There are magnificent oaks here in the greenwood: the Lion Oak is upwards of thirty feet round, and is a thousand years old. Here also is the oak under which the Princess Elizabeth was sitting when the messenger arrived in hot haste to tell her that she was Queen of England. That messenger met with a strange and sudden death some years afterwards, caused, it was supposed, by his eating figs at Lord Leicester's table; for what reason the figs were given we are not told.
The Bishop of Ely had a palace here, which, with the manor, was made over to Henry VIII.; but Hatfield had been, before that time, a royal residence occasionally, the second son of Edward III. being born here, William of Hatfield. During the latter part of the reign of Henry VIII. Prince Edward resided at Hatfield. From thence he was brought by his guardians to London on his accession to the crown, and placed in the palace of the Tower.
He must have had pleasant memories of Hatfield, for in the fourth year of his reign he bestowed it on his beloved sister Elizabeth. In the latter part of Mary's reign Elizabeth was imprisoned in the Tower, as we know, being charged with participation in Sir Thomas Wyat's rebellion. She was, however, released and permitted to retire to Hatfield under the guardianship of Sir Thomas Pope, the founder of Trinity College, Oxford. In 1557 Queen Mary paid her a visit at Hatfield, and was received with great state and festivity, and a child, we are told, sang to her, accompanied by Elizabeth on the virginals. But Mary was to pass away the next year, and under the grand old oak Elizabeth heard of her accession to the crown, and held her first Privy Council in Hatfield House.
The remains of this old palace are still to be seen on entering the place, and the brick entrance to the park seems of even an earlier date than the reign of Henry VIII.
A large portion of the old palace is used as stabling for other offices. In the north part of the building is the room where Elizabeth was kept, for some time, a state prisoner, till, it is said, at the request of Philip II., she was reconciled to her sister Sir Thomas Pope did his best to entertain her, giving a great display of rich masquings and pageants, according to the fashion of the times, in the great hall at Hatfield, and a banquet afterwards of sweet dishes, when the cupboard of the hall was garnished with rich gold and silver vessels, "alle at his own costes." The play of Holophernes was performed for Elizabeth's amusement the next day. A rumour of these gaieties, however, reaching Queen Mary, she wrote to Sir Thomas Pope, telling him that she disapproved of "such follies," and that disguisings must cease. This banqueting hall is now a stable. It has a wooden roof springing from grotesque corbel heads, and its windows are partly filled with stained glass.
When James I. ascended the throne, he exchanged Hatfield with Sir Robert Cecil for the palace of Theobalds, and Cecil (afterwards created Earl of Salisbury) commenced building the present house, which was finished in 1611. It is built of brick in the form of a half H. In the centre is a portico of nine arches and a lofty tower, on the front of which is the date, 1611; each of the two wings has two turrets with cupola roofs. By the north entrance we find ourselves in a spacious hall which leads to a very long gallery, open on one side by a trellis work to the lawn. Here is Queen Elizabeth's saddle, that was put on the white charger she rode at Tilbury; there are also arms of all kinds, some captured from the Armada.
The chambers in this wing have rather a sombre appearance, much of the furniture being of carved wood of James I.'s time. In this wing a fire broke out in 1835, in which the then Dowager Marchioness of Salisbury perished. The building has been well restored, and in the woodwork of the mantelpiece a gilt frame has been introduced, containing a portrait of this unfortunate lady when a girl
The grand staircase is very magnificent. It consists of flights with five landings, and occupies a space of thirtyfive feet by twenty-one feet. The balusters are beautifully caned and very massive. The upper part of the ceiling is enriched with a very beautiful pendant in the Florentine style. At the foot of the staircase is the door of the diningroom. This room is panelled throughout with oak, and has a highly decorative chimney-piece and ceiling. Adjoining it are the summer, breakfast and drawing-rooms, the remainder of this wing (the east) containing the private apartments which are magnificently furnished in perfect keeping with the house.
The view from these eastern rooms is very charming, the eye first falling on a noble terrace with an enriched balustrade; beyond are the brilliant flowers of the Elizabethan garden, and further the maze; then the park and its fine sheet of water, in which the glorious old trees are reflected, and on which glide the stateliest of swans. Another noble staircase communicates with the upper end of the great hall - the Marble Hall - which is fifty feet by thirty: The hall has three bay windows the whole height of the hall, and an oriel at the upper end, where stood the dais in the days of old. At the east end a massive carved screen runs the whole length of the hall, with a gallery of fine wood carving, amongst which are lions bearing emblazoned shields. The walls are lined above the oak panelling with splendid tapestry The ceiling is divided into ten compartments with the head of a Caesar in relief in each.
The first apartment entered on ascending the stairs is King James's room; it is very large, and lighted by three great oriel windows. The ceiling is beautifully decorated in the Italian style with pendants and much gilding. From it hang six chandeliers of King James's time. Over the high mantelpiece is a marble statue of James, and in the fire-place are massive silver fire-dogs. The furniture is the same that was used by James 1., and is finely carved and gilt and covered with crimson velvet. The bed furniture is of white satin. From this sumptuous chamber we enter a noble gallery, which runs the whole length of the southern front of the house to the library. This gallery is 160 feet long, panelled with oak, and with a fretted ceiling of gold and brilliant colours.
Of the two grand staircases one was restored after the fire in the west wing, but this one, leading to King James's room, is as old as the house, and the balusters are most exquisitely carved.
The library is a noble room of the same size as King James's It is rich in historical documents. Here are no less than 13,000 letters from the reign of Henry VIII. to that of James I., state papers extending through the great Lord Burleigh's administration, plans, maps, and charts from Henry VIII. to the present time, autograph letters of Elizabeth, her oak cradle, the pair of silk stockings presented to her by Sir Thomas Gresham, etc., etc.
The chapel is a perfect gem, highly decorated with an oaken gallery hung with Scriptural paintings.
The gardens of Hatfield have been famous ever since Charles II.'s reign, when Evelyn and Pepys described them.
There are a great number of very fine paintings at Hatfield, especially Zucchero's celebrated portrait of Queen Elizabeth.
In 1846 Hatfield was honoured by a visit from Queen Victoria and the Prince Consort, and the latter expressed afterwards in a letter great admiration of the wonderful wood carving with which the house is adorned.
Hatfield has been in the possession of the Cecils ever since Elizabeth's sagacious minister built it. Robert Cecil was created Earl of Salisbury by James I. in return for valuable services rendered to him in the last days of Elizabeth, and the earldom was raised to a marquisate by George III., in 1789.