A fortnight ago I visited Hatfield House with a friend and made notes.
When visiting a stately home, personal items always make a great impression on me. In one of the display cases are Queen Elizabeth I’s straw garden hat which has an intricate pattern, a pair of her gloves and a pair of silk stockings, which are believed to be the first pair made of silk to be worn in England. In another display case I saw a small, round silver box labelled as King Charles II’s counter box. Such personal items bring historical personalities to life, and so did Queen Anne’s coronation chair. The chair is of particular interest to me because I researched Queen Anne’s life and times for my novel Tangled Love set in her reign. The chair is ornately carved and padded with red and white fabric. Unfortunately, because it is cordoned off, I could not examine it in detail.
Visits to houses such as Hatfield House are inspirational. When I tread not only in the footsteps of the famous, but also in those of their guests, relatives and servants, I imagine my characters in similar places.
From the grand rooms to the re-created Victorian kitchen and scullery and the grounds, which include a modern day organic garden, everything delights the visitor.
The history of Hatfield House stretches far back in time. The original manor was given by the Anglo Saxon King Edgar to the church of Ely. The old palace at Hatfield, a residence of the Bishop of Ely, was built between 1480 and 1497.
The bishop’s old palace, a quadrangle, was one of the first brick buildings. Today, only the banqueting hall or Great Hall, with its oak and chestnut roof and arched windows set high in the walls remains. (The bricks from the rest of the building were used to build Hatfield House.)
After the dissolution of the monasteries, Henry VIII appropriated the Bishop of Ely’s palace and used it as a residence for his children.
In my mind’s eye I can visualise Mary, daughter of Henry and his late brother’s wife, Katherine of Aragon, waving from the tower to her father Henry, when he rode past Hatfield house looking the other way after he divorced her mother.
At first Mary’s half sister, Elizabeth, lived a wretched life at Hatfield House after her mother, Anne Boleyn’s execution. At one time, she outgrew her clothes and new ones were not provided by her father. Fortunately, Henry VIII relented and her childhood and that of her younger brother Edward were happy.
The Lady Elizabeth, survived Protestant Edward and unpopular Roman Catholic Mary, but not without facing ‘trials and tribulations’.
Perhaps Hatfield House is best known for the occasion on which Protestant Elizabeth sat reading under an oak tree when she received the news that she had become queen. “It is the Lord’s doing” she said, “and it is marvellous in our eyes.”
There are two portraits of Queen Elizabeth I at Hatfield House, the famous rainbow portrait, in which she wears a gown embroidered with eyes and ears, which symbolise that she saw and heard everything in her kingdom. The other is the ermine portrait, named for the gold-crowned live ermine, a symbol of purity and virginity.
When I looked at the pale, inscrutable face of the queen in each portrait, I asked myself if, in spite of the many non fiction and fiction books and films about her, if anyone knows what Elizabeth the woman was really like.
James VI of Scotland and I of England succeeded to the throne and exchanged Hatfield Palace for Theobalds, the residence of his own and the late Queen Elizabeth’s first minister, William Cecil’s son Robert Cecil.
Small, sickly Robert had a crooked back and a passion for building. With bricks from three sides of Hatfield Palace he had Hatfield House built. No expense was spared to create the stately home which I and my friend enjoyed visiting.
Forthcoming releases from Muse Publishing
Tangled Love set in Queen Anne’s reign. 27.01.2012
Sunday’s Child set in the Regency era. June.2012