As the stately homes of England go, Hever Castle is on the smallish side, but its architecture and pedigree are impeccable. Hever has been home to many noble families, including the Fastolfs, who gave Shakespeare the model for his roguish Falstaff. Anne Boleyn grew up in the castle and was courted there by Henry VIII. Four years after she was beheaded, Henry gave the place to another of his discarded queens, Anne of Cleves. Since the oldest part, a fortified farmhouse surrounded by a moat, was built 600 years ago, Hever has been continually improved and enlarged, and it may indeed be “the most historic and romantic estate in Great Britain.”
That description is, alas, what it sounds like: the pitch of a seller’s prospectus, specifically that of Sotheby Parke Bernet International Realty, which put the castle up for sale last April. The asking price is £14 million (approximately $25 million). Not exactly peanuts, but consider the merchandise: the 26-room castle, 3,145 rolling acres of Kent countryside, eight tenant farms, a bar and restaurant, a Tudor-style village built to house guests and servants, two dairies, and a topiary garden with a boxwood maze and a set of chessmen sculpted from yew trees. The furnishings include Cardinal Richelieu’s sedan chair, a suit of armor worth $1.5 million that belonged to King Henry II of France, and a valuable collection of art, with Titian and Holbein sharing wall space with various French Impressionists. Does all that sound too much? Well, Sotheby’s reports an average of four tentative offers for Hever each week, but no deal has been struck yet.
The present occupant of the castle, Lord Astor, 64, never dreamed it would leave the family when he put it in trust for his elder son, John Jacob Astor VIII (Johnnie), in 1974. Doing so, in fact, was supposed to be a way of keeping it in the family for future generations; by registering the trust in a tax haven, the Channel Island of Jersey, Lord Astor was assured of avoiding the huge British income taxes. His own father had managed to pass on the castle to him in a similar way, by deeding it over, then retiring to France to spare his family those same taxes. “The trust for Johnnie was arranged so that he could run it by remote control if necessary,” says Lord Astor. “I didn’t want him to feel obliged to live here.” Nor did he expect the family to be forced to relinquish the castle where he grew up, playing with outsize toy trains on the sumptuous grounds and sailing on the 35-acre man-made lake.
Like his three younger sisters and younger brother, Johnnie was raised on the farm in Sussex where Lord and Lady Astor spent the first 18 years of their marriage. There, Johnnie “did all the normal childhood things—like ponies and squash and bullying one’s sisters.” After Eton he passed up college to join the Life Guards Regiment, as his father and grandfather had done. (His maternal grandfather, Field Marshal Earl Haig, was commander-in-chief of the British forces in France during World War I, and U.S. Secretary of State Alexander Haig is a second cousin to the present Lady Astor.) Five years in the service, including a hitch in Northern Ireland “trying to keep alive,” convinced Lieutenant Astor that the military life was not for him. Back in civvies, he joined the London real estate firm of Savill’s (which is jointly handling the Hever Castle sale with Sotheby) and married Fiona Harvey, a hospital librarian. Their 1970 wedding took place in the medieval church of St. Peter’s just outside Hever Castle. “It was a fairy-tale wedding,” Johnnie, now 35, recalls. “We had the Life Guards band and a helicopter to whisk us away on the first leg of our honeymoon on Rhodes.”
Management of the real estate holdings his grandfather had amassed in the south of France drew Johnnie in 1975 to the Riviera, where he took up residence at his grandfather’s estate near Cannes. Two years later he sold the place and moved with Fiona into a six-bedroom apartment in Cannes, where they now live with three daughters. “I liked the way of life,” says Johnnie, who golfs, skis and plays tennis. Soon the rising cost of maintaining Hever turned his thoughts to unloading that ancestral property as well.
Still, by selling it he severs the Astors’ long and colorful association with Hever. The castle came into the family in 1903, when William Waldorf Astor emigrated to Britain, declaring loftily that the U.S. was “not a fit place for a gentleman to live.” He was the great-grandson of the first John Jacob Astor, the German immigrant fur trapper and Manhattan real estate speculator who had risen from squalor to become the richest man in the U.S. William Waldorf (“Wealthy Willie,” as the press dubbed him derisively) proceeded to lavish $10 million on Hever, adding such adornments as the Tudor village, the lake and a colonnaded Italian loggia. His younger son, John Jacob V, inherited Hever in 1919, and later bought the venerable Times of London. He and his son, Gavin, the present lord, managed the paper until financial pressures forced its sale in 1966. Two years later, when the Eden River on the property flooded the ground floor of the castle in three and a half feet of water, Lord Astor also considered selling Hever. Instead, he devoted the next four years to building the place up again.
In 1963 Hever Castle was opened to the public to raise money for its upkeep. The estate, which has 100 employees, attracted 144,000 visitors last year. “Just as I feel honored to be associated with Hever, I felt honored to be with the Times,” Lord Astor says. “But I couldn’t afford to go on running either. I wouldn’t have wanted either to deteriorate.” He claims to be reconciled to his son’s decision to sell. “In this day and age you cannot legislate for the unknown future by imposing restrictions on your successors,” he says. “I didn’t want my children to feel stultified by having to do what their daddy wanted. They don’t necessarily have to be running a newspaper or a castle in Kent.” Yet his wife, Irene, “always took it for granted that Johnnie would return and the family remain at Hever. Johnnie knew what I felt,” she says. “But the decision was not mine. It has been a difficult time for the family. The less said the better.”
The elder Astors will hardly become unlanded gentry. They will take up residence in a 12-bedroom Victorian stone house on 12,000 acres in Scotland, an estate they had put in trust for son Phillip, 23, who plans to practice law there. (Their three daughters, says Lord Astor, “were taken care of in other ways.”) There is a five-bedroom London residence as well. Nevertheless, as leaders of the local squirearchy, the Astors will be pulling up deep roots: Lord Astor is relinquishing his position as Lord Lieutenant of Kent—the Queen’s representative in the county—and Lady Astor is resigning her leadership of the local Red Cross and other lady-of-the-manor obligations.
“It’s very sad,” says Johnnie’s wife, Fiona, 32. “I feel sorry for my parents-in-law, but I suppose one has to be realistic. Johnnie knew I’d stand by whatever he decided. The whole thing puts him in a sticky situation.” Not all of the family’s acquaintances are so tactful. “He just wanted out,” says one. “To get out of England whatever money is left while it’s still there.”
Johnnie Astor apparently feels no qualms. “The decision to sell Hever was made only after a lot of discussion in the family, and was the best one all around. I don’t consider myself a rebel. For me, Hever has never been home. There are certain British people who’d put Hever above everything else,” he says, “but I don’t think it’s such a big deal, really. The trustees couldn’t keep the place on a whim that I might want to go back.”