It’s a beautiful day here, and a perfect one to go somewhere just as beautiful, famous for its great romance. Behold the splendour of Hever Castle, childhood home of Anne Boleyn. A smitten Henry VIII came to stay here, or sometimes stayed a few miles away at a hunting lodge to protect Anne’s reputation while being close to the woman he adored. In the end, knowing he could not have her unless he offered marriage, he divorced his wife and made Anne queen! Love conquers all!
Or so the great romance goes, but this view of the affair even at its peak is hardly one of romance when you look closer, which is not surprising when the ‘hero’ in the story is Henry VIII. I can’t believe people think he’s romantic. Charming, ruthless, egotistical and terrifyingly sure of himself, Henry may have chased Anne for six years but did he actually love her? There’s little sign of it. He was besotted by her charm, but more so by her refusal to give herself to him, something nobody else had ever dared do. Holding out for the greatest prize, Anne kept him dancing to her tune but it was determination to get his own way that kept Henry there. If he acted the great lover, he’d been trained to do so. He knew the rules of chivalric love, he enjoyed acting, and he turned it onto Anne for years.
How to tell? Well, for a start, look at the fall-out of this romance. Henry’s wife of twenty years, the loyal and beloved Katherine of Aragon, was told she’d never been married, was in the way, and needed to get to a nunnery. When she refused – and rather splendidly turned up to the legal hearing to out-argue Henry then walked out – she was stripped of her titles, kicked off to a damp house that Henry hoped would kill her, and left there without being allowed to see her friends or worse, her adored teenaged daughter Mary. Mary, meanwhile, went from adored child to motherless despised girl, also stripped of her title and deliberately humiliated by Anne at court. On a wider level, Henry broke with Rome when he was banned from divorcing, creating a split in the Church that would cause hundreds, if not thousands, of deaths. Very romantic. But was it worth it? Was it such a powerful love that nothing could stand in its way?
In short, no. With the Church in pieces and his family split, Henry married Anne…and within three years was sick of her. Long before that he was outraged she had had a daughter instead of the won he wanted, he was back taking mistresses and telling the new queen to know her place and shut her mouth as Katherine had before her. Realizing that she had shown a queen could be toppled, Anne lived in paranoia that another woman would do what she had done, struggling in vain to have another living child.
Three years after their romance reached the climax of their marriage, Anne was beheaded on trumped-up charges of witchcraft, her daughter declared illegitimate. Henry wore yellow, the colour of celebration, on the day she died. She outlived Katherine of Aragon by four months. Indeed, the only real great love here was for Katherine. The whole court was under strict orders from Henry not to go near the former queen, but when her best friend Maria de Salinas heard that Katherine was dying, she deliberately disobeyed him. She drove to the isolated Kimbolton Castle, tricked the guards into letting her in, then physically forced her way into Katherine’s bedroom and dared the men to lay a finger on her. They didn’t; Katherine died in Maria's arms. Maria would have known she was risking her head.
Going back to Henry and Anne, there isn’t even a fraction of the love between them that Maria de Salinas shared with Katherine. Theirs is a tale of beautiful castles, palaces, jousting and finery, but it’s also one of greed, ambition, selfishness and ultimately disappointment. Henry had no interest once his prize was won with lives shattered, Anne had only fear, but then romance is never built on self-serving desires. Romance is supposed to be selfless and sincere.
You should definitely go to Hever Castle. It’s staggeringly beautiful and the water maze is an absolute blast. It’s also fantastic to see Anne’s own Book of Hours, her bedroom and the rooms where Henry himself slept. Really and truly, it’s a wonderful place for a wonderful day. Just don’t fall for the big Henry love story when you go!