Home to queens and kings of England as well as an American millionairess with movie-star friends, Leeds Castle has stood for centuries in Maidstone, Kent. Today Leeds Castle is open to the public, who are welcome to visit its restored rooms and 500 picture-perfect acres.
Set in a valley of the River Len in the heart of the English countryside, Leeds Castle is a thoroughly romantic location. The castle itself, surrounded by the lake, is a treasure trove of art, antiques, and history.
Leeds Castle's history includes romance and intrigue, conflict and majesty. Although Edward I, Edward III, Richard II, and Henry V all held court at Leeds Castle, it has long been known as a ladies' castle.
Leeds aka the Ladies' Castle
From 1278 to 1552, it was customary for the castle to be part of a queen’s dowry and retained during widowhood. Queen Isabella, Anne of Bohemia, and Joan of Navarre all once resided in Leeds Castle.
The Queen’s Bedroom and Bathroom at Leeds Castle are reconstructions of chambers used by Catherine de Valois [1401 – 1437], wife of Henry V, who stayed at Leeds Castle on many occasions. Brought by him from France as a young bride, she was widowed by the age of 22. When a secret affair with the commoner Owen Tudor was revealed in subsequent years, scandal ensued. Nonetheless, the two had four sons, one of whom fathered King Henry VII.
Henry VIII, perhaps the most famous of all royal owners, was responsible for much of Leeds Castle’s splendor.
He spent lavishly to transform the castle from a rugged fortress into a royal palace. The Henry VIII Banqueting Hall bears testament to this reconstruction, and retains features dating from 1517.
Lady Baillie Buys Leeds Castle
The last owner of Leeds Castle, Lady Baillie was an American-born heiress to the Whitney fortune.
She purchased the castle in 1926 for $873,000, beating out Randolph Hearst, the newspaper tycoon, as high bidder.
Lady Baillie devoted the rest of her life to restoring the Norman castle and rolling parkland that surrounds it. And she brought Hollywood glamour to the surroundings. A society hostess, Lady Baillie's guests included Jimmy Stewart, Errol Flynn, and Charlie Chaplin.
When Lady Baillie died in 1974, she left Leeds Castle to a charitable trust which ensures its enjoyment by the public and also promotes the castle for weddings and national and international seminars.
Exploring Leeds Castle
In addition to the castle itself, visitors to Leeds can also experience:
- The Maze - Planted with 2,400 yew trees in 1988, the maze at Leeds Castle challenges visitors to reach the panoramic central viewing point. (No need to fear getting lost; staffers perched high in the center help to guide the direction-impaired through this topiary castle.)
- The Aviary - More than 100 species of rare and colorful birds including macaws, cockatoos, and toucans are housed in the outdoor aviary.
- The Dog Collar Museum - Certainly one of the world's most unusual collections, the Dog Collar Museum displays nearly 100 antique dog collars spanning five centuries. Collars dating from the 15th, 16th, and 17th centuries were designed to protect a dog during a time when wolves, bears, and wild boar roamed the forests of Europe and the vulnerable throats of hunting dogs needed protection with broad iron collars bristling with fearsome spikes. The Dog Collar Museum also houses Leeds Castle's small gift shop.
- Culpeper Garden - This quintessential English garden features neat box hedges enclosing traditional colorful perennials and fragrant annuals such as roses, pinks, lupins, and poppies.
- Restaurant - More than 8,000 bottles of wine are produced each year from the castle vineyard. Award-winning Leeds Castle wines are sold exclusively in the castle restaurant and shops.
Weddings at Leeds Castle
Leeds Castle offers couples four stunning and historic settings for a fairytale wedding: The Library, Dining Room, Gate House, and Terrace. In addition to a choice of venues for wedding receptions suitable for banquets as well as smaller gatherings, the castle has 37 rooms available for newlyweds and their guests to stay over.
Leeds Castle wedding services include a butler, flower arrangements by the castle’s own florist, and wines and champagnes from the castle’s extensive Norman cellars.
Travel to Leeds Castle in Style >Although nearly 500,000 tourists make their way to Leeds Castle annually, those who travel in style take the Venice Simplon-Orient-Express British Pullman day trip excursion from London.
Meeting at 9:30 am at the Victoria rail station, the small group is led by a knowledgeable guide who takes them via coach to the castle.
Along the way, passengers enjoy the narrated ride while peering out at the English countryside.
Those who travel in spring are likely to see newly born lambs cavorting beside their ewe on velvety green grass.
While other visitors must park a distance from the castle, the Orient-Express motorcoach pulls close to the entrance and remains parked there until departure.
Upon arrival, Orient-Express guests are treated to a sweet roll and coffee or tea in the Leeds Castle restaurant and given a handsome commemorative booklet. They have more than two hours to explore the castle and grounds, which is ample time. (A camera is a must.)
Then it's back on the bus, for a ride to scenic Folkestone Harbor, where the British Pullman awaits. On a clear day, the white cliffs of Dover are visible from the harbor.
The second thrill of the day, after experiencing Leeds Castle, is boarding the historic British Pullman. Aboard a meticulously restored umber and cream 1920s or 30s carriage, passengers enjoy a three-course lunch accompanied with champagne and wine as Britain's countryside unfolds at the window.
All too soon, the train returns the group to London at 5 pm, leaving passengers with unforgettable memories of the world's most romantic castle -- and the elegant journey home from it.