Leeds Castle has been called “the loveliest castle in the world”. William the Conqueror, the first Norman King in 1066, demanded a survey of English lands, wealth and property for tax purposes. The compilation today is known as the Domesday Book. This 11th century book provides a detailed look at England at the time it was written. Leeds Castle was listed in the Domesday Book as a Saxon manor consisting of vineyards, meadows, woodland and mills. Its historical roots pre-date King William I who gave the manor to a loyal Norman baron to oversee. It would later be the property of six medieval queens and was eventually restored and updated by an American heiress of English descent.
Leeds Castle is located in Kent, near Maidstone which is about 45 miles east, southeast of London. It is an easy 1 ½ hour drive from London with major motorways most of the way.
Leeds Castle is one of the easier drives to a major historical site outside London. There are plenty of hotels and B&Bs around Maidstone, which is the nearest village to the castle. After parking my car, I decided to take the small “train” from the front gate to the castle gate. Experiencing some back problems after the long climb up the St. Peter’s dome in London the day before, the train sounded like a good idea instead of the beautiful, but long walk to the castle. It was only 50p which seemed like a good value.
As I loaded onto the small train there was a young couple with a beautiful little girl in the seat behind me. During the course of conversation it was discovered we lived within 5 miles of each other in Texas, north of Dallas. It is truly a small world.
The train dropped me off outside of the castle and it was beautiful. The countryside around the castle is magnificent with meadows, water and forests. It is easy to see why it was coveted as a country home by medieval royals. As I stepped off the train there was a fantastic open air coach pulled by two beautiful horses, driven by two handsome tuxedoed men with a pretty bride and her father in the carriage. People were walking around taking pictures so I did too. I am sure her wedding was a dream come true for a lot of people.
I went through the gatehouse and entered the center courtyard taking in all of the sights and sounds. It is breath taking the first time you enter a well preserved medieval castle. I was surprised it wasn’t more crowded on a beautiful and sunny Sunday afternoon. The tour starts on the lower level of the castle so I followed the trail along the water to the oldest part of the castle called the Gloriette, which is on a small island. Originally this island was surrounded by water and a drawbridge was the only means to it. About 150 years ago a bridge was built that connected buildings on the two islands making the drawbridge obsolete. The moat was extended around all of the castle buildings.
The tour begins through some steps that lead you through the bridge to the Gloriette. Unlike a lot of castles in England, most of the decorations are not medieval, but are from the last private owner, Lady Baillie. In 1552, the castle fell into private hands and passed through the tumultuous next two centuries of English history. Various wealthy owners fell in and out of favor and fortune as the castle and its property changed hands.
“Death duties” also known as legacy, succession and estate duties were introduced into England in 1796. Although the value of the estate impacted by these death taxes varied over time these duties had a significant impact on ownership of the castle. In 1926, the Martin family was forced to sell the castle and its estate to pay for death taxes. The property was purchased by an American heiress and her sister who was the daughter of a former British industrialist who emigrated to American in 1881and a wealthy American woman who inherited money from the Standard Oil fortune.
Lady Baillie was born “Olive Cecilia Paget”. She went to school in France and served as a wartime nurse during WWI in England. Her first marriage produced two daughters who would be raised at Leeds Castle. It was during her second marriage in 1925 that Leeds Castle was purchased. After divorcing her second husband in 1931 she retained possession of the property. Her third marriage was to Sir Adrian William Maxwell Baillie, 6th baronet thus giving her the title of “lady”. They had one son in 1934. She divorced Sir Adrian in 1944 and she remained at Leeds Castle until dying in London in 1974.
The importance of this history is because of the décor of the castle. It has been left in the state it was when Lady Baillie entertained nobles, politicians, authors, artists and the Hollywood elite. The pictures, apartments, furniture and other interior decorations were not of kings and queens from medieval times but from the last century. While Lady Baillie had an interesting life, it was still a little disappointing to me to see 1940s décor in a 800 year old building.
Leeds Castle is a wonderful place to take children. The grounds are open to walk around, picnic, paint, take pictures or just lie down and relax. Once leaving the castle grounds there is a great restaurant in converted buildings built in the last 100 years. Children’s areas such as gardens, playgrounds and an outdoor restaurant make it ideal for the family. It is clean and well run.
There is a pond or small lake outside the castle on one end which connects to the children’s play areas at the other end. For £1, you can take a delightful 5 minute ride across the lake seeing the property a last time before heading back to your car.
The Background and History
The area that is today Leeds Castle was once a Saxon manor. The Saxons ruled this area of England in the preceding 500 years to William the Conqueror defeating King Harold at the Battle of Hastings. The earliest recorded appearance of Leeds was in 855. It became a Norman stronghold, was home to six English medieval queens, a palace used by King Henry VIII and his first wife Katherine of Aragon, a Jacobean country house, a Georgian mansion and an early 20th century retreat for the rich and famous. Today it is one of the most visited locations in Britain.
The first stone castle was built in 1119 during the reign of King Henry I, William the Conqueror’s son. It became property of the monarch in 1278 when possession passed to Queen Eleanor of Castile, wife of King Edward I.
The castle’s first siege came in 1139 as Stephen of Blios took control of the castle in his battle against King Henry I’s daughter, Matilda the Empress, to become King Stephen. Stephen gave the castle as private property to the Crevecoeur family.
In 1278 the castle owners fell into financial ruin and it was sold to Eleanor of Castille, King Edward I’s first wife. This move began the ownership succession of six subsequent English queens. Royal engineers added and modified the castle over the years to suit the owners. The Gloriette, the main castle on the original island, was largely built by Eleanor as it appears today. Eleanor died in 1290.
Edward II gave the castle to Bartholomew de Badlesmere, Lord Steward of the royal household. Edward II’s policies were making a great deal of enemies in the kingdom and Bartholomew joined the opposition. When Edward’s wife, Isabella, was denied entry into the castle it was besieged by Edward and Bartholomew was executed. The castle stayed again in royal hands until Henry IV’s wife, Joan of Navarre, gave the castle to the Archbishop of Canterbury who died 3 years later. After Henry IV died, Henry V treated Joan of Navarre, his stepmother, decently, but in time he turned against her imprisoning her in Leeds Castle. Eventually Henry V died and left the castle as part of a larger estate to his wife, Catherine de Valois who was the youngest daughter of Charles VI of France.
Catherine de Valois bequeathed the castle to Henry VII, the first Tudor king, who was her grandson by her second marriage. The castle was transformed from Saxon stronghold to a Tudor palace by Henry VIII for his first wife, Catherine of Aragon.
In 1520, Henry VIII stopped at Leeds Castle with 5,000 people and soldiers on his way to France to try and negotiate a peaceful settlement to hostilities between the two countries. Finally, in 1552, the deed to the castle was granted outside of the royal family. The castle was granted to Sir Anthony St. Leger for his role in subjugating an uprising in Ireland.
For the next 200 years the castle changed hands several times in parallel with the ever-changing political winds in England. It continued to be used as a country estate for the rich. Fortunately, the castle was relatively untouched by the civil war between the Parliamentarians and the Royalists, as its owners claimed their allegiance early to the Parliamentarians who destroyed a great number of royal castles on their way to victory.
The castle did suffer great damage when it became a place for French and Dutch prisoners of war during the 1660s. They set fire to part of the castle causing extensive damage that was not repaired until the 1820s.
The property passed hands many times through inheritance until 1821 when it became the property of Fiennes Wykeham Martin who spent a considerable sum of money to restore the property leading to his financial ruin. His son was able to restore the family fortune and the estate, but once again the family found the property in peril due to Britain’s “death tax” in 1925. The Martins sold the castle to Honorable Mrs. Wilson Filmer, later known as Lady Baillie, who spent the next 30 years updating the castle.
Lady Baillie was born an American but had a rich English heritage. Her father was Almeric Paget, 1st Baron of Queenborough. He was the sixth and youngest son of Lord Alfred Paget. His grandfather had commanded the British cavalry at the Battle of Waterloo in 1815. He immigrated to America and had an interesting life while establishing relationships with top American leaders and Presidents. He owned a ranch, became an industrialist, award-winning yachtsman, British nobleman and member of the British conservative party and Treasurer of the League of Nations Union.
Lady Baillie’s mother was Pauline Payne Whitney. The Whitney’s had a prominent role in America’s early industrial history. Her father was Secretary of the Navy and corporate counsel for New York City. She was an heir to part of the fortune of Standard Oil Company. The Paget’s moved to England, largely due to the health of Lady Baillie’s mother, when she was a teenager.
Olive Cecilia Paget went to school in France, but returned during WWI and became Lady Baillie after her second marriage to Sir Adrian Baillie. In 1925 during her second marraige, she purchased Leeds Castle which was in deteriorating condition. She would devote the rest of her life restoring the castle, its associated buildings and the estate.
Lady Baillie became renowned as a hostess. During her marriage to Sir Adrian they lived in London during the week and entertained at Leeds Castle on the weekends. She retained the castle after her divorce from Sir Adrian. The castle became the playground for a variety of famous people of the day: politicians, actors and actresses, the royal family, authors and musicians as well as foreign dignitaries. During WWII the castle became a military hospital.
With the decline in health of Lady Baillie she gave a large portion of the property to her son, Gawain, but wanted the castle to be enjoyed by the public. She created a charitable trust called the Leeds Castle Foundation to operate the castle after her death in the 1970s. One of her daughters continued to live in the castle until her death in 2003.
Category Rating: A
Overall Rating: #4
Comments: The property is beautiful; the castle is lovely and interesting. The history of the castle is unparalleled in England. However I was expecting more after hearing it was the “loveliest castle in the world”. It is a delightful estate that really emphasizes less its ancient history and more its current history. Nevertheless it is a beautiful property and well worth the drive or tour for a day trip.