Those who persevered with the BBC’s series Gunpowder beyond the early torture/execution scenes will have witnessed the key role that Robert Cecil played as adviser to James VI & I (and before him Elizabeth I). Cecil’s father William was arguably the world’s first prominent spymaster, and when he was forced from office for having incurred Elizabeth’s wrath over the execution of Mary Queen of Scots, Robert was the only qualified successor. Both were masters of manipulation who employed any means at their disposal in service/advice to the monarch and so were arguably the most powerful men in the country. The family estate is still Burghley House on the border of Lincolnshire and Cambridgeshire, where Cecil’s descendant trained for the Olympics as portrayed in Chariots of Fire, complete with champagne glasses balanced on his hurdles.
A family of such influence didn’t restrict themselves to one great house however, and in the 16th Century William Cecil commissioned the building of a grand new house in Hertfordshire, called Theobalds, that Robert would later inherit.
Conveniently located one day’s travel from the City of London (by the standards of the day), the house was visited regularly by both Elizabeth and James. The latter liked it so much that he exchanged it for another property with Cecil (Hatfield House) and it became a Royal country retreat, where James eventually died in 1625. Tragically this great property was demolished by 1650 as a result of the Civil War.
Following The Restoration the estate returned to royal ownership and a century later was sold to a merchant who built a Georgian Mansion on the site. Ownership then passed to the Meux family who extensively remodelled the property during the 19th century. Lady Meux was an interesting character who had risen from being a London barmaid through marriage. This colourful lady was known for driving an open carriage round London drawn by a pair of zebra, and was painted on a number of occasions by Whistler. Remember Temple Bar in London? This was the estate where it was relocated on her whim.
Theobalds is now a hotel and conference centre (which is what brought me here to deliver training) and little remains to remind you of this great history, at least not within the current hotel grounds. Though still home to muntjac, they are far smaller than the original deer park that surrounded Theobalds. Resort to Google maps however and you can still see a couple of labyrinths from the air elsewhere in Cheshunt, features which records indicate could be found in the original parkland.
A tale of reduced circumstances? (It certainly was for gunpowder plotter Robert Catesby; he was exhumed so that he could be decapitated). There’s one part of that tale that I haven’t uncovered, and it relates to the crest on the mansion walls; the motto is that of the Worsley family (a notoriously licentious bunch in the 18th century) but I don’t know how they are connected. I like the sentiment of the Latin though – Ut sursum desuper. I swoop to rise again.