/ The London Traveler
London — By Andrea Kirkby on June 5, 2010 at 3:58 am
Filed under: architecture, Art, palace, top-feature

Day out: Hatfield House

One of my favourite periods of English history is the time of Elizabeth I.  It was a time when Englishmen were exploring the world, when scientific discoveries were being made, when great drama and poetry were being written Рand when modern England was being born out of the husk of the Middle Ages.

Hatfield House - a superb vision of the English Renaissance

It was also a period when the strong traditions of English medieval art and architecture gained new life from an influx of Renaissance ideas from Italy and France.

One of the best places to get the measure of all these aspects of Elizabethan England is Hatfield House [map]. In fact, you get two houses for your entrance fee – the medieval royal palace of Hatfield, where Elizabeth spent much of her childhood and held her first Council of State on becoming queen, and the great Jacobean mansion, Hatfield House itself, built by the Earl of Salisbury in 1611. Not Elizabethan – she was nearly ten years in her grave by then – but showing the result of all the changes that had been made in her reign.

Both houses are in red brick (in fact the bricks from two demolished wings of the old palace were used to build the new house) – but there the similarity ends. Look at the windows; squat, square little two-light windows tucked in underneath the roof of the old palace, but huge expanses of glazing in the new house. Look at the roof line; a long, pitched roof on top of the old palace contrasts with the classical balustrade that tops the House. (The curly gables above it, though, show that the old traditions of northern Europe hadn’t been completely forgotten – despite the classical orders, the balustrade, the cupola, you couldn’t mistake this for a work of the Italian Renaissance.)

There’s a new showiness and confidence to Hatfield House. The old palace is solid, sturdy, reliable; the new house is splendid, strutting its Renaissance credentials as well as its patron’s wealth. Things had definitely changed between 1485 and 1611 – largely due to Elizabeth’s long and prosperous reign.

Robert Cecil, the First Earl of Salisbury, who created Hatfield House, was an interesting man; he served Elizabeth first, taking over from his father as her Secretary of State, and transferred to James I’s service on his accession in 1603. The Cecils were the great political dynasty of their time – and Hatfield’s splendour shows it; but they were also scholars and patrons of art.

One of the most interesting features of Hatfield House is that though it was built after Elizabeth’s death, it contains so many mementos of her – a pair of her gloves, portraits, her hat, her stockings – that you can almost feel her presence. And if you want to feel yourself really in the presence of history, you can sit under the oak tree where, according to legend, the young Elizabeth first heard that she had succeeded to the throne of England.

Incidental delights include the finest English tapestries of Cecil’s time, the ‘four seasons’; a marvellous¬† long gallery with a beautiful stucco ceiling covered in gold leaf; Flemish stained glass in the chapel, vividly coloured work of the seventeenth century; a two-story Great Hall with a fine oak ceiling of complex carpentry, and the original dining tables; and a marvelously carved grand staircase, which still has little gates at the bottom to stop the Earl’s hunting dogs from getting upstairs! Some great works of art, some curios and oddities – a typically English mix.

This is one of only a few English Renaissance buildings which can compare in architectural and artistic value with the great chateaux of the Loire – it reminds me most not of the great royal castles, but of the delightful, feminine spaces of Chenonceau, like Hatfield a mixture of traditional French gothic and imported Renaissance classicism.

There are fine gardens, too – though the apparently authentic ‘knot garden’ with its little box hedges in fact only dates back to 1984. Take a whole day, and you can wander in the thousand acre park; in spring, there are bluebells, in autumn, the vivid flames of dying leaves.

Hatfield remains relatively untouristy. (No waxworks, no Doctor Who exhibitions or dinosaurs or Disneyfication.) Yet it’s only 25 minutes from London, by train from Kings Cross, and the station is right opposite the entrance to the park – no need to take a taxi or wait ages for a bus.

The only downside is that at £10.50 for an adult ticket (£27.50 for a family ticket admitting two adults and up to four children), Hatfield will take a bite out of your holiday budget. So make it a proper day trip, and make it last!

Where: Hatfield House, Great North Road, Hatfield AL9 5NQ

When: 11 April – 30 September, Weds-Sun and bank holiday Mondays. House open 12-4, park open 11-530. Check the website to make sure the Old Palace is open – it’s often used for private functions.

Photo by Cybaea on flickr

Related places:
  1. A
    Hatfield House
    Hatfield Park, Hatfield, Hertfordshire AL9 5NQ, United Kingdom
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Tags: architecture, Art, palace, top-feature

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