Interview with Kate McCaffrey, Assistant Curator at Hever Castle

Interview conducted by Naomi Wallace

Kate McCaffrey is a historian and Assistant Curator at Hever Castle, the childhood home of Anne Boleyn. Retrospect spoke with Kate about her groundbreaking research, Hever Castle’s new exhibition, and life working at the castle.  

What initially sparked your love for history, and drew you to Anne Boleyn in particular? 

I will always credit my mum for my love of history. I grew up with her telling my sister and I stories about powerful women from across history – from Boudicca to Joan of Arc to Elizabeth I! Being surrounded by these tales of strong women wielding power led to me on a natural path (probably through an initial fascination with her daughter, Elizabeth I) to Anne Boleyn.  

During your postgraduate research, you made some fascinating discoveries regarding Anne Boleyn’s Books of Hours. What prompted you to revisit these pieces of evidence in the way you did, and what was it like to work so closely with items that once belonged to Anne?  

I had worked at Hever Castle, where two of Anne Boleyn’s signed Books of Hours (personal prayerbooks) are held, on and off (in between school and university) for years, so I had been around them (in their cases!) for a long time. I never thought, however, that I would be able to handle them and work with them in person – and the opportunity to do this came thanks to the skills in palaeography and codicology I was learning in the MA degree I was studying for at the time with the department of Medieval and Early Modern Studies at the University of Kent, plus the fact that Hever’s amazing curator Alison Palmer had known me for a long time! I had wanted to write an essay for my palaeography module on the Books of Hours, and so that is why I first began to look at them in person – it was a dream come true. I had no idea that what I would find in the Hours would end up forming my entire thesis, never mind only an essay! It was, and remains, the greatest privilege and honour of my career to work so closely with these objects that were such an important and intimate part of Anne Boleyn’s life. Her DNA is literally all over them. I think it is the closest you can possibly feel to a historical figure.  

As Assistant Curator at Hever Castle, can you give us a sense of what your day to day life working at the castle looks like?  

One of the things I love most about my job is how varied it is – every day looks different! Some weeks are more focused on research and writing but recently my workdays have been filled with installing exhibitions and new permanent displays. We are in a period of real, exciting change in the castle and it’s great to see the projects you have been planning and researching for months actually come into fruition! This week, I’ve been moving portraits around, re-cataloguing items (a continuous project) and installing exposition boards we’ve just written, and next week I’m on some off-site visits to places like Hampton Court Palace and the Mary Rose – never a dull day!   

Speaking of Hever Castle, congratulations on the opening of your new exhibition, ‘Catherine and Anne: Queens, Rivals Mothers’! Tell us more about the process of planning and curating this, and why you felt it was important to explore Catherine of Aragon and Anne Boleyn together in one exhibition.  

Thank you very much! ‘Catherine and Anne’ was a particularly personal project for me because the exhibition is based on the research I undertook during my MA thesis, so I have been working on this specific exhibition since I joined Hever almost two years ago now. After I discovered that both Catherine of Aragon and Anne Boleyn owned a copy of the same printed Book of Hours, I knew I had to try everything to reunite them! I spent eighteen months on the loan of the Morgan Library’s Book of Hours (Catherine’s), and it was a huge learning experience overseeing the international loan (from New York!) of such an important object. I knew that reuniting the two books of the first two wives of Henry VIII, who have for so long been seen only through the stereotypical lens of their rivalry, was the perfect opportunity to explore what else they shared in common. And there is a lot! Once we had the narrative of knowing that we were going to be challenging the traditional view that pits these two remarkable women against one another, we then set about enquiring about other loans to help us tell their story. We wrote an accompanying exhibition book, and all of the exposition boards for the rooms, came up with floorplans, researched into each of the items on display, and then finally installing the exhibition itself back in February was just the greatest pride and relief!  

Is there anything else exciting that you can reveal about upcoming projects at Hever Castle or in your own research?  

We are in the process currently of re-curating the entire castle, which is a huge project and a very exciting one to be a part of. We recently had an architectural history of the castle completed by Professor Simon Thurley and we are using his findings to re-present each floor of the castle. The new ground floor (which launches Weds 29th March!) tells the story of our twentieth-century history, with the Astor family, then we will go back progressively in time upstairs to the Boleyns and the medieval history of the castle. Personally, my work with Anne’s Books of Hours is never done – and we have a Book of Hours coming to replace Catherine’s in June, which we have been doing some very exciting research into, so watch this space!  

Why do you think that we are still talking about Anne Boleyn today? What work still needs to be done to help understand her as an individual?  

I think Anne continues to fascinate and divide audiences today as much as she did during her own lifetime. There is something about the tragic ending of her story that I am sure will never stop capturing popular imagination. But more than that, I also think Anne displayed almost modern qualities that are still admired – or even related to – by people today: her fierce independence, intelligence, wit, and charisma, and her refusal to simply be a passive wife and queen. There is always more to find about every figure in history, even more well-researched ones like Anne – I hope my own discoveries with her books proves that. Anne’s voice is so elusive because so little of it directly remains, so there will always be attempts to try and recover it, and I hope that never ends!    

What advice would you give to current university students hoping to pursue a career in history, particularly in a field like yours where such a high volume of scholarship already exists? How do you overcome imposter syndrome in academia, especially as a young woman?  

Wow, this is a great question. If I had a simple answer for you, I promise I would give it! Imposter syndrome is something I struggle with a lot, and you would be surprised the historians greater and more celebrated than myself who I have spoken to about this, and they have said the same. In some ways, I don’t know if you ever totally overcome it, but I think it’s important to remember that pretty much everyone either feels, or has felt, that way at some point. You’re not alone in feeling it. I am proud to be in this field as a young woman who wasn’t privately educated, didn’t go to Oxford or Cambridge, and doesn’t have a PhD. All of that sometimes contribute to the imposter syndrome, but whilst history as a sector has always had a reputation for being somewhat exclusive, I really do think things are changing. I think there are younger, fresher, more diverse faces in history than there ever have been – and I couldn’t be more pleased about that!   

In terms of advice for pursuing a career in this field, I would say finding your niche is important. Find something that you can contribute that has never been said before. That doesn’t necessarily have to be uncovering a new piece of evidence, but it could be looking at an existing source with a different perspective. If there is one thing I have learnt, it is that everything we think we know should be challenged or re-appraised. That is our job, as historians, to question everything and bring new eyes to older pieces of information – take nothing as fact unless you have verified it yourself!   

To end on a fun note, if you could take one item home from Hever Castle, what would it be?  

I think my answer to this would be pretty obvious after these questions, because I may or may not be obsessed with Anne’s Books of Hours – but to be honest, they are cared for much better exactly where they are, rather than on my bookshelf!   

Featured image credit: Kate McCaffrey with Book of Hours. Accessed via Hever Castle and Gardens:

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