I have visited Hardwick Hall in Derbyshire for the first time this week, and wow, what a place. Even though I’ve seen pictures of the hall, they don’t do justice to the sheer amount of glass. In the sixteenth century that must have been incredible to anyone who saw it!
I also hadn’t realised that Bess of Hardwick had died at the grand old age of around 80, though her exact date of birth is unknown c.1527. She was a fascinating woman in her own right, marrying four times, and rising from a minor gentry family to become a countess and a powerful woman. Bess was born at the Old Hall, then a small manor house, close by the current Hall, though she later decided to renovate and then build a new Hardwick, which is what survives today.
Bess’s first husband was Robert Barlow who died around 1544, her second was Sir William Cavendish, her third was William St Loe, and her fourth was George Talbot, 6th Earl of Shrewsbury. When Bess was married to William Cavendish they gained the land including the manor of Chatsworth. It would take decades to build this house.
Bess of Hardwick remodelled Hardwick Old Hall, where she was born, in the 1580s. She had married the Earl of Shrewsbury in 1568. But they were given the duty of guarding Mary Queen of Scots when she arrived in England, and this would ruin their marriage. In summer 1584 Shrewsbury forced Bess out of her home at Chatsworth and this is when she decided to renovate Hardwick. She was barred from many of Shrewsbury’s houses, so retreated to her own home. She had to buy Hardwick when her brother, James, died bankrupt in the Fleet prison.
To Hardwick Old Hall Bess added two additional wings. The house was occupied by Bess, her son, William, and his family, and her grand-daughter, Arbella Stuart. Arbella was the granddaughter of Margaret Douglas, who was the granddaughter of Henry VII. As such, she was considered a potential heir to Elizabeth I.
As the renovations to Hardwick Old Hall reached completion Bess of Hardwick began to build the Hardwick Hall we see today, beginning work just as her husband, George Talbot, 6th Earl of Shrewsbury, died in November 1590. The turrets at Hardwick have Bess’s initials ‘ES’ for ‘Elizabeth Shrewsbury’ emblazoned in stone atop them, and her arms in stone sit above the entrance. The house is full of beautiful furniture and tapestries which give a sense of the grandeur you would have been met with if you visited at the end of the sixteenth or beginning of the seventeenth centuries.
Bess liked symmetry, as seen at Hardwick with the sheer amount of glass and the turrets. Bess of Hardwick certainly knew the master mason, Robert Smythson, though it is unsure exactly how much input he had in the building of Hardwick Hall. Possibly he provided some ideas or plans while Bess and her team did the rest. This would explain a payment made to him in 1597. Materials for the house were locally sourced, as was the labour. The new Hardwick Hall took around seven years to build with the foundations and cellars being dug in 1590 with the ground floor built in 1591, the family floor the following year, and he second floor in 1593. The roof and turrets were built in 1594. Paving and glazing were completed in 1597 and Bess moved in that year. We know this from her own accounts.
There is a room at Hardwick which is a bit of a legend, called the Mary Queen of Scots room. Many people assume that, because Bess of Hardwick and her husband were the gaolers of Mary Queen of Scots that she must have been in residence here, but Hardwick Hall wasn’t even started until after Mary’s execution in 1587, so she cannot ever have been in residence. The guidebook to Hardwick Hall suggests that the Mary Queen of Scots Chamber was furnished to feed the myth that she was there. Now Mary’s arms are over the door, though this would have just been a chamber within the bedchamber in Bess of Hardwick’s day.
For those who are Harry Potter fans, as I am, Hardwick Hall was used as the basis for Malfoy Manor in the films. They only filmed using the outside of the house, but the inside was used as inspiration for the sets created for the actors to film on.
If you want to visit Hardwick Hall, it is a National Trust property, though the Old Hall is looked after by English Heritage.
If you want to visit, check the National Trust website for up-to-date information, though it is open daily, depending on conservation work happening. It is free if you are a National Trust member, otherwise an adult ticket is priced at £16 and a child at £8 though there are also family and group booking options.
Hardwick on the National Trust Website – https://www.nationaltrust.org.uk/hardwick-hall
Hardwick Hall Guidebook