Anne Boleyn, King Henry VIII's second queen, is often portrayed as a seductress and ultimately the woman responsible for changing the face of religion in England. In reality she was a fiercely intelligent and pious woman dedicated to education and religious reform. But after her arrest and execution on false charges of adultery and incest in May 1536, Henry VIII was determined to forget her memory. Her royal emblems were removed from palace walls, her sparkling jewels tucked away in dark coffers, and her precious books disappeared from the pages of time.
One of Boleyn’s books that has reappeared is a Book of Hours: The stunning prayer book, printed around 1527 with devotional texts designed to be read throughout the day, features hand-painted woodcuts—as well as a rare example of the queen’s own writing. In the margins of one of the beautifully decorated pages, she penned a rhyming couplet followed by her signature, “Remember me when you do pray, that hope doth lead from day to day, Anne Boleyn.”
The book vanished with Boleyn’s execution in 1536, then resurfaced around 1903 when it was acquired by the American millionaire William Waldorf Astor after he purchased Hever Castle, Anne Boleyn’s childhood home in the English countryside. The hiding place of the disgraced queen’s devotional tome had been a mystery for centuries, until recent research by a university student uncovered hidden signatures that helped trace its path through history.
The book’s whereabouts in the 367 years between Boleyn’s death and its reemergence remained puzzling until 2020 when Kate McCaffrey, then a graduate student at the University of Kent working on her master’s thesis about Anne Boleyn’s Book of Hours, found something unexpected in the margins of the book.
“I noticed what appeared to be smudges to the naked eye,” recalls McCaffrey, assistant curator at Hever Castle since 2021. Intrigued, she borrowed an industrial-strength ultraviolet light and set it up in the darkest room of Hever Castle. Ultraviolet light is often used to examine historical documents because ink absorbs the ultraviolet wavelength, causing it to appear darker against the page when exposed. “The words just came through. It was incredible to see them underneath the light, they were completely illuminated,” the curator recalls.
McCaffrey’s theory is that the words were erased during the late Victorian era when it was popular to cleanse marginalia from books or manuscripts. But thanks to her extraordinary detective work, these erased words turned out to be the key that unlocked the tale of the book’s secret journey from certain destruction at the royal court to safety in the hands of a dedicated group of Boleyn’s supporters.
Indeed, various pages throughout the text reveal the names and notations of a string of Kentish women—Elizabeth Hill, Elizabeth Shirley, Mary Cheke, Philippa Gage, and Mary West—who banded together to safeguard Anne's precious book and keep her memory alive.
While it’s unclear how the book was initially passed to these women, Anne Boleyn expert Natalie Grueninger suggests it was gifted by Anne to a woman named Elizabeth Hill. Elizabeth grew up near Hever Castle, and her husband, Richard Hill, was sergeant of the King’s Cellar at Henry VIII’s court. There are records of the Hill’s playing cards with the king, and there may have been a friendship between Elizabeth and the queen that prompted Boleyn to pass her prayer book on before her execution. “This extended Kentish family kept the book safe following Anne’s demise, which was an incredibly brave and bold act considering it could have been considered treasonous,” says Grueninger, podcaster and author of the book The Final Year of Anne Boleyn.
Anne’s Book of Hours was passed between mothers, daughters, sisters, and nieces until the late sixteenth century, when the last name makes its appearance in its margins. “This story is an example of the women in the family prioritizing loyalty, friendship, fidelity, and a personal connection to Anne,” says McCaffrey. “The fact that the women have kept it safe is a really beautiful story of solidarity, community, and bravery.”
The book, currently on display at Hever Castle, is a touchstone of the enigma that was Anne Boleyn. Castle historian and assistant curator Owen Emmerson points out that the book contains Anne’s DNA on the pages from where she touched and kissed it during her daily devotions.
“This was a really beloved possession of hers,” says Emmerson. “Because of what happened to Anne Boleyn, we don’t have a vast amount of information in Anne’s own words. But the physical remnants of her use of the book, and the construction of that beautiful little couplet, have her identity in them.”
While Anne’s Book of Hours has finally found its way home, the research into this intriguing historical mystery is not yet over. McCaffrey continues to chart the book’s provenance through the centuries to find out where it was hiding all this time. The discovery of the inscriptions illuminates the book’s furtive journey, providing us with a glimpse into the controversy, loyalty, and fascination that Anne Boleyn has engendered for the past 500 years.