Hever Castle: Fit For A Queen

Pat Coul­ter’s imag­i­na­tion gets full rein in the child­hood home of Anne Bo­leyn . . .

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Pat Coul­ter vis­its the child­hood home of Anne Bo­leyn

THE noble steed clat­tered over the wooden draw­bridge like a cham­pion thor­ough­bred tri­umphantly rac­ing past the win­ning post. The horse en­tered the castle un­op­posed by any vig­i­lant watch­man. Surely the horse’s mount must be a welcome guest. The rider gazed ahead, an in­tent look upon his face, as steely as the sword he car­ried by his side. From his de­meanour, I sensed he was more than a no­ble­man.

This was the very King of Eng­land. Henry VIII, come as undis­puted suitor for the hand in mar­riage of the fine lady whose abode the castle had been since early child­hood – Anne Bo­leyn.

Most cas­tles boast of strange ap­pari­tions and ghostly go­ings-on. How­ever, this wasn’t an ap­pari­tion I’d wit­nessed, just my vivid imag­i­na­tion!

As history books tell, here at Hever Castle his re­gal High­ness came a-court­ing, and marry her he did. Well, for­sooth, how could she deny the King? And yet, sadly, her be­trothal sealed poor Anne’s grisly fate as surely as if she’d signed her own death war­rant.

De­spite Hever be­ing un­de­ni­ably a real story-book castle with a sturdy draw­bridge, sur­rounded and pro­tected by not just one moat but two, it is en­chant­ingly beau­ti­ful, not for­bid­ding at all. Un­usu­ally for a castle, it has a homely, rather fem­i­nine qual­ity. Per­haps Anne’s be­guil­ing in­flu­ence en­dures?

Au­tumn is here and the im­pen­e­tra­ble castle walls are warmed by the soft sun. The stonework façade is dra­mat­i­cally dressed in a scar­let cloak of Bos­ton ivy. In the moat a pair of el­e­gant swans glide serenely.

Thank­fully, these grace­ful crea­tures are now pro­tected by law, un­like their me­di­ae­val an­ces­tors. Those poor crea­tures would have read­ily graced the din­ner ta­ble of many a stately

home and castle as a feast con­sid­ered fit for a king.

Be­yond the en­com­pass­ing pro­tec­tive moat, the de­lights of the gar­den are in full au­tum­nal glory.

Hap­pily, these tended acres and the wider land­scape be­yond are dog friendly, so there’s no need to deny Poppy dog her promised walk. But first I’m drawn to en­ter the castle.

In­side, there’s a re­cently opened per­ma­nent ex­hi­bi­tion mark­ing the “Life And Times Of Anne Bo­leyn”, who fa­mously be­came Queen of Eng­land for just 1,000 days.

I re­call from my school­girl history lessons that it was Henry’s love for Anne and her in­sis­tence that she be­came his wife rather than his mistress that led to the King re­nounc­ing Catholi­cism and cre­at­ing the Church of Eng­land.

I welcome the op­por­tu­nity to ex­plore the castle at my own pace with the handy au­dio guide, which re­veals the history of the 13th-cen­tury castle and its cus­to­di­ans.

Anne Bo­leyn grew up at Hever, which had be­longed to her fam­ily since her grand­fa­ther’s day. The fam­ily name was orig­i­nally Bullen, but was changed to the more fash­ion­able French in­ter­pre­ta­tion of Bo­leyn. In fact, Anne her­self spent time at the French court.

On my tour I’m most im­pressed with the Great Din­ing Hall with its mas­sive stone fire­place, topped by the Bo­leyn coat of arms. The fire­place is so huge I’ve no doubt it would com­fort­ably ac­com­mo­date Fa­ther Christ­mas slip­ping down that chim­ney, even if he’d over-in­dulged in a ton of mince-pies!

HEVER CASTLE, I dis­cover, quite lit­er­ally un­locks a par­tic­u­larly cu­ri­ous se­cret. On dis­play is one of King Henry VIII’s orig­i­nal door locks. You see, the King was so con­cerned about at­tempts on his life that he al­ways trav­elled with his own per­sonal lock­smith, who would fit a spe­cial lock on the King’s bed­cham­ber door to safe­guard his se­cu­rity, and with it his life.

The most poignant arte­facts are con­tained in the Book of Hours Room. On dis­play – beau­ti­fully il­lu­mi­nated in their own in­di­vid­ual dis­play cases – are two of Anne Bo­leyn’s orig­i­nal per­sonal prayer books, in­scribed with her writ­ings and sig­na­ture.

She is be­lieved to have car­ried one of these very prayer books with her to the Tower of Lon­don, where she met her sad, un­timely demise, although not be­fore she had given the King a fe­male heir who was to be­come Queen El­iz­a­beth I.

The name “Book of Hours” refers to the short ser­vices to the Vir­gin Mary which were read at eight fixed hours dur­ing the day. The prayer book, be­lieved to be the one which she took with her to her ex­e­cu­tion, bears the touch­ing in­scrip­tion Re­mem­ber me when you do pray that hope doth lead from day to day.

Down through the cen­turies the up­keep of the castle be­came in­creas­ingly oner­ous and even­tu­ally, from lack of funds, it fell into dis­re­pair.

Hap­pily, it was res­cued by the in­ter­ven­tion of a rich en­tre­pre­neur­ial Amer­i­can. It’s claimed he was the wealth­i­est man in all Amer­ica in his day – Wil­liam Wal­dorf As­tor. He pur­chased Hever Castle in 1903.

The story goes that he’d be­come rather dis­en­chanted with his home­land, pro­claim­ing it to be “a place no longer fit for a gen­tle­man to live”.

Eng­land, with its history and her­itage, must have seemed far more ap­peal­ing and, with a re­puted for­tune of $100 mil­lion at his dis­posal, he was more fi­nan­cially able than most to in­dulge his de­sire to re­store the castle.

On my tour, I can ap­pre­ci­ate he did so not on a whim but with true care and love. He had the castle re­stored with great re­spect for its ori­gins.

Shrewdly, he em­ployed master crafts­men to cre­ate his vi­sion. He fur­nished the castle with ex­quis­ite orig­i­nal ta­pes­tries and em­broi­dered wall hang­ings. To­gether with the oak pan­elling, a sig­na­ture through­out the castle, it trans­forms what could have been a cold and for­bid­ding stonework in­te­rior, and in­tro­duces a huge sense of warmth and a lovely lived-in, cosy feel­ing de­spite the grand scale of each and ev­ery room.

TIME to give Poppy her lon­gover­due walk and an op­por­tu­nity for me to en­joy the ever-evolv­ing gar­dens. From deep within the yew maze I can hear the de­lighted shrieks of school­child­ren try­ing to ne­go­ti­ate the gi­ant puz­zle.

Down through the cen­turies, since King Henry VIII’s day, Hever has

been famed for its hos­pi­tal­ity. The As­tor Wing is an ex­ten­sion to the castle built at the be­hest of the man it is named af­ter to house his es­teemed guests. Now you can stay in it, as it’s run as a stun­ning bed and break­fast.

Poppy and I head off to take a stroll through the de­light­ful Ital­ian-style walled gar­den, which is akin to be­ing trans­ported to the or­na­men­tal gar­den of a rather grand Tus­can villa. Even the stone bound­ary it­self is called the Pom­peii Wall!

Most of the gar­dens at Hever Castle were cre­ated thanks to the in­flu­ence and end­lessly deep pock­ets of Wil­liam Wal­dorf As­tor.

He’d spent some years in Italy on min­is­te­rial du­ties and con­se­quently brought back with him a vast ar­ray of gen­uine, valu­able arte­facts from urns to stat­ues, which are now art­fully dis­played within the plant­ing.

Be­yond the ex­pan­sive Ital­ian walled gar­den stands a grand colon­naded log­gia fram­ing the vista of a huge or­na­men­tal lake, home to all man­ner of birdlife, in­clud­ing grebes.

The grand log­gia even has an or­nate foun­tain adorned with stone nymphs, inspired by Rome’s fa­mous Trevi Foun­tain.

It’s hard to be­lieve the area had once been marsh­land, but the in­dus­tri­ous As­tor had more grandiose ideas.

It’s said that he em­ployed 800 men to dig out the lake man­u­ally. It took them the best part of two years, fu­elled by co­pi­ous amounts of beer, to cre­ate the lake which stretches to a vast 38 acres. Where did all the earth go to?

Well, there was so much “spoil” it went into cre­at­ing Six­teen Acre Is­land. To ap­pre­ci­ate the enor­mity of the task, Poppy and I take a stroll around the en­tire lake, tar­ry­ing a while at Hever’s new­est land­mark build­ing, the strik­ing Ja­panese Tea House.

It takes us a good half hour’s saunter to com­plete the lakeside cir­cuit, which ends at Hever’s latest aquatic fea­ture, the Wa­ter Maze. It’s fun to watch all com­ers cau­tiously tread­ing over the step­ping stones.

Sud­denly, one em­bold­ened lad puts a foot in the wrong place and up spurts a jet of wa­ter, giv­ing him a right soak­ing.

Looks as though he’s just dis­cov­ered that Hever is full of sur­prises!

The top­i­ary is as im­pres­sive as the castle!

Plenty of cor­ners in the gar­den for con­tem­pla­tion.

There’s a con­ti­nen­tal in­flu­ence to the gar­dens.

The work of Wil­liam Wal­dorff As­tor.

Hard to imagine this scene has changed much over the years.

The Bos­ton ivy changes for the au­tumn.

You could spend a day in the gar­dens alone.

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