The coastal county of Kent is home to no less than 30 castles. From magnificent homes to mighty military fortresses, each has its own fascinating story to tell. Here, we list the best castles in Kent which you can visit today
It was King Henry VIII who first called Kent ‘the garden of England’, supposedly after being impressed by a plate of ripe Kentish cherries. Just a day’s ride from London and with its miles of pretty countryside, the county made the perfect playground for sovereigns and noblemen through the centuries. And of course, royals and their retinue needed somewhere suitably regal to stay, so it’s hardly surprising that Kent is home to an impressive array of castles, from fairytale homes to medieval military fortresses.
The best castles in Kent: Hever Castle
In addition to Kent’s appeal as a weekend retreat, its proximity to France was key, and many of its historic fortresses were built to defend against invasion from Europe. Such was the case with Kent’s most beloved castle, Hever, best known as the childhood home of Anne Boleyn, the ill-fated second wife of Henry VIII. Hever’s original medieval defensive castle with its gatehouse and walled bailey was built in 1383 on the permission of King Richard II – probably due to the ongoing threat of French invasion.
In 1461, Hever was bought by wealthy London merchant Sir Geoffrey Boleyn – great-grandfather of the future Queen of England – as a display of status for his family. It was at Hever that Henry VIII first laid his eyes on Anne, changing the course of England’s history forever.
After Anne lost her head, Henry passed ownership to his fourth wife, Anne of Cleves. After her death the castle gradually fell into disrepair, until 1903 when the richest man in America, William Waldorf Astor, bought the castle to make headway in British society. Astor’s passion for history meant that his changes to the castle were largely sympathetic and he insisted, as far as possible, that his workmen use the same materials and tools as Tudor craftsmen would have done.
On a visit to the castle today you can step inside Anne’s small, simple childhood bedroom. And as you walk through the rose garden it is not hard to imagine a young Anne and a besotted Henry taking a stroll amongst the heavenly scents.
The best castles in Kent: Leeds Castle
Heading east towards Kent’s rolling North Downs, Leeds Castle is known as ‘the loveliest castle in England’, and its magnificent moat and crenellated battlements are like something out of a picture book.
The castle’s name can be misleading: it is nowhere near the northern city of Leeds, but takes its name from the old English word ‘esledes’, meaning hillside. Ownership of the castle passed from Odo the Bishop of Bayeux, half-brother of William the Conqueror, to Hamo de Crevecoeur, whose title is recorded as ‘Keeper of the Coast’, later called the Lord Warden of the Cinque Ports, in charge of the confederation of five port towns on the south coast formed to supply ships for the Crown. But it was Henry VIII who really transformed Leeds, turning it from a fortified stronghold to a magnificent royal palace. Records show that Henry chose venison and butter from the Leeds estate to be served at the Field of the Cloth of Gold, his famous diplomatic summit with King Francis I of France in 1520.
In 1925, Leeds was acquired as a country retreat by an Anglo-American heiress, Lady Olive Baillie, who hosted lavish house parties for statesmen, royalty and film stars. Lady Baillie made some luxurious additions, including a swimming pool with a wave machine, and her glamorous interiors can still be seen today.
The best castles in Kent: Rochester Castle
The Kent castle trail continues at Rochester Castle, built around 1080 to guard an important crossing of the River Medway. The great keep, added in 1127, is still standing at 113 feet high – the tallest such building to survive in Europe.
In 1215 the castle endured a particularly gruesome siege by King John who, to take it from rebels, used the fat of 40 pigs to fire a mine underneath it, destroying its southern corner.
The best castles in Kent: Dover Castle
The most iconic of Kent’s Norman castles stands on the coast at Dover, atop the magnificent White Cliffs, England’s closest point to France. William the Conqueror established Dover Castle, known as the ‘key to England’, after the Norman Conquest of 1066, to protect his new kingdom from further threat.
The mighty fortress that we see today was the work of Henry II in 1179–89, who created the most advanced castle design in Europe, with an inner and outer bailey and an immense tower. Henry needed a suitably impressive setting in which to accommodate visitors on the new pilgrimage route to St Thomas Becket’s shrine in Canterbury – and perhaps it helped to prove his deep regret of his role in Becket’s murder.
Throughout its history, Dover has played host to many an important visitor, including the Holy Roman Emperor travelling to visit Henry VIII in 1522, and the French princess Henrietta Maria on her way to marry Charles I in 1625. In the late 17th and early 18th centuries, the castle was also used as a prison for French and Spanish prisoners, whose carved graffiti can still be seen today.
The best castles in Kent: Deal Castle
Along the coast from Dover, the pretty town of Deal is home to a seafront promenade, streets of quaint pastel townhouses – and two castles within easy reach. Walmer and Deal castles were built in 1539–40 on the orders of Henry VIII as part of a network of Tudor artillery forts. Deal Castle has a particularly unique design that enabled defence both from the sea and the land.
The best castles in Kent: Walmer Castle
Just a mile away, Walmer Castle has been the official residence of the Lord Warden of the Cinque Ports since the 18th century. Notable Lord Wardens have included the Duke of Wellington, Winston Churchill and Queen Elizabeth the Queen Mother, the only woman ever to have held the post. Over the centuries Walmer became less military fortress and more country retreat, with elegant interiors and eight acres of magnificent gardens.
There are plenty of reminders of the castle’s former inhabitants, from the Queen Mother’s garden to the Duke of Wellington’s original Wellington boots.
The best castles in Kent: Scotney Castle
If it’s fairytale ruins you’re looking for, head back west into the High Weald, where crumbling Scotney Castle boasts probably the most romantic view in all of Kent. It was originally built in 1378 by Roger de Ashburnham as a quadrangular castle surrounded by a wide moat, but today only one of the original four towers still stands.
In the 16th century, an Elizabethan manor house was built, integrating the old tower. Filled with secrets, the manor has a chamber concealed behind a cupboard door which is thought to have been a priest hole to hide Catholic priests escaping persecution.
In the 19th century a new house was built at the top of the hill overlooking the valley, and the old castle and manor became a ruin, the focal point of a picturesque garden surrounded by 770 acres of woodland. From defensive bastions to fashionable retreats, Kent’s castles weave a fascinating thread through a thousand years of history. There’s no better way to step back in time.
This is an extract, read the full feature in the September/October 2023 issue of BRITAIN, available to buy here from Friday 11 August.