There is an entry in the Domesday book for an area in Kent called Eyhorne. It had a population of 54 households, which was very large for the time. There were 12 plough lands, woodlands, an 8-acre meadow, 5 mills and 1 church. In 1086 it was under the ownership of Athlewold. This wasn’t, however, the first record of the Saxon Manor in Eyhorne. Its first appearance was in 855 on an area of land known as the ‘Manor of Eslades’. The word Esledes is old English meaning a slope or hillside. It’s believed a Saxon chief built a fortress on the site in and around the 9th/10th centuries. Eventually it would be destroyed by the Danes, although no trace of the fortress has ever been found.
The first stone castle built on the area was by Robert Crevecoeur in 1119 after his grandfather, Harno de Crevecoer, was granted the land. The castle is known to us today as Leeds Castle, a romantic and picturesque site with the nickname of ‘The Loveliest Castle In The World’. This is its story.
Leeds Castle was home to many queens of England, and each of them had some impact on its history. The last owner of the castle, Lady Baille, may not have been an anointed queen, but she was an American heiress and held power and sway over many. Her role was similar to that of the queens who owned and lived at Leeds.
Leeds connection with the queens of England begins in 1278 when it would come into royal possession and remain so for the next 300 years. William de Leyburn sold it to Eleanor of Castile, wife to Edward I. Eleanor made her mark on the castle, some of which can be seen today, including the revetment wall around the large island. The wall would have been reinforced by D-shaped bastion towers that still remain, although all but one have been lowered in height. The Gloriette was also built during this time on the smaller island and would be the residential area of the castle. It was named in honour of Queen Eleanor, and this D shaped building was situated on the smaller of the two islands. Within its walls would be a great hall.
The castle would officially be dower castle to the queens of England in 1290, when Edward I remarried in 1290. He and his new wife Margaret honeymooned at the Castle and afterwards he gave the castle to her.
In 1321 Leeds Castle would come under siege for the second time in its history (the first was by Stephen in 1139). The attacker was King Edward, who laid siege to the Castle because the Governor’s wife, Margaret de Clare, had insulted Edward’s Queen Isabella by refusing her admittance to the Castle. So Edward used this as an excuse to attack, although to be honest he was looking for a reason as the Governor, Lord Badlesmere, like many of the nobles in Edwards court, wasn’t happy with the high power of the Despesnser family, or of Edwards policies.
When refused entry, Isabella stood her ground so Margaret ordered her bowman to attack and six of Isabella’s men were killed. Edward would lay siege to the Castle for a week and when it finally surrendered. Margaret de Clare was imprisoned at Dover Castle, and later the Tower. Her husband would be hung, drawn and quartered a year later after the battle of Boroughbridge, where he supported the Earl of Lancaster against the King.
Leeds Castle would undergo some major changes once more in 1517-23 when King Henry VIII wanted to accommodate his first wife Catherine of Aragon in the castle. It was transformed from a fortified stronghold to a royal palace. Within the Gloriette an upper floor was added with Spanish motifs and royal arms placed on the interior decoration, including on the fireplaces. Such detail suggests these rooms were to be used a lot by Catherine.
In 1544, the Maidens Tower was constructed to house Catherine’s maids of honour, including Anne Boleyn, Henrys second wife. King Henry would often visit Leeds and even stopped there on his way to France for the famous Field of Cloth of Gold in 1520. A painting commemorating this hangs at the castle, Embarkation at Dover.
In 1552 the Castle ceased to be under royal ownership when Edward VI gave it to Antony St Leger for good services, and it became a private residence. This would not, however, be the end of the female influence in the castle. In 1926 an American heiress instantly fell in love with its beauty and saw its potential. She purchased the estate and placed her stamp on it, which is what we can see and visit today. That woman was Olive, Lady Baillie.
Lady Olive would hire the architect Owen Little to transform the castle back to its medieval roots. For the interior transformation, she commissioned the French designer Armand-Albert Rateau who would create a gothic fantasy for her within the gloriette. Later alterations were made by Stephane Boudin and its his designs we see today. During its transformations, unheard of luxuries would be installed including under floor heating and en-suite bathrooms. A swimming pool was built with a wave machine, which was remarkable for its day.
By the 1930s, Leeds Castle was one of the greatest country homes in England and was known for entertaining the leading powerful people of the day including statesman, royalty and film stars. The guests staying at Leeds were Olive’s priority and she made sure that they enjoyed themselves; weekend parties would include swimming, tennis and horse riding. There were beautiful gardens to explore with zebras crossing the grounds and a whole host of birds. It was the perfect getaway and to top it off Olive would offer her guests complete privacy, away from the limelight and the press. Lady Olive herself was actually a private person who shied away from publicity and at Leeds Castle she offered her guests the same.
During the outbreak of World War Two Lady Olive and her family moved into the Gloriette and she offered up the rest of the Castle for use as a hospital for those on rest from Dunkirk, and as a rehabilitation centre for severely burnt pilots.
As Lady Olive reached the end of her life, she set up the Leeds Castle foundation, which is the organisation who run and manage it today. The aim of this charitable foundation is ‘the preservation of the Castle, its collections and interiors, and its estate for the benefit of the public.’ And they do it well. Leeds Castle has over half a million visitors each year and it offers a great day trip out for everyone.
On a final note, Lady Billie had a great affection for birds. She is known to have kept some of the earliest known black swans in the country, and had the most complete and well-presented collection of rare and engaged birds in the united Kingdom. The ever growing collection, originally housed in long wooden flights, eventually became too much to handle. They were moved in 1988 to 48 large aviaries and by 2012, the vet bills were too large. The aviaries were closed with many of the birds re-homed across the country. Today the black swan is used as the badge of Leeds Castle in homage to Lady Baillie, the true queen of the castle.
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 Chamberlain to William the Conqueror