Please note this post is full of images. The grounds at Hever Castle date back to the 1200s but it was during the Tudor period that the castle we see today was built. Owned by the Boleyn family until Thomas Boleyn’s death, it passed to Anne of Cleves and then various other families before being bought in the early 1900s by William Astor of America, who restored it. Hever now belongs to a private company and is open to visitors.
Hever Castle is nestled just beyond the tiny hamlet of the same name. Whilst the exterior is made of stone and there is a moat around it, nothing gives you the impression that the land was used for a fortified building – indeed if it were, then the valley it is in wasn’t the best place for it.
When you arrive at Hever you walk through the gardens and the first thing you come to is a spectacular lake. If you have seen images (or indeed been to the place) of Chatsworth House, which was used in both the TV series and film of Pride And Prejudice as well as The Duchess, then you will be able to picture the lake at Hever because the atmosphere is the same.
You can hire a boat or simply stand on the Victorian-esque veranda and lean against the balustrades, imagining yourself as lord or lady of the manor. It isn’t quite what Anne Boleyn would have experienced, but as time moves on houses change, and so too Hever.
You carry on walking through the gardens, past the tourist-pleasing cafés and shops, the flowers and Roman statues, the trellises and archways, before sighting the castle and the additional buildings behind it – additions by the most recent family owners, the American Astor family. There is no big road up to the castle, just a little bridge across a river and a huge slab of pavement, but, as my companion told me, what visitors enter is not the original entrance. That is easy to believe, despite the grand gated entry. Thomas, Anne’s father, is likely having a good laugh and not rolling in grave given that us riff-raff regular people aren’t given a royal entrance.
And yet if the stories are true and Anne haunts the bridge over the moat – the second bridge you cross – then it must be the entrance, because why would she haunt a modern-day creation? To be honest I’m a little sceptical of the haunting giving that she is said to haunt the Tower Of London. It makes more sense that she’d haunt the place of her incarceration and execution than her childhood home, and in order to haunt Hever whilst haunting the Tower she’d have to split her time between them. Not that she couldn’t, it would likely not be difficult considering she has no body, but I’m still sceptical.
As you walk under the gate (festooned with a portcullis) you step into the most idyllic courtyard imaginable. And you suddenly realise just how small and utterly cosy Hever is. The outer wall is authentically Tudor and it is just the most wonderful construction, so simple yet so beautiful.
You cannot take photographs in the house, mainly, I expect, because the rooms contain original artworks and there are not enough members of staff to check on everyone. I will say here that the staff are wonderful – helpful, quite obviously in love with the castle, and although the route is a one-way system they let you go back if necessary. Little old ladies are invited to descend the main stairs instead of using the narrow spirals, and people with hideously slow companions allowed to retrace their steps to find them. Half an hour I waited in the long gallery and the man overseeing the room was practically on the verge of offering me tea and cake when she finally appeared; please note that a history lesson prior to visiting is advised if you’re going to travel with someone who likes to conduct a close reading of every single information plaque.
So to the contents of the house, for it truly is a home; you enter the hall, which leads into a “kitchen”. It’s not really a kitchen, it’s more a gallery, and the creation of the Astor family. Nevertheless the intention to make it look Tudor is there and the room is a beauty. There is even a viewing gallery above your head. This is the room where most of Hever’s original art collection hangs and you can gaze with awe at tyrant Henry, be bemused by the label of “Anne Bullen” under a piece still disputed, and look at the egotistical upstart Philip II of Spain (he never did make it to King of England status, no doubt in part because he shared the bed of anyone but his wife Mary I). Off to one side is the Astor’s drawing room, which isn’t Tudor but is quite pretty regardless.
The library is also lacking in Tudor detail, but that hardly matters because the dining room appears to be authentic 1500s. It is here, even more so than the courtyard, where you truly realise just how small the castle is. You would expect that a family high in court society might have a great hall and a dining room large enough to seat a court itself, but the room would be hard pressed to fit Henry VIII alone, and certainly the servants must have had to skip meals and lose weight in order to get around the table without knocking diners head first into their soup. Indeed a servant might even wonder if there hadn’t been a mix-up and that the masters were eating in the servants’ quarters – as visitors we never came across any room that was suited to a stable boy.
But beyond that… astonishment, the dining room is just as gorgeous as the rest and fully Tudor in decoration. And if the Boleyns really did eat there then we may have an alternative reason why Anne held Henry at arms length until their marriage – compared to this, lifelong access to Hampton Court’s dining room would have been something you’d want included in your wedding vows.
Up a spiral staircase – you have to be careful, it’s old and those early-modern people had small feet (no, this does not explain the dining room, before you suggest it). You may be surprised to discover that the room you now stand in, with it’s stunning view of the moat but unmistakably anti-chamber atmosphere, is in fact Anne Boleyn’s bedroom. Don’t get too excited. Yes, it is quite a nice discovery for anyone who comes over all dreamy at the idea of walking in footsteps (guilty), but there is no space here for anything larger than a small cradle. Anne left England for France between the ages of 9 to 12 – history is confused as to when she was born – and once back in England as a grown woman she resided mainly at court. This being a room for a baby is a plausible theory and would explain the size – even the small doubles of the era would have made walking in the room difficult.
Following this there is a large room with artwork and objects, including Anne’s Book of Hours. Apparently this is one she wrote in but the people who decided what should go where didn’t think much about the, sadly silly, positioning of a plaque talking of Anne’s writing alongside a book that was open on a different page. This is a great pity and I for one hope that it will be changed. After this room there is another in which hangs the portraits of Katherine Howard (contested) and Henry VIII’s brother, Prince Arthur.
There is another hallway before you reach a couple of other Tudor bedrooms. One of these you can walk around freely; it contains original 1500s furniture. There is a tiny chapel in this room, which has been closed off, but you can look through the glass. The second room sports even grander furniture, and it is reported that Henry VIII stayed there. Likely when he decided to follow a hesitant Anne back to Hever and stalk her. Christian Grey has nothing on him.
Up a staircase, and if it weren’t such an old house you might be allowed to run – you’ve reached the Long Gallery, wood panelled as the rest and flaunting an awesome ceiling. Most of what’s here is replica artwork and mannequins of the royals. Enjoy it; it’s the last decorated Tudor room on the route.
Along another hallway, high in the eves, are quaint little rooms the Astors designed for their children when the ground floor flooded. These are followed by the “Astor Suite”. Modernity reigns here and the Astor story is told in a beautiful panelled room with green carpet. It is one of emigration, war and money, but as this report is about Tudor history I will leave it there.
The very last room to see is of stone, and filled with execution implements. You reach it via another spiral and, if you look up whilst you walk there, you’ll spot a room above with a high ceiling. One can’t help but wonder if it was a great hall of sorts.
Down more stairs and you’re back in the courtyard, having travelled a route that took you right the way round the building. You might not have had access to every section, but given the size and age of the castle, the owners and staff haven’t been ungenerous, and you can tell that unlike many other houses, you have likely seem most of it. You can’t look around the Astor Tudor-styled accommodation buildings but you are allowed near enough that your average optical zoom camera can capture some pretty pictures. And whilst the remaining gardens are hardly bathed in flowers they are nice enough.
Hever was not the huge castle I was under the impression and hoping it was. It wasn’t the sort of grandeur home I would have expected the Boleyns to live in. What Hever turned out to be was everything I didn’t know I wanted. I fell in love with the place and even those few hours in the grounds, and hour in the castle, made me incredibly fond of it. It truly is a home, and there is a uniqueness to it I’ve not found elsewhere. Whether it was a happy place for Anne I doubt not, despite the constant scheming that must have gone on there considering Thomas, Mary, and Anne’s positions at court.
And despite the fact that it’s old, that there are plenty more grand places, and despite that there may be ghosts, if you were to ask me now where I would live given any choice in the world, I would say Hever without hesitation.
The rest of my photos. If you want to see them full size, right click and open them in a new window/tab.
September 26, 2012, 4:28 pm
Gorgeous — and thanks so much for the virtual tour! I’m unfamiliar with Hever, though I can see it’s a spot I would love to visit. Anne Boleyn is such a fascinating historical figure . . . love learning more about her. (And yes, I agree that it’s more plausible she would haunt the Tower of London [which is seriously creepy . . .] than her childhood home!)
September 26, 2012, 5:41 pm
Thanks for sharing your photos! I wish I had been able to see Hever when I went to England. (Hampton Court was one of my favorites of the places I visited.) It makes things so much more real, to be able to actually visit historical buildings.
September 27, 2012, 12:43 am
Wow, beautiful photos, and a great virtual tour. I grew up in south London and a trip to Hever was a regular summer treat. As a child I always preferred Leeds Castle, which is more of the huge castle you were expecting, or Bodiam, which has lots of ruins to run around on (although they probably stop you running on them these days!). As an adult, though, I suspect I’d enjoy Hever a lot more. Your post made me want to go back!
September 27, 2012, 10:09 am
Thank you for sharing these beautiful pictures, and some of the wonderul history of this building. I’ve never really known anything about Hever Castle before.
September 28, 2012, 10:49 am
Amazing photos, Charlie, I’d love to visit this beautiful location one day! (But not before reading up on Henry VIII and the Boleyns…)
September 29, 2012, 10:42 am
I’ve never been to Hever Castle, but I could almost imagine myself there with your description and lovely photos! It’s been on my list of places to visit ever since I learned about Anne Boleyn for the first time, but your post has definitely just moved it up on my mental list.
September 30, 2012, 9:45 am
Meg: You’re welcome, thank you for tweeting it! Despite my Tudor loving background I was unfamiliar with it too until, well, you’ve seen. Anne Boleyn is brilliant to learn about because the jury’s still so divided about her nature and actions. I’ve heard she’s known to circle the chapel at the Tower with some other spirits on a certain day (her death I believe), so that’s partly where my thinking stemmed from.
Liviania: On the list for your next trip perhaps? Yes, there’s something to be said for visiting places, all the knowledge of them can’t quite prepare you for how you’ll feel when you get there. I haven’t yet been to Hampton Court, which is crazy considering, but all I’ve heard is good.
Andrew: Thanks, and what an awesome summer treat! Leeds is of course on my list, though I’ve actually only recently heard about Bodiam, it looks so beautiful from the photographs. It’s a difficult one, you want to run and maybe try to gain a glimpse of how it might have felt to live there, but we’ve got to preserve the history. That’s why I like really really old ruins so much, it’s sad, but with there being so much empty space you’re able to literally run around if you wish. One of the best things about the present atmosphere at Hever is the way it’s not geared towards a particular age group – simple plaques, and it’s more about occasional events than year-round exhibits.
Jessica: Wonderful is the word. It’s nice to have an older castle where there weren’t lots of battles going on. It needs more promotion, that’s for sure, I myself only knew a little, from reading about Anne (and the few scenes of The Tudors I saw).
Tze-Wen: Thanks! Hehe, knowledge isn’t absolutely neccersary, it helps, but the place is spectacular in its own right.
Meghan: Thanks! If you like Anne Boleyn, yes, this place is a must.