Introducing Bess of Hardwick

View of Hardwick Hall from the gatehouse

Hardwick’s history is closely associated with the lady who built it, Elizabeth, Countess of Shrewsbury, known to many simply as ‘Bess of Hardwick’. Born on the site of Hardwick Old Hall Bess rose to a position of great power within Elizabethan society.

By her mid-teens Bess found herself at court in London as Lady in waiting to a member of her extended family.  While at court Bess caught the eye of an older courtier, William Cavendish, Treasurer of the King’s Chamber, and the two married in 1547.   The couple had eight children, six of who survived into adulthood, and they set up their family home at Chatsworth, the first of many homes that Bess commissioned.

Young Bess of Hardwick
Portrait of Bess of Hardwick

William died in 1557 and two years later Bess married again, this time to Sir William St Loe, Captain of the Queen’s Guard and Grand Butler of England.  The marriage to St Loe was short-lived as he died in 1565, but again Bess managed to secure most of his great wealth for herself.  Secure at Chatsworth and very wealthy Bess married for a final time, this time to George Talbot, 6th Earl of Shrewsbury, in 1567, a statesman high in royal favour and Bess added the title of Countess to her great wealth.

Soon after her wedding Shrewsbury was made custodian of Mary Queen of Scots, who remained in his charge for the next fifteen years, moving from one another of his many mansions, including Chatsworth.  The strains of the royal ‘guest’ put pressures on Bess’ marriage and after several years of bitter quarrelling Bess left Chatsworth and came back to her childhood home at Hardwick.  For the next few years Bess started to construct a new house around her old family home, the building we now know as Hardwick Old Hall.  Even before this new house was finished, however, plans changed.  In 1590 the Earl of Shrewsbury died and barely a month later the foundations were being dug for Hardwick New Hall.

An aerial view of Hardwick Hall, Derbyshire ©National Trust Images/John Miller

This time, there was a plan for the new building, produced by Robert Smythson, known as the first English architect; the building utilised new ideas on symmetry, in complete contrast to the adjacent old hall and the sheer quantity of glass is daring and has given rise to a local saying ‘Hardwick Hall, more glass than wall’.  The size of the windows increases progressively in height from the ground upwards and the turrets are topped with the initials ‘ES’ and a coronet, leaving no one in any doubt of who built Hardwick.

Portrait of Bess of Hardwick
Portait of Bess of Hardwick in older age

Bess moved into her new house in 1597 and four years later compiled an inventory, a list of the contents of the house that emphasises the richness and quality of the interior furnishings of Hardwick.  In 1608, in her mid-80s Bess died at Hardwick and was buried in a tomb in Derby Cathedral.