Bess of Hardwick Hall

I visited Hardwick Hall today, a spectacular Tudor mansion, commissioned and lived in by one of the most illustrious ladies of Tudor England: Bess of Hardwick. The House sits on top of a hill and oversees the land like it is supposed to, leading by example. The turrets and roof decoration can be recognized from afar, the huge windows reflecting its surroundings on a sunny day. What a treat. The drive towards it was long – raising my expectations very highly indeed.

I wrote 2 blog posts about my visit to Hardwick Hall. One about the house and the one you are currently reading about Bess.

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Who was Bess?

Elizabeth of Hardwick (1527 – 1608) was born at Hardwick Hall, the old hall, parts of which still remain today. She was the daughter of a modest country squire but ended up being the richest woman in England only second to Queen Elizabeth I. She married no less than four times, the first time at the tender age of 16 but was widowed shortly thereafter. With each subsequent marriage she gained more wealth; titles, money and property. She dearly loved some of her husbands, but got estranged from her fourth husband.

She acquired vast amounts of land in Derbyshire and put her stamp on it by building magnificent houses. Chatsworth House (not the current house we know today) was one of Bess’ great projects which took up much of her time. Her mother still lived at Old Hardwick Hall but in time she would own that too and start building a new house, suitable for a princess.

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Sir William Cavendish (1505 -1557), Courtier and Bess’ 2nd husband

Four Husbands

After Bess’ short-lived first marriage Bess’ second husband was the courtier Sir William Cavendish. He was much older  than her but their marriage was happy.  They had eight children together. Their children would later develop the houses of Devonshire (Chatsworth), Portland – Newcastle (Welbeck), Waterpark (Ireland) and their family line goes deeply into the aristocratic and royal lines of England. They bought old Chatsworth manor in 1549 for £600 and in 1552 began to built the first house on the site (the  current grand house was built by his great-grandson, the 4th Earl in 1686). When Sir William died when Bess was thirty his estates became hers to govern for their children.

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Chatsworth House in the 16th Century, an 18th century painting after a lost original (detail). At Chatsworth House.

​​By the time of her third marriage Bess was appointed Lady of the Privy Chamber to Queen Elizabeth I.  Her third husband William St. Loe was Captain of the Guard, moving them ever closer to the royal court.  He owned huge amounts of land in the South-West of England and he left her one of the richest widows in England.Her fourth marriage was to the 6th Earl of Shrewsbury, George Talbot.  He already had six  children, two of whom would later marry Bess’s children, tying the families ever closer together. Bess’s daughter Mary Cavendish would marry Gilbert Talbot (7th Earl of Talbot, the same who would buy Welbeck Abbey and Bolsover Castle.  He sold the properties to his brother-in-law Charles Cavendish, who became the father of William,  the 1st Duke of Newcastle). Bess’  “bad son”  Henry would marry Talbot’s daughter Grace. Their marriage was a disaster but that is a different story. The families were tied together and so were their estates, which was what it was all about.

Bess and George  Talbot had a rocky marriage. When kicked out of Chatsworth after a huge row, Bess bought her old family home and moved back and away from her husband. She then decided on her most magnificent building project to date: New Hardwick Hall. She was in her sixties and would have another twenty years to live in her new home, outliving her last husband by 18 years.  She died aged 81, on 13 February 1608.

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New Hardwick Hall, designed by Robert Smython and commissioned by Bess of Hardwick. Built 1590 – 97.

​Arbella Stuart

Bess lived at Hardwick Hall with her son William (1st Earl of Devonshire) and his family as well as her young orphaned granddaughter Arbella Stuart. Arbella had a claim to the throne via her father’s line (her great-grandmother was Margaret Tudor, Henry VIII’s sister). Arbella was the daughter of Bess’s daughter Elizabeth who eloped with her lover Charles Stuart. ​

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A portrait of Arbella Stuart, circa 1577 by unknown artist. At Hardwick Hall. (detail)

​Poor Arbella, orphaned around 8 years of age, came to live under the protection of Bess at Hardwick Hall. There she was put under so much protection that her life became hard.  She rebelled on many occassions, wanting more freedom of movement. She was, however, often allowed at court where she met William Seymour. In the end she married him in secret (as she would not have gotten permission to marry a man who was sixth-in-line to the throne, making  their union a proper threat to Elizabeth) for which they were both imprisoned. They escaped, were recaptured near the French coast, and locked up in the Tower, where Arbella died in 1615 (she was on hunger strike). Arbella’s sad childhood, her illustrious grandmother and her tragic adult life and death still speaks to the imagination today.

Mary Queen of Scots

​Bess’s relationship with Mary Queen of Scots is another one of many stories that add tragedy and personality to Bess’s life. When Mary fled to England, seeking Elizabeth’s protection Elizabeth put Mary under house arrest and under the custody of Bess and her husband the Earl of Shrewsbury. Mary would be moved around the various homes of the Shrewsbury’s, even Chatsworth House (but not Hardwick Hall as that would not be built until after Mary’s death). Bess and Mary would spend many hours together. Some of Mary’s needlework is still at Hardwick Hall.  Mary Queen of Scots would be the (costly) responsibility of the Shrewsbury’s for 15 years, putting a huge strain on their finances and marriage.

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A detail of a piece of embroidery, said to have been worked on by Mary, Queen of Scots. At Hardwick Hall.

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​Bess’s long life is full of love, hate, family quarrels, political and royal intrigues, all intermixed with a dazzling amount of Tudor and Stuart cultural, architectural, art and textile history. Visiting her house, walking on the paving stones where she walked, seeing the tapestries that she commissioned and looked at every day, it was such a treat.

I will write another post about the hugely influential architecture of Hardwick Hall, its interior and rare textile collections, hopefully this week. Stay tuned.

Further Reading:

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