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Published on January 17th, 2021 | by The Town Crier

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The Story of Leeds Castle (Part 1)

by John Flashman

A sizeable proportion of the residents of this country probably believe that Leeds Castle is located in or near the city of Leeds, Yorkshire, rather than in the village of Leeds five miles southeast of Maidstone.  It would doubtless come as a surprise to many to learn that when the first Duke of Leeds was created in 1694 he took his title from the Kent Leeds, which in the 17th century was a far more important place than its northern namesake.

There are several theories as to why Leeds, Kent is so called.  The most likely is that it derives from a nearby stream called Hylde (a loud brook) but alternatively it may come from Old English slaed (a low cut valley);  some sources also suggest it may be named after Ledian, who built the first wooden fortress here in 978.

Be that as it may, the records show that in Saxon times a wooden structure existed on part of the present site, later enlarged during the reign of William the Conqueror.  By 1119 it had come into the possession of Robert de Crevecoeur, a Norman baron who rebuilt the site as a stone stronghold, and the castle remained with the de Crevecoeur family until 1278 when King Edward I bought it for his Queen, Eleanor of Castile.  As a favoured residence of Edward’s, it saw considerable investment. The moat was dug out and filled by diverting part of the nearby river Len to form a lake and two (possibly three) artificial islands were created to accommodate the castle buildings.  A barbican spanning the islands was constructed during this time as was a Gloriette (named in honour of Queen Eleanor) with apartments for the royal couple.  The castle, now become a royal residence, formed part of the dower of English queens up to the reign of King Henry VIII.

The castle has been home to six medieval queens – Eleanor (as above), Isabella (wife of Edward II), Philippa of Hainhault (wife of Edward III), Joan of Navarre (wife of Henry IV), Catherine de Valois (wife of Henry V) and Catherine of Aragon (first wife of Henry VIII who incidentally used the castle as a bolthole when escaping plague outbreaks in London). Richard II‘s first wife, Anne of Bohemia, spent the winter of 1381 at the castle on her way to be married to the king, and in 1558 the future Elizabeth I was imprisoned here for a while.  Not surprisingly, Leeds Castle is often referred to as the “Castle of Queens, Queen of Castles”.

In 1552 Leeds Castle was granted to Sir Anthony St Leger of Ulcombe, Kent.  It was subsequently purchased by the Culpeper family, a move which almost certainly saved the castle from destruction as its then owner, Sir Cheney Culpeper, sided with the Parliamentarians during the English Civil War (1642-1651).  Other family members however sided with the Royalists and John, 1st Lord Culpeper, was later granted more than 5,000,000 acres of land in Virginia having supported the future King Charles II in exile and assisting in his escape to France. This gift was to be of great significance to Leeds Castle.

In the early part of the 18th century Leeds Castle was bequeathed by Catherine, daughter of Thomas Culpeper, to her son Robert Fairfax.  On his death there in 1793 the castle passed to his nephew, the Rev. Denny Martin, and thence to his brother Major General Philip Martin.  General Martin, the last of his family line, selected as his heir his second cousin Fiennes Wykeham, to whom he left Leeds Castle and £30,000 to be spent on repairs and improvements.  This money came from the sale of the family estates in Virginia mentioned above.   The terms of the inheritance also stipulated that Fiennes Wykeham assume the name of Martin, which he did by changing his surname to Wykeham-Martin by royal licence.

There was much work that needed to be done at the castle.  The barbican was in ruins, the gatehouse had to be completely rebuilt, a tower by the courtyard was about to collapse, the main building was not much better and the Gloriette was a virtual ruin.  In short, the castle practically needed to be rebuilt. 

Fiennes decided that the rebuilding should be in the Tudor style.  Work commenced in 1822 and by the end of that year construction of the two entrance towers and restoration of the main castle building, was complete.  Then came the rebuilding of the Gloriette which went on throughout most of 1823.  The bridge which connected the central and north islands was completely rebuilt and castellated.  The tower of the Gloriette was heightened and other more minor alterations were also made.  The work of recreating the gardens, including woodland areas landscaped in the mid-18th century by Lancelot “Capability” Brown, continued until 1835.  The castle moat, which had become choked by weed, was also cleaned out.

All this cost a great amount of money, considerably more than the General’s bequest, and plunged the family into financial difficulties, so much so that Fiennes was forced to sell some of the family possessions and reside abroad in order to avoid imprisonment.  The castle remained uninhabited until the late 1830s when Fiennes returned to live in a state of genteel poverty until his death there in September 1840 at which point the property passed to his son Charles. The neglect resulting from his father’s financial difficulties meant that more work was now needed on the buildings.  This was carried out over a number of years and included the restoration of the Gloriette which had always been Charles’ main aim.  On his death in October 1870 Leeds Castle passed to Fairfax Wykeham Martin who became the last member of the family to own it although he never actually lived there.

Part 2 of this article will describe what happened after 1926 when the castle was sold to Mrs Olive Wilson Filmer, an American lady who later became the Honourable Olive, Lady Baillie, and is still remembered today.

Acknowledgements to Alan Bignell and Meryl Flashman


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