Maddening, thrilling and a-mazing fun
Lost in the labyrinth of Hever Castle, Chris Leadbeater recalls the drama of a doomed regal love
You cannot see the Yew Maze at Hever Castle from Anne Boleyn’s bedroom. The small space where Henry VIII’s second wife spent her childhood is at the north-west corner of the building, out of sight of the box of hedges and leafy pathways that sets a pleasing test for modern visitors to her family home. Instead, this genteel puzzle keeps its counsel on the other side of the honey-hued structure, by the main doorway and the little drawbridge.
It is a fine setting. For if an English country garden is the ideal context for an autumn day, a maze is the cream to the inevitable afternoon tea – as Jeremy Hunt demonstrated recently by entertaining fellow European foreign ministers in the maze at his Chevening country retreat. A maze is a dose of unpretentious fun – that maddening sensation of hitting a dead-end; your wry smile as, on retracing your steps, you reencounter fellow explorers and tacitly admit your error; the thrill of gaining the centre. And Hever captures the joy wonderfully, its maze placed not just next to one of England’s prettiest castles, but also alongside a lake that shows rural Kent an image of itself in the October light.
And yet, as I amble the gravel corridors between the walls of manicured shrubbery, I find myself drawn away from the simplicity of the pleasure, my mind entertaining the notion that one of Britain’s most doomed romantic figures is watching. Not watching me, per se, but an echo version of her younger self – breathing excitedly, being chased in wolfish fashion by the monarch who would make her his queen at vast political and personal cost. It is not so odd a vision. We are almost at the 500th anniversary of the passion play that saw the King of England pursuing the object of his obsession so fervently that he was prepared to sever his country’s relations with the Pope to marry her – and bring the ire of Spain and France on to his realm in the process. Almost, but not quite. An exact halfmillennium ago, in 1518, Anne Boleyn was on the other side of the Channel, ensconced in the household of the French queen as a maid of honour; Henry was still stuttering through his marriage to Catherine of Aragon, seeking his male heir. It would be another seven years before Anne, now one of Catherine’s ladies-inwaiting, would catch Henry’s gaze, and a duel of flirtation would begin. The king was a regular guest at Hever, dashing to Kent to woo a shrewd woman who – having seen how he had seduced then spurned her older sister Mary – refused to be his mistress. Rather, she led him through an emotional maze of beck and call, resisting him for a reputed seven years before finally consenting. When they married in January 1533 she was pregnant (with the future Elizabeth I).
Neither of the lovebirds would have entered this maze, of course. While Henry stayed at Hever regularly in the late 1520s (one of the weighty brass locks that his retinue carried, used to seal his bed-chamber against the threat of assassination, remains at the castle), the labyrinth in its grounds is a 20th-century creation. Mazes would not have been alien to 16th-century eyes – they had existed in pharaonic Egypt and ancient Greece – and they were certainly not out of kilter with the pageantry that characterised the first decade (in particular) of Henry’s reign. But the Hever version was not planted until 1903, when the property came under the new, invigorating ownership of the US businessman William Waldorf Astor. It is a piece of Belle Époque whimsy – and as I continue to stroll in and out of cul-de-sacs (investigating one of them twice), I can also imagine the merriment of parties in the sunny decade before the First World War, parasols bobbing between the hedgerows. I am still picturing this scene when I realise I have stumbled into the middle – where there is an ornamental obelisk, and a hand-bell to declare your success to anybody coming in your wake. I give it a good shake.
Hever is not the only historic site with a maze (see right), but it is rare in having two. Its second is a “water maze”, where concentric circles of paving slabs have been laid in a pond. The idea is to reach a squat tower at its heart, without getting wet. It looks easy. It proves fiendish. There is but one correct route. Each other way is blocked by false stones that tilt under the full pressure of a foot, triggering hidden fountains that soak the hapless adventurer. In truth, it is more Crystal Maze than Edwardian frippery, let alone Tudor relic. But it feels like a metaphor. Again, Anne Boleyn slips into my vision – only now in 1536, dead to Henry’s affections, hemmed in by charges of adultery and treason that would drag her to the execution block, her every possible move a wrong turn. It is a dark thought; too dark for a crisp autumn day. So once I have finally made it to the tower, dishevelled and damp, having been blasted twice, I head back towards the castle in search of cake and coffee, padding past the yew maze, where laughter still chimes within.
Hemmed in by charges of adultery and treason, Anne’s every move was a wrong turn
FLIRTING WITH DANGER A 1533 portrait of Anne Boleyn
HEDGE YOUR BETS Clockwise from left: Hever Castle; Longleat; Chevening; Leeds Castle. Below right: a Henry VIII re-enactor