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Eleanor and the fairy-tale castle

September 10, 2014

Back to the geographical theme - today it is time to celebrate Eleanor's involvement with Leeds Castle, surely one of the loveliest in Britain:

The barony of Leeds had been in the possession of the Crevequer family since the 11th century, but had come under financial strain, first by reason of too many heirs and dependents and secondly because the young lord, Robert de Crevequer, backed the baronial cause in the Barons' War, and then had to buy back his land from government and his obdurate enemy Roger de Leyburn (a close associate of Edward I).  The result was that the barony was divided, and Robert contracted considerable debts to Jewish moneylenders.

When Eleanor first began to interest herself in Leeds is uncertain - her acquisition of some of Robert de Crevequer's debts in 1275 suggests that she had done so before this.  It is actually rather tempting to suppose that a blank day in the itinerary betwen Canterbury and Tonbridge immediately after the return from France in early August 1274 reflects a night spent at Leeds - which lies almost directly en route.

But however it came to Eleanor's attention, there is ample material to suggest that by 1275 she was taking steps to reunite the tattered fragments of the Crevequer barony in her own capable hands - along with property of Roger Leyburn's imdebted son.

In June 1278 Eleanor acquired Leeds Castle itself, and the remainder of the Creverquer barony was acquired in the course of the year, including lands which had passed to illegitimate children of past lords.  Eleanor made certain other properties over to Robert, apparently as a quid pro quo for his interest in Leeds, and he went on to serve with distinction in the Welsh Wars, and to form part of her household complement.

The castle itself immediately became a focus for Eleanor's property developing instincts. As it stood, it was essentially a stone donjon castle on an island in the river Len - and doubtless not in the best of repair.  Under Eleanor's direction this castle became a residential palace, known as the Gloriette (a term used at the time for the most luxurious apratments in some castles), which boasted a Great Hall and the unheard of luxury of a tiled and probably piped bathroom.  This feature was almost certainly Eleanor's idea - innovative uses of water - and indeed luxurious arrangments for bathing - were much in vogue in Castile.  

Another interesting feature is the central courtyard of the Gloriette, now known as the Fountain Court, which features a central fountain supplied by fourteenth century piping from springs in the park.

(Photograph Geograph/Richard Croft)

It is certainly tempting to imagine that Eleanor, who had a great fondness for water features in her gardens, had at least a pool included in the 1280s works on this courtyard (as she did, for example at Rhuddlan Castle). if not a fountain.

As for the remains of the works, which were substantial, the records are distressingly fragmentary.  It is clear that the curtain wall around the larger island, the barbican bridge connecting the two islands and much of the gatehouse work can be traced to this era.  But the work was not purely defensive.  Eleanor would never leave a garden unimproved, and the provision of an aviary in the gardens at Leeds suggests that a real plasure garden was planned - and substantially executed.

Sadly Eleanor died in 1290 before work was complete, but even as the improvements progressed the Royal party frequently found time to visit.  After the 1278 acquisition, a first visit was paid in summer 1279 - possibly offering such birthday celebrations as Edward I took that year of his fortieth birthday..  Further visists were made in 1280, 1285 and 1286. Immediately on return from France in 1289, a stay was made here, and the wedding of one of Eleanor's female cousins was celebrated at the castle.

After Eleanor's death a service commemeorating her was held at Leeds, and a chantry was established in her memory by Edward.  It is perhaps appropriate that the impossibly romantic picture of the castle floating on the water, though much changed from the 1280s incarnation, continues through the centuries to be associated with the deep affection which Edward and Eleanor had for each other.

 

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