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History of Leeds

Leeds probably comes from the Old English 'hlyde' meaning a 'noisy stream, loud one'; therefore, ‘the loud one’ - referring to the river Len, which runs beside the village. The Domesday Book chronicles Leeds as Esledes and in earlier times recorded as the Hlyde.

Leeds parish church is a Grade: I listed building, dedicated to Saint Nicholas. The Saxons built the first wooden church around 1000. In the 11th century, the Normans rebuilt it in stone. From simple beginnings, it grew over the next 500 years with the addition of the west tower, nave – with north and south aisles – south porch and chancel – with north and south chapels. Following the reformation, Leeds abbey - on the south side - no longer controlled the activities of St Nicholas. In 1617, Joseph Hatch cast and hung a great bell in the tower, and John Wilnar added three lighter bells in 1638 to make four. In 1751, Robert Catlin cast six bells paid for by Henry Meredith – of Leeds Abbey – Churchwardens Robert Hatch and William Woollett and the Hon. Robert Fairfax, of Leeds castle. The ‘Leeds Youths’ began ringing, at that time. In 1798, Edward Hasted described the Leeds church as having ‘three isles and three chancels, with a remarkable square low tower at the west end, and on it a low small spire’. In 1833, the Victorians installed an organ – paid for by public subscription and in 1850, a clock fitted in the tower.

Robert de Crevecoeur founded the priory of St. Mary and St. Nicholas in 1119. It survived, for more than 400 years, before surrendering to the crown, and eventually becoming a ruin.

In 857AD, King Athelbert’s adviser, Ledian, built
Leeds Castle in wood, following instructions from his sovereign to construct a fortress. In 1119, Robert de Crevecoeur rebuilt it in stone. This became the home of the Crevecoeur family for the next 150 years. During the Barons' Wars between Simon de Montfort and Henry III, the Crevecoeurs backed the barons, and following de Montfort’s defeat, King Henry seized the castle.

Eleanor of Castile, the wife of Edward I, fell in love with the castle's magical surroundings, and in 1278, persuaded the king to grant it to her. Edward readily agreed, and she lovingly expanded it into a magnificent royal residence.

Leeds Castle remained a royal residence for many centuries and also served briefly as a prison for the unfortunate Richard II, before his final incarceration at Pontefract Castle. After this time, it gained a reputation as the home of many a dowager queen. The widowed wife of Henry V, Catherine de Valois, stayed there before eloping with her future second husband, Owen Tudor.

Throughout the early Tudor period,
Leeds became ever-more popular with the monarchs. Henry VIII, in particular, liked the castle, despite Greenwich and Hampton Court being more palatial. He ordered many improvements to the castle, such as hundreds of Tudor windows. Leeds is also the place from which Henry decided to embark, on his historic trip to meet the French king at the Field of the Cloth of Gold.

In 1552, the castle passed out of royal hands to Sir Anthony St Leger, the Lord Deputy of Ireland. The Smyth family acquired the castle on Sir Anthony's death and set about building another house on a nearby island, in which they lived. This they sold to the Culpeper family in 1632 as the English Civil War loomed. The 1st Lord Culpeper had responsibility for conducting the heir to the throne, Prince Charles, to safety in exile, for which he later received considerable favour from the king. Despite this Royalist loyalty, the Culpepers sided with the parliamentarians throughout the war permitting
Leeds Castle to be used as a temporary arsenal. After the restoration, they astutely switched sides.

The last private owner of the castle - the Hon Olive, Lady Baillie - bought it in 1926 and totally redecorated both the interior and exterior. During WWII, Lady Baillie hosted burned Commonwealth airmen at the castle as part of their recovery. Upon her death in 1974, she left it to the
Leeds Castle Foundation, a private charitable trust whose purpose is to preserve the castle and grounds for the benefit of the public. The castle opened to the public in 1976.