The building often referred to as Hertford Castle is in fact the gatehouse. The castle itself no longer stands but occupied the enclosed area behind the gatehouse.
For 300 years a Royal Palace stood within the flint walls having previously been one of a series of castles built for defence purposes.
James I of Scotland was a prisoner at Hertford Castle, as were the Templars. Queen Elizabeth I spent much of her childhood at both Hatfield House and Hertford Castle.
The history of the Castle spans a millenium, starting with the town's establishment in Saxon times.
It is unknown when the first castle was constructed at Hertford, although it was built by the Normans and grew up from two burhs (fortified places) established by Edward The Elder around 911. These burhs were enclosed spaces surrounded by palisading and were overseen by a Reeve, who collected dues from the inhabitants, who were tenants of The Crown. For this they were allowed to trade under Royal protection. Able-bodied men were organised into a garrison service - a much resented duty because it kept them from their trade.
By the time of the Norman Invasion in 1066, Hertford had a motte and bailey surrounded by a moat. This consisted of large earthen mound with a stong wooden tower or keep on top. The Bailey was an enclosure, into which cattle could be driven. Surrounding this was a high fence of timber stakes driven into the ground (palisading).
The Normans brought with them a continental system of government which saw the Reeve replaced by a select body of burgesses, who governed the borough and had privileges and authority over the other inhabitants. These burgesses elected from amongst themselves a Bailiff to be chief of the town and to represent the King. A Steward was also elected to preside over a borough court.
William The Conqueror 1066-87 granted the castle to Peter de Valoignes - one of his followers and the Sheriff of Hertfordshire and Essex. Under the Normans, the character of the castle changed as the old Saxon burh - constructed primarily for the protection of the people - was replaced by a stronghold for the nobility that might well be used against the people. It should be remembered that at this time England was an occupied country and many people resented their new Norman rulers.
Shortly after the death of Henry I in 1135, Stephen de Blois, the grandson of William The Conqueror, was crowned King Stephen I 1135-54. This was despite the fact that the throne had been promised to Henry's daughter Matilda. This resulted in a civil war in which Hertford supported Matilda, who had previously granted the castle to Roger de Valoignes. During the 18 year war, rival barons ravaged the countryside, burning and plundering, but no such incidents are recorded in Hertford.
In 1154, following the death of Stephen, Matilda's son Henry Plantegenet became King Henry II 1154-89. Because of Hertford's support for his mother, Henry took a great interest in the castle and its potential. He set himself the task of reasserting the authority of the crown over i nnsubordinate barons and everywhere he constructed castles. Hertford was practically reconstructed between 1170 and 1174 and this included the building of the flint walls that can still be seen today. Drawbridges and gatehouses were also added.
Henry died in 1189 and was succeeded by his elder son, Richard The Lionheart 1189-99. Richard spent much of his time out of the country either fighting in the crusades or defending his French provinces. This played into the hands of his disloyal brother, John, who plotted against him with the French. At this time, the castle was strengthened by the King's Regent, William Longchamps. However, in 1199 Richard died and John 1199-1216 was crowned.
By this time the castle was governed by Royal nominees after Robert de Valoignes had died in 1184 leaving no male heirs. Nevertheless, it was claimed by Robert Fitzwalter, who was Robert de Valoignes's son-in-law. Fitzwalter was enterprising and fearless, and following unsuccessful attempts to prove his right, he seized the castle and installed his own tenants and garrison. Despite the fact that he was subsequently evicted by John and the Crown, he was eventually appointed govenor. His opposition to The Crown continued though and in 1211 he fled to France and the castle was confiscated.
In 1309 the Castle saw its first political prisoners - The Templars from Temple Dinsley, near Hitchin. The Order had been established to protect pilgrims to the Holy Lands and in their time they amassed great wealth. This attracted the jealousy of not only sovereigns but also the Pope and Bishops. This cuminated in their supression and all English Templars were arrested and imprisoned.
Seige and Capture
John died in October 1216 and left a country divided. Some remained faithful to the new King, Henry III 1216-72, whilst others favoured the French prince, Louis. The French had already arrived in London by the time of John's death and were enthusiastically welcomed. They made their way North-Westwards meeting strong resistance from the Crown, especially at Hertford, where a month-long seige prevailed before the then govenor, Walter de Godarvil, was forced to surrender the castle and the town to the French Dauphin and his troops.
However, within a year the mood in the country changed and the people fell in behind Henry III and by 1217 the French had left. Henry's reign eventually lasted 56 years until 1272.
Henry's successor, Edward I 1272-1307, was a just and progressive ruler and as such brought stability to the country. Consequently, the Castle's military role became secondary to it's use as a Royal Residence and in 1299 Edward gave it to his second wife Margaret.
Following the death of his father, Edward II 1307-1327 was crowned king and shortly after the castle was in the hands of his French wife, Queen Isabella, sometimes known as the She-Wolf of France for her violent temperament. Edward was not a good king and Isabella took a lover - Roger Mortimer - and plotted against her husband, eventually deposing him and putting her 14 year old son on the throne. However, because of his youth, Isabella and Roger effectively ruled as Regents for three years. The former King, meanwhile, was eventually murdered at Berkeley Castle.
Edward III 1327-77 took control in 1331. Realising the treachery of his mother and lover, he had Isabella imprisoned and Mortimer tried and hung. Isabella was eventually freed and spent many of her remaining years at the Castle. Edward too spent much time in Hertford and in 1332 he had the Castle and Brough surveyed to assess its value.
In 1337, war broke out with France - The Hundred Years War - and Hertford Castle was used to detain prisoners of royal and noble rank. One of the first was King David II of Scotland, whose country aligned itself with France. This wasn't so much imprisonment, more confinement, for the King had his own quarters and was allowed to hunt and hawk. He also received noble visitors and was allowed to spend his wealth freely. Another detainee was King John of France, who arrived in April 1359, although his confinement at Hertford lasted only four months.
The following year the Castle was granted to Edward's third son, John Of Gaunt, who had married his cousin, Blanche, the only child of The Duke Of Lancaster. John spent much time at the residence, using it as his chief country home when not abroad on campaigns. The defences were repaired and stengthened again at this time, for there was social and economic stress, bourn out of the continuing war with France.
The death of Edward III brought to the throne Richard II 1377-99. Two years later, the ugly mood of the country gave rise to The Peasants Revolt, led by Wat Tyler. There is no evidence of disturbances in Hertford, but in St.Albans there was roiting. Eighteen peasants from the town were imprisoned in the castle dungeons.
Richard despised and distrusted his uncle, John of Gaunt, and briefly confiscated the castle from him, only to return it having asserted himself. However, it was John's son, Henry Bolingbroke, who presented a greater threat and in 1398 he was banished from the country. The following year, John Of Gaunt died and Richard seized all the Lancastrian Estates, including Hertford Castle. Here he installed his new wife, the eight year old Princess Isabella. Richard was by now a wholly unpopular king. In the latter years of his rule he became a tyrant who murdered his opponents and rode rough-shod over the rights of his people and parliament. This was too much to bear for the banished Henry Bolingbroke and in 1399 he returned to England. His father's former tenants and the northern barons rallied to the cause and Richard was taken prisoner and induced to abdicate, following formal charges that were drawn up at Hertford Castle. A year later he was dead.
Henry IV 1399-1413, son of John of Gaunt, was the first Lancastrian king. However, he was not the direct heir to the throne. Edmund of March, the true heir, was only eight years old though and Henry had just liberated the country from the tyranny of Richard. As such, he was enthusiastically elected by Pariament, granting the castle to his second wife, Joan of Navarre. Nevertheless, as a usurper, he had many enemies, including Robert III of Scotland. Robert, whilst opposing the new king, had his own problems at home with the clan feuds. Fearing for the life of his son and heir, he sent the boy abroad to France. However, the ship carrying him across the channel was captured by an English vessel and the boy brought to Hertford Castle for confinement. A year later, in 1405, Robert died and his detained son became James I of Scotland.
Henry died in 1413 and was succeeded by his son Henry V 1413-22. In 1418 he conferred the castle to his new wife, Princess Katherine of France, and they spent much time there together before his untimely death in October 1422.
He was succeeded by his son Henry VI 1422-61, the youngest ever King at only 10 months old. The young King spent much of his infancy at the castle and in 1442 he assumed power. In 1445 he married Margaret of Anjou and granted her the castle. However, these were difficult times. Many people still disputed the Lancaster's right to the throne and the English armies in France had been routed by Joan of Arc. This eventually led to the Wars Of The Roses and the capture of Henry, upon whence was crowned Edward IV 1461-83, the son of The Duke Of York. The castle at Hertford was confiscated by the Yorkists and Margaret of Anjou and the Lancastrians fled to France.
Edward IV granted the castle to his wife, Elizabeth Woodville. They had two sons and several daughters and the succession appeared secure. However, Edward died prematurely in 1483, leaving his children under-age. Initially, the eldest son Edward (aged 12) was crowned, but the machinations of his uncle, Edward's younger brother Richard, saw both him and his brother seized and murdered in The Tower of London.
And so Richard III 1483-5 became king and the castle granted to one of his greatest supporters, The Duke of Buckingham. However, the dark deed which had brought him to power only served to lead to his downfall. The Duke of Buckingham, the king's former confederate, turned against him and conspired against him with the Lancastrian heir, Henry Tudor. The aim was to unite the feuding houses of York and Lancaster by uniting their presents heirs in marriage. However, the Duke was found out and lost both his head and the castle. But the nation was longing for peace and following the death of both Richard's son and wife, Henry Tudor confronted him in The Battle of Bosworth Field on 22nd August 1484. Richard was defeated and Henry married Elizabeth of York.
Henry VII 1485-1509 was the first Tudor king and conferred the castle to his wife in 1487. Henry spent little time at the castle. However, his son, Henry VIII 1509-47 spent considerable sums turning the castle into a civilian palace. This included work on the gatehouse, which still stands, and is said to have been originally built by Edward IV around 1465.
Henry VIII's matrimonial adventures are legendary. He had a daughter, Mary, by Katherine of Aragon; another, Elizabeth, by Anne Bolyn; and a son, Edward, by Jane Seymour, sister of the Earl of Hertford. All three spent time at the royal residences of Hertford, Hatfield and Hunsdon.
Prince Edward was at Hertford Castle when he was informed on his father's death on 30th January 1547 and subsequently as Edward VI 1547-53 granted the castle to Princess Mary, whilst Elizabeth remained at Hatfield.
Following the death of Edward, Mary I 1553-8 came to the throne and temporarily restored the authority of The Pope. At this time Hertford Castle was used to imprison Protestant martyrs.
The death five years later of Mary brought to the throne Elizabeth I 1558-1603. She granted further charters to the town, including the power to pass bye-laws. In addition, she authorised the provision of a Town Hall and a gaol. The Queen was regulary in Hertford and on one 16 day visit in 1561 spent the extraordinary sum of £1975. At various times between 1563 and 1593, the Law courts and possibly parliament were relocated to Hertford because of The Plague. This was in addition to a large number of private individuals from the city, swelling the population considerably.
The House of Cecil
The death of Elizabeth brought to the throne James I 1603-25, the first Stuart King. From this point on Hertford Castle ceased to be a Royal Residence and fell into decay. James had little interest in, or knowledge of English Tradition and for the first years of his reign relied greatly on the guidance of Sir Robert Cecil, an elder statesman of Elizabeth's reign, who he elevated to the peerage as Earl of Salisbury, Viscount Cranbourne.
Three years after Charles I 1625-49 came to the throne, The Castle was granted to William Cecil, second Earl of Salisbury. Much of the castle was now in ruins, not having been used since Tudor times. The castle was leased to Sir William Harrington of Hertingfordbury Park, who carried out work to restore the buildings. He then assigned his lease to Sir William Cowper, Collector of Customs at The Port Of London.
From this point on The Castle remained in the ownership of the Cecil family, who leased it out to a succession of occupiers, many of them successors to William Cowper. In the 18th Century, one of these leasees, Edward Cox, built The Tower School.
Around 1790 the South Wing was added to the gatehouse.
Around 1800 a new gateway and lodge were built in Castle Street (now Longmores solicitors) by The Marquis of Downshire.
In 1806 The Castle became the home of Haileybury College for three years prior to their installation at their current site in Hertford Heath. However, the prep school remained for a further nine years.
In 1822, a general dispensary was established at The Castle by the Rev.Thomas Lloyd, who was a prime mover in charitable work in the town.
In 1911 the Hertford Corporation leased the gatehouse of the Castle (for that was all that remained) from The Earl of Salisbury for a miniscule rent to house its' administration. Shortly afterwards the current Castle Gates in The Wash were presented to the town by Osmond McMullen and the grounds became a public pleasure garden.
In the 1930s the North Wing was added to The Gatehouse.
The late 20th century saw The Castle Grounds given to the town as a generous gift by the Earl.
The Present Day
The history of the castle spans a millenium. For 300 years it was a fortress and then for the same period a Royal Palace. Since the 17th century it has been in private hands and the grounds are now owned by the town. Little remains of it's grandeur save the ancient walls and the gatehouse.