Hardwick Hall is unique among National Trust properties. Most are monuments to the men of British history (the good ones and the bad ones). Hardwick Hall is a monument to a woman and a very formidable woman at that. Elizabeth Shrewsbury, colloquially known as Bess of Hardwick, wielded power in an age when women did not have that much. Sure, England was ruled by a woman, but besides that, it was still uncommon for a woman to wield as much power as Bess of Hardwick. And her monument was Hardwick Hall. This remarkable Elizabethan structure, it is said, is more glass than brick.
Editor’s Note: This article originally appeared in Issue #13 of the Anglotopia Print Magazine in 2019. Support great long-form writing about British History, Culture, and travel by subscribing to the Anglotopia Magazine. Every subscription helps keep Anglotopia running and provides us to the opportunity to produce articles like this. You can subscribe here.
- Built between 1590 and 1597 for the formidable Bess of Hardwick
- Currently owned by the National Trust
- Most of the furniture and other contents of the house date back to as early as 1601
- There are six rooftop sculptures on the outside that have the initials ‘ES’, which stands for ‘Elizabeth Shrewsbury.’
Bess of Hardwick
The 16th century in England was a turbulent and dangerous time. A time of religious conflict, intrigue, and plotting, where fortunes and lives could be won or lost on a whim and when anger, jealousy and naked ambition directed state affairs as much as reason and strategy. It was also a time when women had opportunities previously denied them. With the first two female monarchs in the country’s history, it was a century where it was acceptable for women to wield power and amass fortunes. Elizabeth Talbot, usually known as Bess of Hardwick, was pre-eminent in this age of new-found female power.
Bess was born around 1527 – the exact year is unknown, but recent research has uncovered court records that indicate 1527 – to John Hardwick of Derbyshire. At the time this area between Lancashire and Yorkshire was heavily wooded, and remote from the southern centers of power and influence. The family-owned just a few hundred acres of farmland and were at the lower end of the social scale, being minor members of the gentry, just one step above yeoman farmers. Bess’s younger brother James was the last male heir in the family.
Around 1543 Bess, perhaps very underage, was married to the 13-year-old Robert Barley, who was the heir to a nearby estate. However, he died at the end of 1544, and it seems the marriage was only on paper and that they never lived together or likely even consummated their marriage. Certainly, Bess was refused the dowry due her when Robert died, and it was only after several years of court battles that she was awarded a share in the estate and compensation.
A few years later, in 1547, she married again, this time to a man twice her age who had himself been married twice before, his earlier wives having died. However this was a more financially favorable marriage as her husband, Sir William Cavendish, was the King’s Treasurer (to Henry VIII) and had amassed a significant fortune from Henry’s seizure of Church property known as the Dissolution of the Monasteries. Bess persuaded her new husband to sell his properties in the south and buy up the estates of her mother’s second marriage, in the Derbyshire district of Chatsworth. When Sir William died just ten years later, Bess inherited his money, since the land had been left to their six surviving children.
By this time Henry VIII, Edward VI and Mary I had come and gone and Elizabeth I had taken the throne. Catholicism has been briefly and violently re-established by Mary, who imprisoned her half-sister, the future Queen Elizabeth in the Tower of London. Spain has gone from Catholic enemy to husband of the Queen and back to enemy again, and Britain has lost its last foothold in France, the port of Calais.
The Captain of the new Queen’s Guard and Chief Butler of England (basically the caterer to Royal Coronations) was Sir William St Loe and when he married Bess in 1559 Lady Cavendish became Lady St Loe. Unlike her earlier marriages, this seems to have been a loving one, and they were both around the same age. Sir William owned extensive estates in the south-west, chiefly in Somerset and although his death in 1565 without a male heir was likely the result of being poisoned by his brother, he left everything to Bess, turning her into one of the richest women in the country. Her annual income of £60,000 would be equivalent to around $10 million today. Not just wealthy, Bess also had power and influence with the new Queen, since she was one of Elizabeth’s personal Ladies and had daily access to her. Because of her influence, wealth and enduring good looks, she soon began to attract new suitors.
Bess took her time finding a suitable match but eventually, in 1568, now approaching fifty, she and two of her children married into the powerful Talbot family in a triple ceremony. Bess married George Talbot, the 6th Earl of Shrewsbury, one of the most powerful men in the country. Her daughter, who was 12 at the time, married Talbot’s oldest son and thus his heir, while her own son, 18, married one of Talbot’s daughters, who was just eight years old. This would certainly have ensured that the Earl’s fortune would pass into Bess’s family.
Bess now became caught up in the intrigues of the British royals. Mary I of Scotland (not to be confused with Mary I of England) was considered by many British Catholics to be the legitimate heir to the throne. So when she was deposed by rebellious Scottish lords and fled to England seeking Elizabeth’s protection the Queen had a problem. She solved it by placing Mary in the hands of the Shrewsbury’s in what was effectively a house arrest. Mary spent the next 15 years living in several of the Shrewsbury estates, out of Elizabeth’s way. She was ultimately executed for treason, but the years with Bess and her husband created marital strain and resulted in their separation. However, Bess and Mary also spent a considerable amount of time together working on embroidery and tapestry, as was appropriate to their gender and positions. Bess and the Earl had separated permanently by the time Elizabeth took Mary off their hands. The Earl died in 1590, leaving Bess the richest woman in England after Elizabeth herself and with the title Dowager Countess of Shrewsbury. She built herself a grand palace at Hardwick Hall to rival Elizabeth. The house is notable for its use of very large windows for the period.
While married to the Earl of Shrewsbury Bess made complex marriage arrangements for one of her daughters which resulted in a grandchild, Arbella Stuart, who was a potential heir to the Throne. Bess’s plan did not succeed, and in the end, she was forced to ask Elizabeth to take this willful child into her care after Arbella attempted to elope. Although this plan failed, Bess did eventually have a descendant take the throne – Queen Elizabeth II.
Bess died in 1608, outliving Elizabeth I and seeing James I take the Throne and imprison Arbella Stuart in the Tower, where she eventually died, after a plot by Sir Walter Raleigh to make her Queen – something Arbella had never personally wanted.
After she married Sir William Cavendish, she convinced him to move back to her home county. As a native of Derbyshire, Bess was very fond of the scenery and the quiet environment. They purchased the property for their well-known home, Chatsworth House, in 1549 and began building in 1552.
The story told is that Bess had a terrible argument with her husband, the Earl of Shrewsbury, and left their home at Chatsworth in 1584. She then organized plans to rebuild the Old Hall at Hardwick to create a new home for herself. However, her plans changed in 1590 when the Earl died, which left her with his inheritance. Due to her new positive financial situation, Bess decided to build a new construction at Hardwick, eliminating the renovation plans for the Old Hall all together and creating the New Hall. She moved into her new house in October 1597. The Old Hall was ruined as a garden decoration and romantic ruin.
Her new Hardwick Hall was a true statement for her power and wealth. It contained numerous windows that were exceptionally large for the time period. Glass was a luxury, and the house was described as being more glass than walls. The chimneys were also built into the internal walls, instead of being constructed on the outside. This was done to allow more room for the large windows without weakening the exterior structure. An added touch by Bess was the carved ‘ES’ initials that are present in 6 of the rooftop sculptures at the head of each tower.
Hardwick is one of the first houses in England where the hall was built on an axis directly through the center of the house, instead of at right angles to the entrance. The height of each ceiling is also unique with each floor being slightly higher than the first. There are three main levels of the Hall. With the bottom level being smaller in height than the top floor. This was designed for the occupants of each room: the least important occupants stayed on the bottom floor, and the most important lived at the top. This helped to clearly designate the servants from the noble occupants.
The true treasure of Hardwick Hall is the remarkable contents inside that were collected by the Countess. An exceptionally unique collection of paintings and furniture from the 16th century are still present inside. The Hall is fully furnished, exactly as Bess would have kept it. The second floor of the house contains the largest long gallery that has ever been present in an English house. The most notable features are the tapestries and needlework on display. Much of the needlework art has the ‘ES’ initials, and it is therefore assumed that Bess herself created much of it.
After the death of Bess in 1608, her son William Cavendish, the 1st Earl of Devonshire, inherited Hardwick Hall. His great-grandson, also named William, was titled as the 1st Duke of Devonshire, which began the Dukes of Devonshire dynasty. Chatsworth was and is the primary seat for the Dukes of Devonshire. However, Hardwick Hall remained as a secondary home for the family to escape from the attention of the public. The family donated the house to the British government in 1956 in lieu of Death Duties, who then transferred the house to the National Trust. The house still stands and is surrounded by a walled garden, which includes an orchard, an herb garden, a café, and a National Trust gift shop.
The Old Hall
Other than the exceptionally unique use of windows throughout the house, another fact that makes Hardwick Hall famous is due to the ‘Old Hall’ being listed as an official ruin. It is present beside the New Hardwick Hall and was the original home of Bess before she built the new house. The property is owned by the National Trust and administrated by English Heritage.
TV & Film Appearances
Hardwick Hall is most popular in the TV and film industry as the location for the exterior scenes of Malfoy Manor in Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows – Part 1 and Part 2. The property was also used in the Connections TV series which illustrated changes in home design, as well as the TV series Mastercrafts.
Venus in Winter: A Novel of Bess of Hardwick is a novel by Gillian Bagwell and is a fictionalization of Bess’s life.
Bess of Hardwick: Empire Builder – Mary S Lovell – From the author of The Sisters, a chronicle of the most brutal, turbulent, and exuberant period of England’s history. Bess Hardwick, the fifth daughter of an impoverished Derbyshire nobleman, did not have an auspicious start in life. Widowed at sixteen, she nonetheless outlived four monarchs, married three more times, built the great house at Chatsworth, and died one of the wealthiest and most powerful women in English history.
Hardwick Hall, as well as the gardens, the shop, and restaurant, are open most days of the week with the exception of bank holidays. They also have a period of time after Christmas when the house is closed. Before planning your visit, it is best to refer to their website in order to verify that they are open, as well as hours of operation and ticket prices. You can find the information at www.nationaltrust.org.uk/hardwick.