Bess, who built Hardwick Hall, was the daughter of a gentleman squire who started life with very little money. She was married when she was only fifteen and Widowed for the first time when she was only sixteen. She remarried several times and due to her diligence as a business woman she accumulated wealth and properties, eventually becoming one of the most powerful and wealthy women that England has ever known.
When in her sixties, Bess of Hardwick was estranged from her fourth husband, George Talbot sixth Earl of Shrewsbury, she returned to her childhood home at Hardwick and embarked upon the task of completely rebuilding the old manor and transforming it into a more modern hall in keeping with her status as Countess of Shrewsbury. The building work took place between 1587 and 1596.
In 1590, before the Old Hall was complete, Bess started building another house immediately adjacent to it. The New Hall was designed by architect Robert Smythson. The Old and New Halls were intended to complement one another like two wings of one building.
When Bess died in 1608 her son, William Cavendish, inherited Hardwick. William was the forebear of the Cavendish family, Dukes of Devonshire, nowadays based at the Chatsworth Estate. Over time the Dukes came to prefer Chatsworth (which was built by Bess and her second husband, William Cavendish). Hardwick Old Hall was partially dismantled in the 1730s but the New Hall, which has remained unchanged since it was built, is even more magnificent than the Old Hall. The silhouetted initials ES that adorn the top of the building stand for “Elizabeth Countess of Shrewsbury” though she was better known as Bess of Hardwick. Its vast amounts of glass make the building rather cold inside and give rise to the famous words ‘Hardwick Hall, more glass than wall.’
The National Trust guidebook describes the hall as perhaps the most perfect of all the Elizabethan ‘prodigy houses’.
On a visit to the hall I bought “Bess of Hardwick First Lady of Chatsworth” by Mary S Lovell. It gives a very vivid account of her life and times and a sense of what it was like to live in the Tudor age. It also gives insight into both daily domestic life and the political intrigues of the time. Bess was a lifelong friend of Queen Elizabeth I and there are glimpses into life at the Royal Court. While Bess was married to the Earl of Shrewsbury, he was made responsible for the confinement (essentially imprisonment) of Mary, Queen of Scots. This duty was expected to be temporary but lasted fifteen years. The book explains what it was like to be burdened with this responsibility and the difficulties it caused. The book also describes Bess as a woman of great character and determination but who was also a warm, affectionate and caring person that often gave gifts to her family.