Castle History

Hertford Castle Gatehouse is a Grade I listed building, originally built on the site of a Norman Castle situated by the River Lea in Hertford, the county town of Hertfordshire. This magnificent Grade I listed building dates from the mid 15th century situated in beautiful grounds at the heart of Hertford. 

The Castle was a Royal Palace for over 300 years where Queen Elizabeth I spent much of her childhood. Hertford Castle Gatehouse is all that remains of Hertford Castle. The impressive building is set in secluded grounds, hidden from view by the surrounding 12th century flint and stone wall.

The Gatehouse

The present building was constructed in three main stages

Close up picture of the castle's front entrance, with the stone lions either side of the white stone arch, through which you can see a wooden door

The tall central section was the main entrance into the Castle. Built for King Edward IV, it replaced an earlier stone gatehouse. 

Originally an open passageway ran through the building from front to back where the porch now stands. 

Edward IV’s royal coat of arms can be seen above the porch. The building consists of three storeys and a basement, and is a very important piece of early brickwork.

a black and white photo of the front of Hertford Castle which doesn't yet have the north wing

Late 1700s 

During the tenancy of the Marquess of Downshire, the section to the right (known as the South Wing) was added in an attempt to turn the gatehouse into a mansion. There was also an earlier North Wing, which was demolished in 1820.

The open passageway was closed to form an entrance hall with a porch. Inside the gatehouse the walls and ceilings were plastered over, which was fashionable for houses at this time.

A full shot of Hertford Castle with blue skies above it

The smaller section to the left (the later North Wing) was added to make an office for the Town Clerk. 

During repair work in 1967, a 15th century brick wall was found, hidden behind the 18th century plaster. 

The central section was then restored to show the original interior. The gatehouse is now a Listed Building.

The Castle In Norman Times

Across the river stands a large earthen mound known as a ‘Motte’. Built soon after 1066, the motte was the principal defensive point of the early Castle and is now the oldest surviving part. 

Originally it was probably topped by a strong wooden fence, then later by a large wooden tower, which may, in turn, have been replaced by a stone tower.

The motte protected the Castle. The living quarters were in the area to the right of the mound, known as the ‘Bailey’. 

Both motte and bailey were originally enclosed by moats fed from the River Lea.

The river still flows through the town and Castle site, forming an important habitat for water birds, voles and the occasional kingfisher. The motte is home to a range of wildlife. 

The grass is cut periodically to keep it safe and tidy and timed to benefit the wildflowers.

Drawings on this page are by Philip Sheall

A black and white drawing of the castle with the motte on the hill, the river Lea and the original castle with wooden fences
A model of Hertford castle depicting small timber framce houses inside the thick stone curtain wall and gatehouse.

Birds-eye View

A birds-eye view of the Castle as it might have looked in the reign of Edward IV (1461 – 1483).

This view shows the Castle defended by two moats, drawbridges, high stone walls and towers, the large earthen mound of ‘motte’, and the newly built gatehouse.

The Palace buildings can be seen in the centre of the site. These had been demolished by 1608.

A black and white drawing of the castle with the river Lea the moat, the gatehouse and the inner Bailey

Castle Lawn Buildings

A geophysical survey carried out in 1997 confirmed that when the castle was a royal residence, probably from late 12th century to late 16th century, this lawn was covered with buildings. 

A survey of 1327 tells us that the buildings included a bakehouse, a granary, a great chamber called the King’s Chamber with two chapels, a kitchen and lesser hall. 

The King (Edward III) had a great hall with two chimneys and two garderobes and there were numerous other chambers or quarters.

The gatehouse was originally built about 1170 and rebuilt 1463-5.

The motte eventually became a garden feature supporting a dove cote or summerhouse.

Model of the inner bailey of Hertford Castle including the gatehouse and the round tower, the flint curtain wall and the motte

The archaeological information was supplied by a geophysical survey commissioned by Dr. Partridge for the centenary celebrations of East Herts. Archaeological Society in 1998.

The gatehouse was originally built about 1170 and rebuilt 1463-1465. The motte eventually became a garden feature supporting a dovecote or summerhouse.

Reconstruction of Hertford Castle by Dr. Clive Partridge

Sketch of the castle layout, with the courtyard, the curtain wall, the gatehouse and the motte
Model representation of Hertford Castle, small orange buildings in the inner courtyard, surrounded by the flint curtain wall. The red brick gatehouse

A Brief History of Hertford Castle

Hertford Castle has seen many changes over the years and has played an important role in the country’s history. Some of the important dates and events connected with the Castle are listed below.

1066- 1067

The Normans built a Castle to control the river and the town, and to dominate the surrounding area.

1170- 1174

Henry II enlarged and strengthened the Castle as part of the defences of London, alongside such castles as Berkhamsted and Windsor. The existing stone wall was built, as well as the great hall which survived until the 17th century.


The Castle’s governor, Robert Fitz Walter, and a rebel army of barons, offered the English throne to the French Prince, Louis the Dauphin.


The French captured the Castle after a 25 day siege.


The French were defeated and the Castle returned to the English Crown.


The Castle became a Royal Palace. For the next three centuries down to the reign of Elizabeth I, it was regularly used by monarchs.


As a royal prison, it held King David II of Scotland and King John of France, both captured in battle. Their rich courts and servants were also here, and John spent £3850 in four months that he was imprisoned here, at a time when a labourer would only have earned about £3 a year!


The Castle was granted to John of Gaunt, the fourth son of Edward III.


John of Gaunt’s son, Henry, Duke of Lancaster, had the Castle taken from him by King Richard II. Later that year Richard was deposed and Henry became King Henry IV, regaining ownership of the Castle.


The present brick gatehouse was built for Edward IV. It is now used as council offices.

1564, 1582, 1592

The Palace buildings houses Parliament, law courts, and the Privy Councils due to plague in London.


By this time, the Palace buildings had been demolished and the gatehouse became a private house.


The Castle was granted to the Earl of Salisbury, whose descendants own it to this day.


The grounds were used for many things including fattening cattle for the London meat markets. Archaeological remains show that items such as combs, spoons and buttons were also made on the site. Later in the century the gatehouse was substantially extended by the Marquess of Downshire, brother in law of Lord Salisbury.


The gatehouse had many uses. It was the first home of the East India College (later to become Haileybury College) and also a medical dispensary for the poor, as well as being a private house for various tenants.


The Castle was leased to the Corporation of Hertford as offices and public gardens. The entrance from the Wash was built.