When the large brass key to St. Leonard’s Tower in Kent went missing in 1973, no one knew if it had been lost or stolen. Now, 47 years later, the key
When the large brass key to St. Leonard’s Tower in Kent went missing in 1973, no one knew if it had been lost or stolen. Now, 47 years later, the key has been returned , and its sudden arrival is every bit as mysterious as its original disappearance.
The key was sent by post and arrived just a few days ago. It was mailed to the customer service department at English Heritage, the historical preservation charity that currently manages St. Leonard’s Tower. “It’s certainly one of the most puzzling packages we’ve ever received,” said Roy Porter , the Senior Properties Curator at English Heritage. “And just in time for Christmas!”
The package with the key was accompanied by a neatly scripted note. The lack of a signature on this terse but slightly mirthful note makes it clear the mailer would rather remain anonymous, at least for the time being. The note said the following:
Dear English Heritage,
Please find enclosed large key to …
St. Leonard’s Tower, West Malling, Kent
Sorry for the delay
Unfortunately, English Heritage changed the locks to St. Leonard’s Tower shortly after the key went missing. (Jim Holden / English Heritage )
English Heritage Offers Reward No Cultured Person Could Refuse
The reference to the key being “borrowed” invites speculation as to what the “borrower” may have been up to when they pilfered their prize. If the borrower hoped to have free access to come and go as he or she pleased, their hopes would have been dashed long ago. The large key was well preserved and would have worked just fine even in the present, but the locks to the Tower were changed shortly after the key’s disappearance to prevent unwanted incursions.
As of now, many questions will remain unanswered. But fortunately, the management at English Heritage has come up with a plan to convince this mysterious Good Samaritan to reveal their true identity. To lure them out into the open, they’re offering a reward that no culture and historical preservation enthusiast could possibly refuse—a lifetime membership in their organization.
If the lucky benefactor accepts this generous offer, they would have unlimited visitor’s privileges at each of the over 400 historic landmarks and locations managed by English Heritage. They would also receive the organization’s member magazine four times each year, totally free of charge.
St. Leonard’s Tower in Kent, is a free-standing Norman keep. (Jim Holden / English Heritage )
The Mysterious Origins of St. Leonard’s Tower
St. Leonard’s Tower is a 900-year-old stone fortress perched on a small bluff overlooking the village of West Malling in Kent. It has been officially recognized as a historical landmark, and English Heritage maintains it as a tourist attraction. Despite its advanced age, St. Leonard’s Tower is still stable and safe to enter and explore.
The unexplained disappearance of its original brass key is not the only mystery connected to this sturdy and indomitable relic from the Middle Ages. It is believed the Tower was built between 1077 and 1108, but beyond that facts are scarce and hard to find. With historical records unavailable to provide definitive answers, the debate about its origin and true purpose remains ongoing.
There are two leading theories about who built it and why. The first theory posits that the tower was constructed under the guidance of Gundulf, the Bishop of Rochester, who founded the nearby St. Mary’s Abbey around the same time the tower was built. Proponents of this hypothesis assert the imposing stone edifice was likely used as a bell tower by the church, and repurposed for other uses later on, thereby obscuring the evidence of its original builders’ intentions.
The second popular theory claims that the tower was commissioned by Bishop Odo of Bayeux, the half-brother of William the Conqueror , England’s first Norman king. While identified in history under his religious title, Bishop Odo was known more for his services as a military commander than for his spiritual endeavors. Odo was one of his half-brother’s closest associates, and is known to have fought beside William at the Battle of Hastings in 1066. Odo acquired great political power under the patronage of his King, and he owned vast tracts of land in the area where St. Leonard’s Tower was constructed.
According to advocates of the Odo hypothesis, St. Leonard’s Tower was not constructed for religious purposes, but was actually a Norman keep, or defensive outpost. The tower contains neither fireplaces nor latrines, which does lend evidence to the suggestion it was used only periodically and for defensive purposes exclusively.
The ancient key was returned by St. Leonard’s Tower in West Malling, Kent, accompanied by an anonymous note. (Jim Holden / English Heritage )
Searching for the Key to the Mystery
Perhaps the person who “borrowed” the key was an archaeological or historical buff who wanted the freedom to explore the tower during its off-hours. This individual may have been a supporter of one or the other of the popular hypotheses about the origin of St. Leonard’s Tower, and they may have hoped to find fresh evidence that would verify their preferred theory. Or, perhaps they had their own eclectic theory about who built the tower and why, and wanted to prove the experts wrong.
Then again, they may have thought the tower was a great place to rest and relax, or party with friends. Until the person who sent the key to English Heritage (who may or may not be the original borrower) chooses to end their anonymity, we will never know for sure why the key was taken in 1973, nor why it was returned in 2020.
Top Image: Roy Porter from English Heritage posing with the note and key in front of St. Leonard’s Tower in Kent. Source: Jim Holden / English Heritage
By Nathan Falde