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The history of Hardwick Hall

The interior of the Blue Room at Hardwick Hall with a four-poster bed with blue drapes and elaborate picture wallpaper
Hardwick Hall's Blue Room | © National Trust Images/Andreas von Einsiedel

Hardwick’s history is closely associated with the lady who built it, born Elizabeth Hardwick, who became 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.

The very fact that Hardwick was built is a sure sign of Bess' wealth, power and ambition. The audacious architectural design and materials used, alongside the lavish interior, were chosen by Bess to impress and they continue to do so today.

Young Bess

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 whom survived into adulthood, and they set up their family home at Chatsworth, the first of many homes that Bess commissioned.

Tragic loss

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 inherited most of his great wealth. Secure at Chatsworth and very wealthy, Bess married for the final time in 1567.

She married George Talbot, 6th Earl of Shrewsbury, a statesman high in royal favour and Bess became a Countess.

Elizabeth Talbot, Countess of Shrewsbury, also known as Bess of Hardwick' by Rowland Lockey. Hanging in the Long Gallery at Hardwick Hall, Derbyshire
Portrait of Bess of Hardwick by Rowland Lockey which hangs in the Long Gallery at Hardwick Hall, Derbyshire | © National Trust Images/John Hammond

Strain on the marriage

Soon after they were married, George Talbot, 6th Earl of Shrewsbury, was made custodian of Mary Queen of Scots.

She remained in his charge for the next 15 years, moving between his many mansions, including Chatsworth.

The strain of the royal ‘guest’ put pressure on Bess’ marriage and after several years of bitter quarrelling, Bess left Chatsworth and came back to her childhood home at Hardwick.

Grand design

When she returned, Bess commissioned a new house near to her old family home, which became known as Hardwick Old Hall as the new one was built. 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.

Architect used for first time

For the first time in English history, an architect was commissioned to design the building. Robert Smythson, known as the first English architect, utilised new ideas on symmetry in his designs and created plans that were in complete contrast to the adjacent old hall.

Using huge amounts of glass

The sheer quantity of glass was daring, giving rise to a local saying ‘Hardwick Hall, more glass than wall’.

The size of the windows boldly increases as the building rises from the ground and the turrets at the very top are emblazoned with the initials ‘ES’ and a coronet, leaving no one in any doubt of who built Hardwick.

The roof of Hardwick Hall with the initials ES carved in stone on the top
The initials of Bess of Hardwick can be seen in the design of all of the towers of the house | © National Trust Images/John Hammond

Treasure trove

Bess moved into her new house in 1597 and four years later compiled an inventory.

The list of the contents of the house reveals the scale of Bess’s work and a treasure trove of the very best interior furnishings at the time; a house filled with splendid tapestries, fine furniture and grand portraits, many of which survive and can be seen today on a tour through the house.

Bess dies

In 1608, in her mid-80s Bess, one of Elizabethan England’s most powerful women, died at Hardwick and was buried in a tomb in Derby Cathedral.

Lady Arbella Stuart

As Lady Arbella Stuart lay dying in the Tower of London, she recalled her childhood at Hardwick Hall and reflecting on a life that could have been so different.

Born in 1575 into the Stuart family, the only daughter of Elizabeth Cavendish, she is one of those ‘what if’ moments in Scottish and English history. Arbella was cousin to James VI of Scotland, niece of Mary Queen of Scots and a distant cousin to Queen Elizabeth I of England.

At two, when her father Charles Stuart died, she should have been given title of Countess of Lennox and the Lennox lands in Scotland, but the claim was deemed invalid because of her English birth and King James still being a minor.

Arbella’s education and move to court

On Elizabeth’s death Arabella spent much of her childhood at Hardwick where she gained an education. Arbella proved herself an able pupil; fluent in Latin, Greek, French, Italian and Spanish, learned in philosophy and an accomplished musician.

On her first visit to the Court of Queen Elizabeth, Arbella made such an impression that Elizabeth spoke openly about 12-year-old Arbella one day being queen. However, these were turbulent times, the execution of Arbella’s aunt, Mary Queen of Scots was followed swiftly by the Spanish Armada and Arbella returned to the relative safety of Hardwick.

On King James gaining the crown, appointed Arbella as state governor to his eldest daughter Princes Elizabeth and in 1605 Arbella became godmother to Princess Mary.

Oil painting on panel transferred to canvas, Lady Arabella Stuart, later Duchess of Somerset (1575 ? 1615), aged 23 months, British (English) School, 1577
Lady Arabella Stuart, later Duchess of Somerset (1575-1615), aged 23 months by British (English) School | © National Trust Images

Marriage and imprisonment

After years of desiring marriage in 1610 she finally became betrothed to William Seymour, from the Seymour family who themselves had a distant claim to the English throne and the couple secretly married in June 1610. Within days the secret was out and William was imprisoned in the Tower and Arbella placed under house arrest. By September, Arbella was convinced she was pregnant (she was not) but as a result she was to be sent north to the custody of the Bishop of Durham far away from her husband in the Tower.

Plagued by illness (real or imagined we may never know) the journey north in the spring of 1611 was painfully slow while Arbella plotted an escape and Arbella never left the outskirts of London. Early in June, dressed as a man, Arbella slipped out of her lodgings and made it to a boat on the Thames and set sail for France. The alarm had now been raised, however, and the King gave orders to search for and capture the fugitive. Within sight of the French coast, Arbella’s ship was boarded and she was brought back to London and imprisoned in the Tower.

Although Arbella argued she had sought only freedom to live with her husband she was kept in close confinement in the Tower, although never charged with a crime.

Arabella’s death in the Tower

During 1612 and 1613 her health deteriorated but still hoped that James would take pity and release her, even ordering new dresses for the marriage of Princess Elizabeth early in 1613. By 1614, however, Arbella appears to have given up any hope of release and in the autumn of 1614 took to her bed and refused any medical attention as her health deteriorated.

Evelyn, the Last Lady of Hardwick

Duchess Evelyn Devonshire was the last of the Cavendish family to call Hardwick her home. She lived through times of great change during a life that spanned from Victorian England into the Swinging Sixties. A life of passion and privacy, of care and compassion and one filled with a sense of duty to her home and family.

Born in 1870, the eldest daughter of the 5th Marquis of Lansdowne. Evelyn spent much of her early life abroad while her father served as Governor General of Canada (1883 – 1888) and Viceroy of India (1888–1894). In 1890, she returned to England and married Victor Cavendish, the heir of the Duke of Devonshire on 30 July 1892.

Evelyn, Duchess of Devonshire, 1870-1960, at Hardwick Hall, Derbyshire, repairing a tapestry
Evelyn, Duchess of Devonshire, 1870-1960, repairing a tapestry | © National Trust

Marriage and Mistress of the Robes

Evelyn and Victor had a happy and successful marriage with seven children. In 1925, Victor had a serious stroke and Evelyn’s life altered forever. Victor’s personality changed dramatically. The once loving husband and doting father became irritable and unpredictable. Evelyn exercised power of attorney and managed Victor’s affairs until his eventual death in 1938.

Like Bess before her Evelyn was a close friend of royalty. Evelyn was Mistress of the Robes to Queen Mary throughout her life and the two women had a deep and affectionate friendship. This relationship has inspired the creation of “Duchess Evelyn’s robes” a stunning interpretation of both Evelyn’s position within society as well as her deep friendship with Mary. The robes were created at Anderson Apparel Ltd. by award-winning Designer and Managing Director, Christine Anderson.

Preserving Hardwick

The Duchess cared deeply about Hardwick Hall and understood her role in the preservation of it for future generations. Thanks to her efforts, you can get up close to and see the ancient and complex tapestries that she lovingly restored with her own hands and witness the changes she made to the Eastern landscape of Hardwick’s grounds.

Duchess Evelyn Devonshire died in 1960.

Detail of a late sixteenth-century Flemish tapestry hanging in the Green Velvet Room, Hardwick Hall, Derbyshire.

Hardwick's collections

Explore the objects and works of art we care for at Hardwick on the National Trust Collections website.

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