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Losing My Head at Hever Castle

by Jennifer Garner

February 8,2009

There is a long tradition of spending Sunday afternoons at a castle in England. Noble families in the 17th century would open the grounds once a year to the locals to come and picnic by their lakes and admire the groomed lawns. As it became more and more expensive to keep up the family heap, the noble families began letting the common folk tour the grounds and eventually the house, charging a fee to help defray the costs of maintaining such large estates. Of course today, most stately homes are owned by private companies or historical trusts that charge tourists to see the grounds, house and newly opened kiddie park.

One Sunday, I paid $28 to see Hever Castle, the home of Anne Boleyn. With the recent fame of The Boleyn Sisters book and movie, Hever Castle is doing a brisk trade these days. The bold, red headed wife of Henry VIII was born at Hever Castle in 1501 or 1507, a daughter of the noble Howard family. She was educated in France and served as a lady in waiting to Queen Claude of France. After Henry took a fancy to her in 1525, a tumultuous series of events led to his famous divorce from Catherine of Aragon and the start of the English Reformation. Anne was made Queen in 1533, but would only wear the crown until May 19, 1536, when before the age of 25 she was beheaded at the Tower of London. The Boleyn family was exiled from court and their lands and property seized for the Crown. In fact, Hever Castle would later become home to Henry’s exiled 4th wife, Anne of Cleve’s, the poor imported wife who didn’t speak English or inspire enough passion in Henry to fulfill his pursuit of a male heir.

Hever Castle has a well-done audio guide and I learned that the first dwelling on the site was a walled baily and keep built in 1270. In the early 1500’s, the Boleyn (originally ‘Bullen’) family built the Tudor dwelling that exists today. Thomas Boleyn was an ambitious politician in Henry VIII’s court, serving on many international missions and as Ambassador to France. He used without scruple the charm and beauty of his two daughters to gain the attention of King Henry, a political gamble bringing with it the promise of great wealth, land and titles, but carrying great risk. Thomas Boleyn paid the ultimate price, losing not only his title and lands, but having to watch his daughter and son led to the executioner’s axe.

As is the case with many of the crown jewels in the English country house crown, the biggest and most well known were often bought and renovated in the 20th century by wealthy American businessmen seeking out their British heritage and buying legitimacy through the purchase of their very own castle. This was the case for William Waldorf Astor when he bought Hever Castle in 1903. Astor was the richest man in American in 1890, but had fallen out with his family and left for Europe, becoming an English citizen in 1899. He invested huge sums of money in the renovation of Hever Castle and added the Tudor Village to allow for modern guesthouses and amenities. His other additions included an Italian garden and lake that remain today.

Just as Astors’ 1904 yew maze was the current craze at the time, now there is a water lily maze where kids can skip over concrete lily pads and try not to get squirted by the randomly spaced water jets. Most never crack the code and come out soaked and crying.

Like any good tourist destination, there is the requisite gift shop; this one with lavender sachets, plastic swords and teacups. The café is stocked with limp sandwiches, dry chicken and soggy chips. The ice cream stand does a brisk business in the afternoon and tired grandmas sit down to dry scones and small jars of clotted cream.

To get to the slides and climbing walls, kids enter through different entrances, each of which is marked with the name of one of Henry’s six wives. I think very few of the squealing children could appreciate what had lain at the end of the maze for the misused and beheaded queens Anne Boleyn and Catherine Howard.

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