Yesterday, I went with the other international students to Leeds Castle on the last of our Welcome Week activities. The weather was bad — cold and rainy — but the castle was quite pretty.
The castle gets its name from the Saxon manor called Esledes, not because it’s in Leeds, England (common confusion; it’s actually in Maidstone). It was built in 1119 by Robert Crevecoeur, and ended up in the hands of Edward I. Edward began what I thought was the castle’s most interesting tradition — queenly ownership.
Edward gave the castle to Eleanor of Castile, whose Spanish heritage is kind of felt architecturally, we were told. When Eleanor died, Edward built a chapel in the castle in her honor, and gave the castle to his second wife, Margaret of Anjou. The queens owned the castle outright, independent of their husbands. When the king died, the queen retained ownership until she died. At that time, it’d pass back to the current king who’d give it to his wife. Six queens from the late 13th to the early 15th centuries owned the castle: Eleanor and Margaret (Edward I), Isabella (Edward II), Anne of Bohemia (Richard II), Joan of Navarre (Henry IV) and Catherine of Valois (Henry V). While Catherine of Aragon never owned the castle outright, Henry VIII still fixed it up for her and the couple’s crest is found throughout the building.
The castle is important to the Tudors also. Henry VIII and Catherine stayed there with a retinue of more than 2,000 people when Henry went to France to meet Francis I. Leeds eventually passed into plain old noble hands, until the last owner, Lady Baillie, died and left it to the country in the 1970s.
The lower levels of the castle are meant to have a medieval/Renaissance feel, while the upper levels have a late 19th/early 20th century look indicative of the lifestyle of its last owners (a high-didge French interior designer did the honors). The castle can be rented out for functions or (swoon) weddings. The castle itself is lovely and fairly stereotypical in how we think of “English” castles. The water and moat around it are man-made.
More recently, the castle was used as a hospital during World War II and as a meeting place for many military higher-ups (including Field Marshal Montgomery). On July 17, 1978, Anwar Sadat and Moshe Dayan stayed in the castle before the Camp David Accords.
The grounds also have a golf course, an aviary with several tropical birds, a children’s playground, a hedge maze, an underground grotto and beautiful ponds and green areas. Lady Baillie was a bird enthusiast, and the upper levels of the house all have sketches and paintings of birds. She imported black swans to the estate from Australia, and their descendants are still there.
I was slightly nervous about the swans, mostly because I understand them to be kind of aggressive. These swans, both black and white, were vey docile and ignored people, probably because they’re used to them. There were signs everywhere telling people not to feed the swans because it encouraged aggression. I did learn new things about them — black swans are Australian/Oceanian naturally, swans mate for life (I knew this) and, interestingly, every white swan in the country is the property of the Crown, i.e. the queen.
There were several other birds in residence, mostly geese and ducks. There were many peacocks about, including a mated pair with their two chicks that I, wisely I think, sidestepped on the path to avoid being chased. The aviary has many toucans, macaws, parrots, keas and other birds, and does a lot of avian conservancy around the world.
The hedge maze was good fun, mostly because a lady who worked there shouted helpful hints from the top middle of the maze. Hot cider, tea, cocoa and Kentish apple juice were on sale, as well as kettle corn, crisps (chips), sandwiches and other sweets. A restaurant on the grounds serves pub-style food, fruit, cheese, cakes and roasted meat. There were many, many young families there and I got the impression that it was a popular family destination. They had advertisements for fall and Halloween activities.
All in all, a lovely day. Enjoy the photos.