The many lives of Leeds Castle

Maidstone, Leeds. No, we are not in the Leeds in the north of England, but rather in Kent, an hour’s train ride out of London. The object of our desire for the day was Leeds Castle, dubbed “the loveliest castle in the world” by its PR firm.

It is built on islands in a lake formed by the River Len to the east of the village of Leeds. Since I didn’t have a drone handy, I borrowed this overview to make it all perfectly clear.

A castle has existed on the site since 1119, the first being a simple stone stronghold which served as a military post to guard against those rapacious Normans. In the 13th century it came into the hands of King Edward I, whose wife Eleanor of Castile had actually owned it; Henry VIII used it as a dwelling for his first wife, Catherine of Aragon and stayed there for one night on his way to the Field of the Cloth of Gold meeting in France in 1520. Lots of previous kings also gave it as a gift to their wives, so it was like a diamond necklace to compensate for some husbandly mischief or other, in today’s terms, or to just keep the Queen busy out of town.

The present castle dates mostly from a rebuilt 19th century version, due to general neglect, various fires over the centuries, general lack of funds, wars, etc. An American heiress came along in the 1920’s and made it a real party house, and did a lot to create an immaculate version of a bit of every era that preceded her. She did introduce black swans here, which are on her crest, and we also saw a white peacock, just for contrast.

She is fondly thought of in these parts, and each of her four husbands did do his part to help finance her projects. Known as Lady Baillie, a title courtesy of her last husband, she left a strong imprint on the house and her memory lingers. (Her French decorator also worked with Jacqueline Kennedy on redoing the White House.)

During the early part of WWII, the castle was used as a hospital where Lady Baillie and her daughters hosted burned Commonwealth airmen as part of their recovery. Survivors remember the experience with fondness. Upon her death in 1974, Lady Baillie left the castle to the Leeds Castle Foundation, a private charitable trust whose aim is to preserve the castle and grounds for the benefit of the public. An estimated £1.4 million was invested and a further £400,000 was retrieved from the sale of the furniture to make improvements to the Castle and attract paying corporate conferences. However, it was quickly understood that it could not support the ongoing costs of running the estate, so in 1975 the gardens were opened to the public, and the following year the Castle was also made available to visitors.

Now some of the rooms have titles like “Board Room” and “Seminar Room.” Oh well.

There are some lovely moments inside and outside the castle, Disney-fied as it might be. The weather was dramatic and added to the sense of history and violence that has surrounded the buildings that stood here for centuries. (Oops, can’t forget the stunning display of dog collars through the ages.)



One thought on “The many lives of Leeds Castle

  1. As a castle-mad medievalist, I really enjoyed this post. I haven’t been to Leeds Castle for a very long time, and it looks as though it’s changed a bit since then. Thanks for sharing, it’s made me want to go back. 🙂

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