James I's Royal Palace, Royston
On 24 March 1603, Queen Elizabeth I died. Without an heir of her own, the crown passed to her nearest royal relative, her first cousin twice removed, King James VI of Scotland.
Shortly after news of his accession, James journeyed south from Edinburgh, along the Great North Road, to his coronation in London, stopping at intervals en route.
James arrived at Hertfordshire’s border on 30 April and was escorted by the county's High Sheriff to the market town of Royston. James stayed overnight in the Priory House on Kneesworth Street, part of the dissolved Priory, and was entertained by its owner, Robert Chester, whose father had purchased the Priory estate following its dissolution in 1537.
James only stayed in Royston for one night, continuing his journey south the following day. He was crowned King James I of England on 25 July 1603, uniting the English and Scottish thrones.
Despite his short visit, the King was so impressed by the suitability of Royston’s countryside for hunting that, shortly after his coronation, he began looking into options for a country retreat there. As a temporary arrangement, Chester, who had since been knighted, agreed to rent his Priory House to the King for one year. This was the beginning of what is now described as ‘one of the most unlikely and unusual royal residences in the history of the monarchy’.
Almost immediately, the King announced a 14 mile wide hunting ban surrounding Royston, so that hares, rabbits, partridges, marsh hens and other game would be preserved for his pleasure. A gamekeeper was appointed to protect the game from poachers; huntsmen were hired to care for the King's hunting dogs; and a vermin keeper was assigned to kill foxes, badgers, predatory birds and any other ‘vermin’ which preyed on the King's game.
Royston soon became one of the King's favourite residences. He didn't particularly enjoy the ceremony and formality of court and Royston offered him somewhere more private and relaxed, where he could escape interruption and indulge his interests for literature, theology and field sports.
Royston was conveniently placed too. It was close to the King’s other country houses at Newmarket and Theobalds, and not too far from State business in London. It was also within easy reach of Cambridge University, whose academics the King enjoyed debating with. He was known to read books from the college libraries and invite troops of Cambridge actors to perform plays for him.
Not all of the King’s time at Royston was spent recreationally. As his visits to the town grew longer and more frequent, it became necessary to accommodate a fuller court, so State affairs could continue while the King was away. Nearly £4000 was spent between 1603 - 1611 to provide sufficient infrastructure.
Firstly, in 1604, the King purchased The Cock inn, two doors down from the Priory House, and The Greyhound inn that adjoined it, which he combined and converted into his private home.
Then, in 1607, the Priory House was enlarged with a new wing, one room deep and extending 8 m out into the middle of Kneesworth Street. This became the King’s Lodgings. The entire building totalled 24 m long, 15 m deep and 7 m tall, with 60cm thick brick walls. It had two stories containing twelve rooms, six upstairs and six downstairs, including; a Presence Chamber and a Privy Chamber, the two main rooms required to conduct Sate business; a Stole Room; a Withdrawing Room; a service chamber and the King's new bedchamber. To its rear was the King’s Privy Garden with an ornamental pond, surrounded by a high wooden fence.
The new wing was built by the King’s Office of Works, who oversaw building and maintenance of royal residences, and designed by Jacobean architect Simon Basil, Surveyor of the King’s Work. The exterior was decorated with gables, a clock tower, window crests and a painted roof, drained by nine lead spouts leading from the gutters. It's thought to have had artistic similarities to nearby Hatfield House, which was constructed around the same time.
By 1610, the palace site had grown significantly and a considerable amount of the town was now occupied by the Crown. Joined to the King’s Lodgings on the northern side was a Porter’s Lodge and Gate House, with a small courtyard behind, which gave access via a brick porch to the King’s Privy Garden and private entrance. North of the Privy Garden was the Great Garden, on which sat the King’s New Chamber, for royal visitors, the King’s private stables and his servants’ quarters. At the far northern boundary, on Field Lane (now Dog Kennel Lane), stood the dog kennels and beyond that lay pasture.
Joined to the King's Lodgings on the southern side was the King’s Buttery, which was ‘partly tiled and partly thatched’. Then came the site of The Cock and The Greyhound inn, with a spacious courtyard behind, which was turned into a Guard House once the King had moved into his new Lodgings. Next along was the King’s Privy Kitchen in the former home of the Wilsons, a local malt-trading family. Between the Privy Kitchen and Ickneild Way (now Melbourn Street), ran a long line of buildings used by the Prince’s household. On the corner (now Lloyd’s Bank) was the Prince’s private residence, three stories high, with the Prince’s Garden behind.
Turning the corner onto Melbourn Street, The Swan inn consisted of two rows of buildings enclosing a courtyard, with a gateway at either end. These were acquired for the King’s Wardrobe, Pantry and residence for the King’s Housekeeper. Behind it stood the Cock Pit, a round brick building used for cock fighting, to provide entertainment on days when the King couldn’t hunt.
Returning to Kneesworth Street, on its western side, opposite the King's Lodgings, stood the royal coach houses and, further along, the King's bowling green. The row of houses in between Kneesworth Street and Back Street (now Lower King Street) was called 'Middle Row.' This housed the stable officers.
The Parish Church served as the royal chapel, although the King preferred to listen to sermons in the comfort of his Presence Chamber, and the King’s ministers occupied a number of buildings throughout the town. Any remaining inns and houses were periodically required to accommodate the various guests of the King's court, although the town would became so full with courtiers, ministers, diplomats and ambassadors that people often couldn’t find anywhere to stay.
This sudden attention was generally unwanted by locals. For a start, the King was legally entitled to receive cut-price food and demand farmers lend him their carts, of which he used about 200 for royal processions. Horses and transport were also often taken from locals, usually under extortion, bribery or threats from royal workers, and resources were drained to accommodate royal visits. At the height of activity, in Summer 1610, five hundred loads of timber, brick and other building material were brought into town during harvest season. The instability caused by the King's arrival put severe strains on local industry, particularly the malt trade, on which the town's economy relied.
Before long, desperate attempts were made to try and get the King to return to London.
In December 1604, one of the King’s favourite hunting dogs, Jowler, was stolen, only to be returned the next day with a letter tied to his neck. It read:
‘Good Mr. Jowler, we pray you speak with the King (for he hears you everyday, and so doth he not us) that it will please his Majesty to go back to London, for else the country will be undone; all our provision is spent already, and we are not able to entertain him any longer.’
Taking little notice, the King continued to visited increasingly often and Royston became the backdrop to several important event's during his reign.
It was in Royston, for example, where, in October 1605, the King was notified of a letter received by Lord Mounteagle, a minister who owned a house in Royston called Whitehall, on the corner of what is now London Road and Sun Hill. The letter provided information about a conspiracy to assassinate the King by blowing up the House of Lords and led to the successful discovery of the Gunpowder Plot. Some of Whitechapel still remains.
Then, In 1612, the King welcomed Frederick V, Elector Palatine of Rhine in the Holy Roman Emperor, to Royston to negotiate the marriage of Frederick and the King’s daughter, Princess Elizabeth, from whom our present Royal Family are descended. Six years later, in 1618, the King signed the warrant for the execution of Sir Walter Raleigh while at Royston; and, in 1623, French Ambassadors arrived in Royston to negotiate the marriage of Prince Charles and Henrietta Maria, daughter of Henry IV of France, who he wed two years later.
The King's own wife, Queen Anne of Denmark, isn't often mentioned in reference to Royston. There is only one record of the Queen accompanying him on his visits and, unlike typical royal residences, there were no rooms assigned specifically for her. There were, however, apartments for the King’s male favourites, including George Villers, Earl of Buckingham.
Villers’ account books reveal that he played golf at Royston in 1624, documenting purchases of clubs and balls, and a lost wager:
‘Paid to the Gofball keep[er] for clubs and balles at Roiston 4th October. £1 11s 0d.
Lost to Sir Robert Deale at Goff the 4th October. £2 0s 0d’
This is the first known record of a golf match outside of Scotland, where the game originated, and the first reference to golf being played by someone who wasn’t Scottish. The King was fond of golf and may well have played at Royston too. Golfers still use the historic course on Therfield Heath today.
James was last at Royston in February 1625, where he created his final knight, Sir Richard Bettenson. On 28 February, James took his final departure from the place he loved so much, never to return. He died at his country house at Theobalds on March 27, 1625.
Royston during the reign of Charles I and The Civil War
Charles I visited Royston less frequently than his father, preferring to stay at Newmarket. He occasionally still hunted around Royston and continued to preserve the game in the area, as his father had done. Charles inherited his father's debts at Royston, including 20 years worth of unpaid rent for the Priory House and fees for property purchases, which were finally paid in 1628.
During The English Civil War (1642-1651), fought between supporters of the King and Parliament, the palace at Royston was, for a time, used as a strategic base by Royalists, despite the town having Parliamentarian leanings. On 3 March 1642, while the counties of England were preparing for war, Charles arrived in Royston where he stayed for 4 days while negotiating Parliament’s militia requests. He then travelled to Newmarket, leaving the Prince, aged 12, at Royston, before marching towards Huntingdon and into the ‘sorrowful confusion’ of the Civil War.
In April 1646, arrangements were made in Royston for the King's reception by the Scottish army, and, shortly afterwards, Charles briefly passed through the town as a fugitive in disguise, on his escape from Oxford to join them at Newark-on-Trent.
The following year, in June 1647, Charles returned to Royston for the final time as a prisoner of war, while Lord Fairfax, Oliver Cromwell and a 20,000 strong army set up camp around Royston, waiting to receive an answer from Parliament to their demands. Charles was executed on 30 January, 1649.
Despite Royston having Parliamentarian leanings, news of the King’s execution was not well received. In July 1649, when a garrison of Parliamentarian solders visited Royston, 150 locals rose in mutiny. The soldiers’ wrists were cut, they were labelled traitors for murdering the King, and the palms of their hands were slit so they could no longer fight against the monarchy. Royalist media later described the attackers as ‘The Royston Crowes’. This is the earliest known reference to a Royston Crow, having since lent itself to the name of the bird, commonly seen roosting in the area, the town’s football club and Royston’s local newspaper.
After The Civil War, Parliament seized all Crown possessions, including those at Royston. The buildings were surveyed and, apart from the King’s and Prince’s Lodgings, found to be badly decayed. They were mostly repaired and sold as private housing. The King's Lodgings was leased to Lewis Audley in 1653, a Parliamentary officer who was owed £517 and 10 shillings in arrears, probably in payment for his military service.
Following the restoration of Charles II, Chester's heir, Edward Chester, still lord of the Priory Manor, reclaimed some of the buildings. The Palace, however, continued to be occupied by tenants of the Crown for about another 150 years. By 1866, all Crown rights in Royston had been sold.
Today, the streets of Royston still contain many of the former royal buildings, disguised as modern businesses. The Guard House is now a Thai restaurant, the King’s Buttery is a fish and chip shop and the King’s Privy Kitchen is a tattoo parlour.
The east wing, a single red brick building on Kneesworth Street, is all that remains of the Palace, with the King's Privy Garden behind. The west wing was demolished, leaving its central chimneys exposed. Internally, the existing rooms contain many of its original Jacobean features and, though privately owned, it's still often referred to by locals as ‘The Old Palace’.
You can still see some of the old palace buildings by following the Royston Town Trail. Download the trail here.
Kingston, A. (1906). A History of Royston. Royston: Warren Bros.
Thurley, S. (2019). Turning a Town into a Palace. Country Life UK (August).
British History Online, 'Parishes: Royston', in A History of the County of Hertford: Volume 3, ed. William Page (London, 1912), pp. 253-265, British History Online, <https://www.british-history.ac.uk/vch/herts/vol3/pp253-265 >
Royal Palaces, Royston, Royal Palaces, <https://www.royalpalaces.com/palaces/royston/>
Scottish Golf History, 1624 Royston - First Englishman Golfer, Scottish Golf History,<https://www.scottishgolfhistory.org/oldest-golf-sites/1624-royston-first-englishman-golfer/ >