Coffee with Cecily: Berkhamsted in Hertfordshire
A while ago I had a chance to visit Berkhamsted in Hertfordshire, where the mother of Richard III, Cecily Neville duchess of York, had resided for a long period. So I told my Ricardian friends that I would be going to pop in on Cecily for a coffee.
I arrived in Berkhamsted coming from St Albans, parked in a car park next to the High Street and asked a lady, who was at the same time at the ticket dispenser as I was, for directions to the castle. Very soon there was a whole group of extremely friendly and helpful ladies giving me directions – and as it turned out they were spot on. If there were nothing else to mention about Berkhamstead – and there is plenty – the friendliness and helpfulness encountered here was wonderful.
My first stop were the ruins of the castle, one of the best surviving motte and bailey castles in the UK. Entering by what used to be the South Gatehouse, you can walk along the top of the ramparts, offering spectacular views of its extent and surving flint rubble walls.
In 1066, after being victorious at the Battle of Hastings, William of Normandy granted the manor and honour of Berkhamsted to his half-brother, Robert of Mortain, who built an earthwork castle.
Berkhamsted Castles (© D Preis)
By the beginning of the 12th century it was in the king’s control. Henry II gave it to his chancellors, among them Thomas Becket from 1155 to 1165. Thomas Becket is credited with beginning to rebuild the castle in masonry, a process that continued for the next two centuries.
In the second half of the 13th century Berkhamsted was the favourite residence of Richard of Cornwall , younger brother of Henry III. He built a three-storey tower in 1254, but unfortunately very little survives of this. He died at the castle in 1272. His son Edmund had established a deer park here by 1280.
Today only ruins remain of what must have been a very substantial castle in its prime. Apparently it had two complete moats and a ditch on the west side. The foundations of the circular keep, 18m in diameter, are still there. Inside the keep there was a well, which can still be seen. In the bailey used to be the kitchens and brewhouse, indicated by hearths in the thick walls.
Margaret of Anjou acquired the castle in 1448, who gave it 11 years later to her son Edward. In 1469, Edward IV granted Berkhamsted to his mother Cecily, who lived here until her death in 1495. Her son Richard III visited her at the castle on 17 May 1485, three months before his death at the battle of Bosworth. After Cecily’s death the castle fell into disrepair and the ruins were used as building material for other buildings.
I made my way back to the High Street, which formed the centre of the medieval town. The medieval town was situated some distance from the castle. While the castle’s position was determined by strategic considerations, the town developed along the trade route of the Roman Akeman Street, today’s High Street. Akeman Street was the main highway from London to Aylesbury.
In a prominent position is a half-timbered building with a sign saying that this was Dean Incent’s house. This house used to belong to Robert Incent, who was duchess Cecily’s secretary. His son John, was dean of St Paul’s and the founder of Berkhamsted School. The south-west wing dates from the 15th century, which would have been to Robert Incent and his wife Katherine. The building was altered and added to during later centuries.
Incent House (© D Preis)
A bit further down the street on the opposite side is St Peter’s Church, the second largest church in the county. It is not known when exactly building of the church began, presumably some time after the town received burghal rights in 1156 from Henry II. When holding Berkhamsted Castle, Cecily also held the advowson of this parish church. And although she is buried next to her husband at Fotheringhay, she also remembered St Peter’s in her will: “Also I geve to the parishe church of Much Barkehampstede a coope of blewe bawdekyn, the orffreys embrawdered”.
Church of St Peter (© D Preis)
On a pillar in St John’s Chantry there are brasses for Robert and Katherine Incent. Robert died in 1485 of the sweating sickness, and is remembered as “late suant to the nobel pryncess Cecyle duchesse of Yorke & mother unto the worthy kyng Edward and Richard the thyrde”. Katherine died in 1520.
Having concluded my look around Berkhamsted, I even got my coffee, in a nice café in the High Street.
Goodall, John, The English Castle: 1066-1650. Paul Mellon Centre BA, 2011. ISBN 9780300110586, p.189
Rowe, Anne, “Berkhamsted”, in: Rowe, Anne, Medieval Parks of Hertfordshire. University of Hertfordshire Press, 2009. ISBN 9781905313488, pp.62-67
Sherwood, Jennifer, ‘Influences on the growth and development of medieval and early modern Berkhamsted’, in: A County of Small Towns: The development of Hertfordshire’s urban landscape to 1800, ed. by Terry Slater & Nigel Goose. University of Hertfordshire Press, 2008. ISBN 9781905313440, pp.221-248
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‘Berkhamsted Motte and Bailey Castle’, Heritage Gateway. URL: http://www.heritagegateway.org.uk/Gateway/Results_Single.aspx?uid=MHT39&resourceID=1008 Date accessed: 22 Feb 2011
‘Berkhamsted: Places of Historical Interest’, Dacorum Borough Council. URL: http://www.dacorum.gov.uk/default.aspx?page=3192 Date accessed: 22 Feb 2011
‘Berkhampstead St Peter: Introduction, honour, manor and castle’, A History of the County of Hertford: volume 2 (1908), pp. 162-171. URL: http://www.british-history.ac.uk/report.aspx?compid=43265 Date accessed: 30 April 2011
‘Memorials & Inscriptions’, The Parish Church of St Peter, Great Berkhamsted. URL: http://www.stpetersberkhamsted.org.uk/heritage/memorials Date accessed: 29 December 2014
Higginbotham, Susan, ‘The Will of Cecily, Duchess of York’, Medieval Woman (29 July 2010). URL: http://susandhigginbotham.blogspot.com/2010/07/will-of-cecily-duchess-of-york.html Date accessed: 30 July 2010
Tags: Cecily Neville, Hertfordshire, Margaret of Anjou