This is Leeds Castle, nowhere near the city of Leeds in Yorkshire, but located some 240 miles to the south, in Kent. It was once described as “the loveliest castle in the world” by historian Lord Conway and understandably, but slightly tediously, Leeds Castle ensures his words have not been forgotten – even if most of us have no idea who Lord Conway was.
Whether Leeds Castle is the loveliest in the world seems a little subjective to me; but it would be hard to deny that it is one of the loveliest castles in Britain. Sitting on a couple of islands in a lake, fed by the River Len, it looks like something straight out of the pages of a story-book – a sanitised, beautiful, vision of a medieval castle where fair damsels wave things from lofty towers at knights in shining armour, who gaily gallop over the drawbridge, harnesses jingling. 21st century Leeds Castle is actually a major attraction and business, which not only offers its paying visitors a stunningly presented castle, but also parkland, formal gardens, a maze, an underground grotto, birds of prey displays, golf and what has to be one of the best kids’ playgrounds I have ever seen. Various events take place through the year, including special dinners. If you want, you can rent a cottage – or even a medieval-style tent – and take a holiday there. Oh – I almost forgot – it also houses a rare collection of dog collars that has, inexplicably, made its way onto the Daily Telegraph’s list of the world’s most boring museums.
The people that built, and once lived in, Leeds Castle might be somewhat bemused by all of the above. The place has been at the heart of English history for at least 8 centuries, has obviously been much altered in that time and has a proud association with six queens. Accounts vary, but the history goes something like this…
A Saxon chief named Led, or Ledian, built a fortress on the site in the 9th or 10th centuries. The fortress was apparently destroyed by the Danes and no trace of it has ever been found. Before the Norman Conquest, the land was owned by a Saxon Earl, Leuuin; afterwards, William the Conqueror gave Esledes, as it was then known, to his half-brother, Odo. William II (William Rufus) gave the manor to Harno de Crevecoer, who built the first keep on the site. His descendant, Robert, built the first stone castle there in the 12th century. However, Robert forfeited the castle and the estate because he joined the forces of rebel baron Simon de Montfort against his king, Henry III. Henry gave Leeds to his allies, the Leybournes, but Robert de Leybourne died fighting in the crusades and in 1278 the property passed back to the Crown. Leeds remained a royal estate for the next 300 years. Edward I gave it to his beloved Queen, Eleanor of Castile, who enlarged and improved the castle. Despite being heartbroken when Eleanor died, Edward spent his honeymoon with his second wife, Margaret, sister of King Philip IV of France, at Leeds and subsequently granted the estate to his new queen for the remainder of her life. When she died, her step-son Edward II gave Leeds to Sir Batholemew de Badlesmere, an influential knight and steward of the Royal Household.
Edward II’s reign was not a happy one. His policies and associates alienated many in the land, including erstwhile loyal allies. So when, in 1321, Edward’s Queen, the beautiful Isabella of France (Philip IV’s daughter, known as ‘the she-wolf’), turned up at Leeds with a small army demanding entrance, Lady Badlesmere refused to let her in. This was treason! The King swiftly surrounded the castle with a powerful force and the garrison was forced to surrender. Lady Badlesmere and her five children were imprisoned in the Tower of London, Badlesmere’s captain, Walter Culpepper and other officers of the garrison were executed on the spot and rumblings of discontent broke into open warfare. Following defeat at the Battle of Boroughbridge the following year, Badlesmere himself was later caught and taken to Canterbury, where he was hanged and beheaded. In case you’re wondering, his wife and children survived.
Isabella herself soon grew tired of her husband, helping to force his abdication and, maybe, having a hand in his (apparently gruesome) murder in 1327. In any event, she hung onto Leeds until her own death in 1358, at which point it once more reverted to Crown ownership.
Anne of Bohemia, daughter of the Holy Roman Emperor, spent Christmas 1381 at Leeds, before being married to Richard II in January 1382, and the King subsequently granted the estate to her. She – and the King – were frequent visitors but, unfortunately, Queen Anne died of the plague in 1394.
Richard was deposed by his cousin, Henry IV, and allegedly smuggled out of London disguised as a forester, via Leeds, to Pontefract – never to be seen again. Henry, meanwhile, gave Leeds to his second wife, Joan of Navarre. She was briefly imprisoned there by her stepson, Henry V, who accused her of witchcraft. Henry V, in turn left Leeds to his widow, Catherine de Valois, mother of Henry VI and, through her relationship with Owen Tudor, grandmother to Henry VII. Catherine died in 1437. Still with me?
Henry VIII spent a fortune adapting Leeds from a medieval fortress to a Tudor palace for his first wife, Catherine of Aragon. They both stayed there in 1520, with a retinue of more than 5,000, en route to diplomatic discussions with Francis I of France at what history has labelled ‘the Field of the Cloth of Gold’.
In 1552, Leeds passed out of royal ownership into the hands of the St Leger family. Royal association did not end though – Princess, later Queen, Elizabeth was briefly imprisoned there during the reign of her sister, Mary. The St Legers lost their money investing in Sir Walter Raleigh’s expedition to find El-Dorado, and sold Leeds to the Smythes. It was next sold to the Culpeppers – descendents of the unfortunate Walter (executed by Edward II, above). Sir Cheney Culpepper supported the cause of Parliament during the Civil War – the only Culpepper not to be a Royalist. John Culpepper was given extensive land in Virginia for helping the Prince of Wales (later Charles II) to escape England. For a while, part of Leeds was used as a prison for French and Dutch prisoners of war. Ownership then passed to the Fairfax family through marriage. In 1745, the 6th Lord Fairfax left for America – and settled there; Fairfax County, the town of Fairfax and other places in Virginia are named after him. Back in England, his brother Robert carried out extensive work on the estate and, in 1778, King George III paid a visit with his wife, Queen Charlotte.
The Wykeham Martins came into ownership of Leeds by inheritance and, in the 19th century, Fiennes Wykeham Martin fully restored and repaired the castle. It is to him that credit must be given for preserving it for future generations. But by 1925 it was in a poor state and the family was forced to sell up to pay death duties. Newspaper tycoon William Randolph Hearst considered purchasing it, but was apparently put off by the plumbing – Leeds Castle only had one bathroom. These days, every bath in the castle has a bell next to it – so that a servant can be summoned to help one dress. I digress – Leeds was bought by Olive Paget, Mrs Wilson Filmer, later Lady Baillie, an Anglo-American heiress. Lady Baillie paid around £550,000 for Leeds Castle and lived there until her death in 1974, during which time she completely restored and developed the buildings and the estate. Lady Baillie was a famous hostess, who entertained aristocracy, politicians and film stars. Those that are rumoured to have enjoyed her hospitality include the Duke and Duchess of Windsor, Anthony Eden, Joachim von Ribbentrop, Errol Flynn, David Niven, Cary Grant and Ian Fleming. Take a look at Leeds Castle’s own blog post, claiming that ‘the real Gatsby was a woman’ – it’s fascinating.
During the Second World War, parts of the Castle became a hospital for burned airmen and, elsewhere on the estate, secret weapons were tested. Since then, one of Leeds’ many guises is that of a discreet up-market conference centre. For example, it has hosted G8 meetings, talks held there in 1978 between the Foreign Ministers of Egypt, Israel and the USA which led to the Camp David Agreement and discussons between the political leaders of Northern Ireland and the British and Irish governments as part of the Northern Irish peace process.
So there you have it – a very potted history of Leeds Castle and its owners. It is now run by a charitable trust, the Leeds Castle Foundation, and I must say they do a quality job. Though Leeds looks like a medieval castle, the interior is very much that of a stately home of the early-mid 20th century. The grounds are very pleasant to wander in – I particularly enjoyed Lady Baillie’s Garden overlooking a lake, ‘the Great Water’, which has a Mediterranean feel to it. I can also personally recommend the ice cream. Leeds Castle is a popular destination for families and one of Britain’s treasure houses. It’s not cheap, and not a place just to dip into if you have limited time: my advice is to allow several hours for your visit. It is possible to buy a ticket that allows unlimited access for a year.