I remember looking down onto Leeds Castle from the A20 on days out in the late 1950s and thinking that it was every child’s dream of what a medieval castle should look like. The castle was privately owned and very shut. Now it is run by a charitable trust, is a popular conference centre, wedding venue and you can even glamp here. Set on an island in the Rive Lee, it is also one of the most popular visitor attractions in Kent with visitors visiting both the castle and the attractive gardens.
The castle has a long and illustrious history. It has been a Norman stronghold, the private property of six of England’s medieval queens, a palace used by Henry VIII and Catherine of Aragon, a Jacobean country house a Georgian mansion and finally an elegant early 20th century retreat for the influential and famous.
Records go back to the C9th when there was a Saxon royal manor here. Just before the Norman Conquest this was granted to Harold Godwin, who was defeated by William at the Battle of Hastings. After the conquest it was gifted to William’s half brother Odo. William Rufus grated it to de Crevecoerur family, who held the estate for 175 years.
The first stone castle was built in 1119 by Robert. He built a keep on a small island in the river, where the Gloriette now stands.
The domestic buildings were on the larger island which was known as the Bailey. The two islands were linked by a drawbridge that could be lifted in case of attack. Only the window at the end of the banqueting hall and the cellar beneath the heraldry room remain from the C12th castle.
The Castle was bought in 1278 by Eleanor of Castile. The barbican and revetment wall around the larger island dates from that time.
The walls originally stood 10m high and were reinforced with D-shaped bastions. Only the NE tower stands to its original height.
The castle stayed in royal hands and was the home of queens until Tudor times. Henry VIII transformed the castle from a fortified stronghold into a magnificent Royal Palace between 1517-23, for Catherine of Aragon. The principal apartments were still in the Gloriette to which an upper floor had been added.
In 1552, the castle was given to Anthony St Leger by Edward VI in recognition of his services to Henry VIII in subjugating an uprising in Ireland. The family held the castle until 1618 when they sold it to Sir Richard Smythe. Smythe demolished all the surviving buildings at the north end of the larger island and constructed a Jacobean house in their place.
A few years later, the castle was again sold to Sir Thomas Culpepper. His son sided with Parliament so the castle suffered little damage during the Civil War and was used as an arsenal and prison. At the Restoration in 1660, the family were financially ruined and sold the estate to a wealthy cousin, another Sir Thomas Culpepper, who as a Royalist had been rewarded with 5 million acres of land in Virginia.
In 1665, the castle was leased to the government to hold Dutch prisoners of war. Lodged in the Gloriette, they set fire to their accommodation which was left ruined until it was repaired in the C19th.
In 1690, Catherine Culpepper married Thomas, 5th Lord Fairfax and the castle and Virginia estates passed into Fairfax hands. Sale of the Virginia estates in the early C18th released a large sum of money that was used for extensive repair and remodelling of the castle. The reception rooms were refurbished at great expense for the visit of George III and Queen Charlotte in 1778. When the 7th Lord Fairfax died in 1793, all the family money had been spent and he was buried in a pauper’s grave in a nearby village.
The castle passed through a series of different distant relatives until it was inherited by Fiennes Wykeham Martin in 1821. He commissioned a survey of the castle. 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. This was finished in 1823 and is externally essentially the building seen today. The gloriette was rebuilt and the moat cleared. The costs forced Wykeham Martin to sell the contents of the castle at auction and the family had to sell the property in 1925 to pay death duties.
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. After her third marriage, when she became Lady Baillie, she decided to recreate a Gothic fantasy medieval castle, but with modern plumbing.
During the 1930s, Leeds Castle became one of the great country houses of Britain and a centre of lavish hospitality. The interiors were transformed to the latest French designs. The Maiden’s Tower was converted from a brewery to bachelor apartments and a cinema.
The gatehouse was renovated and the grounds relandscaped with tennis, squash courts and a swimming pool.
During the Second World War, the family moved into the Gloriette and the new castle was used as a hospital and for the rehabilitation of severely burned pilots. The grounds were used for weapon research.
After the war, improvements continued. After her death in 1974, the castle and grounds were left to a specially created charity, Leeds Foundation Castle. It opened to the public in 1976.
The castle is open throughout the year and the ticket gives free entry for 12 months. The ticket is quite expensive but there is so much to see inside he castle that it is worth it.
There are more pictures “here.”:http://wasleys.org.uk/eleanor/stately_homes_castles/england/south/leeds/index.html