In pre-Roman Britain, Cunobeline, Celtic king of the Trinobantes, ruled at Colchester and became the inspiration for Shakespeare’s Cymbeline and probably for Old King Cole – the pipe was then a musical instrument as this was long before smoking. One Anglo-Saxon connection has yet to be confirmed – the Prittlewell Prince and the King of Bling are two of the names conferred on the remains uncovered in 2003 north of Southend-on-Sea. In fact, they are likely to be those of King Sabert, a King of Essex in the 7th century. A more specific royal connection can be traced as far back as the Danish King Canute who is reputed to have lived with his wife in Canewdon in the south of the county at the beginning of the 11th century – following his victory at the Battle of Assandun. As an enthusiastic hunter, Canute (died 1035) was probably the first king to enjoy the Essex forests.
Inheriting his passion, Edward the Confessor, half-brother to Canute’s son, established a hunting lodge at Havering which became the site of Havering Palace, a prestigious royal residence passed to William the Conqueror in 1066. (William himself is known to have stayed at Barking Abbey while the Tower of London was being built.) The same year, King Harold was laid to rest on the site of Waltham Abbey as he had been involved in the re-building of Waltham Abbey Church.
A century later, and enter the fair sex. Queen Matilda (wife of King Stephen) founded Cressing Temple, one of the first Knights Templar estates in England. Her other connection to Essex is her death: she died at Hedingham Castle in 1152 when on an extended visit to her friend, the Countess of Oxford, while recovering from a fever. Joan of Navarre, a later Queen (wife of Henry IV and the first widow to marry an English King) also died in Essex, in 1437 at Havering Palace, where she spent her last years after being imprisoned for witchcraft. Mary Boleyn, sister of Anne, also spent her last years in Essex (died 1543) at Rochford Hall, south of the county. Rochford Hall was of several Essex residences owned by her family.
Not only Matilda but Henry VII features in the history of Hedingham Castle. He fined the Earl of Oxford, John de Vere, in 1498 after a royal visit when he found that he was breaking the law of not keeping armed retainers. De Vere had unfortunately formed a guard of honour upon the king’s departure, revealing his error. In 1527, Henry VIII and Anne Boleyn used the castle as a base for hunting – and perhaps more.
The royal palace of Beaulieu started out as an estate called New Hall in Boreham, and since the 18th century has reverted back to New Hall (School). It is believed that Edward III’s wife, Philippa of Hainault, and Henry VI’s wife, Margaret of Anjou, both stayed there as did Charles II and James II, not unremarkable considering its suitability as a base for hunting. Henry VIII bought it from the Boleyn family in 1516/7 for just £1,000, and it was the King who re-named it as “beautiful place” i.e. Beaulieu. Margaret of Anjou also lived at Pleshey Castle in the 1450s, half a century after Richard II had his uncle the Duke of Gloucester arrested there, taken to Calais and murdered. The Duke’s widow retired to Barking Abbey.
The 16th century was when Essex featured particularly prominently in the life of the royals. There was Henry pursuing Anne through the Essex forests, constructing hunting lodges and settling three of his wives in residence in the three-hundred year old Hadleigh Castle (Catherine of Aragon, Anne of Cleves and Catherine Parr). Then there was his daughter Bloody Mary who lived at Havering Palace, Copped Hall in Epping, New Hall, and who stayed at Woodham Walter while waiting to escape from her protestant opponents. There was a potential King born at Blackmore Priory in 1519. Henry VIII and one of his mistresses, Bessie Blount, christened the boy Henry Fitzroy, with Fitzroy meaning ‘son of a regent’. Although Henry bestowed a number of titles on the boy, he sadly died at the age of seventeen before having a chance to claim the throne.
It was Henry’s other daughter, Elizabeth I, who really put Essex on the royal map. Not by ending the lives of many Essex catholic ‘traitors’ or even by living in the county, but by her progresses through it. It involved less maintenance, and less cost, for her to move from one place to another, with houses like Ingatestone Hall, Loughton Hall or St Osyth Priory welcoming her presence, on the one hand, but faced with an enormous bill for food, housing hundreds of staff and the requisite gifts on the other. Tilbury, of course, became famous after her inspirational speech on the eve of the Spanish Armada in 1588 when she faced 5,000 soldiers while astride her white horse. Elizabeth actually gave away Havering Palace, Beaulieu and other royal dwellings but would still visit, especially when there were rumours of plague in London.
Havering Palace, incidentally, had its last royal visit in 1638 from Charles I. He met up with his mother-in-law, Queen Marie de Medici, who stayed with him overnight en route from Harwich to London, but she preferred the more stylish Gidea Hall in Romford to the spartan surroundings of the palace.
Audley End House, originally a priory until the dissolution of religious houses by Henry VIII, became a palace in all but name, owned or visited by six different monarchs. For instance, its one-time owner King William III was presented with saffron heads and flowers by the residents of nearby Saffron Walden in 1689. It was William III who used Harwich as his port of choice for his visits to and from Holland, but the port was also used earlier by Queen Isabella of France, known as the She-Wolf, who waited for horses with her son and her lover at the Three Cups hostel in 1326, ready for the ‘fight’ against her husband Edward II. Later in 1338 Edward III was also here en route to France, as was Germany’s Princess Charlotte on her way to marry George III in 1761.
In 1803, Princess (later Queen) Caroline stayed for some weeks in Southend on Sea, conferring the title Royal on Grand Terrace, where she took over three houses for her retinue, and her luggage. Later that century, Queen Victoria’s most famous visit to Essex was on 6 May 1882 when she visited High Beech in the great royal forest of Essex to declare it “the people’s forest”. Its remains are now known as Epping Forest. Since then, with vastly improved transportation, royal visits increased dramatically through the 20th century – when there were too many visits to be included within the confines of this article, and are in any case well documented elsewhere.
Essex and the royals – they go back a long way. Perhaps it will be ‘Royal Essex’ one day …
By Dee Gordon