Hatfield before Hatfield House, Part 1

Hatfield before Hatfield House –

the Anglo-Saxons and Ely

Today’s main attraction for a visit to Hatfield in Hertfordshire is Hatfield House.  This “modern” palace was built between 1608 and 1611 by Robert Cecil, 1st earl of Salisbury and chief minister to king James I.[i]  In the 17th century, Hatfield belonged to the crown, but James I was envious of Cecil’s Theobalds House, near Cheshunt, Herts.  He therefore offered several properties, including Hatfield, in exchange.  This being an offer he couldn’t refuse, Cecil agreed and made the best of it.  While Hatfield House is most impressive and certainly worth a visit, the manor of Hatfield has a much older history, which is often overlooked.  Therefore, this is the first of a series of posts dealing with Hatfield before Hatfield House.

Hatfield is situated on the Great North Road, which runs from north to south through it, and is crossed by the road from St Albans to Hertford (now the A 414).  When the Great North Road became one of the main coaching routes in post-medieval times, it was assembled from various bits of existing roads.  The Great North Road runs past the park, but in the middle ages its predecessors would have gone through it, past the manor house and down Fore Street. Today, the main traffic bypasses the town on the A1(M), but the Great North Road still exists as the A1000 which passes the present gate to the park of Hatfield House. A short stretch, between the roundabout and the station, has been streamlined in the last 100 years. In the 19th century, the London Road (as it is called on the map) actually went through Old Hatfield, while it now keeps close to the railway tracks. [ii]

The name Hatfield comes from hæþ and feld, meaning “heath-covered, open land.[iii]

It is highly likely that there was Roman activity in the area, given its location with St Albans (Verulamium) to the west and Welwyn with its Roman Baths, which were part of a substantial villa, to the north.  There are indications for a 2nd century building in Old Hatfield, between Park Street and the Great North Road. Recent archaeological work on the site of the Howe Dell School playing fields have shown clear evidence of Late Iron Age/Roman farming activity in the area.  A rubbish pit with parts of Roman pottery, brick and roof tile was also found. This led the researchers to suggest that there probably was a Roman villa nearby.[iv]  Nothing much is known about the early Saxon period.  Some sherds of pottery dating to somewhere in the period AD 400-750 were found, indicating that the land continued to be settled.

The Council of Hatfield

A possible first record of Hatfield occurs in an 8th century document.  In his Historia Ecclesiastica, Bede says that archbishop Theodore of Canterbury summoned a council of the English church at Hatfield.  The meeting took place on 17 September 679. There is, however, debate whether this is Hatfield in Hertfordshire or Hatfield Chase in Yorkshire. Theodore was by then 77 years old, which might be in favour of Hertfordshire, which was closer to Canterbury, but other indications speak for the one in Yorkshire.[v]

Ely and Hatfield

The Liber Eliensis[vi], a chronicle written at Ely Abbey in the 12th century, relates how Hatfield came to be in the possession of the abbey of Ely.  Around 970, king Edgar (943/4-975) gave 40 hides of land “in the district which is called Hatfield” to the monastery of Ely.  At that time the area was forest, so that “the brothers would be able to have timber from it for the building of the church”.  This land extended from the parish in an easterly direction to Newgate Street.

The monastery at Ely had first been founded two hundred years before, in 673, by St Æthelthryth (other forms of the name are Etheldreda and Audrey).  She was installed as abbess by Wilfred, bishop of York.  Initially it was a monastery for both nuns and monks.  She bestowed a huge estate of 600 hides on the monastery.  Æthelthryth was very strict in monastic discipline and Bede says that she “wore only woollen garments, seldom bathed except before the greater feasts, ate generally once a day, and was assiduous in the office and in prayer”.[vii]  I somehow do not want to think of the smell of those woollen garments worn by someone who doesn’t often take a bath.

Hatfield before Hatfield House, Part 1

St Æthelthryth

The monastery was destroyed by the Danes in 870, but eight priests returned.  They began repairing the church and soon a college of secular priests developed around it. About 100 years later, king Edgar, very impressed with the story of St Æthelthryth and her monastery, encouraged Æthelwold, bishop of Winchester, to restore the church and establish a convent of monks.

Bishop Æthelwold’s aim was to reintroduce monasticism into Anglo-Saxon England. Ely, as well as other houses, is a testimony to this movement.  It meant an end to women’s equality, the new monastery was men only, and the married secular clergy of the college also had to leave. Edgar gave the monks a charter and granted them various estates, of which the 40 hides of woodland at Hatfield was one.  It was portrayed that Edgar had inherited the land from his father-in-law, Ordgar, who had been a prominent landholder mainly in the south-west.  Ordgar’s daughter, Edgar’s queen, was also called Æthelthryth.  She is remembered as a great benefactress of Peterborough and Ely. She was also an important patron of bishop Æthelwold .[viii]

After Edgar’s death things got tricky for the monks of Ely.  While Edgar had encouraged Æthelwold’s endowment of monasteries, his eldest son by an unknown mother, Edward (the Martyr), was only 13 years old at the time of his succession.  This enabled his thegns, whose influence had been weakened by the large monastic foundations, to try to get their influence back.  In this environment, Æthelwine, earl of East Anglia, and his brothers claimed that the land had been acquired by their father in exchange for an inheritance in Devon, but king Edgar had deprived him of this land.  Their claim was accepted and they got their land back.

The monks, however, did not have any other land to supply them with the necessary timber. So they approached Æthelwine and his brothers and bought back the land in exchange for lands in Cambridgeshire.  By then Edward had been killed, just three years after becoming king. He was succeeded by his younger half-brother, Æthelred II (the Unready).  Æthelred, unlike Edward, was a son of Edgar’s wife Æthelthryth, who was a supporter of Æthelwold’s monastic establishments.  The new king was just 9 or 12 years old (his date of birth is not recorded), therefore the real power lay with his counsellors, including his mother and bishop Æthelwold.   After this affair, Æthelwine and the monks of Ely seem to have continued on better terms.  Æthelwine held from Ely the lease and lordship of a large estate in Suffolk, deemed to be the largest in lay hands.  He later founded Ramsey Abbey.[ix]

Hatfield before Hatfield House, Part 1

Ely Cathedral (in the 19th century)

The Abbey of Ely would become Ely Cathedral in 1109.  It held Hatfield roughly for the following 550 years until the Dissolution of the Monasteries.

Hatfield before Hatfield House

Part 2: the Park and Township at Hatfield
Part 3: the Medieval Manor of the Bishops of Ely
Part 4: the 15th century ‘Old Palace’


[i] Unless otherwise stated, the sources for this post are: ‘Parishes: Hatfield’, in A History of the County of Hertford: Volume 3, ed. William Page (London, 1912), pp. 91-111.  URL:  http://www.british-history.ac.uk/vch/herts/vol3/pp91-111 [last accessed 9 March 2016]; ‘Bishop’s Hatfield’, in An Inventory of the Historical Monuments in Hertfordshire (London, 1910), pp. 52-62. British History Online.  URL:   http://www.british-history.ac.uk/rchme/herts/pp52-62  [last accessed 22 March 2016]; Emery, A., ‘Hatfield Palace, Hertfordshire’, Greater Medieval Houses of England and Wales, 1300-1500: East Anglia, Central England, and Wales.  Cambridge University Press, 2000, pp 253-255;  Rowe, A., Medieval Parks of Hertfordshire.  University of Hertfordshire Press, Hatfield, 2009, pp.108-19; Thompson, I., ‘Hatfield’, Extensive Urban Survey, English Heritage (2005). Available at URL:  http://archaeologydataservice.ac.uk/archiveDS/archiveDownload?t=arch-436-1/dissemination/pdf/hatfield.pdf [last accessed 16 March 2016]

[ii] ‘Sheet 035’, in Map of Hertfordshire (Southampton, 1873-1885).  Available at British History Online URL:  http://www.british-history.ac.uk/os-1-to-10560/hertfordshire/035 [last accessed 21 March 2016]

[iii] Gover, J.E.B., Mawer, A. and Stenton, F.M., The Place Names of Hertfordshire. English Place-Name Society, Vol.XV. Cambridge University Press, 1938, p.126

[iv] ‘Roman Hatfield: They Came. They Saw. They Farmed!’, St Albans & Harpenden Review (2 Jan. 2013).  URL:  http://www.stalbansreview.co.uk/news/hatfield/hatfield_news/10135268.Roman_Hatfield__They_Came__They_Saw__They_Farmed_/ [last accessed 25 March 2016

[v] Lapidge, M., ‘Theodore of Tarsus [St Theodore of Tarsus] (602–690)’, Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, Oxford University Press, 2004 [last accessed online 19 March 2016; Tsorbatzoglou, P., ‘’St. Theodore, Archbishop of Canterbury, (668-690 AD). A Greek from Tarsus of Cilicia in England- Some Aspects of his Life’, Mediterranean Chronicle, Vol.2 (2012), p.96; Woolf, R., ‘Doctrinal Influences on The Dream of the Rood’, in: Art and Doctrine: Essays on Medieval Literature. Hambledon Press, 1986, p.33

[vi] Fairweather, J. (trans.), Liber Eliensis:  A History of the Isle of Ely from the Seventh Century to the Twelfth. Compiled by a Monk of Ely in the Twelfth Century. Boydell Press, 2005, pp.103-104

[vii] Thacker, A., ‘Æthelthryth (d. 679)’, Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, Oxford University Press, Oct 2009 [last accessed online 16 March 2016]

[viii] ‘Houses of Benedictine monks: Abbey and cathedral priory of Ely’, in A History of the County of Cambridge and the Isle of Ely: Volume 2, ed. L F Salzman (London, 1948), pp. 199-210.  URL:   http://www.british-history.ac.uk/vch/cambs/vol2/pp199-210 [last accessed 16 March 2016];  Lewis, C.P., ‘Ordgar (d. 971)’, Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, Oxford University Press, 2004 [last accessed online 14 March 2016; Stafford, P., ‘Ælfthryth (d. 999×1001)’, Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, Oxford University Press, 2004 [last accessed online 14 March 2016; Yorke, B., ‘Æthelwold (904×9–984)’, Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, Oxford University Press, 2004 [last accessed online 19 March 2016[

[ix] Hart, C., ‘Æthelwine (d. 992)’, Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, Oxford University Press, 2004; online edn, Oct 2005 [last accessed online 18 March 2016]; Hart, C., ‘Edward [St Edward; called Edward the Martyr] (c.962–978)’, Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, Oxford University Press, 2004; online edn, May 2007 [last accessed online 18 March 2016; Stenton, F.M., Anglo-Saxon England. Oxford University Press, 2001 (first published 1943), pp.372-3

2 thoughts on “Hatfield before Hatfield House, Part 1

  1. Pingback: Bede and “Herutford” | Dottie Tales

  2. Pingback: Hatfield The Five Minutes Spare Guide | Location Guides

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