Hatfield House: Home of the Cecils, Elizabeth I, and the Film The Favourite
Updated: Feb 28
If you're a Tudorphile, Hatfield House is a must see site in London, both for its charm and its royal connections. Fans of Queen Elizabeth I, the Virgin Queen, will be especially enchanted by the early 17th century Jacobean palace. Besides, Hatfield House is the perfect day trip from London or even a half day trip.
For over 400 years, the magnificent country estate has been home to the Cecils, one of England’s most politically influential families. Hatfield was built between 1607-11 for Robert Cecil, first Earl of Salisbury and Secretary of State to both Elizabeth I and James I.
Elizabeth spent much of her childhood in Hatfield's "Old Palace." Some of her most famous portraits adorn the tapestry-strewn walls of the newer (but still old) mansion. Hatfield is so elegant that it's been a filming location for many films. Most recently in The Favourite, a darkly comic period piece about the life of the ailing Queen Anne.
Let's explore this famous English landmark.
History of Hatfield House and Its Connection to Queen Elizabeth I
Elizabeth was raised in the "Old Palace" of Hatfield House, along with her brother Edward VI and sister Mary. In 1533, she arrived as a 3 month old princess. She reportedly had a relatively happy childhood there.
At least before she was put under house arrest. Mary and Elizabeth were enemies, with a dysfunctional family and high drama.
Mary's mother was Henry VIII's first wife Katherine of Aragon and Elizabeth's mother was Henry VIII's second wife Anne Boleyn. Henry broke with the Catholic church and formed a new religion to marry Anne. But when she didn't produce a male heir, Anne was beheaded on the Tower of London green.
Thereafter, Elizabeth's existence was dizzyingly crazy. In rapid succession, she went from heiress, to bastard, to suspected traitor, to prisoner, to queen.
It was at Hatfield that Elizabeth learned of the death of her sister Queen Mary and her own ascension to the throne as the only heir. Four days later, she held her first Privy Council at Hatfield on November 21, 1558. During that meeting, she appointed William Cecil as Secretary of State.
Elizabeth would return to Hatfield often during her life. The palace was essentially a cradle of the Elizabethan Age. Elizabeth would go on to become a peacemaker and the famous Virgin Queen.
Her love life is still a source of intense speculation and gossip. There was a certain Robert Dudley (and others) in the mix, who rendered her prized virginity rather questionable. On the other hand, Elizabeth may have just satisfied herself with flirting with handsome young courtiers and/or didn't want the shackles of marriage.
Elizabeth was succeeded by James I. James didn't much cotton to an aging Hatfield House. He wanted to be rid of it. In 1607, Cecil’s son agreed to swap his family home of Theobalds for the Hatfield House owned by James.
After his acquisition, in 1611, Cecil promptly built an entirely new mansion on the former property, .5 mile from the Old Palace. Hatfield was so lavish that it was known as a "prodigy house" -- a house built to showcase wealth and power.
What To See At Hatfield House
Here's my guide to the highlights of Hatfield House. The historical English landmark is awash with famous paintings, tapestries, period furnishings, and armor. It's a sight to behold if you're a fan of English history.
1. The Marble Hall
When you enter the landmark, you step through a an elegant stone porch and vestibule. Then, you're in the Marble Hall. It's impressive -- 30 feet wide, 50 feet high, and 2 stories high. It has a black and white checkered floor. The ceiling featured carved and gilded wood.
The hall boasts some fabulous paintings. Above the fireplace, there are three paintings. On the left is Mary Queen of Scots. One the right is James I. In the middle is a curious white horse. This was the horse ridden by Elizabeth when she addressed her troops before the defeat of the Spanish Armada.
The best portrait is on the far side of the room. It's the famous Rainbow Portrait of Elizabeth. In it, she's a dazzling Sun Queen at the height of her powers.
Elizabeth is shown in a sumptuous orange silk gown, embroidered all over with eyes and ears. The rather peculiar motif represents her ability to know and see all in her court, thereby discouraging plotting. Her glowing red hair is decorated with white pearls, a sign of her purity.
Oliver painted this portrait in the last year of Elizabeth's reign, when she was 70. Suffice it to say, flattery and an image of immortality substituted for any semblance of realism. England was, apparently, well behind the rest of Europe, which by then expected an actual likeness.
2. King James Drawing Room
The King James Drawing Room is the principal reception room of the house. It's completely covered with tapestries and portraits and contains mostly 18th century furniture. It sports a massive stone fireplace, painted to appear bronzed. A life size statue of James commands your attention, perched on the mantle.
This room holds another famous Elizabeth portrait, the Ermine Portrait. In it, the queen looks imperious and aloof, projecting the message of majesty and might.
With lots of gold, Elizabeth is portrayed in a high necked white ruffled gown with a white ermine on her sleeve, more symbols of purity. She holds an olive branch and next to her is the golden sword of state.
Like the Rainbow Portrait, Elizabeth is youth-anized. Although she was 67 at the time, she's given a youthful face. And no gray hair!
3. The Chinese Bedroom
From an antechamber, head into the Chinese Bedroom. It's a unique room at Hatfield House. It was originally part of a suite of rooms to house James I as a guest. It has emerald green wallpaper, yellow damask bed hangings, and a red fireplace just to boost its "Chinese" status.
4. The Long Gallery
The long gallery is exceedingly long, 170 feet long in fact. It has a beautiful golden plastered ceiling, covered in gold leaf. The long gallery was built for exercise. When the weather was inclement, the nobles promenaded up and down the hall.
Half way down the hall, turn right and you're in the Winter Dining Room. The dining room is laid out in linen, as if royalty were about to dine. It has a marble chimney piece and the walls are hung with colorful tapestries depicting the four seasons. The tapestries were bought in 1946 to impress a visiting Queen Victoria.
5. The Library
For book lovers, the Library is perhaps the best room in Hatfield House. On one wall, there are huge bay windows overlooking the gardens. The other three walls are lined with books, top to bottom. The upper galleries are accessed by staircases.
In the center above the fireplace is a mosaic portrait of Cecil, the Earl of Salisbury, who built the magnificent prodigy home. The mosaics were imported from Venice. The library is so famous that it's appeared in a plethora of films. The most famous are perhaps Shakespeare In Love, Batman, and The Favourite.
The library contains a 22 foot long scroll of parchment. It contains Elizabeth's family tree, with ancestors dating back to Adam and Eve.
6. The Hatfield Chapel
When you leave the Library, you walk down the Adam and Eve Staircase to access the Hatfield Chapel. Built in 1618, it's still used for church services. It has a lavish ceiling and portraits of the apostles and saints. It boasts Jacobean stained glass windows, which remarkably survived a fire at Hatfield House.
7. The Hatfield Armory
Like the Marble Hall, the Armory has a black and white checkered floor. It has filigreed windows and many suits of armor. The armor was actually imported, purchased from the Tower of London.
8. The Original Old Palace
The original Old Palace (exterior shown above) is the surviving bit of the Royal Palace of Hatfield, which preceded Hatfield House. It was constructed in 1497 by the Bishop of Ely, John Morton. As I said above, it was the principal home of a young Elizabeth.
The most significant remaining piece bit is the Banquet Hall. Here, Elizabeth held her first counsel of state under its impressive chestnut beams.
The Old Palace is not always open. It's often rented out for special occasions. When it is open, you can book a guided tour for 4.50 pounds at the Stable Yard Ticket Kiosk.
Hatfield House as a Filming Location for the Film The Favourite
In 2017, Hatfield House became a filming location for the award-winning 2019 film, The Favourite. The Favorite is a dark period comedy. It's the beguiling story of the ailing Queen Anne (Olivia Colman) and the power struggle between two favorites in her court -- courtier Sarah Churchill (Rachel Weisz) and ambitious maid Abigail Hill (Emma Stone).
About 80% of the bawdy period piece was filmed at Hatfield House. The rest was filmed at Hampton Court Palace, which was an important residence for Queen Anne, the last Stuart monarch.
The main filming locations in Hatfield House were: (1) the Library, which served as the Duchess of Marlborough's rooms; (2) the King's James Drawing Room, which doubled as Queen Anne's rooms; (3) the Marble Hall, which was the location of a grand courtyard scene where Anne screams at musicians to stop playing; and (4) the Long Gallery, where royals and courtiers frequently stride, not just for exercise but with an imperial purpose.
There are also scenes in the Winter Dining Room and in the Tudor Kitchens of Hampton Court Palace. There, Abigail asks her cousin Sarah for a job and works as a maid.
If you're craving a break from the hustle and bustle of London, beautiful Hatfield House makes a great day trip from London. Or even a 1/2 day trip. It's worth the effort for the art collection alone!
Practical Information for Visiting Hatfield House: