Leeds Castle is the stuff of fairy tales. It is a castle of breathtaking beauty and surprises. But, I have to say up front, I would rather take a picnic basket and enjoy the grounds rather than the interior of the castle as it is not original inside. It has had many makeovers and DIY sessions. It was the Victorian’s who decided to have a go and tinker about it creating the Tudor Architecture. When you first view the castle, one imagines this is how this castle has been for donkey years, but parts of the castle are only 200 years old. That’s very young by castle standards.
Leed’s Castle was named after Led, The Chief Minister of King Ethelbert IV of Kent. Leeds was recorded in 1086 in the Domesday Book and called Esledes – an old English word meaning slope or hillside. The castle was built on the site of a Saxon home, the Royal Manor built in 857 and recorded in that dreaded Domesday Book. As a child I loved the sound of the Dooms Day Book. That moniker stirred up all sorts of torture, dungeons, and formidable disasters of the sort that a young mind finds terribly exciting, but it was nothing more than a way to record what taxes you owed. Still, a gloomy prospect in this day and age.
The Royal Castle was born when King Edward started to make improvements in his early DIY version of 1728. It was to become home to six English Queens and during the 1660’s, French prisoners. I love going places and stepping on top of history. There is something solid about that feeling, a reassurance that we will continue on, and I suppose a sort of voyeurism if that’s possible to say– my feet trod where kings have walked. A little ego boost of sorts, I suppose.
In the 1800‘s Fiennes Wykeham-Martin owned the mill and barbican which were in ruins. The gatehouse, the Maiden’s Tower, everything was in the state of glorious decay. The house was demolished and replaced with a Tudor styled New Castle. It was finished in 1823, but this massive rebuild forced Martin to sell off the contents of the castle, and it was with his son’s help, well…the substantial dowry of his wife, that they were to rebuild their fortunes and Leeds became one of Kent’s largest private estates.
Leeds was last owned privately by Lady Baillie who bought the castle in 1926. Just imagine that shopping spree, ‘Darling, I’m just popping out for some retail therapy this afternoon. I think I rather fancy a castle.’
Lady Baillie redecorated the Castle and during the war opened it up as a hospital. When she died in 1974, she left the castle to the country with the guardianship of the Leeds Castle Foundation.
Rebuild or original castle, doesn’t really matter as it is a beautiful place to spend a summer afternoon, with a picnic basket, or even with waterproof boots for an outstanding walk about the grounds in winter.
The Castle has a large collection of Dog Collars. What amazes me is the cost people went to for their pets back then. It’s just something that doesn’t quickly spring to mind immediately, a gold dog collar? Sorry Ted, that’s not in the cards for you. It’s the custom of spoiling our dogs that I think of as only being modern, but the proof is in the collar. Those who had deep pockets even back in the day of knights in shining armour lavished riches on their pets.
Dog Collars are interesting enough but what more does a castle need? Well a good witch and a black dog.
There is a large black dog at Leeds. A dog of death. Legend says that a woman was sitting in a bay window, no doubt looking out at the incredible gardens when she saw the Black Dog. She screamed, jumped away from the window, and not even a second later, the window collapsed down into the moat.
It was in the fifteenth century that an aunt of Henry IV, Eleanor of Gloucester who in 1431 was accused of spending her spare hours practising the dark arts. She was the daughter of a knight, not such a high rank in royalty, but she quickly changed her meagre status by having an affair with Humphrey Gloucester, next in line to succeed to King. Gloucester could not resist his mistress and Eleanor soon became his wife. Eleanor not happy with being next in line, tried to find out what her future was to hold.
Eleanor consulted her astrologers, Roger Bolingbroke an Oxford scholar, Thomas Southwell a physician and a cannon of St Stephens, John Hume a priest and secretary to the family. Thomas Southwell and Roger Bolingbroke predicted that Henry would suffer a terrible illness and die in July or August of 1441. Not a good fortune to tell when your husband is next in line for the throne. Naturally, Henry was upset and traced back the rumours of his impending death to their source, Eleanor, Thomas, and Roger.
Ah the dark arts, they were accused of meeting in secret mixing up potions and fashioning a wax image of the King, to cause his death by spell. During the interrogations, Hume lost his nerve and informed on the lot. Henry arrested the men and Bolingbroke, ever the gentleman, quickly confessed that Eleanor was the root cause of this rumour. So equal rights for all, Eleanor was promptly arrested. She was charged with treason, heresy, witchcraft, and necromancy, oh how nasty is that! Roger Bolingbroke only fully admitted his part when he was mere inches away from the scaffold in front of St Paul’s.
Eleanor naturally denied all the charges, but her undoing was her confession to procuring potions she obtained from Margery Jourdemayne, the Witch Of Eye. The potions, she protested, were only to help her conceive and not harm Henry. But, some excuses are too weak for an angry King and he acted swiftly. Southwell died in the Tower of London, Bolingbroke was hanged, drawn and quartered, which was a gruesome death. The custom was to hang you until you lost conciseness, then pull you down, and cut you into quarters whilst you still knew what was happening. Not top of my lists to of how I want to leave the planet with. The Witch of Eye was burnt at the stake.
Eleanor? She had to do public penance in London by walking barefoot through London with a candle, and divorce her husband. Now walking barefoot through London may not sound such a dreadful punishment, but that would mean walking through animal waste, food wastes, urine from beasts and men, peasants tossing all sorts of nasties at you. Not a fun walk about when you have to hold a lit candle all the way, even though the painting highly romanticises the event.
Gloucester was an old hand at divorce and quickly got rid of Eleanor. Gloucester was nowhere to be found during the trial and let his wife face her accusers alone. He was allowed to remarry without any problems, claiming she must have forced him to marry her in the first place with her skillful and wicked sorcery. Once a witch, well always a witch. She was condemned to spend the rest of her life in prison and did some time at Leeds Castle whilst waiting her final sentence. Some say it was around this time period that the dark dog appeared and quickly earned a black reputation for evil, disaster and foretelling death. The dog would appear with its dark curly hair and then disappear, fading away into the walls, or passing through closed doors.
But the dark dog, witches aside, Leeds is a place of incredible beauty, resting on two islands in the middle of a lake. It is a fairy tale castle with a few tales of it’s own.
Shakespeare Henry VI. part ii act ii. scene 3:
Stand forth dame Eleanor Cobham,
In sight of God and us, your guilt is great:
Receive the sentence of the law, for sins
Such as by God’s book are adjudged to death.
You, madam, for you are more nobly born,
Despoiled of your honour in your life,
Shall, after three days’ open penance done,
Live in your country here, in banishment,
With Sir John Stanley, in the Isle of Man.
“There was a Beldame called the wytch of Ey,
Old mother Madge her neighbours did hir name
Which wrought wonders in countryes by heresy
Both fends and fayries her charming would obay
And dead corpsis from grave she could purer
Suche an enchantress, as that tyme had no peere.”