My first trip to Hever Castle and Gardens occurred 10 years ago and ended with me purchasing an annual membership to regularly visit the gardens. While the interior of Anne’s childhood home contained historical artefacts and information, I found myself drifting towards the spacious grounds with its mazes, gardens and lake.
I admit I had no prior expectations of an English Garden. I had visited English castles before and roamed the gardens, checking out the mazes, grottos, beds of flowers and sculpted bushes. English Gardens are beautiful—a relic of the 18th century that replaced the French Formal Garden that was based on symmetry and the principle of imposing order on nature. The English Garden offers an idealized view of nature that often includes “a lake, sweeps of gently rolling lawns set against groves of trees, and recreations of classical temples, Gothic ruins, bridges, and other picturesque architecture, designed to recreate an idyllic pastoral landscape.”
So, if going by this description, Hever’s landscape is quintessentially an English Garden. It has two mazes: a yew maze and a water maze. The latter of which is probably more for kids than adults. However, my favourite area of the gardens concerned the Italian Garden, which covers four-acres of the land. In 1903, American millionaire William Waldorf Astor purchased Hever Castle to use it as a family residence. He made many renovations to the property, including the Italian Garden “to display his collection of statuary and ornaments”.
I remember approaching the Italian Garden, bordered by high stone walls that had crumbled in places, and feeling mesmerized. Green shrubbery and climbing plants enveloped the walls—another addition by Astor—and small bays contained beautiful sculptures made from stone and marble. However, one of the most attractive elements of the garden I discovered lay in the middle, hidden behind a tall ledge: the Sunken Garden. Astor had the Italian Garden built within a loggia—a series of arches that provided scenic views of the lake from the Sunken Garden, adding to the tranquillity of the space.
Now, as a 19-year-old who just moved to England, I can safely say that my motivation for visiting the garden was not to appreciate the sculpture garden or preciseness of the yew maze but to do a sort of celebrity sighting of Anne Boleyn. I was already obsessed with Anne—a lady in waiting to Katherine of Aragon and King Henry VIII’s second wife. Her story resonated with me from the start. I appreciated how she stood up for herself, informing the King of England she didn’t want to be his maîtresse-en-titre (chief mistress) and expected an equal partnership in her relationship with him. At this time, her demands were unconventional and bold. She made men uncomfortable, and she carved out space for herself within the patriarchy where she not only manipulated it but also capitalized on it.
As I learned more about Anne through biographies, movies, documentaries, and Wikipedia pages, my admiration only grew. I discovered she advocated for the arts, stood up for her family and friends, and gave one of hell of a speech at her execution. Her strength and early feminism may have gone unappreciated, causing men to become so insecure with her, including King Henry VIII, that they beheaded her. But to me, she had inspired me to become a more forthright and assertive person, especially in spaces that are often not welcoming to women. Anne was not perfect, but what unruly woman is?
When I started planning my move to England, I knew I wanted to visit the castle where she grew up in. Luckily, the family I au paired for lived only a 20-minute drive away. In the beginning, I spent time ruminating on whether Anne had stepped foot in the same places I did. I imagined that she sat near the lake, gazing out and thinking about life. Looking back on this time, I find it interesting that I applied this narrative to the garden even though most of the elements that make it a formal garden were installed after Anne lived there. Why did I create a narrative that she used the Italian Garden or took a rowboat out onto the lake when these amenities never existed for her? Perhaps, there’s something much more powerful about spending time on a property where you know someone played in the yard and felt the sun on their face than seeing an artefact that you are told once belonged to them. It connects you to them as a human being.
Moreover, landscapes are inherently seeped in history, not in the same way a building might be where the minute someone installs a building material it begins to degrade. The landscape is living. It’s a witness and will often take many years to fulfil the design intention of the landscape architect. For example, the sun, rain, wind as well as other elements all affect trees. No, the trees are most likely not the same trees as when Anne was alive, but there is something to this point about the historical landscapes that we feel close to and that satisfies something in us.
Hever Castle provided comfort, while at the same time, generated a different kind of experience every time I visited. Perhaps it had to do with whether I brought the kids I cared for to play in the water maze or if I brought along my friends to play cards and eat ice cream in the rose garden. At the time, the continually changing experience seemed to be a thing of magic to me. Yet, after working at a design firm and being immersed in landscape architecture, I now realize that it was simply great design. Many textures, plants with different blooming times, the curation of fall foliage colours, access to physical elements like water, interactive features, vertical elements that regularly change due to shadows, places for rest and shelter. It's a highly manufactured and maintained experience, but knowing now what goes into creating a space like this, it does not take the magic out of the garden, but instead, it makes me appreciate it even more.
When Anne died, King Henry VIII remarried several times, totalling six wives. He even gave one of his future wives Anne’s childhood home. At the time, no one was allowed to mention Anne Boleyn. He tried to erase her from history because he knew he couldn’t control her even in death. Hever Castle’s lasting influence and upkeep is a small vindication for this woman. It remembers her. It celebrates her legacy as Anne Boleyn and not as one of King Henry VIII’s wives. The landscape is living, and Anne lives within it.