The River Lea’s route, which takes it from the centre of London out into the surrounding countryside north of the city, has always made it an important river for trade and power, but also for defence. Indeed, Hertford Castle is one of the few castles in the UK to predate the Norman invasion, having first been fortified in 911 by Edward The Elder. Although the body of the castle is now ruined, the dramatic gatehouse remains, and is worth a visit for anybody exploring this upper stretch of the Lea.
A castle as old as Hertford has been a lot of action. It was seized by the Normans and eventually passed down to Henry II, who saw its potential and had it reconstructed and strengthened in the 1170s. It was besieged during the French during the invasion of 1216 and continued to have royal ownership, with Edward I giving it his second wife Margaret and the castle also being used by Edwards II and III, Richard II, Henry V and VI, Edward IV and Richard III. Henry VIII used it as a palace, constructing the gatehouse, and it was also used by all three of his heirs – Edward VI, Mary and Elizabeth. The castle was also frequently used to hold prisoners, including Knight Templars, Scottish and French kings, and religious martyrs.
Following the Tudors, however, this once mighty citadel began to crumble. Neither James I nor Charles I showed much interest in the castle. It quickly fell to ruin. The gatehouse remained in use, but the grounds became a public garden and were eventually given to the town as a gift. There are regular events and open days, and the castle is also used for functions and weddings.
Hertford Castle was once one of a number of castles that were built to surround London with a ring of stone. Hertford was a particularly important location as it protected the start of the Lea, which heads from Hertford down to London. Follow the Lea out of Hertford and there is some wonderful walking to be had, with views over the Kings Meads meadowlands nature reserve and much industrial and rural architecture, such as a number of old malt houses. As the Lea heads into the Lea Valley Regional Park, it becomes a heaven for wildlife spotters – you can even walk as far as Rye House, which was once the home to Catherine Parr, Henry VIII’s final queen. Find out more about the Lee Navigation and things to do on or beside it on our website.