It is almost the end of the Easter holidays here and, after just two days of sunshine last week, we have been waiting in vain for the sun to come out. Apparently it is going to be hot and sunny by the middle of next week, by which time children will be back at school. On Wednesday it was chilly and bleak but it wasn’t actually raining, which was close to a win as far as the weather is concerned at the moment so we travelled around London to Hatfield House, a Jacobean mansion built next to the Old Palace which was once home to Mary I, Elizabeth I and Edward VI. Completed in 1611, it was built by the King’s adviser, Robert Cecil (pronounced Sisil), 1st Earl of Salisbury who died before he could actually live there and it is still home to the 7th Marquess and Marchioness of Salisbury and their family. At Easter they open the doors for the Spring and Summer season and, as it’s somewhere my elder daughter has wanted to go for a long time, we decided to visit. My daughter decided to visit in Tudor costume, complete with French hood, which wasn’t as embarrassing as I had feared!
Hatfield is a large estate and these days has a lot to offer visitors. The price-tag is fairly hefty but it is a pay-once-return-all-year ticket which would be excellent if you lived semi-locally. There is a lot of park land, formal gardens, a farm with miniature train, an adventure playground and tennis courts (the original was played upon by Henry VIII!) as well as a restaurant and independent shops. The shops and restaurant are free to access and the farm and adventure playground can be visited at a much lower cost.
The House itself is impressive and very attractive. Originally approached by a long drive, it now has a huge water sculpture in front of it entitled ‘Renaissance.’ Created by Angela Conner it was commissioned by The Marquess and frames the entrance of the House. There is a lovely photograph of it on the House’s website but on the day we visited the gold ball visible in that image was missing and no sunshine bounced off its curves or sparkled in the water and I felt it seemed to obstruct rather than enhance the view of the House.
Once inside the entrance hall we purchased a copy of the guidebook at a very dear £8. If we are visiting somewhere that particularly interests us I usually invest in the guidebook because it often offers extra information and background context not displayed in the rooms; my daughter enjoys reading it properly later. This book, however, was rather a disappointment because, aside for a little bit of condensed history at the beginning, it really gives the same details provided on the room boards. We also bought a Horrible Histories: Hatfield House book for my younger daughter for £4 which, again, was rather steep for a 24 page booklet.
While we were sorting all this out we could glimpse the Marble Hall and a sight of the famous Rainbow portrait of Elizabeth I which was the thing my daughter was desperate to see. As we looked around the magnificent room she ‘left it til last’ because she was ‘saving it’! There was a lot else to admire in the the meantime: the chequered black and white marble floor, the elaborate classically-themed ceilings, portraits of the Cecils and Royalty and two village scenes by Hoefnagel. The Rainbow portrait is fabulous; dubbed with the motto ‘Non sine sole iris’ (no rainbow without the sun) it presents Elizabeth as a sort of Sun Queen ahead of Louis XIV, bringing (and controlling, holding) the rainbow after troubled times and, her robe detailed with tiny eyes and ears, acting as the all-seeing, all-hearing sovereign. Astonishingly, Elizabeth I was 67 when this portrait was painted so we couldn’t help but think maybe it was ‘touched up’ a little! Hatfield also has another portrait of the Virgin Queen: the Ermine portrait, depicting Her Majesty with a small, white ermine, a symbol of chastity, purity and knowledge. She is wearing a great deal of gold jewellery and embellishment on her dress which is thought to be partly because the painting is likely to be by Nicholas Hilliard who was a goldsmith as well as the court artist. Of course, the gold also emphasises the Queen’s royal status and actual wealth.
The house is full of other treasures to admire and objects of interest including an ingenious mosaic portrait in of Robert Cecil in the Library (the room which acted as the 19th century equivalent of 10 Downing Street during the Prime Minister-ship of Robert Gascoyne-Cecil, 3rd Marquess of Salisbury who, incidentally, apparently was the last Prime Minister of Britain to have a beard), gloves said to belong to Elizabeth I, a scroll showing Elizabeth I’s pedigree descending from the biblical Adam (by amazing coincidence it turns out she was descended from many great historical figures including Romulus and Remus, King Arthur, Julius Caesar and Noah…!) and some slightly stalker-ish relics of the Duke of Wellington, including a candle and a quill once used by him and collected by Mary, Marchioness of Salisbury who was a big fan of the big man.
The kitchens and chapel are also open to visitors. The kitchens are one of the few rooms which offer any sort of interactive experience which are now so commonplace in many such houses. Two screens allow visitors to learn more about the nineteenth century staff who lived and worked there and an old-fashioned telephone can be dialled to listen to recordings of memories of a lady who served as a maid in the 1920s. The chapel is beautiful and still holds services. The stained glass windows depicting scenes from the Old Testament and giving a correlating verse from the New Testament underneath are well worth seeing. Amazingly, the chapel narrowly escaped being destroyed by fire in 1835 when the heat from the fire melted leaden water tanks in the attic, sending a deluge of water pouring onto the flames at the same times as the wind changed direction and a heavy rain show commenced, extinguishing the fire. The west wing of the House was otherwise destroyed and, more sadly, Emily Cecil, 1st Marchioness of Salisbury, then eighty-five years old, died in the fire. It is believed the fire started when feathers in her hat caught light as she wrote letters at her desk.
We spent around an hour and a half in the house and then headed out for lunch. We didn’t try the restaurant, having brought our own lunch and, the weather being very chilly indeed, we ate this in the car before popping into the gift shop. During our later tour of the Old Palace the very knowledgeable guide told us that the word ‘tawdry’ is thought to come from a corruption of St. Audrey (the church next to the house being dedicated to St. Etheldreda, also known as Audrey), either because of the cheap and ‘tacky’ articles for sale at the fairs traditionally held on her Saint Day or because of the coarse, low quality scarf with which she humbly replaced her fine jewels. I have to say that ‘tawdry’ describes most of the items in the gift shop. I have rarely been into a gift shop that sold such an array of completely useless and undesirable items. If you actually gave me a free voucher to spend there I would have had trouble choosing. The selection of books was particularly disappointing; when one thinks of the vast quantities of excellent books published about the Tudor and Jacobean monarchs and era and about members of the Cecil family it is a great shame to find a couple of gift books and nothing of substance. Other businesses rent shop spaces in the courtyard and, while we didn’t visit any of them, the dog groomers and pottery painting seemed particularly popular.
For an extra £3 (children are free) one can have a guided tour of what remains of the Old Palace, the house in which the Tudor Prince and Princesses would actually have lived. Henry VIII used the palace as the home for his surviving children; here they were highly educated and were taught their Royal duties although, in turn, Mary and then Elizabeth fell from their father’s favour along with their unfortunate mothers and were almost entirely ignored by him. Robert Cecil pulled down three sides of the original, rather aged, house when he built the new mansion but the Great Hall remains. This is where Elizabeth I first addressed her advisors upon learning she had inherited the throne and where she made William Cecil her Secretary of State. The grounds also have an oak tree heralded by a memorial plaque as the the site where Elizabeth was reading her Bible when she was told that her sister, Mary I, was dead and that she was now Queen. The tree is rather paltry in size and stature for one that is meant to be well over 400 years old and, having seen it on television and in photographs, we didn’t make extra time to walk down the drive to find it, suspecting that the site itself is largely apocryphal (although we hope the story is true).
There is so much to see in the gardens and parkland that we just didn’t have time for. If it had been a lovely warm, sunny day we might have been tempted to throw traffic jam caution to the wind and stay later so we could enjoy it. But, even once my daughter had changed out of her flimsy Tudor costume, we were cold! We did make time to visit ‘Bloody Hollow’, the adventure playground, however, which was well worth enduring a few goosebumps for. (I don’t know why it’s called Bloody Hollow unless it is part of the rather annoying modern assumption that things, and especially history, is only interesting to children if it is somehow gory, gruesome or scary.) The playground has a huge model of Hatfield House for children to play in, rope bridges, a zip wire, other climbing frames and swings and a little wooden train to sit on. My children had a brilliant half an hour or so before we had to drive home.
It was a long journey home but we had a fantastic day out and, if we happen to be passing nearby in the coming year we will definitely be tempted to pop in and see the gardens, farm and park and perhaps revisit the Rainbow portrait!