In the midst of the Derbyshire Hills lies an extraordinary house built by an extraordinary woman. It was a marvel of its age – a true prodigy house (a large and showy country English country house built by a courtier or wealth family). It is as legendary as its creator.
Hardwick Hall was built by the indomitable Bess of Hardwick, just metres from the original Hardwick Hall where she was born.
If Bess was alive now, the Daily Mail would have a field day. She rose from being the daughter of a country squire to the second wealthiest women in the land after Elizabeth I. She did this through a combination of four increasingly advantageous marriages and shrewd management of her finances and affairs.
Bess’ final husband was George Talbot, Earl of Shrewsbury, head of one of the richest and noblest families in England. At first the marriage was very much a love match, but by the end it had irreterivably broken down, partly due to the burden placed on the couple by the Queen of guarding Mary, Queen of Scots. In the summer of 1584 George forced Bess out of her own house. After his death in 1590 Bess decided on her last and greatest project – Hardwick Hall.
(P.S. Apologies for the varied quality of the photos – my camera decided to die on me halfway round!)
Hardwick Hall was commissioned by the total historical girl boss that was Bess of Hardwick. And she wanted you to know that, crowning each of the house’s six turrets with her initials ‘ES’.
Hardwick is a lesson in the Elizabethan ideals of symmetry, but inside Bess did as she pleased. The carved wooden furniture, elaborate plasterwork, and fabulous fireplaces are as Bess would have known them. There is also a wonderful collection of late Elizabethan needlework and a great processional staircase.
The main feature of Hardwick Hall’s exterior is the windows. There are masses of large widows – a magnificent statement of wealth. Hence the rhyme ‘Hardwick Hall, more glass than wall’.
We know from accounts Hardwick Hall took seven years to build, and Bess was able to move in in late 1597.
Where do I start? Hardwick Hall is full of treasures. It has one of the best collections of early modern embroidery collections in the entire country, including pieces embroidered by both Bess herself and Mary Queen of Scots.
There is also the stupendous (if rather X-rated) Sea Dog Table, one of the most important examples of 16th Century furniture in Britain. In fact, it may be the only example of this type of table in the entire world. The walnut table may have been given to Bess by Elizabeth I or Mary, Queen of Scots, and features four chimeras or sea dogs complete with buxom bosoms.
The High Great Chamber and Long Gallery are two rooms that stop you in your tracks and make you go wow. They did exactly that to me. The High Great Chamber is simply phenomenal. As well as some of the largest wall tapestries I have ever seen, around the top of the walls is a frieze. But not jut any frieze. This frieze is huge and features a forest and hunting scenes and illustrates travels to far off lands where exotic animals, including kangaroos, could be seen.
From the High Great Chamber, you move into the Long Gallery. Another jaw-dropper, full of early modern portraiture, illuminated by the almost full-length windows.
Hardwick Hall was owned by the Cavendish family until the 1950s, so luckily the painting and furniture collections remains relatively intact. This means lots of fully furnished bedrooms.
The last bedroom you reach is furnished how it was when used by the house’s last occupant, Lady Evelyn, the ninth Duchess of Devonshire. However, its though this is also the room where Bess of Hardwick used to sleep along with her granddaughter Arbella. A relatively small room for two great women.
Other Notable People
The other notable person related to Hardwick Hall is Bess’ granddaughter, Arbella Stuart. Arbella’s parents were Elizabeth Cavendish (Bess’ daughter by her second marriage) and Charles Stuart, Earl of Lennox. There is no doubt Bess and Arbella’s other grandmother, Margaret Douglas, daughter of Queen Margaret Tudor, contrived to bring Elizabeth and Charles together. Arbella was therefore a great-great-granddaughter of Henry VII, in line to the English throne, and a potential successor to Elizabeth I – you can just imagine how delighted Elizabeth was to have Arbella around!
By the age of six poor Arbella was an orphan and living with Bess at Hardwick Hall. Her life was one of protected isolation, and because of her closeness to the throne Elizabeth forbade her marrying without her permission. That didn’t stop Arbella trying though! She really had such an interesting life and I totally recommend learning more about it if you have the time.
If you’re interested in learning more about these interesting females, I totally recommend Bess of Hardwick by Mary S. Lovell – I’ve had this book since the first year of my undergraduate History degree where I wrote an essay all about female roles in Tudor society, and its a great read. Equally as good is Sarah Gristwood’s England’s Lost Queen: Arabella – her life totally reads like a Jeremy Kyle show at some points.
As well as wanting to visit Hardwick Hall, I had seen a lot of online promotion about their new exhibition ‘We are Bess’ and was keen to see it. Especially as he exhibition has been curated by popular early modern historian Dr Suzannah Lipscomb.
‘We are Bess’ is an exhibition designed to bring Bess of Hardwick’s story to life in a new way. ‘It uses the perspectives of modern women to consider how we talk and think about women’s life experiences, women’s power and whether women are believed when they speak. It explores the parallels between the past and present.’
The exhibition also presents a revised historical interpretation of Bess. Past historians have labelled her as overly ambitious and a bit bossy, whereas really she was just doing the same things as men were doing in a time when were supposed to conform to specific gender roles. Really, she was an absolute trailblazer and hero – a boss, but not bossy.
I must admit I had mixed feelings about the exhibition. I really loved what they did in the Long Gallery, where they hung specially commissioned portraits of contemporary female pioneers among the historic early modern portraits. I also loved the message board at the end of the exhibition, where everyone could leave messages about how they relate to Bess. There’s even an exhibition hashtag – #IAmBess.
However, I also think parts of the exhibitions crossed the line in terms of inferring modern notions and thought process on historical events. Halfway up the grand staircase to the first floor you can stop and watch an introductory video to the exhibition. The video explained how even Bess encountered some of the ‘everyday sexism’ that women still encounter now. However, some of the points made went a tad too far in my opinion – example ‘Ever been slut shamed? Then you are Bess’.
Nevertheless, overall I enjoyed the exhibition. If you are interested in seeing it, it runs until the 4th of November 2018. It will then re-open on the 16th February 2019 until the 2nd June 2019.
Have you visited Hardwick Hall? Have you seen the ‘We Are Bess’ Exhibition? What did you think of it?
- Opening times vary – please check National Trust website for details.
- A combined House and Garden ticket for one adult is £15.40 with Gift Aid. In my opinion the price tag is worth it, as there is a lot to see here compared to the ‘standard’ National Trust property. For £20.75, you can get a combined ticket for both Hardwick Hall and Old Hardwick Hall next door, which is run by English Heritage. Be aware you also need to pay £5 for parking/estate entrance.
- If you can, visit on a weekday. I visited on a Sunday and the queue to enter the car park was very long.