The honeysuckle was flowering when we visited Hatfield House, white and gold against dark-red brick – Elizabeth’s colours, I thought happily to myself. Hatfield was Elizabeth I’s favourite house and childhood home, and I’d been excited to visit it for so long!
When I say ‘Hatfield House’ I’m being a little inexact – the only part that remains of the buildings where Elizabeth grew up is the Banqueting Hall, and this is now referred to as the Old Palace. It was built around 1485, with the remaining Banqueting Hall forming one side of a quadrangle as I understand it. Henry VIII acquired the house from the Bishop of Ely, its builder, in 1538, though he made ample use of the house before this. Baby Elizabeth was given Hatfield as her nursery after her birth in 1533, and her newly-illegitamized half-sister Mary sent to be her lady-in-waiting. But before too long Elizabeth’s mother Anne Boleyn was condemned to death and Elizabeth became illegitimate too. The future Edward VI, Henry’s new son by Jane Seymour, was also sent to Hatfield, and he and Elizabeth seem to have spent much of their childhood there. While Edward was King, he tried to give the manor to the Earl of Warwick but Elizabeth petitioned against this, and in 1550 Hatfield was granted to her. However, once her half-sister Queen Mary came to the throne, Elizabeth was less resident and more prisoner at Hatfield, though a prisoner amply and richly entertained, subject of marriage proposals and scandalous flirtations, in surroundings far preferable to her other accommodation in the Tower of London.
Visiting now, it is not hard to see why Elizabeth fought to keep the house. Hatfield, cradle and crucible of my favourite Queen, did not let me down. It is perhaps quite a simple building for a palace, but I think very beautiful.
A stone’s throw away is Hatfield House proper, a fine Jacobean stately home, all proud rectangles and preening twists of white brick. Elizabeth’s successor James swapped Hatfield with Robert Cecil for Cecil’s house Theobalds; Cecil demolished three-quarters of the Old Palace and made way for his own, new Hatfield. The inside is as impressive as the outside: a parade of elaborate rooms, elaborate ceilings and views of elaborate and sadly private gardens.
And – finest treasure of all as far as I’m concerned – the main house is home to two glorious portraits of Elizabeth I: the Rainbow portrait (quite possibly my favourite) and the Ermine portrait (a new contender). Come with me for a moment and be as excited as I was to stand in front of two pictures of this fierce, chimerical Queen. A Queen around whom the politics of secrecy and display twist so tightly that, even when looking into her eyes, we’re not sure if we’re looking the right face; representing so many things at once and eternally dripping with symbolism, just like her clothes; turning her eyes towards the world through her portraits and demanding your awestruck gaze in return.
Above: the ‘Rainbow portrait’, by Isaac Oliver c1600 (larger image here). This was painted only a few years before she died aged 69, so might not be quite true to life – Elizabeth controlled her public image even more carefully once she began to age, and it’s said that artists were given portraits of her as a young woman to copy. Youthful face aside, this painting is a beautiful web of symbols. With wildflowers on her dress, peals at her throat, a rainbow in her hand, eyes and ears on her cloak, and a serpent holding a heart on her sleeve, this is a magnificent jewelled codex of Elizabeth’s public identity: sublimely virginal, benevolently peaceful, fiercely watchful, her heart always controlled by her wisdom.
(Also, that hat says ‘I’m Queen’ like nothing else.)
Above: the ‘Ermine portrait’, by Nicholas Hilliard 1585 (larger image here). The ermine perched on her arm is a symbol of royalty – note the tiny crown-collar it wears. (This ermine has been fortunate – you might recognise from its fur that most were made into trimmings of regal capes.) Apparently black and white were Elizabeth’s favourite colours – all her other achievements aside, she knew how to dress for red hair.
Returning from the glamour of the main house to the Old Palace, it’s probably no surprise to you that I preferred standing outside its russet medieval brickwork. In that Tudor knotwork garden, warmed by stone the colour of cinnamon, I wanted to stay there forever. I got very caught up imagining Elizabeth growing up here, waiting to be Queen; studying Latin and Greek and teasing her suitors; eager for news and terrified of betrayal; her hair flashing the same colour as the bricks in the summer; falling from grace and then rising higher than ever.
p.s. I am grateful to this website’s catalogue of Elizabeth’s portraits.