Bathing in the 13th Century was not a regular endeavour for most people, rather reserved for royalty and the rich. When Eleanor of Castile first came over from Spain after marrying Edward I in 1254, she brought such domestic luxuries with her as forks, garden fountains and the first purpose-built tiled bathrooms*. It was she that was responsible for building the beautiful rounded Gloriette at Leeds Castle and for installing the vaulted structure initially created for Edward I as a bath after she purchased Leeds Castle in 1278. There are documentary references to payments by Queen Eleanor’s executors in 1291-2 ‘for works on the King’s baths including the paving of a bath.’
Rediscovering history is all part of the day job for Curator Annie Kemkaran-Smith whose responsibility it is to protect and conserve the ancient Castle. This spring a major project, along with the Castle estate team and Oxford Archaeology has been undertaken to drain away the moat waters within the bath house, dredge several feet of silt from the floor and fully reveal the architecture of the great chamber for the first time in 750 years. Commenting on the project Annie said: “It’s been incredibly exciting to see the medieval foundations of the bath house slowly revealed by the dredging process. The quality of work on the portcullis grooves and the well preserved sections of galletted mortar, shows that this was a prestigious building that was indeed fit for a King.”
A dam was created across the inlet from the moat to allow water and silt to be pumped out and enable a scaffold to be built on a firm foundation. The dredging team worked very hard in difficult conditions to clear the chamber and they, with Annie, pulled a significant amount of finds from the mud, including a Victorian fishing tackle box, an anchor, coins and medallions, but sadly no medieval artefacts. The architecture however has many stories still to tell and investigations continue to uncover what greater secrets the Leeds Castle medieval bath house may yet reveal.
*Source, Sara Cockerill, Historian