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The craftsmanship at Hever Castle

Actualizado: 1 de nov de 2018

20 October 2018, Hever Castle, Kent

British School, 16th century, The Family of Henry VIII, c. 1545

Working at the Tower of London, some of the most frequently asked questions are related to Anne Boleyn. If you are a history freak like me, you probably already know most of her story. But did you know that Hever Castle was her childhood home? Did you know it was later given to Anne of Cleves, Henry VIII's fourth wife, after she agreed to a divorce in 1557? In fact, after this settlement, Anne of Cleves became one of the richest women in the country. Pretty awful considering how Henry VIII and Anne Boleyn's marriage ended...


Anne's family, originally known as Bullen, became very influential when her father, Thomas, married Elizabeth Howard, the daughter of Thomas Howard, Duke of Norfolk and treasurer to King Henry VIII. An ambitious man, Thomas sent Anne to serve in the households of several queens, from Margaret of Austria, to Mary Tudor during her reign as Queen of France, and finally to Queen Catherine of Aragon's household in England. With her, Anne brought a strong French influence to the English court. One of the first things she changed was the spelling of her own surname to Boleyn, but also picked up the language and customs that made her stand out, particularly in the eyes of her mistress's husband, King Henry VIII.


After 24 years of marriage to Catherine of Aragon, Henry and his wife only produced one surviving daughter, Mary, the future Queen (Mary I of England). Desperate for a male heir, Henry VIII did everything possible to end his marriage and, failing miserably for years, decided to break from the Catholic Church and proclaim himself head of his own Church. Now you might read this and, without knowing the story behind it, think that Henry was simply being practical, like previous kings in the past. But in this case, Henry had a much more personal motive, which was to marry the [current] love of his life, Lady Anne Boleyn.


However, this new marriage failed to produce his desired son, and added to Anne's tempestuous character, Henry became increasingly tired of her. This led to the building of a conspiracy to condemn Anne to her tragic beheading in 1536. It is ironic that, after his huge disappointment at producing only two daughters in both marriages, both of his daughters became queens in their own right. In fact, the fruit of his terrible marriage to Anne was Elizabeth I, who turned out to be a fenomenal ruler.

My flatmate Katie is a huge fan of the Tudors, she was the one who told me all about Anne Boleyn even before I started working at the Tower of London; how she transformed the fashion, introducing the daring French hood and the long elegant sleeves of ladies' dresses. I actually learned from her that Hever Castle was Anne's childhood home so I bought her some tickets for her birthday. I have to say I that I did not expect such a great visit.


With nearly 700 years of history, the building that you see today is the result of a huge investment made by William Waldorf Astor to restore the castle between 1903 and 1908. The project provided the castle with an extension of the building, the Tudor Village, also known as the Astor Wing, the gardens and lake and the assemblage of his incredible collection of art, antiques and furniture. It is a most impressive place with a great concern for preserving the essence and significance of the Tudors for this castle. In fact, Astor insisted that the restoration was completed using, as much as possible, traditional Tudor tools and craftsmanship.


The first thing I need to mention about this visit is the convenience of traveling by car. We decided to take the train and then a twenty minute walk across the English countryside all the way to the castle. It is definitely a beautiful walk, but it doesn't come without risks. For starters, if you don't have smartphone you'll never get there. Unfortunately it's a basic 21st century problem for us millennials with no sense of orientation. Also, there are no sidewalks. The only reason we knew we were on the correct path was because none of the cars honked at us, which pretty much gave us the go ahead and assume that locals are used to wandering tourists in the middle of the road.

King Henry VIII pub

Having overcome one of the most stressful walks of my life, we finally arrived to the area, where there is a pub named, surprise, surprise, The King Henry VIII. The building dates from 1579 and it definitely showed us that we were on the right track. A little further ahead, several selfies later and a fantastic, warm, hot chocolate in the castle premises, we finally made it to the building itself. The views of the palace are beautiful in Autumn; the bright green grass of the lawn, the red and copper hues of the vines on the front of the building, the trees starting to change their leaves. It's the perfect setting to the visit of a this historic building.


The original medieval building dates from 1270 and was a defensive castle, complete with a gatehouse and bailey. It became the home of several generations of families between the 15th and 16th centuries, including the Boleyns (referred to as "Bullen" by the guidebook, the only instance I have ever come across this). Thomas Boleyn was responsible for several of the changes of the house, including the Tudor dwellings within the entrance walls. From 1557 onwards, the castle was owned by several other families including the Waldegreaves, who also left their mark in the palace that can still be seen today.


Woodwork

Hever Castle truly is a work of art on its own; it recreates details of Tudor craftsmanship and essence, demonstrating the immense attention paid to the woodwork and replicas of original pieces. The house is structured around a beautiful, Tudor style patio with white walls and wooden panelling. As we entered the building, we caught the welcoming smell of a fire crackling in the fire place of the main reception room, known as the Inner Hall.


The wooden framework in this room is made of Italian walnut columns of carved flowers and natural motifs. Together with the dark furnishings, it gives the whole room a sense of comfort and warmth. The gallery above the hall, dating from 1905, is reminiscent of a the screen of the chapel at King's College in Cambridge, built between 1532 and 1536 by Henry VIII for Anne Boleyn to celebrate their marriage.

There is also a magnificent panelling of wood across the all the walls in the Dining Room. It was also made in 1905 with images made in different types of wood to show a variety of colors. It was inspired by the panelling at Sizergh Castle, Cumbria, which dates back to around 1575. Every panel has a different scene and there must be around 50 panels across the entire room, which just shows how much work was put into the project.


One room that I think is very easy to overlook is the Entrance hall because it is not as ornate as the previous two rooms. It was added by Thomas Boleyn in 1506 and is now used as a connecting room between one wing of the house to the other. However, it has an array of spectacular, original woodwork furniture; a choir stall from 1480, refectory table from 1565 and a bench table from 1610, all made from Italian walnut.


I have to admit that, by far, my favourite room in the house is the Library. It has a wonderful collection of books, all bound for Astor in Moroccan leather with his coat of arms. And like everything else in the house until now, it is not too big, not too small and houses just the perfect amount of masterpieces. I have already talked about the woodwork around the structure of the house, but this room has some beautiful examples of Tunbridge ware, a form of inlaid woodwork where patterns are created with smaller pieces of different wood.


Stonework

Fireplace in the Dining, with the Coat of Arms of Anne Boleyn

The details of all the carvings of the fireplaces and ceilings are brilliant. You can definitely see how much detail went into the process. If you look further up in the Inner Hall, you can see the ceiling composed of a relief of Tudor roses. The detailed fireplace in the Dining Hall is made of Clipsham stone, limestone that comes from a village in Rutland with the same name and used in several other palaces in England. At the centre is the Boleyn coat of arms carved in wood, representing three bulls on the top left (I assume representing the surname "Bullen"), chevrons on the top right, the lion of England at the bottom left and six crosses on the bottom right that look very similar to the Croix fleury. I tried to find out the significance of each of the symbols in the shield but have found very little information for an accurate description.


Tapestries and fabrics

Tapestry from Aubusson, 18th century

On the wall above the wooden columns in the Inner Hall, there is an 18th century tapestry featuring a hunting scene, one of the many tapestries housed in the castle. This is a strong reminder of the importance of Flemish tapestries under Henry VIII's reign, who is believed to have also commissioned the ten tapestries of 1573 called The Story of Abraham. You can see them on display today at Hampton Court Palace.


There is a magnificent example of an original Flemish tapestry in the Dining Hall, August, a work which runs through most of the entire left wall of the room as you enter. It belongs to the series Months and Seasons, dates from 1540, just seven years before Henry VIII's death, and measures approximately 11 meters long by 3 meters high.


One of the final tapestries in the castle is another work that stretches all across the left wall, from 1514, illustrating the first marriage of Mary Tudor, Henry VIII's sister, to Louis XII of France. According to the information on the website, it is believed that Anne and her sister, Mary, are depicted in this scene. If I had to make any guesses, I believe that the two young ladies, one fair and the other with the French hood and dark hair, on the left hand corner.


Portrait paintings

The castle houses one of the most spectacular collections of portraits I have seen. In fact, it has nothing to envy to the National Portrait Gallery. The first encounter with the magnificent collection is in the Inner Hall, which has the portraits of the first four Tudor monarchs, from Henry VII to Mary I.


The biggest series, comprising of a total of 18 paintings, is located in the Long Gallery, built in the 16th century, over the Entrance Hall. It has recently been refurbished with the help of David Starkey, a brilliant historian specialized in the Tudors. The room has been restored to its (alleged) original appearance in Tudor period. The works are arranged in a way that retraces the history of all the English monarchs from Henry VI, a key figure in the conflicts that began the War of the Roses, to the first Tudor King, to Henry VIII.


What I love most about the collection is that it includes portraits of the key women of this incredible part of history; as mothers, wives and daughters, they were revolutionaries in their own right. Elizabeth Woodville, for instance, caused a scandal for the traditional court of Edward of York, crowned Edward IV, when he insisted on marrying her despite the fact that she was a widow with two children. She played by her own rules, angering many people including Margaret Beaufort, mother of the future Henry VII. Margaret Beaufort saw her son as the only legitimate heir to the throne, being a blood relative of the previous reigning line of monarchs of the Lancaster family. Upon the death of King Richard III, brother of Edward IV, and in order to draw peace between Lancaster and York families, both mothers arranged the marriage between Edward IV's oldest daughter to Henry VII, and so ending the war between the families of Lancaster and York.


The Book of Hours

In this room, there are two prayers books that belonged to Anne Boleyn. The first, dating from 1450, features an inscription in her own handwriting that reads "Le temps viendrá, Je Anne Boleyn" (The time will come, I, Anne Boleyn) and the second, from 1528, is thought to have been the book she took with her on the day of her execution.


This room also has two highlights that are not acknowledged as much as they should; on the right wall, there are two enlarged letters from Henry and Anne, illustrating the passion of one of the most famous love stories in English history. Despite his terrible reputation, the words Henry conveys in this letter shows a man truly devoted to a woman.


"My heart and I surrender themselves into your hands, and we supplicate to be commended to your good graces, and that by absence your affection may not be diminished to us..."

Other Tudor replicas and original pieces

Inner Hall:

  • The 20th century replica of the mantlepiece clock given by Henry VIII to Anne as a wedding gift.

  • The oldest piece in the collection, a Cassapanca, a Tudor version of an Ottoman chair.

Dining Hall

  • Guilt lock on the door made by Henry VIII's locksmith. The King was concerned for his safety and so travelled with his own personal lock when he went to other residences.


See all these masterpieces soon. Hever Castle is open every day of the year and provides a wonderful Bed and Breakfast that you will never experience anywhere else. It is the perfect place to spend a romantic Christmas morning or New Years weekend. Book your room here.


Additional photo credits (excluding those taken by myself):

  1. British School, 16th century, The Family of Henry VIII, c. 1545. Hampton Court Palace, London.

  2. Unknown artist, Elizabeth I, 1560. You can find this portrait at Hever Castle in the Staircase Gallery, 1506 by Thomas Boleyn to provide access between both wings.

  3. Antonio Moro (1516 - 1576), Mary Tudor, Queen of England, Second Wife of Philip II, 1554. Museo del Prado, Madrid.












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