Hever Castle provided a backdrop for one of the most dramatic stories in British history - - the romance between King Henry VIII and Anne Boelyn. In addition, the rescue of Hever Castle by the American millionaire turned British lord William Waldorf Astor is in itself a fascinating tale.
The castle dates from the 13th century and was first owned by a Norman family who came to be called after the Parish of Hever. For the next two centuries, Hever led an uneventful existence. One notable owners during this period was Sir John Fastolf, who Shakespeare later lampooned as Sir John Falstaff.
In 1462, Hever came into the Bullen family. The Bullens transformed the building into a fortified manor house.
The Bullens were an ambitious family who ascended into the aristocracy largely through a series of well-placed marriages. They reached the top rungs of the nobility when in 1498, Thomas Bullen married the daughter of the Duke of Norfolk.
A well-connected figure at the court of King Henry VIII, Thomas continued to amass titles and fortune. However, this was not due to his abilities but rather because his eldest daughter Mary was the mistress of the King. Even when Henry tired of Mary, Thomas continued to rise because his younger daughter Anne had caught the King's eye.
Anne was not a great beauty but she had large attractive black eyes and dark hair. She had been part of the entourage of Mary Tudor (Henry's sister) when Mary wed the French king and Anne's education in France gave her a unique mystique. She also liked to laugh and flirt, which contrasted with the devout, serious nature of Henry's queen, Catherine of Aragon.
Aware of how her sister had been cast off by the King, Anne refused to become Henry's mistress. Both in London and during visits to Hever, Henry courted Anne. Still, she demanded that unless Henry married her and made her queen, their relationship would never be consummated.
In order for Henry to marry Anne, Henry had to get the Pope to grant him a divorce. Normally, this was not a major obstacle for a king in those days. However, the Pope was then under the control of the Holy Roman Emperor who happened to be Catherine's nephew.
Unable to secure a papal divorce, Henry broke with Rome and established himself as the head of the new Protestant Church of England. Thus, Henry's romance with Anne led to the Reformation in England and put England on the road to becoming a Protestant country.
Once his marriage was annulled, Henry wed Anne and she as crowned queen in Westminster Abbey in 1536. However, the tide now changed for the Boelyns as the Bullens now called themselves. For many years prior to the reign of Henry's father, England had suffered through the War of the Roses, a civil war largely over the succession to the throne. Henry was convinced that unless he had a male heir, civil war would again break out over the succession. Therefore, he looked to Anne to give him a son.
Anne gave birth to a child in 1533 but it was a daughter. Henry already had a daughter by his first wife and so was disappointed. Little did he know that this child would become Queen Elizabeth I, one of England's greatest monarchs.
When Anne failed to produce a son after several more tries, Henry decided to get rid of her. Charges were concocted largely by Henry's chief minister Thomas Cromwell that Anne had had adulterous relationships with four men including her brother. Under torture, one of the men confessed but there probably was no truth to the allegations. Nonetheless, a royal commission headed by Anne's uncle the Duke of Norfolk knew what the King wanted and found her guilty. Anne was beheaded (as was her brother) in 1536.
Although he was now Earl of Ormnde and Earl of Wiltshire, Anne's father Thomas was shunned by one and all. He retired to Hever where he died in 1538.
Hever Castle then became a possession of the King. There appear to be two explanations for this. First, in those days, a widower would succeed to his deceased wife's estate. Henry thus had Anne's interest in Hever. Second, there is evidence that around this time, Henry made a payment to his Mary Boelyn. Whether this was the result of guilt over having killed her brother and sister or whether it was to obtain's Mary's interest in Hever is unknown.
Henry did not live at Heaver. Instead, he passed it on to his fourth wife, Anne of Cleves, after their marriage was annulled.
Hever passed through a number of hands in the following centuries. It was a downward spiral and by the 19th century, it was being used as a farmhouse.
In 1890, William Waldorf Astor saw Hever and was captivated by both its history and the perfect proportions of its medieval architecture. He resolved to buy Hever should it ever come on the market.
Astor's wish came true in 1903. By then, Astor had emigrated and become a British subject. A few years later, he was made a peer of the realm, 1st Viscount Astor. He planned on making Hever into his home.
Above: You enter hever by crossing a drawbridge over a moat and going through a gate with portculis.
Below: The courtyard.
With unusual sensitivity for a millionaire of the Edwardian era, Astor approached this project mindful of Hever's history. Yes, he wanted a modern home commensurate with his fortune and his social position, but he also wanted to preserve the castle's essential character.
Together with his architect F.L. Pearson, Astor had the castle restored to the Tudor period. Subsequent additions and alterations were removed. In addition, Renaissance antiques were installed Craftsmen were only allowed to use period tools.
Hever is a relatively small building. More space would be needed for offices, rooms for Astor's guests and room to house the staff. Furthermore, Astor did not want to live like someone in the Tudor period, he wanted modern conveniences. The obvious solution was to build a new wing but a modern wing would spoil the proportions and character of the existing building.
The solution was to create a structure that would provide the needed space but which would look like a village of Tudor era cottages from the outside. Located in back of the castle, this series of rooms and offices would be connected to the original castle and thus would actually be part of the house.
Mr. Astor also considered the grounds. Employing an army of workers, machines and even a railway, Astor transformed the surrounding area. He moved tons of soil, transplanted large trees, built roads and bridges and even changed the course of a river. Close to the castle, he created a Tudor-era garden. Somewhat further away, he created an extensive “Italian Garden” that not only includes plants but also ancient Roman, Greek and Asiatic sculptures and antiques, most of which Astor had acquired when he was the American ambassador in Italy. It has fountains, grottoes and marble pavements. A row of ancient columns stands next to the 30 acre lake Astor created.
In the century since Mr. Astor saved Hever from becoming derelict, there have been some changes. The units of the Tudor Village have been separated and are now independent structures. A restaurant has been added for visitors. However, the essential character remains. You still have the feel of walking where Henry and Anne courted. Indeed, it is said her ghost is still there. You also have the gardens, which not only are pretty but interesting as an example of the bold confidence of the Edwardian era.
For more information on visiting, see the Hever Castle website.
Cruise destination - England - Kent - Hever Castle