When, as a young surveyor and still a bachelor, George Washington diddled about with Sally Fairfax, even though she was (to his lifelong sorrow if the scandalmongers of two centuries area to be believed) already married to the son of the sixth Lord Fairfax, Washington could have had no inkling of the beauty of the Fairfax's castle in England. Or he might just have chucked it all to gaze lovingly at Sally Fairfax and Leeds Castle. And things might have come out altogether differently.
But never mind George. Leeds Castle was where Henry VIII first laid eyes upon (and diddled about with) the ill-fated Ann Boleyn.
The ladies of Leeds, actually, had enough of an influence on things over the course of 1,000 years (give or take a year or so) that it has come to be called "the lady's castle."
By and large, the eight medieval queens of England, whose castle it was during three centuries of royal ownership, had a good enough time of it to give Leeds a reputation for romance and happiness. Of course there was poor beheaded Ann Boleyn and, then too, Queen Joan of Navarre and the Duchess of Gloucester, who were charged with withcraft these 550 years gone, and for whom Leeds became a prison.
But what is romance, anyway, without a skeleton or three? (And in a specially prepared history of the castle it is pointed out that "In fairness to the reputation of these two royal ladies (Queen Joan and the Duchess) . . . it should be said that there is strong presumptive evidence that in both cases the charges of witchcraft were trumped up for ignoble reasons.") That's good to know.
Leeds was in the news some months ago when the terms of the will of its last private owner, the Hon. Olive, Lady Baillie, were made public and it became known that the castle, its parks, its woodlands, its lake, its geese (transplanted Canadas), its black swans and its nine-hole golf course - among the most admired by world golfers, one is assured - were to be left to the people of England for the purpose of furthering medical research.
The Kentish castle is open to the public now, too, and its Chapel Royal, once the heart of castle life, where daily masses were sung for the souls of the devout Eleanor of Castile (the castle's first royal owner) and subsequent royalty, was formally reconsecrated last month by the Archbishop of Canterbury, Dr. Donald Coggan. It was a ceremony nearly as historic as the chapel itself, recovering it from what was called "the oblivion and neglect of time," the several centuries during which it was used, not as a chapel, but "for everyday purposes."
This was a cold wet spring in England. Rainy and dreary. But the day set aside for the reconsecration of the 700-year-old Chapel Royal at Leeds Castle in the countryside of Kent, dawns clear and bright and warm. It seemed as though all the flowers in England had chosen that May day to bloom and, it fact, back in London, it was the last day of the Chelsea Flower Show.
The beauty of Leeds Castle very nearly defies description. It is set on two islands in a natural lake which first attracted the chief minister of Ethelbert IV, king of Kent. The minister, a fellow named Ledian or Led, built a wooden castle on the site in 857 and protected it with its first drawbridge.
As members of the 20th-century press were delivered to the recent ceremonies in two vans (one for smokers) they were greeted by a naughter peacock, insouciantly trailing his feathers along the meticulously manicured lawns. A pair of black swans sailed alongside the Norman stone towers, lording it over the resident duck and goose population, scorning an assortment of coyly placed television cameras, ignoring princes of the Church of England, including a representative bishop from Virginia, and Princess Royal, Alexandra, cousin to the queen.
There is a light lunch for the press waitng in a restored barn - cold meats, salad and a sweet; red and white wines. By now some 100 radio, television, newspaper and magazine representatives have accumulated. The placement of TV cameras is less coy.
After lunch, the short walk to the castle and the chapel area. Overflow press and dignitaries watch the ceremony on closed circuit TV in the adjoining Henry VIII banqueting hall. Within the tiny chapel are the archbishop himself, (after he ceremonially knocks on the chapel door thrice with his crozier and prays for blessings of peace on the house), attendant bishops including the Rt. Rev. David Rose from Virginia, Princess Alexandra and her husband the Hon. Angus Ogilvy and one of the trustees of the Leeds Castle Foundation. There is also Sir Arthur Bryant, C.H., who is the dean of British historians, and the Rt. Hon. Lord Geoffrey-Lloyd, chairman of the foundation, whose elegant London house on Chester Square (only a few short blocks from the Bellamys' Eaton Place) was the gathering spot for the two vans of reporters to be delivered to the castle by representatives of Clark, Nelson Ltd., international public relations.
The formal ceremony, dignified, medieval and somehow deeply moving, is accompanied by a quartet of extraordinarily fine voices belonging to a group called the Canterbury Clerkes, but having, one is informed, no connection to the cathedral, the archbishop or the Church. Troubadours for hire. There is also a choir of youngsters keeping the congregation on key during the hymns a brass ensemble.
Lady Baillie and Queen Eleanor of Castile are remembered in the service. (But Eleanor's most famous memorial is in London. After her death, her grieving husband, King Edward 1, vowed to raise a cross to her memory at every town where her body had rested on the way to Westminster. The most famous was called by him "Chere Reine Croix" which Saxon tongues gradually transmuted to the name by which it is known today: Charing Cross.)
Afterwards everyone is invited to tea. It is a white-gloves-and-hats affair, make no mistake. Strawberries and cream. Petit fours. Tiny sandwiches, biscuits, cookies, pastries, tea and coffee.
Princess Alexandra, by far the most attractive of the royal family's female members, is gracious and is curtseyed to by many of the guests. She is wearing a slate blue Ultra-suede, two-piece suit. (Her skirt is midcalf.)
Princess Alexandra's late father was the Duke of Kent, a great friend of Olive Baillie, heiress to her American mother's fortune (she was a Whitney, you know), who purchased the castle in 1926 and spent the next 50 years restoring it to the greatest splendor it has ever known. It was known for its parties and, as one guest noted, "there was a jolly bit of frolicking in this place." Princess Alexandra was often a guest.
One of Lady Baillie's daughters, Mrs. Edward Remington-Hobbs, and her husband, Colonel Remington-Hobbs, maintain residence in the Maidens Tower, now luxuriously appointed, which was built on orders of Henry V111.
Another daughters, Pauline Cave, who now lives in New York and Long Island, recalled growing up in the castle. "Oh yes," she said, "there was a bit of riding - and the men shot, of course, and golf and croquet and squash and parties - there was such a lot of laughter and music."
During the war Lady Baillie transformed the castle into a recovery hospital for war casualities who had undergone plastic surgery. And recalled Pauline Cave (called "Popsie" by her family), "we could watch dogfights in the air. And sometimes we'd search for Nazi pilots who'd been shot down. I remember I would take a pitchfork and wondered what in the world I'd do if I ever found one . . ."
Lady Baillie wanted the castle to be a center for conferences on the healing arts and an arts center as well. Her work over the years with the noted decorator Stephan Boudin ("Oh," said Pauline Cave, "He was really so much more than a decorator.") saw furnishings and art work representing the various periods of the castle's 11 centuries collected from throughout Europe. The top of a curving stairwell, for example, opens out onto a balustrade and window taken from a medieval French chateau. In the entrance hall is an 11th-century stone sculpture of the lion sheltering the lamb which once stood in an Italian cathedral.
It was at Leeds Castle, so the story goes, that Catherine of Valois, (Shakespeare's "French Kate,") widow (at 21) of Henry V, met and secretly married her wardrobe clerk, a young fellow name of Owen Tudor, thereby, with the subsequent ascent to the throne of grandson Henry V11, establishing the House of Tudor. Not without, of course, a royal scandal and a narrow escape by Kate and Owen from headsman's axe.
And it was Tudor Henry V111 who spent more lavishly than anyone since Edward 1 to make Leeds into a luxurious palace for at least two of Henry's six wives - Ann Boleyn and Catherine Parr.
Cows grazed contentedly on the newly green meadows of the rolling Kent countryside as Princess Alexandra presided over afternoon tea. Bright yellow mustard fields contrasted with the green of the golf course, and along the road the inevitable gorse was blooming. ("When gorse is out of bloom," so the saying goes, "kissing's out of season.") And at the bottom of the list of instructions for guests to the day's ceremonies there was this note:
"Tea will be available for Chauffeurs in the Fairfax Hall in the Stable Yard."
At last, the assorted bishops are "being packed up" by aides, the elaborate gilt-embroidered robes meticulously folded just so, and soon only those who are spending the night in the castle are left with the peacocks and the ducks, some rare parakeets, and the 1,100-year-long panorama of English history.