English Stately Homes and Castles - South

Hever Castle, Kent

An American interpretation of a Tudor castle that was the childhood home of Anne Boleyn.

Hever Castle surrounded by its moat is the image of a perfect medieval castle.

Hever Castle, Kent

There has been a castle here since 1270 but the original castle would have been a wooden structure surrounded by a wall. The present building dates from the C14th and was extended in the C15th when it belonged to the Bullen family. They added wings to the original stone gatehouse forming a courtyard and turned the stark stone castle into a comfortable family home.

Hever has its place in the history books as the childhood home of Anne Boleyn who was courted here by Henry VIII. A few years after her execution it was given to Henry’s fourth wife, Anne of Cleves. After her death it passed through a series of different families, Waldegraves, Humphreys and the Mead Waldos, who all made alterations. In the C19th part of the north east corner of the castle collapsed and it gradually fell into decline.

The castle was bought in 1903 by the wealthy American, William Waldorf Astor, later Lord Astor, who began a massive restoration project of the castle and grounds.  Traditional techniques were used and he created his dream of what a Tudor castle may have looked like, but with modern plumbing, electricity and central heating. He entertained lavishly and the Tudor Village, often referred to as the Astor Wing, was built behind the castle to house the many guests. This was reached by a covered bridge and was carefully designed so the castle remains the dominant building with a collection of apparently separate cottages and houses, typical of a small village. These were connected by corridors and service areas and provided sumptuous accommodation.

Hever Castle, Kent

Hever Castle, Kent

Hever Castle, Kent

The castle and estate were bought by Broadlands Properties from the Astor family in 1983. They have continued the improvements of the Astor family. The castle and grounds remain open to he public although it is now also run as a conference centre and wedding venue. You can even have bed and breakfast in the Tudor Village.

The castle is entered by a bridge across the moat into the gatehouse, still with its portcullis.

This leads into the central courtyard with its timber frame buildings. Unfortunately photography is not allowed inside the castle. Visitors follow a set route round the inside of the castle which does get very busy.

The first room is the GREAT HALL with its smell of wood smoke deeply embedded into the stonework. This was originally the kitchens but was turned into an impressive entrance hall by Lord Astor. The ceiling feels quite low for the size of the room. Walls are panelled and elaborately carved wooden pillars support the even more heavily carved gallery. This apparently was inspired by the choir screen in King’s College Chapel in Cambridge. What works there, doesn’t work here and it feels over the top. Furnishings are C17/18th and there are portraits of Henry VII, Henry VIII, Edward VI as well as Anne and her older sister Mary, hanging on the walls.

This leads into the very comfortable DRAWING ROOM used by Lord Astor to entertain his guests. Again the plaster ceiling feels low for the size of the room making it feel a bit claustrophobic. Walls are panelled with oak inlaid with bog oak and holly with designs of flowers and birds.

Next is the DINING HALL which was the Great Hall in the C15th. Originally it would have been a lot higher, but Thomas Bullen, Anne’s father added a Long Gallery above it. The linen fold oak panelling installed by Lord Astor, gives an intimate feel to the room.  The massive carved stone fireplace has the Bullen coat of arms. Pewter plates and tankards are displayed above it. The large dining table is still used for private or corporate entertainment.

The LIBRARY is a very attractive room with specially designed carved bookcases. The books were bound for Lord Astor in calf and Moroccan leather and gilt tooled with his coat of arms. Again it is a comfortable room with deep pink easy chairs. Scattered round the room are examples of Tunbridge Ware, decorative inlaid wooden boxes, which all have pictures of Hever Castle, and were popular tourist souvenirs in the C19th.

The MORNING ROOM still has the original C17th panelling and stone fireplace with the initials of Henry Waldegrave, one of Hever’s owners. The small china cabinet behind a doorway was originally a priest hole. There are examples of C17th and C18th needlework including a small mirror with an embroidered stumpwork frame with Charles II and Catherine de Braghanza. 

The tour continues up a stone spiral staircase to the first floor and ANNE BOLEYN’S BEDROOM which still has its C15th ceiling. The room is sparsely furnished with just a bed frame proclaiming Anne Boleyn’s bed. It isn’t, as most of it dates from around 1600 and was probably put together in Victorian times when there was a revival of interest in Anne. On the wall is the classic portrait of Anne with her ‘B’ pendant.

Beyond is the BOOK OF HOURS ROOM with two beautifully illuminated prayer books belonging to Anne. In another display case is a coif believed to have been worked by Anne. The walls are panelled and covered with large tapestries. 

Next to it is the QUEEN’S CHAMBER with portraits of all Henry’s six wives and a portrait of Henry. Against the wall is a 1600s prie dieu.

An oak panelled corridor with views down into the courtyard leads to the STAIRCASE GALLERY. This was added by Thomas Bullen around 1560 above the entrance hall to give access between the two wings of the house and the Long Gallery above. This is a long room with a plaster ceiling with narrow wooden beams forming a pattern across it. Large windows look down into the courtyard. The long walls are lined with chairs. A display cases contains examples of C17th or C18th baby clothes and C17th embroidery.

Beyond is HENRY VIII’S BEDROOM. It isn’t known if this was the room used by Henry, but it is the largest bedroom in the castle. It was restored by lord Astor as a room fit to be used by a king with oak panelling on the walls and ceiling. The heavily carved tester bed isn’t the bed used by Henry, although it is the right date and splendid enough to be used by a king. Over the fireplace is a wooden carving of Henry.

The WALDEGRAVE ROOM is perhaps the most genuine of the Tudor rooms visited. The Waldegraves owned the castle after the death of Henry VIII. It is a cosy room with wood panelling on the walls and ceiling and a lovely late C15th four poster bed with red velvet hangings. It is furnished with items of a similar date. The Waldegraves were Catholics and a small oratory was built behind the panelling for them to practice their religion in secret. This has a beautifully carved altar with crystal candlesticks and cross. A Jacobite rhyming sword is displayed in a cabinet. This was made in support of Prince Charles Edward and the 1745 Rebellion. Only five are known to still exist. On the blade is the inscription “With this sword thy cause I will maintain; And for they sake O James breath each vein”.

A wooden staircase leads to the third floor with a display cabinet at the top with examples of early C19th Crown Derby plates and English silver spoons.

The LONG GALLERY was built by Thomas Bullen and extends across the width of the castle. It was used for displaying their wealth, entertaining guests and for taking exercise in bad weather. The simple wood panelling is Elizabethan. The plaster ceiling is a C16th reconstruction for Lord Astor. The windows contain the coats of arms of previous owners of the castle. Along the walls are high backed William and Mary chairs. They may not have been very comfortable but were probably very good for the posture. Portraits include many characters who made their mark on English history including Margaret Beaufort, Edward IV, Elizabeth Woodville and Thomas Cranmer. In the alcoves are tableaux of the different periods in Anne Boleyn’s life and also a copy of Anne’s last letter to Henry.

A short flight of stairs leads into what is described as the ASTOR SUITE. Rooms contain pictures and memorabilia of the family. There is Lord Astor’s desk with an old fashioned telephone as well as his paint box.

The three small BEDROOMS were created for the daughters of the house in 1968 after severe flooding damaged the ground floor and much of the Tudor Village. These are quite small rooms and simply furnished compared with the rest of the house. 

The tour returns to the ground floor of the GATEHOUSE down a narrow stone spiral staircase. This is the oldest part of the castle and was the family living area in the C13th complete with garderobe emptying into the moat. It contains the portcullis weights and examples of swords and armour. There is also a gruesome display of instruments of execution and torture. These include body presses, thigh scourges, leg manacles, and beheading swords. There is a C19th man trap as well as neck traps.

There is a lot to see inside the castle and it takes a minimum of an hour to go round.  It is very much Lord Astor’s interpretation of what a Tudor castle may have looked like and I found this didn’t work for me in the the Great Hall. I felt the Tudor and Edwardian styles were fighting each other. Despite their name, the Anne Boleyn and Henry VIII rooms contain nothing directly linked to either. It does get very busy and this detracts from the enjoyment. In many ways this is a place to be enjoyed from the outside.

It is surrounded by extensive gardens and a lake. As well as completely restoring the castle and building the Tudor village, Lord Astor was also responsible for landscaping the gardens and lake. This was a massive project, all done by hand with a workforce of 800 men. The gardens LINK are stunning. You have to admire the vision of Lord Astor for preserving Hever Castle for posterity.

Just outside the entrance gate is St Peter’s Church where Thomas Bullen is buried and also the young brother of Anne.

The post code is TN8 7NG and the grid reference is TQ 478452.

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