Leeds Castle, a romantic Queens Castle with a moat and intriguing maze
Known as the loveliest castle in the world, for centuries the idyllic Leeds Castle was a royal gift, passed from a King to his Queen. Its owners have spanned from six medieval queens to an American heiress. The castle itself has evolved from Norman stronghold to the ultimate 20th-century party house, hosting Hollywood movie stars, European royalty, and famous politicians like Sir Winston Churchill.
The castle’s gentile beauty and charm mask it’s dark and intriguing secrets, discover this and more with your Luxury Vacations UK tour guide.
Today the visitor experiences the charm of a fairy-tale style castle, along with stunning gardens, one of the best traditional mazes in England and 500 acres of grounds to wander. You can even stay over and play golf. A day trip from London can include Canterbury Cathedral or Dover Castle, both in Kent. Our suggested day tour from London Dover and Leeds Castle Tour works perfectly.
A castle for Queens
A brief history of Leeds Castle
With all forts or castles, the location is vital; it must have a defensive and logistical reason for such a vast investment. Robert de Crevecoeur instigated the building of the first stone castle in 1119, Leeds sits on the main road to the seaport of Dover, a medieval freeway of sorts – guarding the route to London. The River Len acts as a water source and supplies the moat. A simple fortified mill was the first structure over the River Len. It probably provoked the precise location of the main castle.
A Queen's Castle
In the late 13th Century Leeds becomes a comfortable palace of relaxation for England's beautiful Queen Eleanor of Castile. The Queen introduced the comforts from her homeland in the form of carpets, glass windows and furniture. The relationship between King Edward I (1272-1307) of England and Queen Eleanor was unusual. Much like most Royal and elite marriages of the time, their union was political. Still, they grew to love each other deeply. The Royal family made improvements to the moat and walls raised 30 feet above the water level. The Queen died in 1290, which broke Edward's heart, the King built a chantry chapel in her honour at Leeds. Chantry chapels were made to pray for an individual's soul, a spiritual vehicle enabling VIP access to heaven.
Five million acres of Virginia
A tradition established Leeds Castle as a Queen's dowry. King Edward II (1307-1327) granted Leeds to Queen Isabella (born 1295, died 1358) and King Richard II (1377-1399) to his wife Queen Anne of Bohemia (born 1366, died 1394). Leeds remained untouched during England's vicious civil war and eventually came to the Culpeper family. The politically astute, 1st Lord Culpeper had cleverly escorted the young Prince Charles out of the country during the Civil War. When the Prince returned to England triumphantly in 1660 to became King Charles II, he rewarded his saviour Culpeper by granting him five million acres of land in Virginia.
The story continues with the Fairfax family. The 6th Lord Fairfax achieved confirmation of the sole rights to the five million acres in 1745. He became the only Peer (lord) to have permanently settled in America during colonial times. Fairfax became a friend of a 16-year-old George Washington, the first president of the United States of America.
Olive Paget, Lady Bailie, the Anglo-American heiress saw the potential the old castle in Kent in the 1920s. Leeds Castle now has an owner with the imagination to breathe life into the corridors and cold stone rooms. Lady Baillie's impact on Leeds is everywhere; she lived there longer than any other owner. She planned and invested and made Leeds a romantic backdrop to her famous parties. Ten years of shopping trips to Paris filled the castle with furniture, art and shoes. During the 1930's Leeds became a centre of lavish parties - the hospitality queen entertained politicians, ambassadors, royalty and film stars.
World War Two
During World War Two, Leeds became a hospital for burned RAF pilots and a secret weapons development centre, including advanced flame throwers. Lady Bailie established a Leeds Castle Foundation towards the end of her life. The castle bequeathed to the foundation in 1974, the year of her passing.
The parkland and gardens
There are 500 Acres to explore at Leeds, one of the first attractions is the Duckery. Lady Bailie was fascinated with birds, reflected in her wonderful aviary and decorative ideas inside the castle. The Leeds environment is a haven for wildfowl including great crested grebes, kingfishers, sparrow hawks and woodpeckers. The Culpeper Garden had been a kitchen garden. A place to produce cut flowers for the castle and now has traditional English planting - always looking its best in July.
The maze and grotto
The foundation planted the maze in 1988 with no less than 2,400 yews trees. The maze at Leeds is a particularly intriguing one, not too easy and not too hard to navigate. The design of the labyrinth mimics historical geometric patterns and leads you to a cave; your reward for completing the puzzle is access to the underworld. The grotto or cavern becomes a journey into myth and legend, creatures, faces, and bones decorate the illuminated interior - strange beasts made from shells, fossils and wood. The darkness becomes light as you get closer to the tunnel exit, and the theme of re-birth told in various materials.
Highlights of the Castle
Our guide will tell the story of the owners of Leeds in the heraldry room; the family tree helps you make sense of the history. Lady Baillie had parts of the castle decorated in the fashion of the late 15th century, such as Queen Catherine's room. Queen Catherine de Valois was a young 21-year-old when her husband King Henry V of England died. She fell in love with her clerk of the wardrobe, Owen Tudor, yes I did say Tudor, before the Tudor family became powerful.
Their son became the father of King Henry VII, the first Tudor monarch. Most of the luxurious materials and tapestries here would be removed when the Queen was not in residence, much like a theatre set. When she returned, the rooms were all fully dressed.
The Henry VIII banqueting hall was remodelled by Lady Bailie using antique fireplaces, carved beams brought from various chateaus in France. It is all beautifully done and finished off with rare tapestries. Meticulous detail and restoration is a feature of Leeds.
The Seminar Room - Leeds has developed a reputation for high-level conferences, as the foundation can secure the location. In 1978 the Foreign Ministers of Egypt, Israel and the United States of America gathered around the table in this room for talks. The outcome culminated in the signing of the Camp David Agreement. There is a beautiful painting of Lady Baillie and her daughters in this room.
Lady Baillie's Rooms are a set of stunning suites of French design. Stephane Boudin was a leading designer of interiors in the French taste and clients including the Kennedy's, and the Duke and Duchess of Windsor. Stephane first visited Leeds in 1936 and draw inspiration from English, French and Italian design.
The Dog Collar Museum is pretty unique and is genuinely one of a kind in the UK. Lady Baillie loved dogs, and Leeds would have had a pack of hunting hounds, giant English mastiffs as guard dogs and cute fluffy varieties for lap dogs - the Collection spans more than 400 years.
Places to visit nearby
Other gardens nearby include Great Dixter, Christopher Lloyd's loved by people and the natural world. Hever Castle, the childhood home of Anne Boleyn with award-winning gardens. Penshurst Place, a medieval manor house with traditional gardens. Scotney Castle, a romantic garden with a 14th-century moated castle. Historical places of interest include Canterbury Cathedral, Leeds Castle, Town of Rye and Bodiam Castle. Our Great Gardens of the South Tour features Sissinghurst, Hever Castle, Penshurst Place, and Great Dixter.
Touring and accommodation
An excellent day tour from London is our Dover and Leeds Castle Tour. We can tailor the day or include Dover Castle and Leeds Castle as part of a multi-day experience contact us for suggestions. Finish your day with English Sparkling Wine Tasting at one of Southern England's many vineyards.
The five-star option for the South East of England is South Lodge Hotel and Spa. This hotel is ideal if you wish to tour the wine region, castles and gardens mentioned, and it is only 25 minutes to Gatwick airport and 1 hour to Heathrow. There is an opportunity to stay at Leeds Castle. Stay in the Maiden's Tower, with Bed and Breakfast style accommodation, and five rooms to choose. Book all the rooms for a multi generation stay. There is the Stable Courtyard Bed and Breakfast with twin, single, double and family rooms. For extended stays, there are four vacation cottages.
If this is your first time to England, we would recommend a custom version of our Town and Country Tour; it covers the famous places and allows you to utilise your private driver-guide by getting-off-the-beaten-path. Our Classic tour of Ireland is a good place to start for the first trip to Ireland, and we suggest the Classic tour of Scotland for your first trip to the bonny Highlands. There is a wide choice of accommodation in the UK; Cottages, Manor House Hotels and traditional Guest Houses.
900 Years of Royal History
The most romantic castle in England
- VIP Guided Tours Available
- Stay at Leeds Castle (B&B and cottage style)
- Special Events throughout the Year
- Traditional Maze with Grotto
- Dog Collar Museum
- See the Duckery
Ariel View of Leeds Castle
Castle Moat at Leeds
The Maze from Above
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