Hever Castle: Fit For A Queen
Pat Coulter’s imagination gets full rein in the childhood home of Anne Boleyn . . .
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.