Once upon a time, in an Essex village called Havering-atte-Bower (now part of London), sat a palace. Many kings stayed in the palace during their travels around the country until it was abandoned in 1686. Today, nothing remains of the palace, and not many people know it ever existed. Fortunately, records of the building still exist, and the Romford Historical Society is determined to keep the history of Havering Palace alive.
According to Havering Museum, people inhabited Havering-atte-Bower during the Saxon times. In the 7th century, Sigeberht the Little, the King of Essex from c. 617-653, built either a wooden hunting lodge or palace. Naturally, this building disintegrated over time.
The second palace was built during the 24-year reign (1042-66) of Edward the Confessor. There is no proof the king stayed at the palace, except for a local legend. Allegedly, during one visit, the king came across a beggar asking for money. Edward regrettably told him, “I have no money, but I have a ring,” which he handed to the beggar. Some claim this is how Havering got its name: “have a ring”. It is more likely the name is derived from Hæfer, a Saxon landowner. The far-fetched tale continues, claiming the beggar later gave the ring to some pilgrims, telling them, “Give this to your king, and tell him that within six months he shall die.” Suspicious of the claim, the pilgrims asked the beggar who he was, to which he replied, “St John the Evangelist.” Six months later, Edward the Confessor died.
According to the Domesday Book, completed in 1086, the manor or palace belonged to Earl Harold in 1066. This record suggests the king gave the land to the Earl before he died. Upon the king’s death, Earl Harold became King Harold II (1022-1066), also known as Harold Godwinson. Harold Wood, a suburban neighbourhood in the London Borough of Havering, got its name from the king.
On 14th October 1066, Harold II died during the Battle of Hastings, and the crown and palace passed to William the Conqueror (1028-1087). The Norman king proceeded to take the surrounding land away from the previous owners. Lands included Upminster, owned by Sweyn the Swarthy; Cranham, owned by a freeman called Alwin; Rainham, owned by Lefstan the Reeve; and Berwick Farm, which belonged to someone called Aluard. William also took North Ockendon but later swapped it for Windsor, where he built Windsor Castle.
Havering Palace remained the property of the crown and nearly all the kings and queens of England used it until the 17th century. During this time, extensive building works resulted in a palace with at least 26 rooms, a chapel, several kitchens, a gatehouse and an inner courtyard.
In 1262, King Henry III (1207-72) granted Havering Palace to his wife, Eleanor of Provence (1223-91). From then on, Havering Palace belonged to the subsequent queen consorts and queen dowagers until Jane Seymour’s death in 1537. The word Bower in the name Havering-atte-Bower may stem from the queens’ presence in the area. One meaning of bower is “a woman’s private room or bedroom”, although another source suggests atte-Bower meant “at the royal residence.”
King Edward III (1312-77) made over 30 visits, frequently staying for weeks at a time. In 1358, Edward held a Marshalsea Court at Havering Palace for five months and allowed locals to air their grievances. Traditionally, a Marshalsea Court let the domestic staff of the royal household express their views, but not usually members of the public.
Richard II (1367-1400) also met with members of the public at Havering Palace, but under less favourable conditions. In 1381, some of the rebels involved with the Peasant’s Revolt came to Havering Palace to ask for mercy. Despite their pleas, Richard sent the majority to trial and execution. On another visit to the palace in 1397, the king organised the murder of his uncle, Thomas of Woodstock, Duke of Gloucester (1355-97). Richard ordered Thomas de Mowbray, 1st Duke of Norfolk (1366-99), to ambush his uncle while riding in Epping Forest. The Duke of Norfolk owned the Romford manor of Mawneys and is honoured by the street name Mowbrays Road in Collier Row.
Henry IV (1367-1413) is reported to have stayed in Havering Palace, and it is where his second wife, Joan of Navarre (1368-1437), spent her final year before passing away in 1437. Following the death of Henry IV, Joan’s stepson Henry V accused her of witchcraft and imprisoned her for many years in Pevensey Castle, Sussex, and later at Leeds Castle, Kent. Six months before his death, Henry V (1386-1422) released Joan from her imprisonment.
In 1465, King Edward IV (1442-83) issued a royal liberty charter in Havering, which gave residents freedom from taxation. The charter also allowed the area to establish a jail and employ local magistrates. The liberty was formed of eight wards: Romford Town, Harold Wood, Collier Row, Noak Hill, Havering(atte-Bower), Hornchurch Town, North End and South End (South Hornchurch). Gallows Corner, Romford, is named after the liberty’s execution site.
During the reign of Henry VIII (1491-1547), extensive work took place on the Palace, costing over £280 (over £145,600 today). This equated to 9300 days wages of the average skilled tradesman.
By the 1530s, Havering Palace needed at least five keepers, including Keeper of the Outwoods, Keeper of Havering Park, Paler of Havering Park, Keeper of the South Gate and Keeper of the Manor. The building and surrounding land needed constant attention and repairs. Before Elizabeth I (1533-1603) visited in 1568, a team of seven carpenters, four bricklayers and two plumbers were employed to make the palace fit for a queen.
It is not certain if Elizabeth’s father, Henry VIII, stayed in the palace, but he certainly hunted in the area. Havering Palace belonged to Henry’s first three wives until their deaths, or in the case of Catherine of Aragorn (1485-1536), her divorce. Following Jane Seymour’s (1508-37) death, the future Edward VI (1537-53) used part of the palace as his nursery.
During her youth, Mary I (1516-58) lived at Havering Palace amongst many other locations. Elizabeth I may also have spent time in Havering as a child, and in 1561, received a translation of a religious book from Greek to Latin by Sir Anthony Cooke (1504-76), who lived nearby at Gidea Hall.
Elizabeth believed moving from one place to another involved less maintenance and less cost, so she frequently visited Havering Palace when in Essex. She also stayed nearby at Ingatestone Hall, Loughton Hall and St Osyth Priory and gave her legendary speech at Tilbury to 5,000 soldiers on the eve of the Spanish Armada in 1588.
Havering Palace needed significant repairs each time Elizabeth visited. In 1594, new rafters were installed, gate posts rehung, and the lime and sandstone bricks treated to make the building watertight. In the latter stages of her reign, Elizabeth made Havering Palace a lodging for Ladies of Honour, such as Frances Newton, Baroness Cobham (1539-92). Lady Cobham served as a Lady of the Bedchamber and was one of Elizabeth’s closest friends.
Elizabeth’s heir, James I (1566-1625), frequently stayed at Havering Palace, but usually for only one night at a time. The palace now belonged to the king’s wife, Anne of Denmark (1574-1619), who was awarded a new jointure estate after becoming Queen Consort. Her estate included Somerset House in London, Hatfield House in Hertfordshire, Pontefract Castle in West Yorkshire, Nonsuch Palace in Surrey, and the palace in Havering-atte-Bower. This was more than had been granted to any former King’s wife.
James I allegedly preferred to stay at Theobalds House in Cheshunt on the other side of Epping forest when staying in the area on hunting expeditions, yet invited his noble companions to stay at Havering Palace. One Scottish courtier, George Home, 1st Earl of Dunbar (1556-1611), went hunting with the King in 1608 and wrote favourably about his stay in the palace.
The king appointed Edward de Vere, 17th Earl of Oxford (1550-1604), the Keeper of Havering in 1603, shortly after the coronation. When De Vere died, his wife, Elizabeth Trentham (d.1612), a former Maid of Honour to Queen Elizabeth, took on the role of custodian until she died in 1612.
Charles I (1600-49) was the last king to stay at Havering Palace. Records suggest he only stayed there in 1637 when his mother-in-law, Queen Marie de’ Medici (1575-1642), visited Britain. Charles slept at Havering on 8th November during his journey from London to Chelmsford, where he met the Queen of France and accompanied her to Gidea Hall. Rather than stay in the same building as his mother-in-law, Charles returned to Havering Palace for the night.
The next day, Charles and Marie de’ Medici made their way to St James’s Palace, much to the annoyance of anti-Catholic protestors who rioted in the street. The French queen stayed for a few years until Parliament paid her £10,000 to leave in 1641. The following year, Civil War broke out in England and many buildings were sequestrated by Parliament, including Gidea Hall. The South Essex Parliament committee set up their headquarters in Romford, meaning Havering Palace was no longer safe for any member of the royal household to stay.
After the execution of Charles I on 30th January 1649, Richard Deane (1610-53), one of the men who signed the king’s death warrant, began dismantling parts of Havering Palace and ordered all the mature trees in the area cut down. By the time of the Restoration of the Stuart Monarchy in 1660, Havering Palace was but “a confused heap of old ruinous decayed buildings.”
At some point during the interregnum, Havering Palace became the property of Robert Bertie, 3rd Earl of Lindsey (1630-1701), who also owned Grimsthorpe Castle in Lincolnshire, one of the few luxurious buildings not taken over by Parliament during the civil war. Despite his costly attempts to rebuild the palace as “His Majestys house at Havering”, the project was never completed and became vacant after 1686.
By 1740, Havering Palace was beyond repair and left to gradually weather away. In 1828, no walls were visible above ground, and the remains of the land were sold at public auction. The winning bidder was Hugh McIntosh (1768-1840), a Scottish engineer who made his fortune excavating the East India and London Docks. McIntosh also worked on the British Museum, Buckingham Palace, and the London and Greenwich Railway.
Whilst Havering Palace no longer exists, some of the land and buildings in the London Borough of Havering still bear its history. Bower House, a Grade I listed Palladian mansion, was built in 1729 by Henry Flitcroft (1697-1769) from some of the remains of the palace. In 1878, Hugh McIntosh’s son constructed the church of St John The Evangelist to replace the chapel that originated in Havering Palace.
Havering Palace stood roughly where the village green outside St. John the Evangelist Church is situated today. Havering Country Park, including the 100 acres of woodland, is all that remains of the palace’s surrounding land. The land was purchased by the Greater London Council and opened to the public in 1975.
The layout of the palace is uncertain, but the Romford Historical Society has built a model of Havering Palace based on a plan from 1578. The plan described a gatehouse that allowed access to a series of connected buildings, including a great chamber, the royal apartments, two chapels and accommodation for the Lord Chamberlain and Lord High Treasurer. Separate from the main rooms included kitchens, a buttery, a scullery, a salthouse, a larder and stables. To view the model, visit Havering Museum.