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Photo Tour: Hatfield House (Queen Elizabeth I’s Childhood Home)

During my summer 2000 sojourn in England, working on a software project, I tried to see as much as possible during my weekends. Many of the places I visited were either related to the book I was writing at the time (later published as Twist of Honor), but some were purely for my own edification, to see for myself the location of certain historical events I’d read about.

The July morning started off sunny, so I decided to head to Elizabeth the first’s childhood digs, Hatfield House. Like Henry VIII’s palace, Hampton Court, Hatfield House is public-transportation-accessible– in fact, the Hatfield train station is right across the street from the gates to Hatfield Park. It took about 20 minutes from King’s Cross station by train, and the countryside north of London is very pretty– rolling hills, horse pastures, and hedges.

There are actually two Hatfield Houses: the old house, a late-medieval brick mansion built for a bishop in the 1490′s, later acquired by King Henry VIII after the Dissolution of the Monasteries and partially demolished in the early 1600′s when the Cecil family decided to build a new house next door; and the Jacobean house, finished in 1612, which is where the Cecil family (the current Marquess of Salisbury) has lived since the 17th century.

Elizabeth I grew up in the old Hatfield House, which was built around a large courtyard, similar to Hampton Court. Only the Great Hall part of that house remains, known now as the Banqueting Hall. It’s normally open to visitors, but I didn’t get to go inside today because there was a wedding reception in progress.

The oldest part of the Jacobean house is also open to visitors– the Cecil family still lives in the house, but they’ve moved to one of the renovated wings. The place is enormous… it’s a pity that we weren’t allowed to take photos inside the house, because a lot of the old decor and furnishings remain. (2013 update: the official Hatfield House website features a number of photos from inside the house.)

The chambers are wood-paneled and high-ceilinged, the ceilings carved and gilded in most of the rooms. There are portraits of Cecils and their royal friends hung everywhere on the walls. The first Cecil raised to nobility, as Lord Burghley, was Elizabeth I’s trusted advisor and Chief Minister for most of her reign. Another Cecil served as Prime Minister multiple times under Queen Victoria.

One of the most interesting things about being a really old building is seeing the little signs of wear and tear– the steps in the staircase are hollowed from thousands of feet, and the oaken planking that serves as the flooring in the upper stories is a little uneven, and the house itself has sort of sagged and settled over the centuries, so that the floors in some chambers are no longer level.

All of the rooms open to visitors were quite impressive, but my favorite was the library. It was floor-to-ceiling books (10,000 of them, some of them dating back to the 1560′s), had a gorgeous view over the side garden (the docent was a dear and let me snap a photo of the knotwork hedges from the window, since you can’t really see the patterning from the ground level), and a really fascinating collection of original historical documents on display.

Among the highlights– several letters penned by Elizabeth I to William Cecil, a letter from her brother Edward to Henry VIII (in Latin, with lots of corrected bits), a deposition signed by Henry VIII regarding the annulment of his marriage to Anne of Cleves, and a letter written by Elizabeth when she was 15 to her sister, Queen Mary Tudor, denying that she was pregnant or living in scandalous circumstances.

Another cool display was downstairs in a long gallery called The Armoury. The suits of armor displayed there hadn’t been worn by any ancestors, though– they were Spanish, part of the booty awarded William Cecil after the defeat of the Spanish Armada in 1588.

And finally, a funny story about more recent happenings. The family was one of the first to have a telephone and electricy installed in the house, in 1881. However, the electic system was pretty dangerous, and the wiring in the Great Hall frequently burst into flames during dinner parties. According to the tour book, “the family members sitting beneath would nonchalantly throw up cushions to put the fire out and then go on with the conversation.”

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