Castle Hill, Berkhamsted
Berkhamsted Place was an Elizabethan mansion house that stood on the top of the hill overlooking Berkhamsted Castle. It was built sometime around 1580 by Sir Edward Carey, the keeper of Queen Elizabeth I’s jewels. Sir Edward found favour with the Queen, and she granted to him the lease of the castle for the nominal rent of one red rose a year. There may have been a touch of humour in the Queen’s grant; Berkhamsted Castle was by this period in ruins, and had not been inhabited since the death of Cecily Neville, Duchess of York in 1485.
Ancient buildings were not held in such high regard as they are today, and there was certainly no concept of preserving disused historic sites. For Carey, a ruined castle offered little more than a source of building materials, and he plundered the ruins for flints and faced stone which he then had transported up the hill, and used the material to build for himself a sumptuous new mansion called Berkhamsted Place. It is perhaps surprising, but not unusual for an English castle to be ruined not by invading enemies but by an English nobleman with an eye for property development. The house remained in the Carey family for several decades and it was home to Henry Cary, 1st Viscount Falkland. It was often referred to as “The Castle”, in reference to its material origins.
For a short time in the 17th century, Berkhamsted Place was a royal property; it was bought by Henry Frederick, Prince of Wales in 1612, and shortly afterwards passed to his brother, Prince Charles, Duke of Cornwall (the future King Charles I). Charles leased the property to his tutor Thomas Murray, and Mary Murray, who had been his nurse. In August 1616, the young Prince Charles came to visit to the Murrays for an afternoon of hunting in the estate.
The Murrays’ daughter, Ann, was an active Royalist during the English Civil War and became involved in a secret operation to smuggle the young Duke of York (the future King James II) out of the country to Holland to save him from Cromwell. Ann’s brothers James and John Murray were killed in the Civil War conflict and a memorial in St Peter’s Church commemorates the brothers, “youths of the most winning disposition who lived and died at Berkhamsted Place”. Ann herself fled the country in fear of her life, and Berkhamsted Place was seized by Lieutenant-Colonel Daniel Axtell, a Berkhamsted-born Roundhead soldier. After the Restoration of the monarchy, Axtell was executed and Berkhamsted Place was leased again. In 1660, the house was ravaged by fire and partially rebuilt by John Sayer, a wealthy local man who was Chief Cook to King Charles II.
In the 1840s Lieutenant-General John Finch and his wife Katharine Finch bought Berkhamsted Place as their retirement home. John Finch was the brother of the 5th Earl of Aylesford. By 1851 the couple were living at the Castle, and Finch is listed as Colonel in the Amy on half-pay. The estate had sixty acres of farmland for which two men and a boy were employed. They had many servants, including a house keeper, two ladies’ maids, a housemaid, dairymaid, kitchen maid, butler, coachman and footman.
At around the same period, Castle Farm at Berkhamsted Place (now The Keep and Pear Tree Cottage) was leased by farmers Noah and Elizabeth Newman. Both are also buried in Rectory Lane.
General Finch made his mark in Berkhamsted society, proving a generous benefactor to the Bourne School, the Town Hall and the Mechanics Institute. He also served as a churchwarden of St Peter’s from 1847 until his death in 1861. He was buried at the family seat, Packington Hall in Warwickshire. Katherine died in 1872 and was buried in Rectory Lane Cemetery.
The lease was later bought from the Duchy of Cornwall by Earl Brownlow. The house was converted into flats in the 1950s. The modernist sculptor Reg Butler has his studio at Berkhamsted Place.
Berkhamsted Place was demolished in 1967 and today private cottages and a farm now occupy the site.