Bess of Hardwick

Bess of Hardwick

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.

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One thought on “Bess of Hardwick

  1. I just adore British history and all its regal complexities! Bess sounds like quite the impressive woman. And – love that I can always count on you to learn something new. Thank-you for this lesson!

    April 26, 2013 | Marcie
    Thank you so much. I have another Mary Lovell book about the Mitford sisters (and Deborah married into the Cavendish family). I loved it, and will certainly track Bess of Hardwick down. She does sound like an amazing woman. Powerful, warm and caring. A wonderful mixture.

    And that is a stunning building.

    April 26, 2013 | Soosie
    Oh dear me, Cherry. So many dots are being connected because of you and this post. For one, we have a fella at Shutterchance who has shown us many images “up close and personal” of the ES estate. Having visited the Chatsworth House in 2008 (from where my FB profile image comes!), I had no clue it was built by Bess and her husband. What a small world! Add to that the fact we are thoroughly enjoying the “Downton Abbey” series, ready now for part 2. HA! The plot thickens with all the dukes and lords and ladies all over the place. You English sure know how to do it up big. 🙂

    April 26, 2013 | Ginnie
    Cherry I love these wonderful residences and I am laughing at Ginnie’s comment about Downton Abbey and how much we all get involved in what we call here “period drama”. But whenever we can unearth a powerful woman from these times I think we need to celebrate and spread the word!! What a great character designer and business woman Bess was!

    April 26, 2013 | Catherine
    I love reading about how women were so industrious and determined back in the day! What a role model!

    April 26, 2013 | Gotham Girl Aka Robin
    Once again an interesting bit of history and intrigue. Thanks so much for sharing, Cherry.

    April 26, 2013 | Sue
    I so enjoy learning about the history of places like this. My imaginative mind looks at that tree and now wonders what kind of stories it could tell, too!

    April 26, 2013 | Deborah
    Sounds like Bess stayed pretty busy, what with husbands and building and hanging out with Elizabeth and all! Your post and image certainly makes me want to know more!

    April 26, 2013 | Susan
    How fascinating! I am so impressed by strong women of any age – but especially so long ago. How wise and shrewd they must have had to have been – ignoring stereotyped and societal mores – or learning to navigate them to their advantage. Marrying up for money? Ha-ha! And my thought when reading of all the windows was that a woman would still be like that today – preferring beauty and light and an eye to the outdoors – rather than a fortress of stone. It looks like an impressive home.

    April 26, 2013 | Barbara
    I get the feeling there were some very strong and powerful women in British history! This was very interesting to read. I had to laugh about Ginnie’s “Downton Abbey” comment – of course we have enjoyed that very much as well! We can’t wait for season 4…

    April 26, 2013 | Carola
    Oh… love this post. I always like to learn something new about historical events and beautiful residences. Thanks for sharing

    April 27, 2013 | Zena (Healingmoments)
    i’m fascinated by those times, although grateful to live in these.
    always a wonder what those regal walls would share with us
    if they could tell their stories.
    -Jennifer

    April 28, 2013 | Jennifer RIchardson
    Bess of Hardwick was an enterprising lady indeed. The windows look very interesting at the building and the chant ‘Hardwick Hall, more glass than wall’ suits them aptly.

    It’s true that autobiographical books reveal a lot about historical facts and common life at that time. I find interesting the information that “while Bess was married to the Earl of Shrewsbury, he was made responsible for the confinement (essentially imprisonment) of Mary, Queen of Scots”. I definitely need to get to know more about Mary, the Queen of Scots.

    April 28, 2013 | Petra
    What a fabulous history to these buildings, I am always in awe of the age and stature and survival of places so old. And what a fabulous story. What stories those walls could tell!

    April 29, 2013 | Kelly
    I had no idea. It’s wonderful to learn something new every day. Thank you Cherry!

    April 30, 2013 | Elena Caravela

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