In this edition of our Land of Lords preview, I’ll be taking you into Derbyshire. While Jane Austen fans may know it as the home of Pemberley, Mr. Darcy’s romance-inducing estate, for those of us of an early modern bent, it’s home to Hardwick Hall, one of the finest examples of Elizabethan architecture.
Hardwick Hall is fascinating both in its own architectural right and because of the personal history of the woman for whom it was built, the formidable and much-married Bess, Countess of Shrewsbury. The architect was Robert Smythson, who integrated Florentine Renaissance designs with the English Gothic style. Built in the 1590s by one of the richest women in England, Hardwick Hall was meant to show off its owner’s status and wealth.
As you can see in the picture above, Hardwick Hall’s windows are among its most stunning features. Large windows were not yet common, even in English great houses, and Hardwick Hall became famous for them, leading to a popular saying: “Hardwick Hall, more glass than wall.”
Unlike most English great houses up to this point, Hardwick Hall was built with the great hall — the sort of space playing companies might perform in — through the axis of the house, rather than at an angle to the entrance. Each floor of the house has higher ceilings than the one below it, pointing to the domestic tendencies emerging at the time. Less prestigious spaces were located downstairs: the ground floor is home to the kitchen, buttery, and pantry, among other rooms. The first floor had some dining rooms and parlors, but the second floor boasted a long hall that was nearly the length of the entire building (pictured below), grand chambers, and the finest bedrooms. Above these were six banqueting pavilions, used exclusively for entertaining and accessible only across the roof leads, each topped with Bess’s initials: ES.
So what sort of woman made Hardwick Hall her home? Bess came from relatively humble origins, born to gentry in Old Hardwick Hall, now a ruin nearby the great house she later built — but her life was certainly upwardly mobile. Her first marriage, to a local boy, was probably never consummated, as bridge and groom were 13 and 14 at the time. At age 20, she married Sir William Cavendish. They had eight children in ten years, six of whom survived. Bess managed to arrange good marriages for several of them, ensuring that many of her descendants would be Dukes and Earls (and, in fact, Queen Elizabeth II!). Bess claimed the bulk of Cavendish’s property upon his death, then two years later married Sir William St Loe. He died six years later, under suspicious circumstances (likely poisoned by his brother), and Bess again claimed her late husband’s property. Now a wealthy woman, Lady of the Queen’s Bedchamber, and still in her 30s and attractive, Bess waited a few years to re-marry.
Bess’s fourth marriage was her most famous. George Talbot, Earl of Shrewsbury, was one of the foremost lords of the realm — and for this reason, when Mary, Queen of Scots, was forced to abdicate in favor of her one year old son James and had to flee to England, Queen Elizabeth put Mary in Shrewsbury’s charge. For fifteen years, Mary lived at the Shrewsburys’ various properties. She and Bess seem to have gotten on well for a while, but by 1580, Mary seemed to be causing trouble in the Shrewsbury marriage. Bess claimed that the exiled queen and the earl had an affair, though most historians think this was a falsehood. Mary does seem to have played some part in their eventual estrangement, however, and in 1585, the queen moved Mary to another custodian.
Bess wasn’t finished with politics, though — her granddaughter Arbella Stuart was, on her father’s side, also a great-great-granddaughter of Henry VII, and thus in line for the English throne. Bess aspired for her to become queen and kept her under strict governance, eventually locking her up to keep her from eloping. Arbella eventually rebelled and tried to run away, after which Bess cut the girl from her will and begged the queen to take Arbella off of her hands. (Arbella herself has a potential Shakespearean connection — her later life involved even more scandal, including cross-dressing to try to flee to France, and some scholars have seen the character of Innogen in Cymbeline as referring to her in part).
Bess built Hardwick Hall in the 1590s, following the death of the Earl of Shrewsbury. She died in 1608, and Hardwick Hall stayed in Bess’s family through the mid-20th century, via the Dukes of Devonshire, and was then handed over to the National Trust. As such, it now holds centuries’ worth of artwork, tapestry, furniture, and embroidery, much original to the 1601 inventory of the home.
And, as a bonus bit of information for any Harry Potter fans — you may recognize Hardwick Hall as the exterior of Malfoy Manor, seen in Deathly Hallows, Part 1 and Part 2.
I hope you’ve enjoyed this trip into Elizabethan opulence — and the political tangles that often accompanied such grandiose personages. Next week: a peek into early modern university life.
Interested in joining us as we travel this summer? There are still a few spots on the trip open, so register now!