Built towards the end of the 15th century as a splendid palace for the Bishop of Ely, King Henry VIII later retained the property as a home for his two daughters Elizabeth and Mary. Hatfield Palace remained in Royal hands until 1603 when, in an extraordinary property exchange, James I took Robert Cecil's property near Waltham Cross and offered him Hatfield Palace. Not entirely happy with this arrangement, Robert, created first Earl of Salisbury, set about demolishing the old Tudor palace and began building the fine Jacobean mansion house that can be seen today.
As various generations of the Cecil family influenced Hatfield House, it has been transformed, restored, partly rebuilt after a fire, and finally brought back again to largely its original appearance. Constructed on an E-shape plan to commemorate the significance of Queen Elizabeth at Hatfield, the new house stands on slightly higher ground to the east of the original red-bricked palace. Not only was it Elizabeth's childhood home but it was principally because Robert's father, William Cecil, was a loyal servant to the Queen for over 40 years, that Hatfield became the Cecil's ancestral seat, albeit in a rather convoluted way.
Throughout four centuries Hatfield House became renowned as a social and political centre where numerous distinguished visitors were welcomed on business, and entertained for pleasure. During the time of the first Marquess of Salisbury, many visitors were rather unexpectedly entertained by the bizarre antics of the Marchioness. Considered somewhat eccentric, the Marchioness often left her guests quite bemused, if the countless stories of her outlandish behaviour are to be believed. Despite their flaws, and changing fortunes, the Cecils of Hatfield were noted also as great achievers, and this is reflected in the wonderful state of preservation that Hatfield House continues to enjoy.
Only a small part of Hatfield House is open to the public, but the areas that can be seen are quite exquisite. Based on the core of a traditional medieval building, the great hall is a lavishly embellished Jacobean adaptation of this huge meeting place, and is largely original. Equally as impressive are the armoury and the long gallery, which are both visually spectacular and house fascinating artefacts associated with Queen Elizabeth I. Having experienced the luxurious interiors of the later house, it is interesting to visit the remaining wing of the old palace.
Beautifully restored in the 20th century, the stunning brickwork patterns worked in the deep red tones of this building hold an aged skill and richness. Still in use today, the great Tudor banqueting hall is a remarkable survival from Elizabeth's time, and it was in this very hall that she held her first Council of State, following the death of her sister, Mary Tudor. At the back of the hall, the Elizabethan knot garden was carefully recreated in 1984 to complete just a small part of the overall picture of the time. Situated virtually on the edge of the A1, it is the perfect place to learn about Elizabethan history, because Hatfield was, essentially, where it all began.