History-haunted Hever

Hever Castle

Hever Castle

When American multi-millionaire William Wardorf Astor purchased the 500-year old Hever Castle in Kent, England in 1903, the place was little better than a picturesque ruin.

Built in 1270, Hever Castle was bought by Geoffrey Bullen in 1479. Bullen was a man of humble origins who was to climb the social ladder to become the Lord Mayor of London. One of his grandchildren was the ill-starred Anne Boleyn, the change of surname being part of the social climbing strategy. It was under the ownership of the Bullens that Hever experienced its Gothic drama.

Two years after Anne’s birth at Hever Castle, Henry Tudor, 18, succeeded to the English throne as King Henry VIII. He secretly married Catherine of Aragon, the 24-year-old widow of his elder brother Arthur. Their marriage – a true love match by all contemporary accounts – produced only one child from eight pregnancies. That was a daughter, the future Queen Mary I.

Anne Bullen spent much of her time at court, pushed forward by her ambitious and domineering father. When she was seven she traveled to France in the train of Henry’s sister Mary Tudor, who was to marry King Louis XII.

By the time Anne was 18 she was back at Hever Castle and the unwilling recipient of the attention of Henry VIII who was by now desperate for the male heir that he believed Catherine could not give him.

King Henry, a Catholic monarch firmly married to Queen Catherine, first proposed marriage to Anne in 1527. Anne responded with a letter that said: “Your wife I cannot be, both in respect of my own unworthiness and also because you have a Queen already. Your mistress I will not be.”

The Pope refused Henry’s request for a divorce or annulment.

Undeterred, Henry dramatically removed England from the jurisdiction of the Pope, created the Church of England with himself at its head, dissolved the monasteries and set the reformation in motion. All for the love of Anne Bullen of Hever Castle.

In January 1533 Anne (already pregnant) and Henry were married, although another six months would elapse before Henry’s divorce from Catherine would be finalized under the rules of the new church. Anne changed her name to Boleyn to accord with her new dignity and she was crowned Queen of England in Westminster Abbey on June 1st 1533. Her baby was born on September 7th, but instead of a son it was a girl: the future Queen Elizabeth 1.

The castle was then appropriated by Henry and in 1540 he gave it to yet another of his wives, Anne of Cleves. Within six months of this marriage they were divorced. Anne retained ownership of Hever Castle for another 17 years.

On the death of Anne of Cleves in 1557, Hever Castle was bought by the Waldegraves and prospered with the fortunes of that family for 160 years.

In 1963, Gavin Astor, the grandson of William Wardorf, opened Hever Castle for the first time to the public.

William Wardorf had spent a small fortune in the restoration of the castle, including the construction of an authentic Tudor village containing more than 100 rooms

The fascinating attractions of Hever are too many to list, but a few should be mentioned. The library, for example, is one of the finest examples in Britain of the cabinetmaker’s art. The bookcases and paneling are made from a South American wood called sabicu, which is harder than ebony and so dense that it sinks in water.

The 12-hectare (30 acres) garden should not be missed. It was created by the Astors from marshland and rough meadow in 1904-8 and is now at full maturity. Of special note is the Italian Garden, which contains sculptures and statues dating from Roman times to the Renaissance. William Wardorf Astor had collected them while he was the American Minister in Italy.

Behind the Italian Garden is the Pavilion Restaurant, a licensed, self-service restaurant serving hot and cold meals. The King Henry VIII Inn, opposite the main entrance to Hever Castle, is also open for morning coffee and good pub food at lunchtime. The Anne Boleyn Restaurant is open for dinner.

Hever Castle is near the town of Edenbridge in Kent, 40 kilometers (25 miles) southeast of London.

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