Today we're at Hever Castle, the ancestral home of Anne Boleyn as she grew up. The oldest part of Hever Castle was built in 1270 but was converted to a manor in 1462 by Geoffrey Boleyn who added the Tudor dwelling to the building. He handed it down to his grandson Thomas in 1505 who lived there with his wife Lady Elizabeth Howard and their three children, George, Mary and Anne.
Just a short, convenient 33 miles away, was King Henry VIII and Hampton Court.
Anne’s family history is one of great wealth and influence accrued through industry, ingenuity and talent, entwining themselves with some of the mightiest families in the realm. They rose to such heights that two of their own came to be queens of England: Anne Boleyn and Elizabeth I.
The Boleyns could trace their ancestry back to the early Middle Ages. It’s generally believed that they descended from Boulogne in northern France and arrived in England in the 11th century, settling down as they formed an alliance with the conquering Normans.
But most of us already know this story has a dark side. Anne was infamously beheaded for treason, the first queen to be publicly executed, and her brother George did not fare much better. He went to the block two days before her, charged with the same crimes – incest and treason. In the wake of this, the Boleyn’s learnt what could happen if you attempted to rise above your station.
We all have a mental picture of Anne. She’s the polished seductress of Henry VIII, the one who elbowed Catherine of Aragon out of the way and set Catherine on her tumultuous path to divorce. She wasn’t a beautiful woman but she was haunting, with beautiful, startling black eyes and long hair she could sit on.
History has relegated Anne’s father as the villain of the story, scorned as a callous, grasping courtier who would stop at nothing to advance his own interests. One historian famously remarked that on his way to the earldom, Thomas, ‘appears to have slipped two daughters in succession into the king’s bed’. The other daughter was Mary who may have borne Henry two children.
But of all the barbs directed at Thomas, the most damaging is the one that he blithely accepted the deaths of Anne and his son and heir, George, as collateral damage in his quest for power.
By the time Thomas was born in 1477 he was raised in wealth and privilege, the son of doting parents who invested heavily in his future. We catch a glimpse of young Thomas at 20 years old standing alongside his father as part of the Kentish contingent of Henry VII’s army facing 30,000 Cornish rebels. This would totally transform Thomas’ fortunes. Henry’s new men were educated, intelligent, ambitious and all too eager to advance themselves through service to the king. And Henry didn’t disappoint his loyal followers. Thomas advanced to a senior position and developed a reputation as a loyal reliable courtier. When Henry VIII came to the throne, Thomas’ mastery of languages pushed him further up the snakes and ladder board of success. He was appointed ambassador to the court of Margaret of Austria which catapulted him into the heart of the greatest empire in Europe.
When Thomas struck a warm relationship with Margaret, he had three young children, one of which was Anne. Margaret offered thirteen-year-old Anne a place at Mechelen and Anne was propelled into a world of musicians, artists and philosophers. She learnt desirable courtly conduct and skills that set her apart from other ladies of the English court and Thomas felt confident that she would conduct herself admirably.
Then Anne’s fortune changed dramatically. Henry VIII offered his sister Mary Tudor as the bride to King Louis XII of France and Anne was needed to attend upon her instead. Even though Thomas was less than happy about the arrangement, he could hardly refuse. On the other hand, Anne was terribly excited. Not too long later, she was on the move again after the death of Louis and she found herself at the French court of King Francis I, his wife Queen Claude and Francis’ mother, the famously beautiful Marguerite of Navarre.
Few women of the times could boast such an impressive education as Anne. When she finally returned to England, she was not only a highly spirited young lady, she was well-read, linguistically gifted, fashionable, sophisticated and well versed in poetry, music and philosophy. And Henry was smitten. At this time, Anne’s sister Mary had been Henry’s mistress but she was pushed aside when Anne came on the scene as Catherine of Aragon’s lady-in-waiting.
No one could have foreseen what happened. Henry was besotted with her and she became the most despised woman at court. Wisely, Thomas removed her from court, taking her back to Hever in the vain hope of Henry’s eye wandering elsewhere. But who could compete with Anne? And who could deny Henry?
On the eve of her coronation, the heavily pregnant Anne seemed self-conscious and uncertain. There was the expectation that the baby she carried would be the heir Henry craved. After all, isn’t that what she'd promised him?
As we know, the baby was a girl, named Elizabeth, the only surviving child they would have.
Given the tumultuous times, tempers frayed and Anne fell from grace, along with her close-knit family, united against their enemies at court. We have no evidence of Thomas’ state of mind at the disgrace and deaths of his children, although we can assume he left court to grieve. He did not have cordial relationships with those involved in their downfall: Thomas Cromwell or his own brother-in-law Duke of Norfolk who presided over the trial. His service however remained dedicated to the crown, performing official duties as directed. A wise man, I should think.
After Thomas’ death, Henry took possession of the castle and bestowed it on Anne of Cleves as part of the annulment settlement of their marriage. But this Anne never lived here.
Anne of Cleves always kept in good form with Henry and his children. In 1553, she took part in Mary’s coronation procession accompanied by young Elizabeth. One year later, she lost favour following the Wyatt Rebellion, supposedly involved in the plot to put Elizabeth on the throne. Despite no evidence, she was never invited back to court again and in 1557, after her death, Hever reverted back to the crown once more.
Sir Edward Waldergrave was a member of Mary’s council and had been appointed the Commissioner for the Sale of Crown land. He promptly assigned himself the castle and the estate of Hever. One year later, Elizabeth was the new queen and Edward Waldergrave was sent to the Tower for allowing Mass to be celebrated in his house, remaining there until his death in 1561.
His family were lucky not to lose Hever but his son Charles did lose his appointment as Privy Councillor and Master of the Queen’s Horse. His family retired to the castle until 1642 when it passed to the Meade Waldo family and then until 1903 where it was bought in utter disrepair and restored by William Waldorf Astor to be used as a private residence. In 1983, the Astor family sold it to Broodland Properties, run by the Guthrie family.
Like Warwick castle, it’s a tourist attraction today and a B & B with gardens, lakes, mazes and gorgeous portraits. This new exhibition in Hever Castle’s original Long Gallery, has undergone a £30,000 refurbishment and it’s superb.
This is the tragic story of the Boleyns, ultimately torn apart by a man who relentlessly pursued Anne and raised her to exalted heights in the first place, then grew tired of her when she didn’t give him what he wanted. This is Henry’s story as much as hers.
If castle walls could only talk.