Hever Castle: Behind the scenes at Anne Boleyn’s childhood home

    hever castle
    Hever Castle originally had three portcullises

    Jeremy Flint takes camera and pen behind the scenes at Hever Castle, Anne Boleyn’s childhood home, to find out what it’s like to work at one of Britain’s most historic castles

    Words and photos by Jeremy Flint

    Where is Hever Castle?

    Hever Castle is a 14th-century romantic hideaway set in glorious Kent countryside, spanning over 600 years of rich history. 

    Anne Boleyn and Hever Castle

    Though it has been home to 12 different families, the magnificent castle is best known as the childhood home of Anne Boleyn, Henry VIII’s second wife and mother of Queen Elizabeth I

    anne boleyn
    The Hever Rose portrait of Anne Boleyn hangs at the castle

    Anne’s great grandfather, Sir Geoffrey Boleyn, bought Hever in 1462, and decades later Anne and her siblings, Mary and George, grew up here.

    Hever later provided a sanctuary for the would-be queen, who retreated here for privacy during the heat and prying eyes of the love scandal that involved her and King Henry in the late 1520s. 

    Anne also returned to Hever in 1528 when she contracted the sweating sickness that swept through the country. Her survival could be attributed to Henry sending his ‘second-best’ doctor to tend to her. Anne left Hever for the last time in 1529 and moved to London, where in a few short years, she became Queen of England.

    inside hever castle
    it is believed King Henry VIII himself might have stayed in this very bedroom, known as the King Henry VIII Bedchamber

    Anne of Cleves at Hever Castle

    Henry’s ‘other Anne’, his fourth wife Anne of Cleves, also lived at Hever for 17 years, with the castle forming part of her divorce settlement. After that, it changed hands between the Waldegraves,
    the Humphreys and the Meade Waldos, until William Waldorf
    Astor bought it in 1903.

    hever castle
    The splendid Tudor inner hall

    Who owns Hever Castle now?

    Astor, ‘the richest man in America’, spent $10m on an Edwardian makeover that returned the castle to its Tudor heyday, and it remained in the Astor family for three generations until it was sold to the current owners, the Guthrie family, in 1983.

    Today, picturesque Hever makes for a great day out thanks to its enthralling history, award-winning grounds, and its double moat – those who wish to extend their stay can also check into its five-star B&B accommodation in the Anne Boleyn and Astor Wings.

    Hever Castle is set in spectacular grounds

    Inside Hever Castle

    One of the conscientious staff members who helps ensure the B&B retains its highly regarded status is Alessia Amato, a supervisor in the housekeeping team.

    Hever has 27 luxurious B&B rooms

    “We clean the rooms to a very high standard with great attention to detail, making sure everything is polished, the chrome dusted, the cushions plumped, and the beds made correctly,” she explains to me, before adding, “it’s hard work.” 

    Alessia also looks after the billiards and music rooms (lounges) that guests can enjoy as part of their stay, as well as original paintings by some of the current family’s favourite artists.

    Astor built this Edwardian wing to house his guests, which included Sherlock Holmes writer Arthur Conan Doyle, and the Queen Mother. 

    inside hever castle
    The Astor Suite is like a snapshot of life in the Astors’ time

    Alessia is also involved in the annual winter deep clean, where everything in the castle is meticulously and carefully cleaned, often with the use of a cotton bud. “I feel very privileged when unlocking the castle two-three times a week and cleaning with my colleagues,”
    she tells me. “We walk miles and never get bored.”

    Meanwhile, Kate McCaffrey’s job as a historian and curator is hugely varied and includes sharing some of the stories related to the castle, examining items in the collection, conservation work, and creating exhibitions. 

    hever castle
    Kate McCaffrey is castle historian and assistant curator at Hever

    Last year Hever ran a successful exhibition based on Kate’s research with the Books of Hours (Anne Boleyn’s personal prayer books), which she says are her favourite items in the castle’s collection.

    “They are the closest you can possibly be to Anne Boleyn, her DNA is all over them,” Kate says. “They are such intimate insights to her daily prayer activities, and they contain her inscriptions.” 

    hever castle
    Anne Boleyn’s prayer book is on display at the castle

    Hever is currently in the middle of a huge project to re-imagine how the castle would have looked in Anne Boleyn’s time and though details are under wraps, Kate reveals that “a gorgeous original piece of tapestry from 1525 and opulent cloth will hang on the walls.”

    Visitors to Hever Castle admiring the Tudor treasures within have a lot to thank Astor for, Kate tells me.

    “Much of what we see downstairs inside the castle is Astor,” she says. This includes the gorgeous oak panelling, old fireplaces, and antique furniture. 

    “We have one of the most amazing collections of original Tudor portraiture in England” Kate says.

    However, while it’s easily done, Hever should not just be remembered for its Tudor and Anne Boleyn history. 

    John De Cobham, the man who was granted a license to crenellate a castle here in 1383 was a notorious tax collector who built the castle off the back of the Peasant’s Revolt in 1381 and this deserves attention, Kate says.

    “It’s quite amusing he built it so heavily fortified with amazing defensive features including the oldest working portcullis in Europe (originally there were three portcullises), and murder holes (which are still there today) either because John was showing off or was terrified of the peasants.” 

    hever castle
    A secret Catholic chapel was added by the Waldegraves in 1558

    Later, Astor was known for hosting lots of parties at Hever and it was recently discovered that it was while visiting Hever that Elizabeth Bowes-Lyon (the Queen Mother) decided to marry Prince Albert, the future King George VI; a story that has echoes of the way in which Anne Boleyn made her decision to marry Henry VIII at Hever 500 years earlier. 

    “There are some nice parallels of these huge decisions that changed the future of the monarchy happening within these walls,” Kate says.

    Hever Castle Gardens

    hever castle gardens
    The spectacular yew maze is 100 years old

    Finally, Hever Castle’s award-winning gardens are not to be missed. On a tour with Felix Green, one of the gardening team, I hear about the huge task of upkeeping the estate.

    A big part of the upkeep is maintaining its original state, such as in the orchard and Tudor garden, which are kept much as they were in Anne Boleyn’s time. Stonemasons are often called in to replace stones and balustrades. 

    “It’s a team effort to keep on top of the gardening,” Felix says. “I have been doing it for a few years now and know what needs doing and when. We have part-time staff and volunteers each summer who help too.” 

    A typical day for Felix involves general tasks from weeding to hedge trimming and pruning the rose garden. He also cuts back the dogwoods in the winter garden. “Every day is different, in October, we start cutting the big hedges, including the hedge maze and those in the Italian Gardens…it takes two months,” he tells me.

    hever castle gardens
    Felix Green is part of Hever Castle’s gardening team

    Exploring the gardens, you can find your way through a 100-year-old Yew Maze and walk the parklands to the lake where you will find the Loggia.

    Other surprising aspects include the Italian garden, built to house Astor’s classical statuary collection.

    The Loggia

    One of Felix’s favourite days at Hever Castle is going out in the boat to weed the lake during the summer. “Once a year when its sunny, we go round the edge of the lake to weed it, which certainly makes up for winter,” he says.

    Something tells me this is just one of a fair few perks of working in such a splendid place.

    Read the full feature in the Jun/Jul issue of Discover Britain, available to buy from Friday 3 May, here.

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