Stolen from Hever Castle: High profile thefts over the years

August 03 2020 | Castle History


Castle supervisor Dr Owen Emmerson writes about some treasured items stolen from Hever Castle in the past.

Hever Castle’s almost pristine, crenulated walls may never have been attacked by the battering rams of an invading army; however, they have on several occasions in the past been breached by the nefarious activities of light-fingered fiends.

Detail from Henry VIII’s love letter to Anne Boleyn sent to “Your abode at Hever.”

One of the earliest examples of items stolen from Hever Castle could be the 17 love letters that are now housed in the Vatican archives.

They were once housed at Hever Castle, where they were sent to Anne Boleyn by King Henry VIII. It is believed that they were stolen to order to prove to the Pope that there was more to Henry VIII’s plea for an annulment from his marriage to Catherine of Aragon than met the eye and that the King had fallen in love with Anne Boleyn.

Anne retreated to the Boleyn’s family home of Hever Castle on many occasions during the 1520s to escape the furore of Court gossip during their long courtship.

In one of the love letters that Henry VIII sent in 1528, he refers to “your abode at Hever.” It is just possible, therefore, that these fascinating love letters were stolen from Hever Castle during the tumultuous years that led to Henry VIII breaking with the Church in Rome to marry Anne Boleyn.

Many years later, during the austere post-war years, Hever Castle was subject to a robbery that The Daily Mail dubbed ‘one of the greatest art robberies of all time.’

In the early hours of Sunday 21st April 1946, a black Rolls-Royce crept across Hever Castle’s drawbridge. The local constabulary had clocked the car but had believed it to be Colonel John Jacob Astor returning home.

Hever’s night-watchman, 50-year-old George Scholis, was sprung upon by the robbers, bound and gagged with a tablecloth and locked into the Butler’s pantry. In just half an hour, the robbers were able to remove over 1,500 precious items from the rooms below where Lady Violet Astor, her daughter and son-in-law and their three children slept undisturbed.

Fifteen minutes after the robbers had left, the night-watchman broke free and was able to raise the alarm. Amongst the items stolen from Hever Castle were prayer books belonging to Queen Anne Boleyn and her daughter Queen Elizabeth I and two illuminated 16th Century psalters. Lord Astor’s rare Louis XVI snuff box was taken, along with the rest of his snuff-box collection. A unique dagger belonging to King Henry VIII, a signet ring that belonged to King Charles I were also taken, along with a miniature of Lady Hamilton and several other miniatures.

In 2001, a first-century Roman bust was stolen from Hever Castle’s stunning Italian Garden. In the wake of the theft – and with over £100million worth of art and antiques stolen that year – the BBC’s Antiques Roadshow and drama series Lovejoy were accused of encouraging a ‘new generation of art thieves’ who had been educated by the popular antique show and inspired by the activities of the ‘likeable scoundrel’ Lovejoy, who had a ‘flair for duping gullible clients.’ A BBC spokesperson denied the link.

In 2003, five portrait miniatures – then worth £100,000 – were stolen from Anne Boleyn’s Bedroom. Two of the miniatures were recovered, however still missing is a rare miniature of Henry VIII’s famous minister, Thomas Cromwell, and two miniatures of Mary, Queen of Scots; one of which contained a lock of her hair.

The loss of the portrait of Cromwell was particularly felt because of his links to the history that played out at Hever Castle. Thomas Cromwell rose to power alongside the Boleyn family, and he was instrumental in both enabling the crown to be placed on Anne Boleyn’s head and, barely a thousand days later, for organising that same head cut off.

When the Boleyns fell from grace, it was Cromwell’s men that descended upon Hever Castle to remove Thomas Boleyn’s goods and chattels. It was the placing of the crown upon the head of another Queen Anne, however, that loosened Cromwell’s grip on power. Cromwell had organised the disastrous marriage between Henry VIII and Anne of Cleves.

Within six months the marriage had been annulled, Cromwell had lost his head and Anne of Cleves had gained Hever Castle as part of her divorce settlement. The other Queen Anne of Hever called the castle home for the last 17 years of her life.