I don’t know about you, but I’m a sucker for castles. The older, the better. There is something widely romantic about them, no matter what shape they are in or what architectural style they come in. If you’re looking for some inspiration, there are many wonderful castles in Kent worth checking out. What makes them special? Check out this featured post to find out.
Imposing, diminutive, ornate, plain, perched on a cliff, embedded within rolling fields, walled or moated. Kent’s countryside is scattered with castles to suit all tastes. But why should there be so many in this picturesque corner of England? For the same reason people still build large houses today. To celebrate wealth, to protect the owners from the great unwashed and to keep an eye on their neighbours (in this case, France). Here are some of my favourites castles in Kent that I’ve stumbled across on my travels:
Castles in Kent: Hever Castle
Nestling among neatly snipped hedgerows and twisting country lanes stands Hever Castle. An idyllic little castle that seems as if it’s been drawn straight from a child’s imagination. Moat? Tick. Drawbridge? Tick. Indented battlements? Tick. Arrow slits? Tick. Ivy spilling down the walls making a perfect escape ladder for a member of royalty trying to avoid being snatched by a dragon? Tick. There is even a maze housing more twists and turns than the castle’s fascinating history.
The original gatehouse and walled bailey were constructed in 1270. However, the events really started to get interesting in the 15th and 16th centuries when the Boleyn family moved in. Just like the many other the castles in Kent, this one comes with royal connections.
Anne Boleyn, the second of Henry VIII’s wives, spent her formative years at Hever Castle. Anne reigned for 1,000 days and gave birth to the mighty Queen Elizabeth I. She was also the very reason behind the creation of the Church of England.
Following Anne’s unceremonious beheading at the Tower of London – and Henry VIII’s apparent lack of squeamishness about sharing property between ex and current wives – Hever Castle was then gifted to Anne of Cleves. She was his fourth wife, whom he later divorced. Then, from 1557 onward, a number of other families took on ownership before the castle fell into disrepair.
The later years
It took a wealthy American publishing entrepreneur by the name of William Waldorf Astor, to channel his earnings and time into refurbishing and extending the now crumbling edifice. With an incredible eye for detail and using, as far as was practical, the same materials and tools as Tudor and Elizabethan craftsmen, he created the extraordinary building and spectacular gardens you can visit today.
As you would expect from such a place, Hever Castle houses some fascinating historical points of interest. For example, the bookcases in the library have been copied from those once owned by prolific diarist Samuel Pepys. You can gaze upon two prayer books that belonged to Anne and bear her distinctive signature. You also can admire the extraordinary collection of Tudor portraits in the Queen’s Chamber. For more history, seek out the secret chapel – hidden behind panelling – that was used by the Catholic owner of the castle once Elizabeth I had ascended the throne. It wasn’t easy nor practical to be a Catholic during Elizabeth reign, which makes the secret chapel a great historical addition.
I spent many a school outing here. I think it’s a testament of how lovely the castle and grounds are that I wanted to go back in my free time to enjoy the sights all over again. Note that the paths and corridors become busy during weekends and school holidays, but remain blissfully quiet during the week.
Castles in Kent: Leeds Castle
Possibly the only other of castles in Kent that could steal Hever’s aesthetic crown is the Leeds Castle. By its own admission, it is “the loveliest castle in the world.” It is also 200 years older than Hever Castle. It’s celebrating 900 years of being fabulously perched on islands in the middle of a lake, lending the building a wonderfully watery fairy tale appearance.
Its historical narrative is surprisingly close to Hever’s as well. Leeds Castle started life as a stone stronghold to ward off Norman intrusions in 1119. However, by the 13th century, King Edward I had spied its charms and converted it into one of his favourite residences. The castle remained in royal hands from 1278 until 1437 and then, in Tudor times, Henry VIII perhaps somewhat predictably bestowed Leeds Castle upon his first wife, Catherine of Aragon.
A second start
Once Henry’s reign was over, the Leeds Castle passed into private hands with mixed results. Eventually the castle lost its magnificence due to lack of care and funding. It didn’t shine again until the socialite Lady Baillie took it over in the 1920s. She lavished attention on the Leeds Castle, expanding and reorganizing various floors and decorating the rooms. As a result, Leeds Castle became one of the foremost country houses in England. It also became a backdrop to some of the most memorable parties in history with a host of glittering names swishing in and out of the gates.
When Lady Baillie died in the early 1970s, she had created the Leeds Castle Foundation charity to ensure the castle’s preservation for future generations. As a result, this place is a tiny gem (the castle itself always seems so much smaller than I think it is!) where you can enjoy jousting, open air cinema events, theatre and music in the magnificent grounds after strolling around the sumptuous interiors.
Castles in Kent: Dover Castle
Let’s be clear, Dover Castle is not a fantasy castle of gothic towers, conical spires and delicate architectural detailing. This is a solid, block-like edifice which squats on the white chalk cliffs of Dover, spying on troublesome vessels approaching from the English Channel. This brute of a castle is England’s largest. The shifting warfare patterns, reflected in the castle’s transformation over the centuries, are visible in the walls and towers constructed to defeat troops on the ground and in the underground tunnels beneath it.
King Henry II kicked off construction of Dover Castle in the 1180s. There are whispers that an Iron Age hill fort may have once inhabited the site. Indeed, the Romans had already spotted the location’s potential in 43 AD and built a lighthouse on the cliff to guide ships to shore.
In a very modern twist, Henry II decided that he not only wanted a defensive fort but also a building that doubled as a great place to entertain visitors. After all, it was a place for many wealthy pilgrims stopping by for a rest and a cup of tea, having visited nearby Canterbury Cathedral.
The defensive measures clearly worked with Dover Castle withstanding two long sieges in the 13th century. Although the site declined in importance following the Middle Ages, it still drew a star-studded cast of guests including Henry VIII (as you would expect with his penchant for posh castles), and his daughter Elizabeth I.
Once a fort, always a fort
With the threat of yet another French invasion in the 1740s, a network of tunnels dug out of the soft chalk cliffs, became home to enormous numbers of troops that lived in underground barracks. These tunnels gained another use during World War II. They housed the command centre controlling naval operations in the English Channel, including the mass evacuation of British troops from Dunkirk. An addition of a hospital during that time expanded the original tunnels. During the Cold War, the government converted the tunnels into a secret location tasked with the organization of life following a possible nuclear war.
It’s hard to imagine the extraordinary events that the walls of Dover Castle have witnessed through the ages on a blustery day in Dover. You can definitely spend a packed day visiting the various sites and learning about the history from the information centre and guided tours. I would especially recommend a visit for families where the kids can run riot whilst subtly being educated in history’s dark arts.
Castles in Kent: Deal Castle
Resembling a series of interlocking cogs from above, the intriguing architecture of Deal Castle had a purpose of deterring foreign ships. With the circular walls allowing 360 degrees of firepower dispensed from 140 guns, it wasn’t hard to do.
Perhaps unsurprisingly, given the history of the castles of Kent, there is also a Tudor connection here. Henry VIII decided to build Deal Castle in 1539-40, with three artillery forts. Henry’s fourth wife – Anne of Cleves (the same one who enjoyed Hever Castle so much) – stayed here before her short and swift marriage to the notoriously fickle king.
Siege or be sieged
Given that the structure was meant to provide protection against foreign invaders, it is somewhat ironic that the castle came under siege during the English Civil War. And, just like Dover Castle, Deal Castle enjoyed something of a renaissance during World War II when it was used to spot German forces swarming across the English Channel.
Just like the other fortresses, there are nooks and crannies which physically display evidence of its fascinating past. Right at the top of Deal Castle (in an area unfortunately off-limits to visitors), the castle roof is covered by old graffiti, etched into the soft lead since at least 1724. There’s a sketch of a man with a bulbous nose and upturned collar, three lopsided houses complete with flags fluttering from their roof tops, and my personal favourite, the scrawl of someone calling themselves “the charming Miss Teetsy.” It just sounds so much more poetic than “I woz ‘ere.”