Hever Castle, 30 miles southeast of London, was the home of two of Henry VIII's queens—one tragic and one lucky—and the pet project and home of America's richest man in the late 19th century. Visit it today to explore its early medieval keep, its Tudor rooms, and its 125 acres of exquisite gardens. If you plan well ahead, you may even get to spend the night. Here's what you need to know to plan your visit.
Hever Castle's Tudor History
Hever was built as a small fortified castle in around 1270. The gatehouse and the walled bailey of this first house remain. In the 15th century, Geoffrey Bullen, great grandfather of Anne Boleyn, acquired Hever. During the 14th and 16th centuries, the Boleyn family-owned Hever. They built the Tudor family home within its outer walls.
It was Anne Boleyn's girlhood home, where Henry VIII courted her (as well as her older sister Mary who was his mistress first). Poor Anne, Henry's second wife, lost her head in 1536. She was charged with treason, but the probable reason was her failure to produce a male heir. Still, somewhere in the afterlife, she probably had the last laugh because her daughter became one of England's greatest monarchs, Queen Elizabeth I.
When Anne's father, Thomas Boleyn, died in 1539, the house reverted to the Crown—Henry VIII. He then gave it to his fourth ex-wife, Anne of Cleves, as part of their separation settlement.
She was the lucky one. She and Henry were married less than a year, and she managed to keep her head. Henry was just not attracted to her. And given that by, the time they married, he was obese and gouty with a festering—and probably smelly—leg ulcer, she perhaps wasn't enchanted with him either. The marriage was never consummated and was ultimately annulled. But she was so witty and amusing that they remained friends.
Hever Castle's American Connection
During the next few centuries, Hever Castle passed through several owners. By the late 19th century, the land was a tenanted Kentish farm estate, but the castle itself was falling into ruin. Enter American-born William Waldorf Astor. Astor had moved to England after a failed political career in America and various family squabbles. When his father, John Jacob Astor III, died in 1890, he became the richest man in American. It's said he brought $100 million (almost $27 billion today) with him when he settled in England.
He used some of that money to buy Hever Castle and, between 1903 and 1908, he indulged his interest in history in restoring and refurbishing the castle, creating its various gardens, and building its lake. He also created a "Tudor village" beside the castle, parts of which are now a 28-room boutique hotel.
Astor's heirs continued to use Hever as one of their family homes until the 1970s when it was sold to a Yorkshire family who maintains it as part of their private property group.
Things to Do at Hever
There's more than enough to do at Hever Castle, both inside and out, to fill at least a day and maybe more. Much of what you see when touring the house is a recreation, dating from William Waldorf Astor's reconstruction of Hever, but there are many real Tudor treasures to be found.
Tour the Castle
Multi-media tour guides can be rented near the entrance, and guidebooks are available for self-guided tours. A downloadable Tudor History Trail is aimed at families with children. Private guided tours can also be booked in advance.
- Enter the castle across a drawbridge restored by Astor. The portcullis—the latticed wood and metal grille that comes down across the entrance to the inner courtyard—is believed to be one of the oldest working examples in Britain.
- Visit the Tudor rooms, including Anne Boleyn's bedroom, with a carved Tudor bed.
- Henry VIII's bedchamber (the King was believed to have stayed at the castle while wooing Anne) is a recreation but has many period elements. The carved walnut frieze above the fireplace in this room was originally the front of a chest, circa 1505. The coffered ceiling is one of the oldest in the castle, dating from 1462 when the Boleyns first owned it.
- See the Tudor portraits This collection of original paintings is considered to be the best outside of Britain's National Portrait Gallery.
- Read Anne Boleyn's own words One of the upstairs rooms is reserved for an exhibition of two rare books of hours - heavily illustrated prayer books - that belonged to Anne Boleyn and that she probably used for her daily prayer services. She annotated one with a message in her own hand, asking readers to pray for her. Digital consoles, besides each of the books, enable visitors to "turn the pages" and see different illustrations and autographs.
Explore the Gardens
Hever Castle's gardens look like they were established hundreds of years ago but most were created by Astor and his gardeners, Joseph Cheal and Son, over the four or five year period during which he restored the estate. Among the highlights:
- The Italian Garden, a four-acre garden of lawns, yew hedges, and walls of local stone, was created to showcase Astor's collection of antiquities. The statues, urns, and nymphs that are artfully arranged throughout this garden are not mere garden ornaments but are the real deal—some as old as 2,000 years. At the end of the Italian Garden, a loggia and colonnade finish in steps leading down to a 38-acre human-made lake.
- The Rose Garden blooms from June through September with 4,000 different varieties of roses.
- The Tudor Garden is one of a series of small gardens near the castle that, because it is next to a maze and surrounded by tall hedges, is easy to miss. There is a Tudor herb garden and a topiary chess set.
- Landscaped walks are dotted throughout the estate, demonstrating different styles of planting, showcasing different kinds of plants, or providing quiet corners to escape. One of these, the long border of the Two Sisters Lawn, was designed by Gertrude Jekyll, one of the 19th and early 20th century's most influential garden designers.
Have Some Fun
- Get lost in the Yew Maze. Don't worry, compared to some of England's major mazes, like the ones at Leeds Castle and Longleat, this one is a doddle. It's easy but fun for small children and not too scary for dogs (except for the Castle interiors, Hever is very dog-friendly.)
- Get wet in the Water Maze, a maze path laid out on the ground with intermittent and unpredictable water jets. The challenge is to get through the maze without getting wet—not easy. This one is for children and warm weather.
- Take a boat out on the lake. Rowboats and pedaloes are available to rent from a boathouse next to the loggia. A Japanese tea house, added in 2013, is best seen from a boat on the lake.
- See a show at the Hever Festival Theater. Throughout the summer season, evening performances are scheduled in an open-air theater—these range from concerts to theatrical productions, from amateur and community groups to professional artists.
- Visit the miniature model houses, a collection of 1/12 scale models includes homes from the Medieval, Stuart, Georgian and Victorian periods as well as Restoration interiors.
- Join in the special events. Hever Castle has a full schedule of events from late spring to early autumn. Sit in a "Royal" box to watch weekend jousting tournaments, take part in archery and shield painting. Keep track of What's On to see what will be happening when you visit. Some of the special activities have to be booked in advance.
Stay at Hever Castle
Besides the castle attractions, Hever has a 28-room luxury bed and breakfast inn within the Tudor style village and an Edwardian wing added by William Waldorf Astor. The feature rooms have to be booked six months or more in advance but are relatively moderately priced for the quality of the attraction. A separate self-catering cottage that sleeps eight can be rented as well.
The castle and grounds are open throughout the year, daily between the end of March and the end of October, during a short Christmas season from the end of November through Christmas Eve. At other times of year, the house and gardens are open Wednesday through Sunday. The ground open at 10:30 a.m. and the castle opens at noon. Closing times are seasonal, so check the website.
Hever is 30 miles southeast of London, 3 miles southeast of the village of Edenbridge. It is signposted from Junctions 5 and 6 of the M25 or junction 10 of the M23. Set satellite navigation devices for postcode TN8 7NG. The nearest train station is Hever, a one-mile walk down country lanes and cross country paths. Taxis are available from Edenbridge Town station, one stop closer to London, but should be booked in advance.