Leeds Castle is a stunning piece of architecture located in Kent, England, and it is often referred to as the loveliest castles in the world and it really isn’t hard to see why that is the case. This beautiful castle sits on islands in a lake formed by the River Len to the east of the village of Leeds. It is also listed in the Domesday Book and during its time, it has been named as a Norman stronghold, a royal residence, and a royal palace amongst other things.
Its situation as described before is simply stunning being set on two islands in a breathtaking lake. It rises majestically from the seemingly still waters of its moat and it is beautifully surrounded by around 500 acres of parkland and fragrant gardens. It is truly one of the most beautiful venues in Kent and very much lives up to its title of the loveliest castle in the world.
It is a wonderful place for a day out with the family, a wedding at Leeds Castle, or even a lovely getaway with the person of your choice. It has always been seen as a place used mainly to entertain and impress and it is clear to see that every generation passed through the castle has left its significant and lasting mark. There is no denying that it remains a prominent statement piece in history.
Leeds Castles History
The castle had to endure so much to become what it is today, and the history of it is tumultuous as well as grand. Inside Leeds Castle these days, it is easy to see the massive refurbishment that took place by the highly regarded European designers that helped out throughout the 1920s and the 1930s for its last private owner, Lady Baillie, so it is not like it once was in previous times. This castle has a history of death, destruction, and finally, safety. Keep reading to gain a deeper look into the loveliest castle in the world.
The early history
It is said that an earlier structure may have existed at the current site of Leeds Castle, however, the first known residence on the island dates back to around AD 857 when a royal manor was founded there by Ledian, a minister of King Ethelbert IV of Kent. He then went forth to build a timber hall there and by the time the Norman Conquest came around, Leeds had evolved into a stunning Saxon manor, known then as Esledes. William I kindly included it in the package of lands that he granted to his brother, Odo, Bishop of Bayeux when he was made Earl of Kent back in the year 1067.
Unfortunately, in the year 1082, Odo was thrown into prison for planning an unauthorized military venture intended to topple the Pope. It was after hearing about this that William quickly stripped Odo of his Earldom and took Leeds back into Crown control. It was briefly restored in the year 1087, but Odo forfeited his English estates the following year when he rebelled against William II. Then, in 1090, the King granted Leeds to Hamo de Crèvecoeur who was his cousin.
Robert de Crèvecoeur commenced construction of the castle visible today in the year 1119 and whatever structures previously occupied the land were completely demolished and the cleared space was used for the new castle. The smaller island to the northeast was used for the keep and the larger island to the southwest was used for the bailey and was surrounded by a grand curtain wall. The access between the two sites was dictated by a large drawbridge.
In the year 1139, the castle was almost entirely completed when England descended into civil war. The conflict was between Stephen and Matilda over the English succession and was known as the Anarchy. The owner of Leeds at the time, Elias de Crèvecoeur, supported Matilda which prompted Gilbert de Clare’s Royal forces to attack the castle. It completely fell and thereafter was helped by Stephen’s faction for the rest of the terrible war, though it was afterwards returned to the de Crèvecoeur family.
Afterwards, the castle remained with the same family until the 1260s when it passed to William de Leyburn. During this time, he ran into financial difficulties and fell afoul to Queen Eleanor of Castile, wife of Edward I, who aggressively and commonly played the property market. This then meant that Leeds Castle was acquired by Eleanor in exchange for clearing William’s debts. She then commenced a series of major and important upgrades to the site. The curtain wall that surrounded the bailey was constructed at this time as well as the D shaped towers along the castle. The outer gatehouse was also looked at and rebuilt and the barbican added to protect the castles mill.
One of the most important upgrades was the Keep that was magnificently restyled into a lavish residence afterwards known as the Gloriette which is said to have reflected the King and Queen’s love of romance and fantasy. Following the untimely death of Eleanor in 1290, the castle fell to Edward I who later on decided to grant it to his new wife, Queen Margaret of France who held it until her death in 1318.
Under royal ownership
After Margaret’s death, Leeds Castle reverted to the Crown, but instead of granting the castle to his own wife, Queen Isabella, Edward II opted to give it to Bartholomew de Badlesmere. This seemed to seriously upset Isabella which is understandable, and she tried to gain access to the castle but was denied entry by Badlesmere. Outraged by this, Edward then seized the castle and had Bartholomew de Badlesmere executed very quickly. However, he still did not give control of the castle to his wife who began to slowly extract herself from the relationship.
In the year 1326, she collaborated in a coup that saw Edward II overthrown by Roger Mortimer, Earl of March. She then took the chance and took control of Leeds Castle at this time. Unfortunately, poor Isabella was then overthrown by her son, Edward III, in 1330 and afterwards, she was imprisoned in Castle Rising. The new King went forth to make big changes to the castle and upgrade many parts of the site which included enhancing the outer gatehouse and refurbishing the Royal apartments.
Edward III was followed by Richard II, his grandson, who chose to grant the castle to his wife, Queen Anne of Bohemia. Then, his successor, Henry IV, did the same thing by granting Leeds Castle to Joan of Navarre in 1403 only a short time after their marriage. Jean’s palatial residence very suddenly turned into a prison during the reign of her stepson, Henry V, who had accused her of witchcraft and had her imprisoned in the castle until she moved to Pevensey Castle. Luckily for Joan, Henry V seemingly had a change of heart and released her.
A complete transformation
After this, Joan retired to Nottingham Castle and on Henry’s deathbed, he granted Leeds Castle to his own wife, Catherine de Valois who held the castle until her death in the year 1437. During this time, underwent a complete transformation from what it once was at the hands of Henry VIII. In 1517, he commissioned work on the site which continued throughout the next six years and converted it into a stately home. The Royal apartments remained in the beautiful Gloriette and an upper level was added.
The accommodation was completed revamped and refitted all throughout the castle. The square tower that is now known as Maiden’s Tower was also completely built during this time. On many different occasions, Henry VIII stayed at the castle including one time in 1520 when he was heading to France to meet Francis I at the Field of the Cloth of Gold. Many changes were made and most of them can still be seen to this day.
An end to royal ownership
Royal ownership came to an end at Leeds Castle in 1553 when Edward VI granted the site to Anthony St. Ledger, a soldier who had been given valuable military service in Ireland. In 1628, the castle was then sold to Sir Richard Smythe who began to apply significant modifications throughout the castle. He demolished many structures on the site of the former bailey and instead, he built a large Jacobean-style house in their place. Despite these extravagant upgrades, the castle was sold to Sir Thomas Culpeper in 1632.
His son, Cheney Culpeper supported Parliament during the terrifying Civil War and the castle was able to survive unscathed. Unfortunately, it didn’t take long for financial troubles to reign down which meant that he had to sell the castle to Sir Thomas Culpeper who was a major Virginian landowner. He went forth and lent Leeds Castle to the Government who used it for holding Dutch Prisoners of War and in 1665, the Gloriette was sadly gutted when the detained men set fire to their accommodation.
In the year 1690, Leeds Castle passed to Thomas Fairfax through his marriage to Catherine Culpeper. The estates in Virginia also passed to Fairfax and in 1745, he emigrated and became the only Peer to permanently do so during the Colonial era. The castle was then placed in the care of Robert Fairfax who did an upstanding job landscaping the grounds and he also had a Gothic style façade built around the completed Jacobean mansion house. However, this work then sent him bankrupt and he died as a pauper in 1793.
Leeds Castle passed through many different owners before it was inherited by Fiennes Wykeham Martin in the year 1821. The castle as well as all of the buildings and the house were all in a terrible state and needed urgent repairs to become beautiful once again. However, the Jacobean house was too far gone, and, in turn, it was demolished so that the new castle could be built in a mock-Tudor style. The ever so beautiful Gloriette that had been left to rot after the fire was once again restored to its former glory.
In 1925, the castle was sold to Mrs Olive Wilson-Filmer (later known as Lady Baillie). She began immediately with modifying the castle and she opted to capture the castle’s medieval past while also modernizing the apartments and upgrading the plumbing. By the time the 1930s came around, she had done a fantastic job of transforming the site into one of the country’s foremost mansions. Briefly, during World War II, it served as a receiving centre for the defeated troops returning from Dunkirk and after that, it was used as a rehabilitation centre for terribly injured Servicemen.
Once the war had finished, the castle once again became a stately home. In the year 1974, it passed into the care of the Leeds Castle Foundation and is now open to the public.
The present day
Leeds Castle is situated around 40 miles south-east of central London. It is conveniently situated by a junction of the London to Dover motorway. While it may be fairly small compared to other castles and attractions, it is a great part of the visit to Leeds. If you aren’t’ on a schedule, take a stroll around the surrounding areas and immerse yourself in the history. These days, the castle welcomes around half a million visitors every single year.
You may also enjoy reading about other English castles such as Bodiam Castle.
Accommodation at Leeds Castle
Who doesn’t want to stay at the loveliest castle in the world? Luckily, there are some great options available if you want to enjoy a getaway at the castle. The Leeds Castle hotels are some of the finest offered by English castles and you will find the experience simply enchanting.
One thing that people particularly love is the chance to enjoy Glamping at Leeds Castle. It is amazing to see such a prestigious castle offer a camping holiday with a glamourous difference. You can enjoy the luxury of sleeping in a gorgeous bed while also being in the wilderness and enjoying a beautiful chunk of nature in the countryside. Better yet, you will wake up to a great view of the ever so stunning castle.
The accommodation options also include holiday cottages, bed and breakfasts, and a manor house. You really are spoilt for options at Leeds Castle and you may not want to go home after this great experience.
Leeds Castle Timeline
- 857- A royal manor is founded by Ledian, a minister of King Ethelbert IV of Kent
- 1067- William I grants it to his brother, Odo, Bishop of Bayeux when he was made Earl of Kent back
- 1082- Odo is thrown into prison for planning an unauthorized military venture intended to topple the Pope
- 1087- Leeds Castle is briefly restored
- 1090- The King grants Leeds to Hamo de Crèvecoeur who was his cousin
- 1119- Construction of the castle visible today begins
- 1139- Royal forces attack the castle
- 1403- The castle is granted to Joan of Navarre
- 1517- Leeds undergoes a complete transformation from what it once was at the hands of Henry VIII
- 1553- Royal ownership of the castle ends
- 1628- the castle is then sold to Sir Richard Smythe who applies significant modifications throughout the castle
- 1632- Leeds is sold to Sir Thomas Culpeper
- 1655- Leeds Castle is lent to the Government who used it for holding Dutch Prisoners of War
- 1925- the castle is sold to Mrs Olive Wilson-Filmer
- 1974- passed into the care of the Leeds Castle Foundation
Interesting facts about Leeds Castle
- Leeds Castle isn’t actually located in the city of Leeds.
- It is built on islands within a lake.
- Leeds Castle was once sold for the price of £180,000 (equivalent of £10,524,500 in 2019) in 1926 to Lady Baillie.
- Inside Leeds Castle, there is a painting of its most famous owner, King Henry VIII. The painting is called the ‘Field of the Cloth of Gold’
- The castle has a nickname, it is “The Castle of Queens, Queens of Castles.”
Featured in TV and Film
- If Winter Comes (1923)
- Kind Hearts and Coronets (1949)
- The Black Rose (1950)
- The Moonraker (1958)
- Waltz of Toreadors (1962)
- Doctor Who (1963)
- Take an Easy Ride (1976)
- The Famous History of the Life of King Henry the Eight (1976)
- Perry Como’s Christmas in England (1984)
- Lady Jane (1986)
- Knightmare (1987)
- Still Crazy Like a Fox (1987)
Books on Leeds Castle
- Leeds Castle by Jessica Hodge (2010)
- Leeds Castle: Queen of Castles, Castle of Queens Author unknown (2010)
- Outrageous Fortune: Growing Up at Leeds Castle by Anthony Russell (2013)
Who owns Leeds Castle?
At the time that Lady Baillie passed in 1974, she left the castle to the Leeds Castle Foundation. The Leeds Castle Foundation is a charitable trust whose main aim is to preserve the castle and the grounds to benefit the public. They invested an estimated £1.4 million and a further £400,000 was retrieved from the sale of the furniture to make improvements to the Castle and attract paying corporate conferences. They then realised that they needed help to keep the castle afloat, so it was opened to the public.
When you purchase Leeds Castle tickets, you can pay once and visit as much as you’d like for an entire 12 months. Just one ticket will grant you repeat visits for the entire year, and you will also be able to gain free entry into a variety of different events at the castle unless they are special ticketed events.
If you’re someone who is ready for a challenge, the Leeds Castle Maze will be right up your alley! The official website says “The Maze consists of 2,400 yew trees and when viewed from the centre, part of its plan mirrors a queen’s crown. It is set in a square, and yet, when seen from the mound or the air, the pattern is circular, this is unique to the castle and adds to the difficulty in solving it.”
You can even visit Leeds Castle at Christmas to enjoy a festive and family-friendly Christmas at a beautiful castle. There are even markets there so you can spend the time wandering leisurely through the grounds.