Queen’s, Princesses and Great English Statesmen can be found in the history of Bishop’s Hatfield, and magnificent reminders of them can be seen today.
Fore Street, once part of the Great North Road, is a delightful street which leads up to the churchyard of St Etheldreda, the Old Bishop’s Palace, and the finest mansion in the county which has been described as one of England’s showpieces.
In 1108 Ely was converted to a Bishopric by Henry I, and the Bishops made Hatfield one of their residences, hence the name of Bishop’s Hatfield. In 1318 a grant was obtained for a weekly market and two yearly fairs, one on the 23rd April, and the other on 17th October which was the Feast Day of St Etheldreda.
St Etheldreda was popularly called St Audrey and these fairs became known for the sale of cheap and gaudy finery which led to the word “Tawdry”.
In 1538 Bishop Thomas conveyed Hatfield to King Henry VIII, who used Hatfield as a nursery for his three children, Edward, Mary, and Elizabeth.
A sad story tells us that on one occasion when King Henry VIII came to Hatfield he would not see his eldest daughter, and when he left Mary stood on one of the towers of the Palace to wave to him, but he averted his gaze from her. After Henry’s death on 28th January 1547 Edward became King, and on Edward’s death on 6th July 1553 Mary became Queen.
It was here at Hatfield that Princess Elizabeth was given the news of Mary’s death and her own accession to the throne on 17th November 1558 to become Queen Elizabeth I. Elizabeth was sitting under an oak tree in the park when she received the news.
The manor came into the hands of Robert Cecil, 1st Earl of Salisbury, who was the son of William Cecil, Lord Burghley, one of England’s greatest statesmen. Robert followed in his fathers footsteps to become Queen Elizabeth’s Chief Minister. He was instrumental in securing the accession of James I to the throne on Elizabeth’s death, and held this post under James I until his own death in 1612.
In 1607 James I had exchanged Theobolds for Hatfield and Robert started the building of Hatfield House.
A brick gateway with wooden doors stands at the top of Fore Street which leads to the Old Palace and Hatfield House on the other side.
In 1835 there was a great fire at Hatfield House. Charles Dickens, as a young reporter of 23 years of age, was sent here by the Morning Chronicle to report on the event.
The Eight Bells Inn at the bottom of Fore Street, on the corner of Park Street, was the inn where Bill Sykes, in Charles Dickens story of Oliver Twist, took refuge after the murder of Nancy. This one storey, timber framed and plastered building, with Dormer windows, dates to the seventeenth century. It has changed little over the years.
Charles Dickens also described Fore Street in “Mrs Lirripers Lodgings” and “Mrs Lirripers Legacy”.
No’s 2-4, at the top of Fore Street, opposite the church, were once the Salisbury Arms, a coaching inn where Charles Dickens stayed, and on 22nd July 1661 Samuel Pepys had “a very good dinner”.
Samuel Pepys stayed here again on 11th August 1667 and wrote “Inn next to my Lord Salisbury’s house, rested, drank, and bespoke dinner”
Magnificent wrought iron gates lead from Fore Street to St Ethledreda’s churchyard. Dating from 1710 they were originally one of the pairs of gates which stood around the churchyard of St Paul’s Cathedral in London.