History: Elizabeth’s prison and playground

PUBLISHED: 15:21 07 July 2015 | UPDATED: 15:21 07 July 2015

Rainbow portrait of Elizabeth I c1600 (attrib to Marcus Gheeraerts the Younger) at Hatfield House

Rainbow portrait of Elizabeth I c1600 (attrib to Marcus Gheeraerts the Younger) at Hatfield House


Elizabeth I could call Hertfordshire home. Raised here and a frequent visitor, the county played a key role in her life. On the 450th anniversary of her most scandalous summer progress to meet Dudley - her possible lover, Michael Long looks at her relationship with the county

Old Palace at HatfieldOld Palace at Hatfield

Adangerous world of political intrigue, threats from religious fanatics and assassination played out against a Hertfordshire backdrop – not the latest Hollywood blockbuster from Leavesden Studios but the 16th-century England of Elizabeth I. At critical times the Virgin Queen could escape from the capital to the county she knew well but could not always avoid the problems of her reign following her.

Early life

Hertfordshire was the county of Elizabeth’s childhood. She grew up in royal residences at Ashridge, Hunsdon and Hatfield as a princess, waited on by her half-sister Mary, then as Henry VIII’s illegitimate daughter after her mother Anne Boleyn was executed in 1536 and again as a princess following Henry’s Third Act of Succession, which restored Elizabeth’s place in the line to the throne.

The turbulence of her young life continued with the death of her father in 1547, and then that of her ruling half-brother Edward VI in 1553. The following year, she was arrested at the age of 20 at Ashridge under orders from her half-sister, a Catholic and now queen, accused of involvement with Protestant rebels. She was taken to the Tower, where she lived in fear of execution before being sent back to Hatfield under house arrest. There in 1558, sitting by an oak tree as the story goes, she learned that Mary had died and she was the new Queen of England.

Ancient oaks still exist on the estate, as do the kitchen and Great Hall, with its oak and chestnut vaulted roof, from the home Elizabeth knew, now known as the Old Palace, next door to the more imposing 17th-century Hatfield House.

The dramatic events of Elizabeth’s early life would set the tone for her future visits to the county; always there was a backdrop of turmoil intruding on the tranquillity and privacy she sought in the places she grew up. While she would go on to visit Hertfordshire some 58 times during her reign, residing in the country houses of her courtiers, hawking and hunting in the county’s numerous deer parks, she would never again stay at the site of her arrest by her half-sister – Ashridge. The remains of the former dissolved monastery where Elizabeth lived there are under the lawn of today’s Ashridge House, a 19th-century gothic revival stately home which is now a business school.

Love and progress

Elizabeth was very close to the son of the executed Duke of Northumberland, Robert Dudley. Upon becoming Queen, Elizabeth heaped rewards on Dudley, making him her Master of the Horse, which demanded his constant presence. Gossip at the Spanish court said he was her lover. On a royal progress, or tour of her courtiers’ estates, in 1564, she caused scandal by insisting Dudley had the bedroom next to hers. Elizabeth’s chief minister, William Cecil, who built a house at Theobalds, near Cheshunt, viewed Dudley as a potential suitor to Elizabeth. So concerned was Cecil that the Queen was thinking of marriage to Dudley that in 1566 he drafted reasons why she must not marry him.

Every summer, the Queen would leave the disease-ridden, stinking capital and transport her entire court on royal progresses, staying up to a month at the houses of country gentlemen. When she stayed at Theobalds, her stay could cost Cecil upwards of £3,000 each week (about £75,000 in today’s money). In excess of 250 ‘essential’ courtiers had to be provided for locally, with accommodation, entertain-ment and food. Little wonder that some members of the gentry did all they could to avoid a royal visit. Elizabeth expected to be lavishly entertained and Cecil and his rivals did not disappoint. She was quick to point out things that displeased her. After her first visit to Theobalds, Elizabeth commented that she found her room too small. Not a man for trifles, Cecil enlarged the whole house in pink brick and stone with impressive domed cupolas and gardens modelled on the royal palace at Fontainebleau, the whole exercise almost bankrupting him.

Despite the personal cost, men like Cecil and his great rival Dudley vied with each other to impress their Queen. We know that Elizabeth stayed at Theobalds on 13 separate occasions. Today, the only part remaining of Cecil’s magnificent house is a window, some 15 feet high, in a cottage in the grounds of Cedars Park near Cheshunt.

During Elizabeth’s reign, faction and rivalry was frequently played out in these country houses. When Elizabeth stayed with Sir Nicholas Bacon at Gorehambury near St Albans, she would ride out for hours in the deer park at Bedmond, the boundaries of which can still be traced today. Not that she was taken with Gorehambury. ‘You have made your house too little for your Lordship,’ she told Bacon, to which he replied, ‘No Madam. Your Highness has made me too big for the house.’ What little remains of his mansion is now an English Heritage site.

When, in 1571, Elizabeth visited Cecil at Theobalds, it was to a backdrop of assassination and the Ridolfi Plot, a Catholic conspiracy to put Mary Queen of Scots on the English throne. Cecil was travelling with Elizabeth on this royal progress and at Theobalds he directed the unravelling of the plot and the fate of the conspirators. It is easy to imagine the constant stream of horsemen speeding to and from London with despatches from Cecil.

Over her 70 years, Elizabeth had a conflicted relationship with Hertfordshire. Four hundred years ago, the grand houses of the county were witness to events that shaped our history. Today, those magnificent country homes are much reduced or in ruins, but their key place in the story of the Virgin Queen and our nation remains. n

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