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History of the Leeds Castle

A wooden fort rumoured of having belonged to the Saxons stood on the site of Leeds Castle as early as 857AC, however the first stone castle was built by a Norman baron, Robert Crèvecoeur in 1119, during the reign of William the Conqueror’s son, King Henry I. The first stone fortifications, where the castle stands today, were built on two rocky outcrops in the middle of the river Len. The main fortification, that is the Keep, was built on the smaller of the two islands, while the domestic buildings were built within the larger island. The two islands were connected by a drawbridge over a ditch filled with water. The Crèvecoeur family lost the castle briefly in 1139 when it was besieged and taken by Stephen of Blois, when he ascended the throne in place of Henry I’s daughter, however then it regained control of it once more.

Different parts of the castle continued to be built during the 12th and 13th centuries, until once again, the Crèvecoeurs had to cede the property. In 1278, Queen Eleanor of Castile, wife to King Edward I, bought Leeds castle, which at that precise moment started to be particularly associated with the Queens of England. During Queen Eleanor’s time, the wall surrounding the larger island was erected and reinforced with D-shaped bastion towers, which can still be admired today. It was during this time as well that the structure on the smaller island started to be referred to as the ‘Gloriette’. Between 1278 and 1290 this was further developed in that the Main Hall (at present, called the Banqueting Hall) was built on the ground floor, together with a small apartment, now the chapel. After Queen Eleanor’s death, the King remarried and gifted Leeds Castle to his second wife; Queen Margaret of France. After this Queen’s death, King Edward II granted the castle to the Lord Steward of the Royal household. Unfortunately the Lord Steward later joined the King’s enemies and this led to the second siege of Leeds Castle. The Castle once again passed into the hands of the Crown, and after King Edward II’s death, his wife Queen Isabella held the castle until her own death in 1358. Her son, King Edward III, refurbished the Gloriette, building an outer gate, two portcullises and a new drawbridge.

In 1382, Leeds Castle fell under the ownership of Queen Anne of Bohemia, wife of King Richard II. King Henry IV followed tradition and granted Leeds to his second wife, Joan of Navarre, in 1403, who in turn granted the Castle to the Archbishop of Canterbury in 1412. When her stepson died in 1422, he bequeathed Leeds Castle in turn to his own widow Catherine de Valois, the mother of the next heir to the throne, who held the castle until 1437. She was the sixth and last Queen of England to hold ownership of Leeds Castle. Her grandson was King Henry VII, the first of the Tudor dynasty, and it was his son, King Henry VIII who ordered major alteration to the castle between 1517 and 1523. The castle was hereby transformed from a fortified stronghold to a magnificent royal palace.

In 1552, after nearly 30 years of Royal ownership, Leeds Castle was granted to Sir Anthony St Leger for a yearly rental of £10, in recompense for his services to King Henry VIII in subjugating the uprising in Ireland. During the next two centuries, the castle changed its ownership numerous times. Unlike many other castles, Leeds was left relatively undamaged during the Civil War. It suffered however, major damages during the 1660s, as it was used as a place of detention for French and Dutch prisoners of war, who at one point set fire to the Gloriette, causing destruction which was only repaired in 1822.

By the end of the 17th century, the Castle had passed into the hands of the Fairfax family. In 1745, Robert Fairfax the then owner of the castle, commissioned a survey and map of the whole estate and undertook a large-scale programme of improvements. The windows were embellished with gothic features, as was fashionable at the time. In 1778, King George III visited the Castle and spent the night, and due to this Robert Fairfax spent large sums refurbishing the reception rooms. After his death, the castle passed through several more owners, until it finally belonged to Fiennes Wykeham, who decided to demolish the main house and replace it with one in the Tudor style – the one present today. This was finished by 1823, as were repairs to the Gloriette, and the cleaning of the moat. In 1895, the Martins acquired more lands, and Leeds became one of the largest private estates in Kent.

In 1925 the Anglo-American heiress the Hon. Olive Paget bought the castle as a country retreat. After her third marriage, she became known as Lady Bailie, and she recreated and reorganised the castle in a largely medieval style. The construction of a stone staircase and the transformation of the great hall into a library gave this effect, as did the upper floors of the castle, which were recreated in an art deco gothic style. The Chapel became a music room, and new modern plumbing was installed throughout. The master bedroom, which Lady Baille used, is delicate and fantastical, designed by leading decorators from Paris. The brew house in the Maiden’s Tower was changed into a set of apartments, and a cinema and tennis courts were also constructed, together with a squash court, a swimming pool, and more lavish landscaped gardens.

Leeds Castle subsequently became one of the great country houses of England, where leading statesmen, businessmen, socialites, ladies of quality, film stars and other members of the popular ‘set’ spent their time mingling and enjoying house-parties, even during the Second World War. At this time, Lady Baille moved into the Gloriette and the rest of the castle served as a hospital. At the end of her life, Lady Baille established the Leeds Charitable Foundation, a trust which continues to hold and take care of Leeds Castle and its parks to this day.