Hertford Castle’s Norman Motte and Bailey Castle was one of several that formed a ring of defence around London. The twelfth century fortifications and additional buildings at Hertford eventually provided a perfect ‘stop-over’ for royal progresses as they set out from London – a days ride away.
The accommodation for royal visitors was perhaps not in the class of a true royal palace but as the mind tends to link Kings and palaces the Castle came to be regarded as a minor palace and to occupy a small, but significant place in England’s history.
For about 300 years, from the end of the 13th Century to the end of the 16th Century the Castle and town of Hertford provided both royal and state lodgings. The credit for this must first go to Henry II who in 1170 had the curtain walls and the first gate house build followed by apartments including the King’s House, Great Hall and offices within the walls on today’s East Lawn.
The structures of Hertford Castle were thought to be timber framed with stone foundations. Although the Castle was equipped to cater for royal visitors from this time, for the next 100 years it was largely used to garrison knights and soldiers during the period of unrest and internal strife that the country was experiencing, including its 3 week capture by the French in 1216. King Henry III did manage brief visits to Hertford Castle from 1227-55 and sums of money were regularly spent on stores, repairs and additional buildings. In 1308 the famous 6 Knights Templar were prisoners for 4 months and King Edward II was there in 1310 and 1312. But it was Queen Isabella, his widow, who made the Castle her home for long periods between 1337 and 1358.
Queen Isabella established a court for herself and had a garden near her window from which she watched the growing plants in her declining years. It’s tempting to think that her apartments were in the house attached to the south side of the old Castle Gatehouse. Her son- in- law David, King of Scotland with wife Joan were prisoners at the Castle from 1346-57. By far, the most exotic period for both Castle and town began within a year of Isabella’s death when King John of France, captured in 1356, was brought as a prisoner for 4 months. He arrived in Hertford with 11 luggage wagons in April 1359 and at least 70 attendants to be accommodated either at the Castle or in the town. The next frequent occupier was John of Gaunt, the Duke of Lancaster. In 1361 he ordered repairs and retained the services of the gatekeeper John de Halstede.
Although Duke John’s second marriage took place in Bordeaux it is thought that he had a second ceremony at Hertford Castle in 1372. He certainly made many visits before his death in 1399.
Henry IV visited the Castle at various times between 1406 and 1413 and Henry V and Catherine de Valois in 1421. Catherine was widowed the following year and made Hertford Castle her home with her baby the future king Henry VI. In 1463 Edward IV rebuilt the gatehouse and included several large rooms where it is possible royal visitors were lodged. Henry VII and Elizabeth of York came in 1489 and 1498. Henry VII, famous for ordering new palaces is said to have built the half-moon tower in the South East angle, of the curtain wall. The tower was converted to a school in the 18th century. Princesses Mary and Elizabeth were in residence in the 1530s, and along with their father, Henry, in the early ‘40s. Princess Elizabeth’s prayer book, which is now part of the royal collection at the British Library, was written by her at Hertford Castle in 1545. Following Henry VIII’s death Princess Elizabeth continued to visit the Castle and in 1561, when she was queen, one of her visits lasted 16 days.
In 1582 a room was set aside for the Star Chamber, which is believed to be today’s Robing Room. The Star Chamber was a court of law – the provisions mentioned in the original p.8 were ordered for the consumption of court officials. (photograph of the Robing Room 2014)
In 1589 Elizabeth granted the borough a charter confirming the weekly market on a Saturday which still takes place weekly to this day. The survey of Hertford Castle which was done in 1609 lists walls, a gatehouse, a brick tower and 3 houses without the walls. Continual use by state officials in the later 16th century had taken its toll upon the buildings within the walls. They were beyond repair and were demolished and the materials sold to local builders. King James I had leased the Castle Gatehouse and the land to various nobles in trust for his son Prince Charles who inherited it in 1625 and sold it to Lord Salisbury in 1628 and this is where Hertford Castle’s ownership has remained.
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