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Thomas Hobbes and Hardwick Hall

Portrait of Thomas Hobbs aged 89 by John Michael Wright. A half-length portrait of an elderly man, turned slightly to left, facing, spectacles in his left hand, seated behind a table on which are writing materials, a sheet of paper indistinctly inscribed with date, and a copy of the Leviathan; landscape background left through window.
Portrait of Thomas Hobbs aged 89 by manner of John Michael Wright. | © National Trust Images

Thomas Hobbes (1588-1679) was a philosopher and political theorist. He is best known for Leviathan, published in 1651. He had a long association with the Cavendish family and spent his final years in Derbyshire, at Chatsworth and Hardwick Hall.

Thomas Hobbes of Malmesbury

Hobbes was born in Malmesbury, Wiltshire. Hobbes’s birth was premature, which Hobbes attributed to his mother’s fear of invasion by the Spanish Armada. Hobbes later said his mother gave birth to twins: ‘Me, and Fear’.

His father was a local vicar, of limited education, who enjoyed playing cards and eventually had to flee Wiltshire after a fight with another clergyman in a churchyard. Hobbes’s education was supported by his uncle, a wealthy glove maker.

Hobbes and the Cavendish family

After graduating from Oxford University, Hobbes served as tutor and companion to Bess of Hardwick’s grandson, William Cavendish, Second Earl of Devonshire (1590-1628), and his son William Cavendish, Third Earl of Devonshire (1617-1684). When he first joined the Cavendish family, Hobbes was a similar age to the Second Earl. Hobbes was his tutor, page, secretary but also his companion, accompanying him riding, hunting and on a Grand Tour, during which they travelled to France and Italy.

Hobbes remained a close friend of the Cavendish family throughout his life. He was a member of the ‘Cavendish Circle’, an intellectual group associated with William Cavendish, the First Duke of Newcastle (1593-1676), cousin of the Second Earl of Devonshire, who owned Welbeck Abbey and Bolsover Castle. He spent his final years in Derbyshire living with another William Cavendish, the first Duke of Devonshire (1640-1707), the Third Earl’s son.

Oil painting on panel, William Cavendish, 2nd Earl of Devonshire (1590-1628), British (English) School, inscribed top left and right in yellow flowing script: Cavendo: Tutus, the motto of the Cavendish family, and inscribed top right in antiquarian half-effaced inscription in yellow:
Portrait of William Cavendish, 2nd Earl of Devonshire. | © National Trust / Robert Thrift

Life and times

Hobbes lived through the political and religious turmoil leading up to the English Civil Wars. During the ‘Short Parliament’ of 1640 Hobbes circulated a text supporting the powers and rights of the monarchy. These ideas became increasingly dangerous as power shifted away from Charles I towards Parliament. Hobbes fled England after the establishment of the ‘Long Parliament’, living in exile on the Continent until 1651. During this time he tutored the future English King, Charles II.

Hobbes published a large number of works on a range of subjects, including philosophy, politics, law, history, natural science, mathematics, and geometry. He also translated a number of Greek texts, including Homer’s Illiad and Odyssey.

Hobbes was a well-known figure at the time. He is one of the subjects of John Aubrey’s (1629-1697) Brief Lives, a collection of biographies of famous figures from the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. Other notable figures include the playwrights William Shakespeare and Ben Johnston, the scientists Francis Bacon and Robert Boyle, and Elizabeth I’s magician John Dee.


Hobbes’s most famous work is Leviathan (1651). Hobbes argues that a safe and stable society can only be created by citizens submitting their rights to a sovereign with absolute power. This idea is beautifully represented in the frontispiece of the book, which depicts a sovereign composed of the people making up the society he rules.

Title page from Leviathan showing a monarch towering over a town.
Title page from "Leviathan, or The Matter, Forme and Power of a Common Wealth Ecclesiasticall and Civil" by Thomas Hobbs, London, 1651, part of the Springhill Library collections, County Londonderry. | © National Trust Images/John Hammond

In the ‘state of nature’, without government or laws, Hobbes argued that everyone would act in their own self-interest and self-preservation. The result would be constant conflict, and life would be ‘solitary, poore, nasty, brutish, and short’. Hobbes’s pessimistic evaluation of human nature was supported, in part, by the experience of England’s descent into civil war. For Hobbes, the only form of government that could prevent civil war is one led by a sovereign whose power is undivided and unlimited.

Hobbes’s ‘social contract theory’ offered a new justification of the authority of the monarchy, and a new account of the relationship between the monarchy, the Church and the people. Before Leviathan, the role of the monarchy had been justified by the ‘divine right of Kings’. Leviathan provided a secular defence of absolute sovereignty. It allowed Protestant English monarchs to claim absolute power over the state and the Church. This is represented by the King holding both a sword, symbolising military power, and a crozier, symbolising religious power.


Hobbes was a deeply controversial figure. Leviathan caused offence across the political and religious spectrum. It was criticised by Royalists on the grounds that the absolute sovereign did not need to be royal: citizens could submit to anyone able to sustain a stable society.

While some accused Hobbes of attempting to win favour with Oliver Cromwell, Leviathan’s generally Royalist tone and Hobbes’s aristocratic connections were nevertheless uncomfortable for Parliamentarians. Catholics were offended by his attacks on Rome and the Pope, and Anglicans were offended by his challenge to the authority of the Church and his unorthodox religious views more generally.

Hobbes was widely believed at the time to be an atheist, even if this is something that he himself denied. Hobbes was a materialist, who believed that everything that exists is made of matter. He denied the existence of immaterial souls and thought that God, like everything else, is material. These were deeply unorthodox religious views at the time.

Hobbes and Hardwick Hall

Hobbes stayed at Hardwick Hall on numerous occasions and helped to build and catalogue its extensive library.

A portrait of Hobbes aged 89 hangs in the Long Gallery at Hardwick. Hobbes famously described life outside of civilised society as ‘solitary, poor, nasty, brutish and short’. Thanks in part to his connections with the English aristocracy, Hobbes lived to the very old age of 91. Hobbes himself attributed his longevity to a moderate lifestyle, regular exercise, and singing out loud when no-one was listening: according to Aubrey, ‘not that he had a very good voice…[but] he did believe it did his Lunges good’.

Hobbes developed a ‘shaking palsy’ which worsened progressively throughout his life; by the end he was unable to write his own name. It is likely that he had Parkinson’s disease.

He died at Hardwick on 4th December 1679 after suffering a stroke. He is buried at St John the Baptist’s Church in Ault Hucknall, just a short walk across the estate.

Find out more about Thomas Hobbes and Ault Hucknall Church here.

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