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History Of Hertford

An historic market town, Hertford has so much to offer: specialist shops, Hertford Museum, antique shops, pubs and restaurants, riverside walks, town and Castle events. 

History, art, culture, nature, gastronomy and much more besides, Hertford draws on its history of over a thousand years.

The town centre, which is largely a conservation area, incorporates the central Salisbury Square, which features a water sculpture depicting the four rivers that meet in Hertford - the Rib, Beane, Mimram and Lea (or Lee).

Formerly a major market for corn and other agricultural produce, Hertford owed its importance to proximity to London which resulted in lucrative trading and provision of a base for royalty and nobility to enjoy country life and sport.

It is a town hard to describe in a few words because its exceptional features make it a very special place.

For information on events and attractions in and around Hertford as well as a range of other services, call or visit the Tourist Information Centre.

The Castle

Hertford was a fortified Saxon town built by King Edward the Elder, son of Alfred the Great, in 912. From the Saxon earthworks, designed to resist the Danes, the Castle grew after the Norman Conquest to become a royal fortress and royal residence, under a governor appointed by the King.

Life at the Castle had its exciting moments, in 1216, when it was besieged and taken by Louis, Dauphin of France, whom the barons had called in to help them in their feud with King John, but primarily it was a pleasant country house where the King and court could enjoy fresh air and hunt in Hertingfordbury Park. Being the King's own property it was often made over to members of the royal family and many a king settled it on his queen. In 1327 Edward III granted the Castle, Town and Honor of Hertford (which included Bayford, Essendon and Hertingfordbury) to his mother, Queen Isabella; in 1360 it became the first home of his fourth son, John of Gaunt. Edward III also used it as a prison for kings captured in his wars and both King John of France and King David II of Scotland, whose wife was Edward's sister, Joan, were kept in luxurious confinement here.

Though Hertford saw little of her father, Henry VIII, Queen Elizabeth I spent much of her childhood here in governess care. In the British Library there is a book of prayers beautifully written by Princess Elizabeth at the age of twelve and dated 'Hertford 1545'. When Queen, she stayed here frequently and visited great houses in the neighbourhood.

During her reign Parliament met at Hertford Castle when driven from London by the plague. This has given the name to Parliament Square, while Queens Road takes its name from the tradition that Elizabeth would climb the hill from the Castle to enjoy the view from a spot afterwards known as Queen's Bench.

Not so King James I, for whom the hunting at Hertford was not good enough and who found that Hertford Heath, Royston and Theobalds Park in Cheshunt gave better sport He made over Hertford Castle to his son, Prince Charles, who also had little use for it and, when he became King Charles I, bought the centuries of royal possession to an end by granting the Town and Castle of Hertford to William Cecil, 2nd Earl of Salisbury, whose descendants own the Castle to this day.

From this time on the Castle was a private house, owned but not occupied by the Salisbury Cecils and let on lease to many notable tenants. Among them were the Marquis of Downshire, an Irish peer and the Marquis of Salisbury's brother-in-law who, in the 1790s altered and enlarged the house and beautified the grounds. The Castle next became the first home of the East India College, founded in 1805, until it removed to the new college buildings on Hertford Heath completed in 1809. The Castle continued in use as a junior school until 1819, after which it was let as a private house, leased to such well-known families as Longmore and McMullen. In 1911 came the final change, when Lord Salisbury leased the Castle to Hertford Corporation at a nominal rent The gatehouse was converted to Council offices and the gardens became a public pleasure ground.

The Buildings of Hertford Castle 
In the north-east corner of the Castle gardens is a tree-clad mound beside the River Lea. This is the earliest remaining part, the motte of a small Norman motte-and-bailey Castle, from which the rest has grown. In great castles, the motte was crowned by a strong stone keep, but small ones had a wooden tower on top and a timber palisade around the base, and these the motte at Hertford would have had. The bailey was enclosed by a defensive bank and ditch and also by a wooden palisade, which King Henry in 1170 replaced by the present massive curtain wall of flint and stone, seven feet thick.

There are interesting details in this wall. The pointed archway was the ancient postern gate, a sort of side entrance from the town, and led to a bridge across the moat, which was guarded by the adjoining tower. In the south-west corner a patch of brickwork can be seen, all that remains of the great angle tower that here rose above the moat and overlooked the town. When the moat was drained the tower was converted into a house and named Tower House. In the 1780s this was a school for boys under John Worsley, a famous scholar who translated the New Testament from the Greek.

The adjoining gateway, cut through the curtain wall, was built about 130 years ago when the Castle was a private house.

The bailey inside the curtain wall is now a smooth green lawn and it is not easy to imagine how it looked 500 years ago, when it was filled with the buildings used by the king and queen and officers of the court. Here were the royal apartments, the chapel, the great hall, kitchens and offices, all timber-framed buildings which have left no trace. Most of them were taken down during the reign of James I, when Hertford Castle was said to be "ruinous and decayed", except for the gatehouse and the angle tower. Though the tower has gone the gatehouse still survives in fine condition, rebuilt by Edward IV in 1463 and enlarged by the Marquis of Downshire in the reign of George III.

The gatehouse was the Castle's chief defence, protecting the royal lodgings in the inner bailey and guarded by a portcullis and a moat, which ran past the gatehouse to the River Lea. Edward IV's gatehouse has a tower at each corner, and though the archway through it has been blocked, the stones of the arch can still be seen in the wall, with the royal arms set above. Downshire added the white stone porch, altered the windows to a different shape, and remodelled all the rooms in Georgian style; he also added the long south wing in brickwork to match the rest, first demolishing a stretch of the curtain wall. In spite of these drastic changes, when the gatehouse was restored in 1972 the builders were amazed to find that Edward IV's work had only been hidden, not destroyed, and the notable 15th century stonework and brick-and-timber screens that adorned the rooms have now been restored to sight.

Downshire also built the stables and cottages further west. Note that the north front of the cottages is designed in harmony with the gatehouse front. The wide moat is now dry and almost entirely built upon except for the Moat Garden opened in 1951, and there another of Downshire's improvements may be seen; the ice-pit, built of brick beneath a mound on what was once the outer bank of the moat.
Five Volunteer and Local Militia Colours The Napoleonic War Period 
In 1845 the will of Henry Allington of Bayley Hall, Hertford, bequeathed to the Hertford Borough Council five flags of the Napoleonic period which had belonged to Volunteer and Local Militia units in the area which were raised in succession. The Colours are the only known complete set of Colours for Hertfordshire Units at the time of the Napoleonic Wars and are said to be of great historic value.

Where the Colours were housed between 1845 and 1980 has not been established but they could have been hanging in the Committee Room at the Shire Hall for much of that time. They were certainly there in 1909 and in 1980 had to be taken down when Hertfordshire County Council redecorated the building. They were then stored at the Castle rolled up on their poles until funds were raised in 1985-86 for a special display case designed and built by the area Museums service for South Eastern England. The cost of constructing the display case (£941) was met entirely from donations. They are now housed in the Town Council's 'Seed Warehouse'.

The Colours are made of silk and were netted in 1910 (at a cost of £9) to preserve them Both the netting and silk have become extremely dirty and very delicate, and careful treatment is required to clean and restore them.

Detailed information about the treatment of the Colours is available on request. The history of the Colours and of the Units they represent has been pieced together with advice from Mrs D. B. Willcox, the Assistant Director and Keeper, Department of Uniform, National Army Museum, from Lt. Col J Sainsbury, the historian of the Hertfordshire Yeomanry, and from Mr A G Davies, the former Curator (Research) of Hertford Museum.

Hertford Castle and The Black Prince
In the year 1327, Edward III became one of the longest-reigning Kings of England. His reign lasted fifty years and he had four sons, the eldest of whom was Edward, The Black Prince, who won the battles of Crecy and Poitiers. He captured King John of France and his son, and brought them to Hertford Castle in April 1359, where the French King was allowed to live in the style to which he was accustomed.

At Easter in 1359 the French King went to St. Leonard's Church, Bengeo, to hear a mass by the Black Monks of the Holy Trinity. While he was at the Church, his hounds worried and killed a sow belonging to Master Revell of Revells Hall. The King expressed his regret and paid Master Revell tens shillings compensation for the loss of the sow.

The fourth son of Edward III, the "Black Knight", was John of Gaunt, the Earl of Richmond, whom the King bestowed great gifts upon. On attaining the age of majority he married Blanche, his cousin, only daughter of the Duke of Lancaster. On the death of his father-in-law John inherited, through his wife, the wealthiest duchy in England. When he became Duke of Lancaster he incorporated Hertford Castle into his Duchy and spent much time at the Castle. He had nine children by three wives.

He married the second of his wives, Constanza of Castile, a Spanish Princess, at Hertford Castle. His third wife was Katherine Swinford. Her servants were buried in St Nicholas' churchyard, where Woolworth store now stands, in Maidenhead Street in the centre of Hertford, according to the records. The Duchy of Lancaster held Hartham and the Kings Meads as part of its ancient demesne lands, and also the Manor of Hertingfordbury. That great house suffered its destruction 100 years later, in the War of the Roses, when the House of York triumphed over the House of Lancaster. All its lands, including Hertford Castle, were confiscated and the market and tithes which belonged to the House of Lancaster in the Old Cross and northern area of the Town of Hertford ceased to have an independent role in the Town.

As a former manor of the Honor of the Duchy of Lancaster, in 1926 Hertford Corporation claimed, and was granted back its ancient status of an Honor, and was granted its banner by the College of Heralds, a heraldic banner which is still displayed with the Corporation plate, and which carries on it the head of a stag and the arms of the Borough.

The Coat of Arms

Argent on Water barry wavy a Hart lodged proper.

SUPPORTERS On either side a Lion Ermine gorged with a Collar pendent therefrom by a chain Gules an Escutcheon Or charged with three Chevrons also Gules.

BADGE Within a Chaplet of Roses Gules a Hart's Head caboshed proper between the attires an Escutcheon Or charged with three Chevronels Gules.

STANDARD Argent the bands Azure fimbriated and inscribed Pro Hertfordae honore Gold fringed Argent and Azure.


Arms recorded at the Visitation of 1634. Supporters granted 20th October 1937, Badge granted 23rd September 1925 to the Hertford Borough Council.

The arms appear to have been based upon a seal bearing a hart standing in water, with a tree and castle in the background. They are are canting arms, a play on the town's name once spelt - Hartford.

The ermine lions are derived from the heraldry of the Marquess of Salisbury, differenced by shields bearing the Clare arms. The Cecil Lords Salisbury have, with one exception, held the office of High Steward of the former Borough since 1605. The Clare family held the Earldom of Hertford in the twelth century.
© Robert Young's Civic Heraldry of England & Wales


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