Leeds Castle's history is told in a fine booklet with a foreword by Sir Arthur Bryant and a text by Lord Geoffrey-Lloyd, a former British cabinet minister, and Peter Wilson, the head of Sotherby's and deputy chairman of the foundation. There's also a profusely illustrated guide by Angelo Hornak and Jonathan Keates as well.
They tell the story of the castle, believed by some to be the oldest still standing in England. Hamon de Crevecoeur, a favorite of William the Conquerer, was granted the castle in the early part of the 12th century. The vaulted cellar under the main building, the lower masonry of the oldest tower and the charming Gloriette, the old castle, still survive from their tenure. Barrit said that under the perfect green of the courtyard are still brick vaults, once used for storage and billets for the soldiers. Once a section of the lawn caved in and they could see an old wall.
Diana Ensoll, one of the castle's pleasant gentlewomen guides, told me the next day that a descendant of the De Crevecoeurs told her of the family curse, that all the women of the family die before 40, a punishment for the crime of the De Crevecoeur who had a white hot lead chastity belt affixed to his unfaithful wife. During restoration, eight skeletons were found in the old cellars. One was a woman with her arm outstretched to a water jug, two feet away, behind bars.
Leeds was a royal castle, the dower right of the Queens of England. First were Eleanor of Castille, and Margaret of France (both consorts of Edward I). Isabella, the 'shewolf' of France, wife of Edward II, had the castle's owner beheaded for refusing her a night's lodging. Philippa, Edward III's queen lived here. Joan of Navarre (Henry IV) kept careful accounts for her stay, including purchase of 1,000 pinks.
She was later imprisoned at Leeds castle on a charge of witchcraft. The charge was popular: Eleanor Cobham, wife of the Duke of Gloucester stood trial as a witch in Leeds chapel. Queen Catherine of Valois, widow of Henry V, met and married her clerk of the wardrobe here, a handsome Welsh knight called Owen Tudor. Their grandson was Henry VII, founder of the Tudor dynasty. Henry VII went the furthest in making Leeds a ladie's castle -- he built the "Maiden's Tower," perhaps so he could have a fresh supply of "maids-of-honor" always at hand. One of these was Anne Boleyn. Later, the castle was owned by the 6th Lord of Fairfax who, jilted by his fiancee, immigrated to Virginia. The Wyke-Ham-Martin family, who are largely responsible for the medieval character of the 1822 castle, inherited the family through their Fairfax inlaws. They sold it to Lady Baillie in 1926. She left it and 600 acres to the charitable foundation to encourag medical research and international understanding. Her son, Gwaine Baillie, still owns 4,000 acres of tree farms surrounding the castle. One daughter still lives in the Maiden's Tower and a second daughter in New York.
Leeds Castle is open to the public from April 1 through Oct. 31 on Tuesdays, Wednesdays, Thursdays, Sundays and holiday Mondays from 12:30 to 5 p.m. Admission fee is under $5.