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Becoming Anne: Connections, Culture, Court (Hever Castle, Kent)

01 April 2022

An exhibition at Hever Castle tells the story, says Nicholas Cranfield

Hever castle and gardens

Anne Boleyn, English School, 1534. More images in the gallery

Anne Boleyn, English School, 1534. More images in the gallery

THERE is something very familiar about the account of an intelligent, some would say brilliant, man who enters politics unexpectedly and, unsatisfied in the marriage bed with a long-suffering spouse, starts taking mistresses, such that he has no idea how many children he has fathered.

Even when his wife watches him move in with a woman some ten years his junior, alarm bells fail to ring. Somewhat course and bloated, and with little to lose, he divorces the first wife and marries the girlfriend in an unpublicised ceremony.

Whether in fact historians will find that the Court of Queen Carrie bears much resemblance to that of Anne Boleyn, this exhibition about Anne’s early life in one of her childhood homes prompted a number of thoughts.

Anne, who was born at Blickling Hall in 1501 (or 1503 or as late as 1507; the sources are unclear), had her own rooms in Greenwich Palace as early as May 1527 and at Windsor by March 1528. She could keep an eye on the king whom she had stolen from her sister.

Before meeting Anne, Henry had previously shown no interest in interior design or building, but their great love nest, still standing to this day, proved to be the palace of Whitehall, largely rebuilt over the palace of the Archbishops of York, once Thomas Wolsey had been disgraced (22 October 1529). Henry, his innamorata, and her mother arrived to measure up the wallpaper just two days later. They eventually chose to be married there, in the gatehouse (24 January 1533).

As Simon Thurley has widely shown, Anne was a determined builder and, at her death, she was a greater landowner than Catherine of Aragon or any queen since. A recently reassigned portrait of Catherine reveals her as she looked around 1520.

And if historians argue whether Anne Boleyn was the mother of the Lutheran Reformation in England, Henry had, with a weak Archbishop of Canterbury, been able to set about the destruction of the Church in England. Archbishop Warham allowed the first closure of monasteries long before their ultimate suppression, much as Archbishop Welby became complicit in the banning of worship in parishes churches even before the PM tried to suppress all public religious activity.

So, for any modern visitor to Hever Castle, this exhibition, opening on the exact date of the 500th anniversary of the first meeting at Court between the daughter of Thomas Bullen and Henry, at a pageant of the Château Vert, may well come away convinced that history repeats itself.

The Boleyns had risen from trade: Norfolk-born Sir Geoffrey (d.1463) was a hatter and a mercer who became Sheriff of London (1446-47), MP for the City (1449), and Lord Mayor (1457). He bought up Blickling Hall (1452) and, later, Hever in the Weald of Kent (1461), remodelling both, unconcerned by the Wars of the Roses. Luton Hoo, conveniently closer to London, would come later.

Fortunate and ambitious marriages brought the title of the Earl of Ormond and Earl of Wiltshire to his grandson Thomas Boleyn (1476-1539), who married the daughter of England’s premier duke, attended the first marriage of Catherine of Aragon to Henry’s brother Arthur (1501), and accompanied their sister Margaret Tudor to hers to James V in Scotland (1503).

Thomas Boleyn was a sophisticated and able courtier, outliving his ill-fated younger daughter’s fall from grace. In the parish church, he is depicted in the robes of the Garter in the five-foot-long brass on his spectacular tomb chest, awaiting the final trumpet call of the Angel of the Resurrection seen in the Tintoretto painting high on the wall at the entrance to the chapel.

The early education of his three surviving children most probably took place at Blickling; but the two daughters were sent abroad. In 1513, Anne spent less than a year with the Archduchess Margaret of Austria, where her father was ambassador to the glittering court at Mechelen before being sent to the French court to attend Mary Rose (Henry VIII’s 18-year-old sister) at her marriage to the aged Louis XII. She did not return to England until 1521.

This exhibition brings the collections of Hever Castle, in the mock Tudor interiors rendered by Frank L. Pearson (1903-07) for Waldorf Astor, to life. Why Anne stayed in service to the French queen Claude, wife of François I, is unclear, and the exhibition can offer only sketchy glimpses of those years after displaying portraits of all the main players in her life in the Inner Hall (formerly the Great Kitchen), including an unlikely one of Henry VII after Jan Mabuse.

In France, Anne first became aware of the Lutheran revolution happening across Europe, although the two prayer books on show here offer a more conventional glimpse of her wealthy Catholic life.

They are among only three volumes known to contain Anne’s signed inscriptions, one of them a girdle book in the British Library. In the printed Book of Hours (Hever Castle) that she was reading on 19 May 1536, the day of her execution on trumped-up charges of adultery, incest, and high treason, she had penned, “Remember me when you pray, that hope does lead from day today.”

The other prayer book, handwritten on vellum and illuminated in Bruges around 1450, that was bought by the plutocrat Astor, is even more richly decorated, the colours picking up the French tapestry depicting the 1514 marriage of Princess Mary Rose that is claimed to feature Anne and her sister as attendants.

At the court pageant on 4 March 1522, when Mary and her younger sister attracted the king’s attention, Mary had appeared as “Kindness”. Tellingly, the younger Boleyn girl played “Perseverance”; by 1526, she had her man.

“Becoming Anne: Connections, Culture, Court” is at Hever Castle, Kent TN8 7NG, until 6 November. Phone 01732 865224. www.hevercastle.co.uk

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