Hatfield is a small town but its position as first destination north from London on the Great North Road means it has achieved fame on London street signs pointing towards “Hatfield and The North”. As a convenient country retreat it has had strong royal connections stretching back over 500 hundred years.
In 970 King Edgar gave 5,000 acres at Hetfelle to the monastery of Ely. St Etheldreda’s Church was founded by the monks from Ely, and the first wooden church, built in 1285, was probably sited where the existing building stands overlooking the old town. The first Hatfield House (the Old Palace) was built by the Bishop of Ely, Cardinal Morton in the late 15th century.
Henry VIII owned the old palace and surrounding deer park and used it as a home for his children, Edward, Elizabeth and Mary. It was at Hatfield that Elizabeth refused proposals of marriage from Philibert Duke of Savoy and Prince Eric, son of Gustavus Vasa of Sweden. She was there in November 1558 when she learned she had become Queen following the death of her half-sister, Mary (reportedly she was sitting under an oak tree in the park at the time). Her first three councils were held at the house before she re-located to London. Hatfield was still maintained as a royal palace and Elizabeth paid frequent visits.
James I, who succeeded Elizabeth in 1603, exchanged the Hatfield estate for that of his Secretary, Robert Cecil. Cecil promptly demolished most of the Old Palace (one wing remains as a banqueting hall) and used the bricks to build the current Hatfield House.
The Cecils maintained a prominent role over the generations. Robert Arthur Talbot Gascoyne-Cecil, 3rd Marquess of Salisbury, became Prime Minister of Great Britain in 1885 (between 1885 and 1902 he served three terms as Prime Minister and four as Foreign Secretary). He died in 1903 and was buried in the family graveyard next to St Etheldreda’s Church
Stage coaches on the Great North Road skirted the Hatfield estate – and came to be regarded as an intrusion as traffic volumes increased. In 1851 the Great North Road was diverted by Lord Salisbury:
“Immediately ahead is Hatfield Park, stretching away for over three miles. Through the park, by where the present south lodge stands, the highway used to run in former times, and brought wayfarers between the wind and the nobility of the Cecils. Accordingly the road was diverted at the instance of the then Lord Salisbury, and the public no longer offend him, his heirs, executors, or assigns. And now, for ever and a day, those who use the road between Potter’s Bar and’Hatfield village must go an extra half mile. This is indeed a free and happy country.” [Charles Harper]
The market town of Hatfield grew up around the gates of Hatfield House. However, it was not until the 20th century that its population increased significantly. In 1927 Hatfield ceded land to form the Welwyn Garden City, and it later developed its own new town. Growth was sustained by new industries including aircraft manufacture. The de Havilland Aircraft Company opened its factory at Hatfield in 1934. The DH88 Comet racer was one of the early models – a precursor to the first commercial jet airliner. The Art Deco Comet Hotel was a prominent landmark on the A1 for much of the 20th century.