History at Hatfield House

Andrew George explores the grand Jacobean stately home in Hertfordshire.

It isn’t just the east and western gardens, breathtaking though they are. Nor the complicated riddle that is the knot garden; nor the 18th century schoolroom, nor even the moving – in every sense of the word – water sculpture Renaissance by the Hepworth-trained Angela Connor which dominates the driveway to the front of the house.

No. It’s simply the house itself: Hatfield House, the jewel in Hertfordshire’s crown and the home since 1617 of a single family: the Cecils, or Burghleys who became the Salisburys.

The first notable Cecil – William – was the lifelong friend and adviser who served Elizabeth Tudor from her early teens through almost to her death in 1603. And it was his second son Robert who inherited his father’s job and fortune, finessed the change of throne and royal dynasty from Tudors to Stuarts when she died, and was to become the first Earl of Salisbury.

Three centuries on, a direct descendant, Robert, the third Marquess Salisbury, was Prime Minister when Victoria – another fabulously long-reigning queen – shuffled off her mortal coil in 1901. Throughout those intervening years the Salisburys have been threaded through the British establishment like coloured threads of wool through a jumper. The house where they still live is a fitting tribute to their influence and success.

But the house is saturated with the Tudors. Walk through its imposing reception room – the Marble Hall – and appreciate the Rainbow portrait of Elizabeth I, with its motto non sine sole iris (no rainbow without the sun). Then climb the beautifully carved staircase to first floor where you’ll find the room built to honour James I on one of his relatively few royal visits, and fittingly named after him.

Opposite his massive statue in the King James Room you can find the other great picture of Elizabeth, the Ermine Portrait, staring fixedly across at the man whose mother she’d had executed!

Take time out, then, to stroll the full 170 feet (50.2m) of the Long Gallery – which is precisely what it was built for: dry aristocratic meanderings on those oh so many less-than-sunny afternoons in summertime.

Two small points – the recorded tour guides are efficient, excellently put together, and are actually easy to work. And the numerous human guides all around the house really can and do answer some of the most arcane questions imaginable.

The gardens are exquisite, and I was fortunate enough to visit on an beautiful afternoon which only enhanced the landscape and architecture. Yet however vast the grounds, there is a pleasing intimacy about the individual aspects of the estate.

The restaurant is reasonably priced: first class without being pretentious. The gift shops and other facilities likewise. And for a small supplement you can have an excellently conducted tour of the remaining wing of the original palace, where the fifth and final Tudor monarch held her first council meeting back in that England where records show “there was a famine from great rains, bad and inconstant seasons, heat and long south winds.”

It was held under the same wooden rafters and beams that stare back at you now as you gaze at them, imagining the tense atmosphere, hearing and smelling the blazing fires behind you, and sensing William Cecil’s anxieties and concerns as the new queen announced he was to be her first secretary of state.

Little would he have known the size, scope and influence of the heritage of which he was then laying down the foundations.

Hatfield House has a full season of events, markets and entertainments. For folk enthusiasts Show of Hands are playing in July, with a lot Shakespeare, Wind in the Willows and much much more in August.