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How the royal hunt shaped Hertfordshire

PUBLISHED: 10:54 20 May 2019

Henry VIII on a royal hunt (photo: De Luan / Alamy Stock Photo)

Henry VIII on a royal hunt (photo: De Luan / Alamy Stock Photo)

Credit: De Luan / Alamy Stock Photo

A new book looks at how Hertfordshire was a hunting and pleasure playground for kings over the centuries

Research for a major new book on the history of historic deer parks in Hertfordshire has revealed that several monarchs, Henry VIII and James I in particular, had a significant impact on the county; reshaping it to meet their needs and desires.

The exploits of Henry VIII proved to be of particular interest, not least the hunting holiday he undertook in the summer of 1530 during his courtship of Anne Boleyn. Nearly three years before she became queen, Anne accompanied the king and a handful of his favourite hunting companions as they spent a month travelling privately from place to place - most of which were in Hertfordshire. Henry's privy purse expenses include a series of payments to the keepers of the parks at Berkhamsted, Hertford (Hertingfordbury Park), Bedwell at Essendon, the three parks at Hunsdon, Pisho Park at Gilston and Moor Park at Rickmansworth. These payments strongly suggest that Henry and Anne spent time hunting deer in each of these.

1598 map of 'Hartford Shire' by John Norden shows the royal deer parks (photo: Courtesy of Gillmark Gallery)1598 map of 'Hartford Shire' by John Norden shows the royal deer parks (photo: Courtesy of Gillmark Gallery)

The king's party stayed at Hertford Castle, at Henry's new palace at Hunsdon and at The More, the moated house on the south bank of the Colne at Rickmansworth that had been recently enlarged by Cardinal Wolsey. It was at The More where the ill-fated Katherine of Aragon, Henry's queen for the previous 20 years, was to spend most of the following year in enforced retirement, as Anne rose to open prominence at the royal court.

Henry's favourite residence in the county was at Hunsdon where he spent nearly £3,000 from 1525 converting the splendid brick tower house into a sumptuous royal palace. The only known illustration of his palace can be found in the background of a portrait of the future Edward VI, Henry's son, painted in 1546 (the prince was in residence at Hunsdon from May to July 1546). The painting is in the Royal Collection Trust. Traces of the palace remain in the cellars beneath today's Hunsdon House.

Kings Pond at former Theobalds Park refills when the water table rises - it was a boating lake for James I and his son Charles I (photo: Anne Rowe / Herts Archives)Kings Pond at former Theobalds Park refills when the water table rises - it was a boating lake for James I and his son Charles I (photo: Anne Rowe / Herts Archives)

The deer park at Hunsdon was ancient when Henry rode there. Founded in the 14th century, it was in the early 16th that it was joined by two new parks to the south-east and south-west of the palace, as shown on the county map of 1598 by John Norden. Henry set about acquiring manors and deer parks around Hunsdon and soon held much of the land on the north bank of the Stort between Stanstead Abbotts and Pye Corner north of Harlow, as well as the manor and park of Roydon south of the river, creating a hunting empire which was administered as the Honour of Hunsdon. Surviving royal accounts record the construction of a series of earth dams across the valley of the Hunsdon Brook, creating four very large ponds in what became known as the Pond Park. Although the ponds were to be short-lived, the impressive dams still survive, their importance recognised when Historic England granted them scheduled monument status in 2018.

Physical evidence of another important royal hunting ground survives in the former Theobalds Park near Waltham Cross. Initially established by Elizabeth I's minister William Cecil (whose son would build Hatfield House in the deer park next to the Old Palace where Elizabeth and her siblings Edward and Mary grew up), as the setting for his splendid new house and gardens. The remains of the house can be seen in Cedars Park. The deer park at Theobalds extended south to the present M25. It was greatly expanded westwards by James I after he acquired the estate in 1607 and by 1623 it covered 2,600 acres and was being enclosed, at huge expense, by a brick wall, nine miles long.

Prince Edward painted in 1546, attributed to William Scrots. The foreground is the Queen's Drawing Room at Windsor Castle, the building in the distance, beyond a deer park, is Hunsdon House (photo: Wikimedia Commons)Prince Edward painted in 1546, attributed to William Scrots. The foreground is the Queen's Drawing Room at Windsor Castle, the building in the distance, beyond a deer park, is Hunsdon House (photo: Wikimedia Commons)

James is said to have spent half his reign at Theobalds, his favourite palace, hunting both red and fallow deer in the park. He died at Theobalds Palace in 1625 and his son was proclaimed Charles I at the gates. Such was the royal connection to Theobalds that after the execution of Charles in 1649, following the English Civil War, both the palace and the park at Theobalds were destroyed.

Hunting had not been the only recreation available to the Stuart kings in Theobalds Park; a square lake, enclosed by banks 100 metres long and known as the King's Pond, survived until very recently. Both James I and Charles I must have spent many happy hours on this pond in their ornamental barge, which was stored in a barge house in the care of the royal barge-keeper. Nowadays the pond is usually dry and is crossed by a pubic footpath bordered by iron railings. Only one of the four original banks survives today, marked by a line of trees and shrubs in the midst of an arable field.

The whole feature - a visible reminder of royal power and pleasure four centuries ago - is gradually disappearing from the landscape as the bed of the pond is ploughed each year and planted with crops. However, after long spells of wet weather, the water table rises and the royal pond magically reappears. It shows that if you know where to look, there are ghosts of kings and queens and the extraordinary times they lived in just under the surface of things.

Tudor and Early Stuart Parks of Hertfordshire by Anne Rowe is published by University of Hertfordshire Press, priced £18.99. It is published alongside a reprint of Medieval Parks of Hertfordshire by the same author.

Anne launched her books at the Hertfordshire Association for Local History spring meeting at Pirton Village Hall on May 18. See halh.org.uk for more.

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