Meet Castle Historian and Assistant Curator: Owen Emmerson

July 12 2022 | Castle History

Meet Castle Historian and Assistant Curator: Owen Emmerson

Owen, please can you tell us a little about yourself?

I am a social and cultural historian, and I gained my doctorate from the University of Sussex in 2020. I joined Hever Castle in 2017 and am now privileged to work within the wonderful curatorial team here. I have co-authored two books: The Boleyns of Hever Castle (2021) and Becoming Anne: Connections, Culture, Court (2022). I have also had the privilege of contributing to a number of documentaries, including BBC2’s The Boleyns: A Scandalous Family, C5’s Lady Rochford, and BBC1’s Who Do You Think You Are? with comedian Josh Widdicombe.

Can you tell us about your role as Castle Historian and Assistant Curator at Hever Castle?

My job is incredibly varied and ranges from assisting our curator, Alison Palmer with the care of our many wonderful artefacts and paintings to researching the provenance of current collection items. I also co-curate the castle’s exhibitions, which involves a lot of researching, writing exposition for the artefacts we display, and co-authoring the accompanying exhibition books. I also regularly contribute to Inside Hever Castle, the castle’s online subscription service which provides exclusive content about the castle and its objects to online Patreons. It is a truly wonderful role and I feel immensely privileged to have been given it.

What is the best thing about your job?

There are so many aspects of my job that I love. Getting to hold our priceless treasures and getting to explore areas of the castle that aren’t on the visitor route are magical perks. However, I think the very best thing about my job is getting to unlock and then lock the castle at the beginning and end of the day. The half-timbered house inside the medieval crenelated walls almost feels like a living being at times: its wooden structure creaks and sighs back into place after a busy day. I must admit to very much enjoying having the castle to myself for a short while each day.

Why is Hever Castle such a unique place to visit?

Hever Castle is a charming, dinky little castle which has unique and important history. Visitors often comment to us that they could very comfortably call Hever ‘home’, and that is, in part, because it always has been a home. It is hard to overstate the importance of some of the history that happened between these beautifully crenelated walls. Hever is the only surviving witness to Anne Boleyn’s early childhood. Moreover, it was to Hever that Anne chose to return to many times during her scandalous courtship with King Henry VIII. Many of those steamy love letters that Henry wrote to Anne were delivered here. Places like the Tower of London bore witness to Anne’s darkest days, but I like to think that Hever was Anne’s ‘happy place’. It was also at Hever that Anne made the decision to accept Henry’s offer of marriage and the crown, which forever changed the course of history. Beyond the castle itself, the gardens at Hever are so varied and expansive that they are always a real joy to wander through regardless of the season.

An event that visitors enjoy at Hever Castle is Jousting. What do you think makes it so popular?

I think jousting is such a vibrant and exciting way for our visitors to access the past. The sound of 16-foot wooden lances shattering on metal; the smell of horse sweat; the tremor in the soil beneath your blanket as hooves thunder towards each other. Just as it must have been five hundred years ago, the crowds share the feelings of anticipation as they cheer on opposing knights in both a Joust Royal and in the stomach-churning foot combat. It is an assault on the senses, so it is easy to see why people return again and again to Hever’s joust with their families and friends.

Have any famous people toured around the castle and its grounds?

Hever’s guestbook has some rather impressive and illustrious names in it, such as Princess Alexandrina Victoria (later Queen Victoria); Sir Arthur Conan Doyle and Queen Elizabeth II. We are still very fortunate to welcome many well-known faces to Hever, such as Dame Judi Dench and Gloria Hunniford, who enjoy visiting. Gregg Wallace was married here in 2016 and Rachel de Thame opened our Garden Exhibition. Many famous historians, such as Lucy Worsley, Tracy Borman, and Suzannah Lipscomb have visited and filmed here too.

What has been filmed at Hever Castle?

Many documentaries, television dramas and feature films have been shot on location here at Hever Castle. In 1969, the Oscar-winning film Anne of the Thousand Days, starring Geneviève Bujold and Richard Burton was filmed here. Surprisingly, scenes of films such as Star Wars: The Phantom Menace and Inkheart were also filmed in Hever’s grounds. Most recently, the BBC filmed their three-part docudrama The Boleyns: A Scandalous Family on location at Hever Castle and nearby Penshurst Place.

What is the most popular area of the castle?

The dramatic Long Gallery is often cited as a visitor favourite. It was re-curated in 2019 and features one of the best collections of Tudor portraits outside of the National Portrait Gallery. I personally love every single area of the castle; however, I particularly love the area now known as the ‘Books of Hours Room’. This wonderful space was once the Great Chamber of the Boleyn family, and it is hard to think of another space that it so intimately connected to their story. It now houses two of Anne Boleyn’s books of hours, which she has both inscribed and signed. They are magical objects and, in my opinion, the jewels of our collection.

Read about Owen’s fellow Assistant Curator Kate McCaffrey.