Hever Castle and the Boleyns

September 21 2023 | Castle History

Hever Castle and the Boleyns: Hever Castle was the childhood home of Anne Boleyn but what would the building have been like during her family’s time?

The castle was set in valley of the river Eden, the castle’s location took advantage of the natural watercourses; formed to create a double moat around the castle.

The Gatehouse had imposing barred gates, wooden gates, machicolations, and murder holes. It was unusually also fitted with no less than three portcullises which were a novelty for a property the size of Hever, particularly when considering that of the very few fortresses fitted with a triple portcullis, the mighty Tower of London was one. Remarkably, much of the original defensive features survive.

Like most castles, Hever was first and foremost a home, chiefly driven by domestic needs rather than defensive ones. The building’s layout was entirely conventional compared to other manors of the time. With outer walls of stone and inner walls of timber, the manor was constructed with a Great Hall opposite the Gatehouse, with the principal lodgings to the west and the kitchens and servant’s dormitories to the east.

From the western range, the upper family lodgings were accessible via a straight timber stair, which rose into the Great Chamber. Like that in the Baron’s Hall at Penshurst Place, crown post rooves covered the castle’s west, north, and east ranges.

The family rooms, also known as the Solar, were situated on the middle floor of the west wing. A refinement to this standard layout was the addition of an antechamber in the Gatehouse, accessed through the Best Bedchamber. A stone stair between the Best Bedchamber and the antechamber led to another high-status chamber in the Gatehouse, with a screened-off area into which the centre of the three portcullises would have risen.

A vice (spiral) stair to the east of the Gatehouse continued up to another high-status chamber, fitted with a large aumbry (a built in cupboard/strong room) on the north wall, perhaps for safe keeping of coin and plate. This chamber contained the winches for the three portcullises.

The kitchens were located northeast of the Great Hall and shared its crown post roof. The east range was the service domain, with servant dormitories on the first floor. No fireplaces existed in this accommodation; smoky braziers would have been used for heat. Servants would also have found accommodation in the multiple dwellings in the Hever estate, many of which once surrounded the castle.

The Great Hall would have been modernised after Anne’s great-grandfather, Geoffrey Boleyn, bought the castle in 1462. The central hearth was abolished, and a vast side fireplace with a four-centred stone arch and large chimney stack was installed on the north wall. This installation required dismantling the Great Hall’s north side and the newly mounted walls to be conjoined to the new fireplace and two large additional windows. The Westernmost window, which lit the dais, contained two stone aumbries at the base which would have been used for keeping silver and gold plate.

Geoffrey Boleyn also added in another ground-floor reception room. A large timber-framed partition was installed in the westernmost bay of the Great Hall, reducing the size by a quarter. This timber partition was decorated with foliate heads (or green men), and its insertion enabled the formation of a Parlour to the west of the Great Hall. There is surviving evidence that this Parlour was accessed via a door in the north corner of the hall. This new space was divided horizontally, creating a two-story bay divided by a beautifully decorated stone apron featuring quatrefoils (ornamental decoration) and a shield. A fireplace was added to the Parlour and chamber above, and a privy was added in a small recess. This space would have been much smaller than the Great Hall, warmer, and ideal for receiving guests more privately. Geoffrey’s Parlour was furnished with a large, ornate bay widow, giving it particularly good afternoon light.

After Geoffrey’s death, Hever was inherited by his son William Boleyn and William’s wife, Lady Margaret Butler. Their son, Thomas Boleyn married the daughter of the Duke of Norfolk, Lady Elizabeth Howard. It was Elizabeth who inherited Hever after William Boleyn’s death in 1505 after unusually being granted ownership of the estate in her own right by her father-in-law. It was from around 1505 that the Thomas and Elizabeth (with their young children, Mary, Anne and George) began to use Hever as a primary country residence.

In 1513, Anne Boleyn travelled to the Court of Margaret of Austria in Mechelen, where she would remain abroad on the Continent for the next eight years of her life. We know, however, that during the love scandal of the years 1526-1528, Anne often personally retreated to the seclusion of her childhood home at Hever to escape the prying eyes and heat of the English Court.

Hever would only ever have been able to house a small number of trusted servants, so it was the perfect private haven for the Boleyns.

It was also at Hever, during the Boleyn’s Christmas festivities of 1526, that Anne finally accepted the king’s proposal of marriage.

And in the summer of 1528, Anne and her father Thomas escaped to Hever to quarantine from the Sweating Sickness. Both Anne and Thomas caught the Sweat but, with the help of Henry’s second-best doctor (Dr Butts – pictured above) whom he sent to aid Anne, managed to recover.

During Anne’s parent’s ownership, very little changed at Hever structurally. The main addition was the spiral staircase built to connect the parlour on the ground floor to the family apartments on the first floor, as well as the likely modernisation of the principal family rooms, including ceiling the family apartments.

Most of the gardens we know at Hever today were added by William Waldorf Astor. During the Boleyns time the grounds would likely have been more roaming greenlands and forest, perfect for hunting and riding.

Following research by Simon Thurley about the history of Hever Castle visitors will see changes to the first floor of the Castle from 2024 to reflect the way the Boleyns lived in their home.