The house that Bess built: the secrets of Hardwick Hall

Which historical sites in Britain have played an important role in our history? This is the question BBC History Magazine's David Musgrove put to British historians while researching his book 100 Places That Made Britain (2011). Here, in an extract from the book, Musgrove visits Hardwick Hall in Derbyshire, which was built by the "fantastically wealthy" Bess of Hardwick in the 16th century...

Hardwick Hall in Derbyshire, England. (Photo by Getty Images)

It’s hard to know which way to look when you get to Hardwick Hall. As you step around the corner from the car park, the National Trust signs point to a sizeable window-filled wonder of a building to your left, yet plainly in front of you to your right is an equally large, and patently historic, ruin. Two grand houses shoulder to shoulder, but it’s not like they are tight on space – they are surrounded by acres of beautiful gardens within rolling Derbyshire countryside.

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The house that’s still intact is probably the best place to start. This is Hardwick Hall, as opposed to the ruined Hardwick Old Hall. By far the most striking aspect of its exterior is the glut of windows it boasts. ‘Hardwick Hall, more glass than wall’ is how the old ditty goes. Built at a time when glass was expensive, it was a clear indication of the wealth and status of its builder.

A 16th-century portrait of Bess of Hardwick. Bess's talent, ambition and eye for a well-connected husband elevated her to dizzying levels of wealth and power in Tudor England. (Photo by Bridgeman Art Library)

In what we might consider today as something of a showy statement, that builder’s initials ‘ES’ are emblazoned above those huge windows in stone carvings atop the several turrets of the house. ES stands for Elizabeth of Shrewsbury, but the woman in question is more commonly known as Bess of Hardwick. Born in 1527, Bess married four times to a succession of rich and influential men, the last of whom was the Earl of Shrewsbury. She outlived them all and died in 1608 as one of the richest people in England. She built both halls at Hardwick, in the 1580s and 1590s, and the New Hall remains as one of the most admired Elizabethan great houses still standing.

The hall is a remarkable statement of female authority
Hannah Greig, historian and lecturer

“The hall is a remarkable statement of female authority,” says historian Hannah Greig. “It’s associated with Bess of Hardwick, who was fantastically wealthy in the 16th century. She married multiple times, so she has an amazing story of success in manipulating the marriage market in the Elizabethan era. But what’s so fantastic about the property she built is that she claimed it so completely as her own. On top of the building are these huge initials, and when you go into the house it’s full of her. I don’t know of any other property where you get such a strong sense of a single person, and that’s partly because of the amazing collection of textiles they have there.”


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The floor-to-ceiling tapestries that hang in most of the rooms are indeed incredible, perhaps none more so than in the Long Gallery, where almost its entire length of 51 metres (168 feet) and its 8-metre (26-foot) height are covered with a series of 13 Elizabethan tapestries, brought here by Bess in 1592. They have survived because her descendants, as the Dukes of Devonshire, inherited nearby Chatsworth House as well as Hardwick. Chatsworth was remodelled and refurbished according to changing tastes, while Hardwick was rather left behind as an unloved, unfashionable sibling. That is, until the 19th century, when the 6th Duke took a shine to the place once more and filled it with Elizabethiana and other antiques. He brought in a considerable number of new tapestries from elsewhere, but there are still numerous pieces from the 16th century in the house. Some of them include even more ancient fabric in the form of medieval vestments because part of Bess’s wealth derived from her second husband, Sir William Cavendish, who made his fortune as one of Henry VIII’s commissioners in the Dissolution of the Monasteries.

Inside the High Great Chamber at Hardwick Hall, where the walls are adorned with tapestries and a plasterwork frieze. (Photo by Getty Images)
Inside the High Great Chamber at Hardwick Hall, where the walls are adorned with tapestries and a plasterwork frieze. (Photo by Getty Images)

“The needlework is a form of expression available to women at the time,” says Greig. “I like to think of those textiles as women’s writing, a display of female learning. We associate women’s power with Queen Elizabeth, but there were other women who could make a strong mark on the landscape and on the cultural and political landscape too.”

Bess herself may have worked on some of the embroidery, though she took time out from that to move with the great and the good of Elizabethan society. She was generally on amenable terms with the other notable Elizabeth of her day, though she did fall out with the queen on occasion, particularly after she engineered a match between one of her daughters and Charles Stuart without royal consent. The resulting child of that marriage, Arabella Stuart, was seen as a contender for the throne after Elizabeth. Bess also quarrelled with, and separated from, her last husband. He attempted to take control of Chatsworth, but Bess challenged him in court and won. That she survived and prospered through these years of intrigue and politicking reveals her strength and intelligence.

Chatsworth House, where Elizabeth I ordered for Mary, Queen of Scots to be imprisoned after she abdicated and fled from Scotland to England in 1567. (Photo by Chatsworth House Trust)

You could spend a full day admiring the tapestries and exploring the great state rooms of Hardwick Hall, but don’t forget to spare a little time for the Old Hall. This place was built by Bess between 1587 and 1596, but she appears to have decided that it wasn’t grand enough, so even before she’d finished it, work had begun on the New Hall. Nevertheless, the Old Hall was clearly a mighty house in its own right until it was partly dismantled in the mid-18th century, perhaps simply to provide a romantic garden ruin within the New Hall’s gardens.

Ruins of Old Hardwick Hall at Chesterfield in Derbyshire, England. "It was clearly a mighty house in its own right until it was partly dismantled in the mid-18th century," says Musgrove. (Photo by Getty Images)
Ruins of the Old Hardwick Hall at Chesterfield in Derbyshire, England. “It was clearly a mighty house in its own right until it was partly dismantled in the mid-18th century,” says Musgrove. (Photo by Getty Images)

To poke around in the Old Hall provides a considerable contrast to the grandeur next door. There is still enough standing for you to ascend several floors and look down into the empty shell of the place (not something I’d recommend to those who dislike heights). You can tell that this was once a grand building from the gaps where its own great windows would have been, and from the plaster friezes that linger over long-lost fireplaces, suspended in mid-air above floors that no longer exist.

With a mighty ruin and a mighty house to enjoy, there’s enough here to hold your attention for some time, and that’s without mentioning the lovely gardens around them. If you want to get a sense of how women were able to make an impact in what we tend to view as a man’s world, a day out at Hardwick will provide just that.

Hardwick Hall was nominated by the historian Hannah Greig for 100 Places That Made Britain (2011) – now out in paperback.

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David Musgrove is Content Director of BBC History Magazine