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Castles of the British Isles

Photo Focus: Leeds Castle (Kent)

by Linda Weeks, 26 February 2019. Updated 31 October 2021

 

Leeds Castle in Kent
Photo © Linda Weeks

Leeds Castle is located in the eastern half of Kent, approximately six kilometres to the south-east of Maidstone. It can be reached via Junction 8 of the M20 motorway, or by train to Bearsted station and then on a spring-and-summer shuttle bus to the castle grounds.

The castle began as a Norman stronghold before becoming the private property of six of England's medieval queens, and a palace which was used by Henry VIII and his first wife, Catherine of Aragon.

In the Jacobean period it became a country residence which, in the twentieth century, was a retreat for the nation's rich and famous. Today it is managed by the Leeds Castle Foundation, a private charity which has the aim of preserving the castle and its grounds in perpetuity for the benefit of the public.

Leeds Castle in Kent
Photo © Linda Weeks

A Saxon fort was located here in the ninth century. In 1119 Robert de Crevecoeur erected a motte-and-bailey fort here as a Norman military post. During the last nine hundred years this simple stronghold has evolved from an earthwork enclosure which was surrounded by wooden palisades to become the castle which can be seen today.

It was involved in a siege in 1139 during 'The Anarchy', the Norman civil war between Stephen and Matilda. A dispute between Edward II and Baroness Badlesmere (Margaret de Clare) - the wife of the castle's constable - led to the king storming the castle in 1321 while the constable was away. Margaret was imprisoned in the Tower of London.

Leeds Castle in Kent
Photo © Linda Weeks

In 1278 the castle became the property of Edward I. It was built on two islands in the lake which is fed by the River Len. The stone bridge and several reinforced barbican defences were created during Edward’s reign. He and his family lived in the elevated keep (known as a gloriette).

Leeds Castle in Kent
Photo © Linda Weeks

Before that, in 1265, King Henry III forced the Crevecoeur family to yield the castle to Roger de Leyburn. Thirteen years later Queen Eleanor of Castile purchased the castle from him and this began the long history of royal ownership of the castle.

Leeds Castle in Kent
Photo © Linda Weeks

In 1519 Henry VIII renovated the castle in honour of his first wife, Catherine of Aragon. His portrait hangs over the large fireplace in the banqueting hall, which has intricately carved ceiling beams.

Leeds Castle in Kent
Photo © Linda Weeks

Henry VIII built the sixteenth century Maiden's Tower within the outer bailey. Since then it has been used for many purposes, including as a bakehouse, a brewhouse, and even a cinema by its twentieth century owners.

Leeds Castle in Kent
Photo © Linda Weeks

The St Leger family acquired the castle in the 1550s and kept it until 1618, when Warham St Leger sold it to Sir Richard Smythe to finance an expedition to Guyana with Sir Walter Raleigh. Smythe demolished all the buildings at the north end of the larger island and built a house in the Jacobean style, which can still be seen today.

Leeds Castle in Kent
Photo © Linda Weeks

During the English Civil War the castle was used as an arsenal and prison. It escaped destruction because its owner, Sir Cheney Culpeper, sided with Parliament. Sir Thomas Culpeper, who had been given five million acres of land in Virginia, bought the castle to trigger long-lasting links with the USA. It was leased to the government to house Dutch prisoners of war in 1665 and they set fire to the gloriette. The damage wasn’t repaired until the 1800s.

Leeds Castle in Kent
Photo © Linda Weeks

The castle passed into the Fairfax family when Catherine Culpeper married Thomas, 5th Lord Fairfax, in 1690. In Georgian times, Robert Fairfax laid out the parkland, and spent all his money refurbishing the castle, in particular for the visit of King George III and Queen Charlotte in 1778. He died a pauper in 1793.

Leeds Castle in Kent
Photo © Linda Weeks

The yew maze in the grounds is a recent addition to the grounds, having been created in 1988. It is situated above the grotto which was completed in 1987.

Leeds Castle in Kent
Photo © Linda Weeks

Henry VIII was perhaps the most important falconry advocate since Frederick II. So important was falconry to English society that one could rarely walk down a street without seeing someone with a falcon perched on hand or wrist. A fourteenth century lady was advised by her husband to take her bird everywhere with her, including church, so that it would become accustomed to people.

Leeds Castle in Kent
Photo © Linda Weeks

The castle had a succession of owners until 1821, when Fiennes Wykeham Martin commissioned a survey which showed that much of the structure was in disrepair or ruin and in need of demolition and rebuilding. The resulting 'new' castle was finished by 1823.

Leeds Castle in Kent
Photo © Linda Weeks

In more recent times Lady Olive Baillie redecorated the interior of the castle. It was used as a hospital throughout the course of the Second World War. On her death in 1974 she left the castle to a private charitable trust known as Leeds Castle Foundation.

Leeds Castle in Kent
Photo © Linda Weeks

All that is left of the mill, built about 1100 as part of the barbican, is the mill race and the slots for the waterwheel. The ruins have been preserved and now form a feature of the grounds immediately outside the castle itself.

 

All photos kindly contributed by Linda Weeks, taken in February 2019.

Main Sources

Ancient Fortresses

Britain Express

History Hit

Leeds Castle

Richard III Society - American Branch

Samuel Pepys Diary (online edition)

Waymarking

 

Images and text copyright © Linda Weeks except where stated. An original feature for the History Files.