Leeds Castle, 5 miles (8.0 km) southeast of Maidstone, Kent, England, dates back to 1119, though a Saxon fort stood on the same site from the 9th century. The castle is built on an island in a lake formed by the River Len to the east of the village of Leeds.
Built in 1119 by Robert de Crèvecœur to replace the earlier Saxon manor of Esledes, the castle became a royal palace in 1278 for King Edward I of England and his queen, Eleanor of Castile. Major improvements were made during his time, including the barbican, made up of three parts, each with its own entrance, drawbridge, gateway and portcullis.
The castle was captured on 31 October 1321 by the forces of Edward II from Margaret de Clare, Baroness Badlesmere, wife of the castle's constable, Bartholomew de Badlesmere, 1st Baron Badlesmere who had left her in charge during his absence. The King had besieged Leeds after she had refused Edward's consort Isabella of France admittance in her husband's absence; when the latter had sought to force an entry, Lady Badlesmere had instructed her archers to fire upon the Queen and her party, six of whom were killed. Lady Badlesmere was taken and kept prisoner in the Tower of London until November 1322.
Richard II's first wife, Anne of Bohemia, spent the winter of 1381 at the castle on her way to be married to the king. In 1395, King Richard II received the French chronicler Jean Froissart there, as Froissart described in his Chronicles.
Henry VIII transformed the castle in 1519 for his first wife, Catherine of Aragon. A painting commemorating his meeting with Francis I of France still hangs there.
The castle escaped destruction during the English Civil War because its owner, Sir Cheney Culpeper, sided with the Parliamentarians. The castle was used as both an arsenal and a prison during the war.
Other members of the Culpeper family had actually sided with the Royalists, John 1st Lord Culpeper having been granted more than five million acres (20,000 km²) of land in Virginia in reward for assisting the escape of the Prince of Wales. In later years this legacy was to prove vital for the castle's fortunes.
Thomas Fairfax, 6th Lord Fairfax of Cameron was born at Leeds Castle in 1693 and later settled permanently in North America to oversee the Culpeper estates, cementing an ongoing connection between Leeds Castle and America. There is a commemorative sundial at Leeds Castle telling the time in Belvoir, Virginia and a corresponding sundial in America.
Fairfax was the great grandson of Thomas Fairfax who led the parliamentarian attack at the nearby Battle of Maidstone in 1648 and whose doublet worn during the battle is on display.
The castle was owned by Robert Fairfax for 46 years until 1793 when it eventually passed on to the Wykeham Martins. Sale of the family estates in Virginia released a large sum of money that allowed extensive repair and remodelling of the castle in a more appropriate Tudor style, completed in 1823, that resulted in the appearance seen today.
The last private owner of the castle was the Hon. Olive, Lady Baillie, a daughter of Almeric Paget, 1st Baron Queenborough, and his first wife, Pauline Payne Whitney, an American heiress. Lady Baillie bought the castle in 1926. She redecorated the interior, first working with the French architect and designer Armand-Albert Rateau (who also oversaw exterior alterations as well as adding interior features such as a 16th century-style carved-oak staircase) and then, later, with the Paris decorator Stéphane Boudin. During the early part of World War II Leeds was used as a hospital where Lady Baillie and her daughters hosted burned Commonwealth airmen as part of their recovery. Survivors remember the experience with fondness to this day. Upon her death in 1974, Lady Baillie left the castle to the Leeds Castle Foundation, a private charitable trust whose aim is to preserve the castle and grounds for the benefit of the public. The castle was opened to the public in 1976.
On 17 July 1978, the castle was the site of a meeting between the Egyptian Foreign Minister Mohammed Ibrahim Karmel and Israeli Foreign Minister Moshe Dayan and Cyrus Vance of the USA in preparation for the Camp David Accords. The castle also hosted the Northern Ireland peace talks held in September 2004 led by Tony Blair.
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