Leeds Castle occupies a pair of rocky islands in the River Len. Although an earlier structure may have existed on the site, the first known residence on the islands dates from AD 857 when a Royal manor was founded there by Ledian, a minister of King Ethelbert IV of Kent. He allegedly built a timber hall there and by the time of the Norman Conquest, Leeds had evolved into a large Saxon manor known as Esledes. William I included it in the package of lands granted it to his half-brother, Odo Bishop of Bayeux, when he was made Earl of Kent in 1067. However, in 1082 Odo was imprisoned for planning an unauthorised military venture intended to topple the Pope. William stripped Odo of his Earldom and took Leeds back into Crown control. Although briefly restored in 1087, Odo forfeited his English estates the following year when he rebelled against William II. In 1090 that King granted Leeds to his cousin, Hamo de Crèvecoeur.
In 1119 Robert de Crèvecoeur commenced construction of the castle visible today. Whatever structures previously occupied the islands were demolished and the cleared platforms were used for the new castle. The smaller island to the north-east was used for the Keep with its elongated D shape being dictated by the terrain. The larger island to the south-west was used for the bailey and was surrounded by a curtain wall. Access between the two sites was via a drawbridge. The castle was largely complete by 1139 when England descended into civil war. Known as the Anarchy, the conflict was between Stephen and Matilda over the English succession. The then owner of Leeds, Elias de Crèvecoeur, supported Matilda's claim prompting Royal forces, under Gilbert de Clare, to attack the castle. It fell and thereafter was held by Stephen's faction for the rest of the war although it was eventually returned to the de Crèvecoeur family.
The castle remained with the de Crèvecoeur family until the 1260s when it passed to William de Leyburn. He ran into financial difficulties and fell afoul of Queen Eleanor of Castile, wife of Edward I, who aggressively played the property market. Leeds Castle was acquired by Eleanor in exchange for clearing William's debts and thereafter she commenced a series of major upgrades to the site. The curtain wall around the bailey, which stood 10 metres high, was constructed as this time including the D shaped towers along its length. The Outer Gatehouse was also rebuilt and the barbican added partly to protect the castle's mill. Most significantly the Keep was restyled into a lavish residence, known as the Gloriette, which reflected the King and Queen's shared love of romance and fantasy. Following Eleanor's death in 1290, the castle passed to Edward I who later granted it to his new wife, Queen Margaret of France. She held it until her death in 1318.
Leeds Castle reverted to the Crown following the death of Margaret but, rather than grant it to his own wife, Queen Isabella, Edward II instead gave it to Bartholomew de Badlesmere. This seemingly upset Isabella who attempted to gain entry into the castle but was denied access by Badlesmere. Outraged at this slight to his Queen, Edward seized the castle and had Badlesmere executed. However, the King still did not handover control of the castle to his wife who increasingly became estranged from her husband. In 1326 she collaborated in a coup which saw Edward II overthrown by Roger Mortimer, Earl of March. She took control of Leeds Castle at this time but her regime was overthrown by her son, Edward III, in 1330 and thereafter she was imprisoned in Castle Rising. The new King made numerous upgrades to the site including enhancing the outer gatehouse and refurbishing the Royal apartments.
Edward III was followed by his grandson, Richard II, who granted the castle to his wife, Queen Anne of Bohemia. His successor, Henry IV, did the same granting Leeds to Joan of Navarre in 1403 soon after their marriage. However Joan's palatial residence turned into a prison during the reign of her stepson, Henry V, who accused her of witchcraft and imprisoned her in Leeds before she was moved to Pevensey Castle. Henry eventually had a change of heart and released her after which she retired to Nottingham Castle. On his deathbed, Henry V granted Leeds Castle to his own wife, Catherine de Valois, who held it until her death in 1437.
Leeds Castle underwent a complete transformation at the hands of Henry VIII. He commissioned work on the site in 1517 which continued for the next six years and converted it into a stately home. Whilst the Royal apartments remained in the Gloriette, an upper level was added and the accommodation throughout the building was refitted. The Square Tower (now known as Maiden's Tower) was also built at this time. Henry VIII stayed at the castle on numerous occasions including in 1520 when he was en-route to France to meet Francis I at the Field of the Cloth of Gold.
Royal ownership of Leeds Castle came to an end in 1552 when Edward VI granted the site to Anthony St. Leger, a soldier who had been given valuable military service in Ireland. His family sold it in 1618 to Sir Richard Smythe who embarked upon significant modifications. He demolished many of the structures on the site of the former bailey and built a large Jacobean style house in their place. Despite this substantial upgrade, in 1632 Leeds Castle was sold to Sir Thomas Culpeper. His son, Cheney Culpeper, supported Parliament during the Civil War and accordingly the castle survived the conflict unscathed. However, in 1660 financial troubles forced him to sell it to his cousin, Sir Thomas Culpeper, who was a major Virginian landowner. He leased the castle to the Government who used it for holding Dutch Prisoners of War and in 1665 the Gloriette was gutted when the detained men set fire to their accommodation.
In 1690 Leeds Castle passed to Thomas Fairfax through his marriage to Catherine Culpeper. The American estates in Virginia had also passed to Fairfax and in 1745 he emigrated becoming the only Peer to permanently do so during the Colonial era. Leeds Castle was placed in the care of Robert Fairfax who landscaped the grounds and had a Gothic style facade built around the Jacobean mansion house. However, the work bankrupted him and he died a pauper in 1793.
Leeds Castle passed through various owners before being inherited by Fiennes Wykeham Martin in 1821. By this stage the castle, house and many of the ancillary buildings were all in poor state of repair. He ordered the demolition of the Jacobean house and replaced it with the New Castle built in a mock-Tudor style. The Gloriette, which had remained a gutted shell since the seventeen century fire, was restored.
The castle was sold in 1925 to Mrs Olive Wilson-Filmer (later Lady Baillie). She initiated a series of modifications intended to capture the castle's medieval past whilst also modernising the apartments and upgrading the plumbing. By the 1930s she had transformed the site into one of the country's foremost mansions. It was converted into a hospital during World War II, served as a receiving centre for the defeated troops returning from Dunkirk in 1940 and later was used as a rehabilitation centre for badly burnt Servicemen. After the war the castle once again became a stately home. In 1974 it passed into the care of the Leeds Castle Foundation and is now open to the public. The site has occasionally been used for events of international significance with the Israeli and Egyptian foreign ministers meeting there in 1978 and it also hosted Northern Ireland peace talks in 2004.
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Leeds Castle is a major tourist attraction and is marketed as the "loveliest castle in the world". It certainly is set in a picturesque environment with its remains representing many hundreds of years of modification and upgrades.
Leeds Castle. The castle is surrounded by a large pool of water fed by the River Len.
Kent Castle Plan. The castle was built on top of two islands. The smaller one was entirely dominated by the Keep whilst the larger one to the south-west was enclosed by a curtain wall and formed the bailey.
Gloriette. The castle was acquired by Queen Eleanor of Castile in 1278 and she transformed the site into a palace. In particular she rebuilt the Keep into a luxurious residence called the Gloriette. It was subsequently heightened by Henry VIII.
Bailey. The bailey occupied the larger of the two islands. Originally its curtain wall abutted the waterline but land was later recovered to create what is today the flower garden.
Barbican. The barbican incorporated a mill that was powered from the flow of the River Len.
Gatehouse. The gatehouse into the bailey was rebuilt by Edward I and Edward III. It was accessed through the barbican and would originally have had a drawbridge.
New Castle. The New Castle was built in the 1820s replacing earlier medieval buildings. It was designed by William Baskett in a mock-Tudor style.
Twelfth Century Castle. Little remains of the twelfth century castle other than the cellar and a window in the Banqueting Hall.
Maiden's Tower. Originally known as Square Tower, this was added by Henry VIII as part of his upgrades to the site.
Courtyard. The small courtyard in the centre of the Gloriette.
Leeds Castle was built in the twelfth century, besieged during the Anarchy and acquired by Queen Eleanor of Castile in 1278. She converted the castle into a magnificent palace and in the centuries that followed it was regularly granted to the Queen of England. The castle remained a residence until the 1970s and is now a major tourist attraction.
Leeds Castle is a major tourist attraction that is well sign-posted from all directions. The estate is accessed from the B2163 and there is a dedicated on-site car park.
B2163, ME17 1PL
Leeds Castle (Kent)