Castle was ever under attack.
Leeds Castle had its first encounter with royal politics in 1139 when it was besieged by King Stephen. The de Crevecoeur family had declared their support for the Empress Matilda’s claim to the throne, following the death of her father Henry I, when Stephen had unexpectedly seized control. His claim was through his grandfather William the Conqueror, and he was victorious. The de Crevecoeur family managed to survive the siege and retain ownership of the Castle.
Only a few architectural features survive from the 12th Century building phase, such as the two-light window at the end of The Salon and the cellar beneath the Servant’s Room.
The revetment wall surrounding the larger island dates from Eleanor’s time. It originally rose some 10 metres straight up from the water and was reinforced by D-shaped bastion towers. These towers can still be seen, although only one on the north-east corner retains its original height, whilst the others have since been lowered to the height of the adjoining walls.
The building on the smaller island was developed during this period into the structure that can be seen today.
It begins to be referred to in records as the Gloriette, from the Spanish term for a pavilion at the intersection of pathways in a garden – the influence of the Spanish-born Eleanor at work.
Although the original interior layout of the Gloriette has been lost, it is very likely that a Chapel was in the approximate location of where the current one sits.
Following his wife’s death, Edward inherited the castle and continued improving the defences and more domestic aspects of the buildings. The bath house that sits underneath the walls of the bailey and adjacent to the Maidens’ Tower dates from this period and was reputedly created for him as he had greatly enjoyed the practice of regular bathing whilst on Crusade in the Holy Land.
In 1299 in order to improve his fraught relationship with France, Edward married the French princess Margaret, sister of Philip IV. He granted Leeds Castle to his new wife, beginning the tradition of the Castle forming part of the ‘dower’ or personal property of the Queen, to be retained even after the King’s death.
After his mother’s death, Edward II did not immediately grant the Castle to his Queen, instead he granted it to a nobleman named Badlesmere, who sealed his unfortunate fate by refusing Queen Isabella access when she requested it. Edward laid siege and captured the Castle and had Badlesmere beheaded.
Following Edward’s deposition and murder in 1327, Isabella ensured that the Castle passed into her control and she held it until her death in 1358.
Like his father before him, Edward did not grant the Castle to his Queen, Philippa of Hainault. He retained ownership and made improvements to the buildings such as new outer gates with two portcullises, a new drawbridge and also refurbished the royal apartments in the Gloriette.
Richard followed tradition and granted Leeds Castle to his Queen in 1382. Anne spent the Christmas before her wedding at Leeds Castle and she and Richard were regular visitors. After her untimely death of plague in 1394, Richard came back to the Castle several times, using it for state business as well as leisure. In 1395 the French historian Jean Froissart visited the English court, then in residence at Leeds, and wrote a description in his Chronicles of the ‘beautiful Palace in Kent called Leeds Castle.
After Anne’s death, the Castle was granted to private individuals for a short period of time, until King Henry IV came to the throne and once again upheld tradition by giving Leeds Castle to his Queen.
Joan married Henry in 1403 and was immediately given the Castle. With the King’s permission, she in turn gave it to the Archbishop of Canterbury, Thomas Arundel, in 1412. The inventory of all his holdings made at the archbishop’s death in 1414 gives us a fairly clear account of how the Castle was organised. At the north end of the larger island stood the great hall, with a chapel and other domestic buildings; at the other end was an inner gatehouse holding the buttery, bake-house, pantry and kitchens. Between the outer wall and the inner wall was a deep ditch, and the Castle was surrounded by a wide moat. Beyond the south-eastern entrance causeway, the valley of the Len could be flooded to create yet another barrier if danger threatened – although in fact Leeds Castle was never again besieged.
King Henry V was the step son of Queen Joan, and initially he treated her well, but in time he turned against her. In 1419 she was charged with plotting the King’s death by witchcraft by ‘the most high and horrible means’. She was deprived of all her revenues and imprisoned, first at Leeds Castle, and then in solitary confinement at Pevensey Castle. Shortly before Henry’s death however, it seems that the King had had a change of heart; Joan returned to Leeds Castle in March 1422 under much milder conditions, and in July she was freed and all her property restored to her. Her wardrobe book, detailing her expenditure during the four months she spent at Leeds Castle, survives as part of the castle archive and gives an account of the day-to-day activities of Joanne and her small entourage.
Henry V died in 1422 and bequeathed Leeds Castle to his young Queen as part of a much larger inheritance. Catherine was the youngest daughter of Charles VI of France and mother to the infant Henry VI, and she held the Castle until her death in 1437. Her grandson by her second marriage was Henry Tudor, who in 1485 became Henry VII, the first of the Tudor dynasty.
Whilst King Henry VII never took an interest in Leeds Castle, his son King Henry VIII transformed it from a fortified stronghold to a magnificent royal palace. Between 1517-1523 on his orders, major alterations were made so that he and his first wife Katherine of Aragon, could visit the castle in comfort.
From the inventory taken in 1532, on the death of the constable Sir Henry Guildford who had supervised the work, it is clear that the principal apartments were still in the Gloriette and that an upper floor had been added. Fireplaces decorated with the royal arms and Spanish motifs suggest that this floor was reserved for the exclusive use of the Queen; one such fireplace displayed the royal arms intertwined with lovers’ knots.
Leeds Castle was in royal ownership during The Field of Cloth of Gold, a magnificent tournament held in 1520 to increase the bonds of friendship between Henry and his European rival, Francois I of France. The historic first meeting between the two Kings, each accompanied by a huge entourage, was part of unsuccessful diplomatic attempts by Francois to woo the English away from their alliance with the Holy Roman Emperor and Henry’s nephew through marriage, Charles V. Surviving records show that venison from the Leeds estate and butter from the dairies were supplied for the two-week summit, which an estimated 12,000 people attended.
In 1552 nearly 300 years of royal ownership came to an end: Leeds Castle was given to Anthony St. Leger by Edward VI in recognition for his services to his father, Henry VIII, in subjugating the uprising in Ireland.
The end of the Tudor dynasty marked the beginning of private ownership for Leeds Castle. With no royal treasury to use for repairs and alterations, the fortunes of the Castle relied solely on the fortunes of the owners, which were varied.
The St. Leger family had acquired the castle in the 1550s and they retained it until 1618 when Warham St. Leger had to sell it to Sir Richard Smythe, in order to finance a voyage to Guyana with Sir Walter Raleigh.
Smythe ordered the demolition of all surviving buildings at the north end of the larger island and constructed a large house in the prevailing Jacobean style. The foundations of this house were discovered during repair works to the present New Castle in 1993 and it is clear that this was a substantial mansion, only slightly smaller than the New Castle itself. Although the Smythe family owned the Castle for less than twenty years, this Jacobean house was a lasting legacy.
In 1632 the Smythes sold Leeds Castle to Sir Thomas Culpeper, whose son Cheney was a supporter of Parliament. Therefore, unlike many aristocratic homes, the Castle was left relatively unscathed during the Civil War, but at the Restoration in 1660 the Culpepers were financially ruined. Despite this, the Culpeper family managed to retain the Castle and estate by selling it in 1663 to a wealthy cousin, another Sir Thomas Culpeper, who as a Royalist had been rewarded with five million acres of land in Virginia. This established the Castle’s link with America, a connection that has had a significant influence to this day.
Leeds Castle suffered major damage in 1665 when Culpeper leased the castle to the government as a place of detention for Dutch prisoners of war. Lodged in the Gloriette, the prisoners set fire to their accommodation, causing destruction which would not be repaired until the 19th century.
A few years later, Catherine Culpeper married Thomas, 5th Lord Fairfax and Leeds Castle passed to a new private family.
By the end of the 17th century the Castle and the Virginian estates had passed into the hands of the Fairfax family, through Catherine Culpeper’s marriage to Thomas, 5th Lord Fairfax, in 1690.
In 1745, their son, the 6th Lord Fairfax, sailed for Virginia to manage his estates and settled there for life, the only peer to move permanently to America during colonial times. On Lord Fairfax’s departure to America, the Castle passed to his brother Robert, who held it for 46 years.
The parkland was first laid out at this time and was described as ‘a very fine ground, having a great command of water from the Len, and beautifully adorned with wood.’ One of Robert’s first actions was to commission a local cartographer, Thomas Hogben, to survey the estate. Hogben’s beautiful estate map survives and includes at its foot a vignette of the Castle as it appeared in 1748. Robert then undertook a large scale programme of improvements, made possible by the wealth of his two wives, Martha Collins, member of the Child banking dynasty and daughter of the famous free thinker Anthony Collins, and then Dorothy Best, a brewery heiress.
As part of the improvements the exterior of the old Jacobean house was embellished with then fashionable ‘Strawberry Hill Gothic’ features to the windows and door surrounds, transforming its appearance. A later owner Charles Wykeham Martin, was horrified by the effect; ‘Boards were fixed in front of the sash windows, and cut to a point in the shape of a Gothic window and the whole was stuccoed over. A more ruinous disfigurement was perhaps never perpetrated.’
In 1778, Leeds Castle received a royal visit when George III and Queen Charlotte travelled into Kent to review an army encampment and spent the night at the castle. Robert Fairfax spent large sums refurbishing the reception rooms in the main house for his royal guests’ use. Robert died in 1793 having spent all of his money and is buried in a Pauper’s grave at the church in nearby Broomfield village.
After the 7th Lord Fairfax’s death in 1793, the castle was passed onto various distant relatives until in 1821 Fiennes Wykeham Martin inherited and commissioned architect William Baskett to survey the castle. The report was devastating.
The mill and barbican were in ruins, the gatehouse and inner gatehouse in disrepair, the Maiden’s Tower was in imminent danger of collapse, the main Jacobean house was decaying and the Gloriette was more or less a ruin. Wykeham Martin decided to demolish the main house and replace it with one in the Tudor style.
The resulting New Castle, externally changed little today, was finished by 1823, an extraordinarily swift process. The gaping hole that had disfigured the Gloriette since 1665 was repaired and the internal walls rebuilt in stone and the moat was cleared and cleaned. Unfortunately the cost of the rebuild caused Wykeham Martin financial difficulties and he was forced to sell the contents of the Castle at auction. Happily, his son Charles, with the help of his wife’s substantial dowry, was able to rebuild the family fortune. When the Wykeham Martins acquired land at Hollingbourne in 1895, Leeds became one of the largest private estates in Kent.
By 1925, one hundred years after Wykeham Martin’s restoration and rebuilding, the family were forced to sell the property to pay death duties. Described by agents Knight, Frank and Rutley as comprising ‘six spacious entertaining rooms, twenty principal bedrooms and plenty of room for servants’, it was acquired by the Anglo-American heiress the Hon. Olive Paget, then Mrs Wilson-Filmer, who was looking for a country retreat in Kent. She saw the castle’s potential and had the style, imagination and funds to carry out the necessary modifications.
Lady Baillie, as she was to become after her third marriage, decided to recreate a largely medieval castle and initially commissioned architect Owen Little. The ground floor of the New Castle was reorganised, with the creation of an inner hall, the construction of the stone staircase and the transformation of the great hall into a library. For the even more challenging work required in the Gloriette and the upper floors of the New Castle, Lady Baillie turned to Armand-Albert Rateau (1882-1938) noted particularly for his work in the Art Deco style.
He created a glorious Gothic fantasy for her. The Banqueting Hall previously divided into china closet, kitchen and scullery, was restored to its full size; the Chapel was completely dismantled and became a music room; a handsome newel staircase brought in from France, was constructed against the south wall of the fountain court and hidden behind a fine screen; the upper floors were rearranged to allow the introduction of modern plumbing; and the service quarters were completely modernised.
During the 1930s, Leeds Castle became one of the great country houses of England and a centre of lavish hospitality for leading statesmen, European royalty and film stars.
As her tastes changed, Lady Baillie entrusted the design of her interiors to Stephane Boudin (1888-1967), president of Maison Jansen, a leading design firm in Paris. He was considered the foremost designer of grand interiors in the French taste and his other clients included the Duke and Duchess of Windsor and Jacqueline Kennedy. The glamourous and luxurious interiors that he created at Leeds Castle from 1932 onwards can still be seen today. A high point of his work is Lady Baillie’s bedroom suite, with its delicate Louis XVI style panelling.
External work included the transformation of the Maiden’s Tower from Brewhouse to comfortable bachelor apartments and a cinema; the renovation of the gatehouse; the construction of tennis courts, a squash court and a swimming pool, complete with wave machine; and the re-landscaping of the park – there were even llamas and zebras in the grounds.
Discover more about Lady Baillie’s country retreat and what you’ll experience on your visit.
When war erupted in 1939, Lady Baillie did her best to continue life at Leeds Castle as normal. The house parties continued although the family moved into the Gloriette and the New Castle was used as a hospital. Many of the ill-fated expeditionary forces repatriated after the retreat from Dunkirk were treated at Leeds Castle, and it was also used for the rehabilitation of severely burned pilots treated by Sir Archibald McIndoe at East Grinstead Hospital.
Weapons research was secretly carried out in the grounds, including emergency flame weapons to counter the feared German invasion. The government minister responsible for this work, Geoffrey Lloyd, was a regular visitor during Lady Baillie’s lifetime, and later would become the first Chairman of the Leeds Castle Foundation.
Discover more about Lady Baillie’s country retreat and what you’ll experience on your visit.
After the war Lady Baillie continued to improve her interiors still with the help of Boudin. The war had interrupted their progress, so they resurrected their plans and in 1948 a new dining room and adjoining library were created.
In the Gloriette, a new bedroom suite was created for her son Gawaine and a new Boudoir for Lady Baillie herself showcased the best of her French furniture and art. The Maiden’s Tower was transformed into a family home for her daughter Susan and her growing family.
Lady Baillie died in 1974 and left the castle and grounds to a specially created charity called the Leeds Castle Foundation, whose main aim was, and still is, to preserve the castle for future generations to enjoy.
Just a few months before Lady Baillie died in September 1974, she put in place plans to create a charitable foundation to which the Castle and grounds would be transferred, so that they could be preserved for future generations to visit and enjoy. Her lifelong friend Lord Geoffrey-Lloyd became the first Chairman of the Trustees of the Leeds Castle Foundation, and he set about ensuring the financial stability of the newly established charity.
An endowment of £1.4 million was invested and a further £400,000 was realised from the sale of furniture, so that improvements could be made to the Castle to attract paying corporate conferences. It was quickly realised that these alone would not support the ongoing costs of running the Estate, so in 1975 the gardens were opened to the public, and the following year the Castle was also made available to visitors.
The reputation of Leeds Castle as a leading visitor attraction and conference venue grew, and in 1978 it was chosen as the location for the Middle East peace talks that preceded the Camp David Accords of the same year.
Since then Leeds Castle has become one of England’s top tourist attractions and welcomes over 600,000 visitors a year, as well as hosting weddings, conferences and caring for the beautiful gardens and Castle interiors.
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