Hatfield before Hatfield House, Part 2

Hatfield before Hatfield House –

the Park and Township at Hatfield

Part 1 of Hatfield before Hatfield House showed how Hatfield came to be held by the Abbey of Ely, from approx. 970 onwards.  In Part 2, we look at how the story continues after the Norman conquest.

The Doomsday Book of 1086 records one large estate at Hatfield[i] of 40 hides, of which half was woodland. This was large enough to pasture 2000 pigs – more than any other estate in the country. It was an extensive estate, including the now separate parishes of Lemsford and Handside (which was sold to Ebenezer Howard for the new Welwyn Garden City in 1919).  From north-west of Lemsford, it ran to beyond Newgate Street in the south-east.  The medieval demesne house, and the township itself, lay in the centre of the parish.  Given that a large part of the estate was woodland, it was probably only sparsely populated, with the population concentrated close to the manor house.

In 1109, Ely was elevated to a bishopric, and Hatfield was transferred to the bishops of Ely.  It was at this time that it became known as Bishop’s Hatfield (continued for instance in the name Bishop’s Hatfield Girls School ). By then building of the present cathedral had begun in Ely.

By 1222 the land had developed into a park.  The primary function of a medieval park was to rear and manage deer.  In the larger parks, their wealthy owners would enjoy some recreational hunting, but the smaller ones were more like venison farms.  They also provided timber. By leasing rights for grazing and pasturing pigs in woods (as was the case in Hatfield), they provided the owner with revenue.  The park at Hatfield was never used for recreational hunting, but professional hunting might have taken place.[ii]

The park also supplied clay suitable for pottery-making, there was a field called Clay Field,[iii] and several potteries on the estate are recorded.  For instance, remains of a brick-built pottery kiln was found in Batterdale Crescent, Old Hatfield.  Of course the land also continued to supply wood, some of which was used to make charcoal.

By 1251, the park had been divided into a Great Park and a smaller Middle (Millwards) Park. The Great Park extended to the south-east.  It is recorded as “one thousand acres”, which just meant “very large”.  It was actually 1,860 acres.  Here, the tenants had rights of common.  The Middle Park, of approx. 350 acres, was private.  By 1508, there was also a Little Park (or Innings Park), which included a rabbit warren and great oaks.  This park, as the later name Home Park indicates, was around the manor house.

Oaks from the park at Hatfield were used by William Wintringham, when he was commissioned to build a new chapel and houses, all made out of timber, at the castle at Hertford for John of Gaunt.   Wintringham had entered Gaunt’s service by 1373.  He was given the order for the work at Hertford Castle on 1 May 1380, it was to be finished by midsummer of 1383. For this job, he was to be paid £440, out of which he had to pay for labour.  On 27 April 1381 an order was given to cut 6 oaks at Hatfield, which had been donated by the bishop of Ely.  Of course, timber also came from other sources. The buildings have not survived, but an Elizabethan plan showing the buildings still exists.[iv]


The Great Park had several gates: a gate to the east, New Gate (from which the name of the settlement Newgate Street derives its name), Bell Bar was in the south and Hornbeamgate in the north.  Anyone travelling in a north-south direction along the medieval roads had to pass through these gates, as the Great North Road, which bypasses the park, was only laid out later.  At the gates, a toll was charged for all loaded carts and horses passing through.


There were four watermills at Hatfield, situated on the River Lea.  No remains of these medieval mills have been found, but it is assumed that they were in the same locations as the four later mills at Lemsford, Mill Green, Bush Mill Lane and the Cecil sawmill.  The last used to be a grain mill, it was only turned into a sawmill in 1884.  The mill at Mill Green is recorded as the manorial mill in 1277, undergoing repairs in 1358 and 1436.  The present buildings are a patchwork of various later dates.

The township of Hatfield

The Domesday Book says that in 1086, there were a parish priest, eighteen villeins, twelve cottages, and six serfs on the land of the abbot of Ely.[v] The township of Hatfield had developed next to the demesne house.  It got a boost in 1226, when the bishop of Ely was granted the right to hold an annual fair and a weekly market.  The old market place was in a rather cramped spot at the bottom of Fore Street and Church Street.  Fore Street, or Front Street, was the main road, while what now is Church Street was just called Back Street, as this was the rear access to the properties in Fore Street. Later a market house was built in the area of the market place.

The timber-framed houses at 40-42 Fore Street probably date from the 15th century.  (picture here) The houses in 7-11 Park Street were also built in the 15th century as one a timber-framed hall house, which was later subdivided.

The Church

The Church of St Ethedreda (named after the saint of Ely) stands at the other end of Fore Street, closer to the medieval manor.  This church was begun in the early 13th century.  However, as the Domesday Book mentions a priest, it seems likely that there had been an earlier church, even if nothing remains of it.  The chancel and the north and south transepts from the early 13th century are the earliest surviving parts.  Originally, the church was probably cruciform with a central tower.  This tower was destroyed in the 15th century and replaced with the present west tower.   Over time, chapels were added and the nave was rebuilt, but it still is a beautiful church.

Hatfield before Hatfield House, Part 2

St Ethelreda’s Church, Hatfield

The medieval rectory used to be in Old Rectory Drive.  There still is a large timber-framed house, which now has two storeys, but originally it was a hall open to the roof.  It also had a parlour, kitchen, bake-house, malt-house, oat barn and other outbuildings.

A parsonage had been in that spot for a long time, which was replaced by the present house sometime before 1534.  On 17 December 1534, James Nedeham was ordered by Cromwell to conduct a survey of the building, which resulted in repairs costing £90 3s. 4d.  Nedeham was by then the king’s clerk and surveyor of works, the first non-cleric appointed to the position.[vi]  The house was changed over time.  On the 19th century Ordnance Survey it is still marked as “The Rectory”, with a path connecting it to the Great North Road and the church.[vii] From 1947, it was used as a school, before Howe Dell School relocated to new premises in 2007.

This is where the rector lived in comfort.  There was also a house in Fore Street for the parish curates, lower down the social ladder than the rector.  That house from the late 16th to early 17th century had a hall, kitchen and buttery on the ground floor, three lodging-rooms above, and a vaulted cellar under the buttery.

My first exposure to Hertfordshire was as a German assistant at Onslow School (now Onslow St Audrey’s). This school is located in Old Rectory Drive, close to the old rectory, which at that time was still Howe Dell School.  And St Audrey is another form of St Æthelthryth, Ely’s saint.  Since then, the area has always held a special interest for me.

Hatfield before Hatfield House

Part 1: the Anglo-Saxons and Ely 
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] Rowe, A., pp.3-4

[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.287

[iv] Harvey, J., ‘Wintringham, William’, English Mediaeval Architects. A Biographical Dictionary down to 1550. B.T.Batsford Ltd, London, 1954, pp.297-8; Carlin, M., ‘Wintringham , William (d. 1390×92)’, Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, Oxford University Press, 2004; online edn, Jan 2008 [last accessed online 31 March 2016

[v] Quoted in: Curtin, J., ‘A Brief History of the Early Development of Hatfield c.700AD – 1500AD’, Our Hatfield (4 March 2011).  URL:  http://ourhatfield.org.uk/page.aspx?id=294 [last accessed 14 March 2016]

[vi] Harvey, J., ‘Nedeham, James’, op.cit., pp.189-193

[vii] ‘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]

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