Queen Elizabeth I and St Albans

The arms of Elizabeth I, Gorhambury House
(John Morewood)

Like many monarchs, Elizabeth I understood the importance of being seen by her subjects, and spent a good deal of time travelling around the kingdom, often visiting places in or near St Albans. Dr John Morewood, the Society’s President, describes some of her excursions.

Hunting and governing

In the sixteenth century the poor state of the roads impeded travel. But summer, with better weather conditions, made travel easier. Monarchs made progresses, visiting different parts of their kingdom. Doing so was a projection of power and an opportunity for people to see and interact with their sovereign.

Elizabeth I, one of our most capable monarchs, took this to a new level. For many summers she, and her court of 300 people, visited different counties. Her procession, with 1,000 horses, is estimated to have been a mile long. Elizabeth stayed at royal estates and those of her courtiers. Lavish entertainments and gifts were given. She was able to indulge her passion for hunting while continuing the business of government. Her two visits to Gorhambury are well known. What may not be, is that Elizabeth was a frequent royal visitor to St Albans, coming at least six times.

The Queen’s youth in Hertfordshire

Elizabeth knew Hertfordshire well. She spent much of her youth at Ashridge and Hatfield. At Hatfield, in 1558, she received the news she had become queen. One of the earliest accounts involving St Albans however was not so auspicious. In 1554 she was accused of complicity in a failed rebellion and taken from Ashridge to London, spending two months in the Tower of London before being released.  One account of her journey to London stated she stayed at her manor of Redbourn, then at Sir Ralph Rowlett’s house at St Albans, and on to North Mymms. Another account claimed she stayed at Tyttenhanger after Redbourn. In the latter part of her sister’s reign, she resided mainly at Hatfield, visiting local houses, including Brockett Hall.

As queen, Elizabeth visited St Albans during some of her progresses north of London. In 1564 she was ‘at Sopwell, near unto our town of St Albans’, the guest of her chief military engineer, Sir Richard Lee.  Some of the horses were kept in the stables formerly belonging to St Albans Abbey. In 1568 she stayed at Holywell House, the home of Rowlett, Lee’s rival for social pre-eminence in St Albans. There was not enough room to house the whole court as money was paid to transport tents from Hatfield.

The remains of Sopwell House, where Elizabeth stayed

Sir Nicholas Bacon, the nervous host

In 1572 it was the turn of Sir Nicholas Bacon of Gorhambury’. Bacon had completed his new house four years previously but was nervous. He asked one of his sons to send 12 ‘meet and handsome’ men to wait on the queen. Elizabeth arrived on 26 July and left two days later. The visit was a success, the queen being described as ‘merry…at Gorhambury’. Unfortunately, legend has it, she couldn’t resist a dig at Bacon: ’You have made your house too little for your Lordship’ – an allusion to the house’s size or his known corpulence. He evidently was a charmer and quickly responded ‘Your Highness has made me too big for the house’.

Gorhambury House

But he took the hint and had an extension built, probably hoping it would be finished before she returned. In 1576 she did; but stayed at the Bull Inn on Holywell Hill for two nights. Making the inn ready took eight days. Bellringers at St Peter’s church were paid to greet her on her arrival, as they had in 1572. Government continued with the Privy Council meeting twice. Nor did Gorhambury escape. Both the Queen and her entourage dined there.

Light fingered courtiers

Her 1577 visit to Gorhambury lasted four days. The bells rang again. London musicians came to entertain. Bacon and his wife presented Elizabeth with costly gifts including a cup garnished with emeralds, rubies, and pearls. Excluding the cup, the stay cost them the equivalent today of £120,000. The amount of food and drink consumed was immense, but what must have proved galling was that items went ‘missing’. It seems courtiers stole, or ruined, the equivalent today of £1,400 of pewter and £500 of table linen!

Sir Nicholas, dying in 1579, avoided another visit. But his death meant there were no longer great figures at court resident in the area for Elizabeth to visit. For the remainder of her reign, when the court came to Hertfordshire, it used Lord Burghley’s residence near Waltham Cross. But, in the first part of Elizabeth’s reign, St Albans area received more visits from Gloriana than Bristol, Cambridge, Gloucester, or Oxford. A forgotten part of our rich legacy.

Places in Hertfordshire connected with Queen Elizabeth I
Brocket HallVisited by Elizabeth. The house was subsequently replaced by a Georgian mansion
GorhamburyThe ruins of the house where the Bacons entertained Elizabeth can be seen in the grounds of Gorhambury. The Georgian house, containing busts of Sir Nicholas and his wife, is sometimes open to the public.
Hatfield HouseThe house contains objects associated with Elizabeth, and lies adjacent to Hatfield Palace, one of Elizabeth’s residences as a child
Lamer Park, WheathampsteadVisited by Queen Elizabeth in 1575. Since demolished
North Mymms ParkTudor house dating from 1576. Elizabeth stayed in its predecessor
RedbournburyFarm and mill. Believed to be Elizabeth’s manor where she stayed in 1554. Tudor work survives. The farm is private. The mill has a popular bakery.
St Albans Abbey and CathedralThe royal stables were sited behind the Abbey Gateway of St Albans Abbey and Cathedral.
St Albans – Holywell HillRowlett’s Holywell House was sited at the bottom of the hill. The Clarion Hotel occupies the site of the Bull Inn.
St Albans Museum+GalleryContains Richard Lee‘s funeral helmet
St Albans – Sopwell HouseRuins of Richard Lee’s house. Elizabeth stayed in its predecessor in 1564
Tyttenhanger HousePossibly visited by Elizabeth in 1554. Replaced by a 17th century mansion.


St Albans City guides run a walk: ‘Tudor St Albans revealed’ St Albans Tour Guides