Hunsdon House

Hunsdon House – 

One of the most important medieval houses in Hertfordshire

A few years ago, an attempt to find traces of Richard III’s family in Hertfordshire led me to Hunsdon.  This is a small village in the south-east of Hertfordshire, near the border to Essex.  The former manor house, Hunsdon House, is situated to the south of the actual village, next to the church of St Dunstan (find it on a map here).

Hunsdon House

A glimpse of the present-day Hunsdon House


Before the Norman conquest, Hunsdon was held by Lewin, a thegn of Earl Harold.  In the Domesday Survey, Hunsdon was part of the barony of the Beauchamps, when Hugh de Beauchamp had succeeded Ralph Taillebois to estates both in Hertfordshire and Bedfordshire.  Taillebois had after the conquest held a lot of land, which also included for a short time the manor of Ware, but he had died earlier in 1086.[i]  Therefore the Domesday Book lists the manor of Hunsdon as the property of his daughter.  It does not give the name of this daughter, but most likely it was Matilda, who was married to Hugh de Beauchamp[ii], which explains how the estates came to the Beauchamp family.  At the time, in Hunsdon lived “4 villeins with a priest and a Frenchman and 8 bordars … 2 cottars and 3 serfs”. There was a mill and the total value was 70 shillings.[iii]

The Beauchamp estates went in 1265 by marriage to the Mowbrays.  Eventually, they were part of the inheritance of Anne Mowbray, the child-bride of Edward IV’s younger son Richard, who inherited her properties after her early death at 9 years of age.  Richard was the younger of the so-called “princes in the Tower” and we don’t know what happened to him, and so all the properties fell to the crown.

The Under-tenants of Hunsdon

The first record of an under-tenant of Hunsdon is from 1248, when a Vitalis Engayne died.[iv]  He held the manor of William Beauchamp. The next record is of his son and heir Henry, who received the grant of a free warren in his lands on 18 March 1253.[v]  After Henry’s death in 1271, the land was inherited by his brother, John.

It is generally assumed that a park was established after the grant of the free warren.  The first record of it is from 1296, when some persons entered the park illegally, “hunted therein, and carried away deer”.[vi]  However, due to later changes and additions, it is not known how large this park was.  It appears likely though that the medieval park was the one referred to as the “old park” in the 16th century, which was situated to the east and south-east of the today’s village.

John Engayne died shortly after this incident.  The land was then passed through four further generations of his family.  The last one, a Thomas Engayne died childless in 1367/8 and Hunsdon was inherited by his sister Joyce, who was married to John Goldington.   Their grandson Thomas also died childless.  His heir, John Hinxworth of Ashwell, released Hunsdon to John Tyrell and others in 1423.

John Tyrell[vii] had links to Humphrey, duke of Gloucester, who had helped him in his career.  The high point was when, in 1427, Humphrey secured him the position of steward of Clare and Thaxted, during the minority of Richard, duke of York.  This meant for John the beginning of a lasting connection to the duke of York.  He later became the duke’s receiver-general.  This John Tyrell, who died in 1437, was the grandfather of James Tyrell, who according to Sir Thomas More’s imaginative The History of King Richard III was the murderer of the two sons of Edward IV.  It is highly questionable whether he did the dirty deed (if it happened at all), but it shows the long-standing relations of the Tyrell family to the family of the duke of York.

The duke of York’s manor

By autumn 1446, Hunsdon had somehow come into the possession of Richard, duke of York[viii] himself, when he had just returned from his second tour of duty in France.  The descent is not quite clear nor do we know how and why he acquired it.  For a short while, he showed a lot of enthusiasm for this new project.  He obtained permission to extend the park at Hunsdon, along the southern boundary of the original park, where he had the permission to

inclose a way (100 virgates long and 16 ft. wide) called Jermynslane leading from Eastwick to Hunsdon, in his park of Hunsdon, making another road on the south of the park.[ix]

Within this park, he started building a new manor house. There might have been an earlier building, though no traces have been found.  On 5 March 1446, the Duke of York was granted for 5 years the required craftsmen: “twelve masons, makers and layers of ‘bryke’, twenty carpenters and makers of stakes and forty labourers … in his works in Hertfordshire”.[x]

On 26 May 1447, he obtained a licence to crenelate a stone tower:

Licence … to build within the manor of Honesdon, co. Hertford, a tower of stones with lime and sand, and to embattle the same, and to hold the manor and tower to him, his heirs and assigns.[xi]

On 5 May 1446, during the time of the Duke of York’s ownership of Hunsdon, his seventh child and fourth daughter, Margaret of York, was born.  There is conflicting evidence for her birthplace, both Fotheringhay Castle (Northamptonshire) and Waltham Abbey are mentioned.  However, the Annals of Waltham Abbey, which survive for the relevant years 1445-1447, do not mention a visit by Cecily, duchess of York, nor the birth of her child during this period.  This led Christine Weightman in her biography of Margaret of York to speculate, whether she might not have been born at Hunsdon instead.[xii]

Unlike her brothers Edward IV and Richard III, Margaret showed a life-long attachment to this manor, because she requested it as one of only two properties in England (the other being Scarborough) of her ‘nephew’, Richard of York/Perkin Warbeck, before his attempted invasion of England and he promised to grant it to her when he had secured his throne.[xiii]

A new owner

This attachment is remarkable as her father did not hold Hunsdon for long, in spite of his rather vigorous start in building a new house.  In late 1447 or early 1448, he sold Hunsdon to his chamberlain, Sir William Oldhall,[xiv] who is known to have been in possession by February 1448.  The reasons for this sale are not quite clear and various suggestions have been made.  It might have had something to do with the fact that in October 1446 the Duke of York was granted the abbey and town of Waltham because he “will come often to London for the king’s business and his own”.[xv] Waltham (or Waltham Abbey as it is called today) is approx. 15 km closer to London than Hunsdon and might have proved to be an easier commute.[xvi]

Another reason might have been a need for ready cash as several of the duke’s properties in Hertfordshire were sold around this time to Oldhall.[xvii]    Or it might have been political circumstances[xviii], as at the same time (30 July 1447) he was appointed lieutenant of Ireland, though he only left two years later.

Oldhall clearly had a great interest in the area, for he bought at about the same time the neighbouring manor of Eastwick from someone else.  From then, the two manors were combined for the following 200 years.

The tower at Hunsdon, while started by the duke of York, was probably completed by Oldhall.  William Worcester attributed the whole work to him in 1478 (a mistake which found its way into a variety of modern sources).  Though, given that the duke of York only held Hunsdon for two years or so, it seems likely that most of the building work was carried out by Oldhall.

The castle must have been very luxurious and was described by Worcester as being in the Flemish style (ie. brick).  This goes back to the duke of York’s original plans as he was granted “makers and layers of ‘bryke’”.[xix]  It was one of the earliest examples of a large brick-built solar tower.[xx]  Houses like these helped to establish brick as a fashionable building material. A fashion which was later supported by Bishop Morton, for instance at the Old Palace at Hatfield.

Hunsdon can be regarded as one “of the most important medieval houses in the county”.[xxi]   It seems likely that the design would have been similar to the tower built by Ralph, lord Cromwell (one of the Duke of York’s councillors), at Tattershall in Lincolnshire. A description of what the place would have looked like in the 15th century can be found in John Goodall’s The English Castle:

The tower stood on a small plot of land enclosed by a moat and low walls with small angle turrets.  To the east and west it was approached over a short, brick bridge.  From the surviving remains it is clear that the building was cruciform in plan with angle buttresses.  Those buttresses that survive are of triangular construction and decorated with diaper designs ingeniously laid to run uninterrupted around the angles.  From the evidence of one surviving window frame and several ornately carved arrow loops it is clear that the structure was detailed throughout in stone.  The most reliable witness to the original form of the tower is William Worcester, who implies that it comprised a complete suite of domestic apartments.  In the 1480s he wrote of it:  ‘The height of the said tower with the upper storey called “an oriole” with windows and gilded vanes, is said to be more than a hundred feet from the base of the said tower.  Also the length of the great hall of the said tower is 80 feet and its breadth 24 feet.’  This description perhaps suggests a tower in which – as at Tattershall – each floor was more richly treated in architectural terms that the last.  The oriel was presumably intended to offer splendid views over the surrounding landscape.[xxii]

Oldhall held the manor of Hunsdon – with interruptions – through the ups and downs of his political career, which was closely linked to that of Duke of York. At one stage (13 December 1452), when Hunsdon along with his other manors was forfeited to the king for treason (Oldhall was suspected of having been in involved in the Jack Cade Rebellion and York’s influence had experienced a downturn), all his “goods and chattels [and] stones called ‘brike’” at Hunsdon and Eastwick were granted to Walter Burgh.[xxiii] Whether any bricks were removed or not, is not known.  After the first battle of St Albans, the decision was reversed and Oldhall got his manors back.

In royal hands

Oldhall died between 17 and 20 November 1460 in London.  His only daughter had probably predeceased him.  Eventually, the Duke of York’s son, Edward IV, bought the manor from Oldhall’s executors in 1471 for only 2,000 marks, which might indicate that the major part of the 7,000 marks construction costs had come from the duke of York in the first place.  Weightman suggests that Edward was paying of the remainder of a mortgage. [xxiv]

Whether Edward ever used Hunsdon himself and how much interest he had in it, is not known.  There is a record from 4 July 1476, when John Elryngton, treasurer of Edward IV’s household, was appointed as keeper of the park, bailiff of the lordship and the manor as well as keeper of the manor of Hunsdon.  However, given Elryngton’s responsibilities at court, this seems to have been more a means to provide him with an income.[xxv]  John Elryngton continued in the service of Richard III but had died by August 1484.[xxvi]

From Edward IV, Hunsdon passed on to Richard III, who granted it to Sir William Stanley.  Stanley managed to hold on to it through the political changes after Bosworth by claiming that he had obtained it in exchange for other properties, though there is no evidence that this was indeed the case.  Stanley was executed in 1495, incidentally because of his involvement in the Perkin Warbeck/Richard of York affair.   It then reverted to the Crown, but Henry VII wasn’t interested in using it and granted it in 1503 to his mother (and William Stanley’s sister-in-law), Margaret Beaufort.

Margaret died in 1509.  Five years later, the house – though not the park – was granted to Thomas Howard[xxvii] (who had fought with his father, John Howard, for Richard III at Bosworth).  It was part of a grant of 30 manors altogether, on his creation as duke of Norfolk after winning the battle of Flodden.  Henry VIII kept the park for hunting for himself.  Thomas Howard died in 1524 and his son – another Thomas – inherited it.  He and his family spent their winters in Hunsdon.

Henry VIII’s make-over

However, this did not last long, and in 1526, both the house and the park were again in the hands of Henry VIII, though the exact legalities are a bit confusing.  It was one of Henry’s favourite residences, no doubt due to its park, as he liked hunting. In August 1532, Stephen Gardiner wrote to Wolsey from Hunsdon that he had been “hunting from morn till night by the king’s commandment”.[xxviii]  Clearly, Gardiner felt quite exhausted by his king’s commands.

It seems that Henry developed two more deer parks in Hunsdon.  In 1529, there is reference to three parks:  the “old park” (probably the original 13th-century park, with the additions by Richard, duke of York), the “new park” and “Goodmanshyde park”.  Rowe thinks that the two latter ones were probably established between 1526 and 1529.[xxix]  Again, the exact location of these new parks is not known, nor is anything known what the land had been used for previously.

Henry VIII clearly thought Oldhall’s luxurious retreat so old-fashioned and undertook costly improvements. The medieval building was changed significantly and extensions were added. It appears that additional wings extended over the old moat.[xxx]   During an archaeological dig in 1993 fragments were found which might suggest that Henry’s buildings were built around an open courtyard.  However, the evidence is not clear.  Alternatively, the remains could relate to a garden layout from approx. 1700.[xxxi]  In 1537, Henry also had mews built for his hawks.

During an outbreak of the sweating sickness in London in 1528, the king escaped to the relative safety of the Hertfordshire countryside in Hunsdon.   The manor was an important residence for Henry’s children, who all spent some time here. A portrait of Prince Edward from 1546 shows the house with the church next to it in the background.

Hunsdon House

Edward VI, c.1546. Hunsdon House is in the top left-hand corner.

Hunsdon House

Detail of Hunsdon House

After her accession, Elizabeth I created her cousin Sir Henry Carey[xxxii] (son of Anne Boleyn’s sister Mary) 1st baron Hunsdon, on 13 January 1559.  He was given a ”large grant of land, including the manor of Hunsdon, with £4,000 to maintain his rank”. As Carey was in his childhood “of the King’s Household”, he might have spent some of his youth at Hunsdon as well. [xxxiii]

18th and 19th-century changes

From then on Hunsdon was in private hands.  In 1745, Josias Nicholson, a brewer from Clapham, bought the house, but didn’t live to enjoy is for long.  He and his grandson and heir Nicolson Calvert pulled down the wings and filled in the moat.[xxxiv]

The biggest changes came in the early 19th century.  The house was settled on Nicolson Calvert’s son, also Nicolson,[xxxv] on his marriage.  The young couple settled there in 1801.  They appointed William Leach with the building work, who demolished a great part of the old house and reconstructed most of what remained.    Mrs Calvert, who is generally seen as the driving force behind the building work, proudly reported in 1806 that “there is hardly a bit of old Hunsdon House left standing . . . it will be nearly a new house.”[xxxvi] The work was concluded in 1818, though the stableyard, replacing an earlier one, only dates from the 1830s. After the Calverts’ enthusiasm, the house fell into disrepair.  In approx. 1860 it was again renovated and Victorian elements added.

Some remnants of the older building could still be found though.  During repairs in 1983, some of the 15th century brickwork was revealed.  In the south garden, a vaulted chamber with a brick and red tile floor with a well in the corner was discovered.  This seems to be remains of the building erected by the duke of York and Sir William Oldham.  The present house is much smaller than it was in Henry VIII’s time and is thought to be based on one of the wings of the Tudor building.[xxxvii]

Unfortunately, it is difficult to catch a glimpse of Hunsdon House from the road or from the adjacent St Dunstan’s church yard, as high hedges protect the privacy of its present owners.  When I visited, I parked next to the St Dunstan’s Church.  The church was locked, probably due to its isolated locations.  This was a pity, as Sir William Oldhall also had great influence on the church.

Church of St Dunstan

As the Domesday Survey lists a priest in Hunsdon, it is probable that there was a church.  However, the present Church of St Dunstan[xxxviii] goes only back to the early 14th century, when it was an unaisled church of flint rubble with stone dressings and red tile roofs. The west tower, spire and the timber north porch were added in the early 15th century, possibly when John Tyrell came to Hunsdon.

Hunsdon House

St Dunstan’s, Hunsdon

When Sir William Oldhall was building Hunsdon House, he also renovated the church next door, re-roofed it and added the west chapel and the eastern part of the chancel, which – like the house – is built in brick.  He is commemorated by his device in the eastern chancel window.  The north and south windows of the chancel contain some fragments of 15th-century glass with Yorkist roses and fetterlocks.

The continuing importance of Hunsdon as a deer park is shown by the brass in the nave to James Gray, a park-keeper, who died in 1591. The figures represent a hunter who has just shot an arrow into a stag, being himself killed by an arrow in the hand of Death, represented by a skeleton.[xxxix]

There is also an alabaster monument to John Carey, third baron Hunsdon (son of Henry Carey) and his wife.  John died at Hunsdon in 1617 and was buried there, as was his wife when she died 10 years later.

Even if Hunsdon was held by Richard, duke of York, for only a very short time, the connections of this place to his family are strong.  It’s a pity that not more of this part in the history of both the house and church is on show for the occasional visitor.

Sources and further reading:

Emery, A., Greater Medieval Houses of England and Wales, Volume II:  East Anglia, Central England and Wales.  Cambridge University Press, 2000, p.259

Goodall, J., The English Castle: 1066-1650.  Paul Mellon Centre BA, 2011, p.356

Pevsner, N., Hertfordshire (2nd edition revised by Bridget Cherry). Yale University Press, 2003, pp.210-212

Rowe, A., ‘Hunsdon’, Medieval Parks of Hertfordshire.  University of Hertfordshire Press, Hatfield, 2009, pp.136-141

‘Parishes: Hunsdon’, in: A History of the County of Hertford, Volume 3, ed. by William Page. London, 1912, pp. 323-332. Available at British History Online, URL: [last accessed 14 Feb. 2017].

‘Hunsdon House, Hunsdon; Hertfordshire HER & St Albans UAD’, Heritage Gateway.  [last accessed online 20 Feb. 2017]


[i] Keats-Rohan, K.S.B., Domesday People:  A Prosopography of Persons Occurring in English Documents 1066-1166.  Vol. I Domesday Book.  The Boydell Press, 1999, p.283

[ii] Faulkner, K., ‘Beauchamp, de, family (per. c.1080–c.1265)’, Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, Oxford University Press, 2004.  [accessed online 14 Feb. 2017]

[iii] ‘Text of the Hertfordshire Domesday’, in: A History of the County of Hertford, Vol. 1, ed, by William Page.  Westminster, 1902, p.344

[iv] ‘Inquisitions Post Mortem, Henry III, File 9’, in: Calendar of Inquisitions Post Mortem, Vol. 1, Henry III, ed. J E E S Sharp. London, 1904, pp. 41-46. Available online at British History Online, URL:  [last accessed 24 Feb. 2017]

[v] Calendar of the Charter Rolls Preserved in the Public Record Office, Vol. 1.  London, 1903, p.423.  Available online at URL: [last accessed 24 Feb. 2017]

[vi] Calendar of Patent Rolls Edward I (1292-1301), p.220.  Available online at URL:;view=1up;seq=232 [last accessed 20 Feb. 2017]

[vii] Horrox, R., ‘Tyrell family (per. c.1304–c.1510)’, Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, Oxford University Press, 2004; online edn, Jan 2008 [last accessed online 14 Feb. 2017]

[viii] For biographical information on Richard, duke of York:  Watts, J., ‘Richard of York, third duke of York (1411–1460)’, Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, Oxford University Press, 2004, online edn, May 2011 [last accessed online 14 Feb. 2017]

[ix] Inq. a.q.d. file 450, no. 32, quoted in ‘Parishes: Hunsdon’

[x] Calendar of Patent Rolls Henry VI (1441-1446), Vol. 4, pp.402-403.  Available online at URL: and [last accessed 14 Feb. 2017]

[xi] Calendar of Patent Rolls Henry VI (1446-52), Vol. 5, p.77.  Available online at URL: [last accessed 14 Feb. 2017]

[xii] Weightman, C., Margaret of York:  The Diabolical Duchess.  Amberley Publishing, Chalford, 2009, p.38

[xiii] Ibid.

[xiv] For biographical information on Sir William Oldhall:  Curry, A., ‘Oldhall, Sir William (d. 1460)’, Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, Oxford University Press, 2004; online edn, Jan 2008 [last accessed online 14 Feb. 2017]

[xv] Calendar of Patent Rolls, Henry VI (1446-1452), Vol.5, p.43.   Available online at URL: [last accessed 14 Feb. 2017]

[xvi] Rowe, p.136

[xvii] Weightman, op.cit.

[xviii] Goodall, p. 356

[xix] See note 10

[xx] Kennett, D.H., ‘Thomas Rotherham, a Fifteenth-Century Bishop and Builder in Brick: a preliminary note’, British Brick Society – Information, Issue 112 (April 2010), p.6

[xxi] British Listed Buildings: ‘Hunsdon House to East of Parish Church, Hunsdon’.  URL: [last accessed 19 Feb 2017]

[xxii] Goodall, op.cit;, quoting William Worcester, ed. Harvey, pp.50-51

[xxiii] Calendar of Patent Rolls, Henry VI (1452-61), Vol.6, p.34.   Available online at URL:;view=1up;seq=46 [last accessed 21 Feb. 2017]

[xxiv] Weightman, p.221 n.13

[xxv] Calendar of Patent Rolls, Edward IV, Henry VI (1467-77), p.569.   Available online at URL:;view=1up;seq=608 [last accessed 22 Feb. 2017]

[xxvi] Calendar of Patent Rolls, Edward IV, Edward V, Richard IIII (1476-85), p.515.   Available online at URL:;view=1up;seq=527 [last accessed 23 Feb. 2017]

[xxvii] For biographical information on Thomas Howard:  David M. Head, ‘Howard, Thomas, second duke of Norfolk (1443–1524)’, Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, Oxford University Press, 2004; online edn, Sept 2012 [last accessed online 25 Feb. 2017]

[xxviii] Letters & Papers Henry VIII, iv, 5831, quoted in ‘Parishes: Hunsdon’

[xxix] Rowe, p.136

[xxx] ‘Moated Site of Hunsdon House, Hunsdon; Hertfordshire HER & St Albans UAD’, Heritage Gateway [last accessed online 21 Feb. 2017]

[xxxi] ‘Possible Site of Tudor Courtyard, Hunsdon House, Hunsdon; Hertfordshire HER & St Albans UAD’, Heritage Gateway  [last accessed online 21 Feb. 2017]

[xxxii] For biographical information on the Carey family:  MacCaffrey, W.T., ‘Carey, Henry, first Baron Hunsdon (1526–1596)’, Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, Oxford University Press, 2004; online edn, Sept 2014. [last accessed online 22 Feb. 2017]

[xxxiii] M. K. Dale, ‘CAREY, Henry (1526-96), of Buckingham, Bucks. and Hunsdon, Herts.’, The History of Parliament: the House of Commons 1509-1558, ed. S.T. Bindoff, 1982.  URL: [last accessed 20 Feb. 2017]

[xxxiv] ‘Moated Site of Hunsdon House, Hunsdon; Hertfordshire HER & St Albans UAD’

[xxxv] For biographical information on Nicolson Calvert:  R. G. Thorne, ‘CALVERT, Nicolson (1764-1841), of Hunsdon House, Herts.’, The History of Parliament: the House of Commons 1790-1820, ed. R. Thorne, 1986.  URL: [last accessed 19 Feb. 2017]

[xxxvi] Mrs. Warenne Blake, An Irish Beauty of the Regency (Hon. Mrs. Calvert), p. 50, quoted in ‘Parishes: Hunsdon’

[xxxvii] Ford, M., ‘Hunsdon:  Henry VIII’s Great Tudor House’, Britannia Internet Magazine (1999).  URL:  [last accessed 20 Feb. 2017]

[xxxviii] ‘Church of St Dunstan, Hunsdon; Hertfordshire HER & St Albans UAD’, Heritage Gateway  [last accessed online 22 Feb. 2017]; Pevsner, pp.210-211

[xxxix] ‘Parishes: Hunsdon’; Harting, J.E., ‘Hertfordshire deer-parks’, Transactions of the Hertfordshire Natural History Society & Field Club, Vol. 2 (1881-1883) pp.97-111 (the reference to Hunsdon is on p.107)

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