Famously known as being ‘more glass than wall’, Hardwick Hall was built by Elizabeth, Countess of Shrewsbury. As glass was a rare and expensive commodity at the time, Hardwick Hall was a statement of massive wealth. Indeed, The Countess of Shrewsbury, who’s initials E.S still adorn the Hall, was the wealthiest woman in England behind Queen Elizabeth I.
Designed by Robert Smythson (of Longleat fame), the house was started in 1590. The design included tall chimneys, unusually built into the interior walls to allow for maximum windows on the exterior walls.
Hardwick Hall was one of the first stately homes to have a Great Hall running the length of the house rather than at right angles to the entrance. Each storey was designed to be taller than the one below, with the grandest state rooms at the top of the house. Bess’s Great Chamber has an elaborate 400-year-old chimney-breast and a plaster frieze of hunting scenes. Hardwick Hall also boasts one of the longest galleries in England.
Bess moved into Hardwick Hall in 1597. She spent the last years of her incredible life there until her death in 1608. Her money and power came from a series of carefully arranged marriages and makes for some interesting reading.
Born a farmer’s daughter in 1527 at nearby Hardwick Old Hall, Elizabeth was known as Bess of Hardwick. Her first husband died after just a year, leaving her a wealthy widow at just 17. Her second marriage, in 1547, was to Sir William Cavendish, who became a wealthy landowner as the Commissioner for Henry VIII’s Dissolution of Monasteries. As his wife, Bess became Lady-in-Waiting to Queen Elizabeth I.
In 1549, Bess yearned to return to her Derbyshire roots. She persuaded Cavendish to sell his land in Suffolk and buy Chatsworth Manor for the stately sum of £600. She then set about creating the magnificent Chatsworth Estate. During this time she had eight children with Cavendish, and her son William Jr. became the 1st Earl of Devonshire.
After 10 years and another widowhood, Bess met Sir William Loe at court and her third marriage lasted five years before she was again widowed with another inheritance. Now in a trusted role as Lady of the Queen’s Bedchamber, Bess married George Talbot, 6th Earl of Shrewsbury in 1567. After a turbulent and unhappy marriage, George died in 1590, making Bess of Hardwick fabulously (and rarely for women of the time, independently) wealthy.
Bess used her wealth to mastermind the building of Hardwick Hall and she filled it with exquisite textiles, tapestries and embroidery. The collection is known as the Hardwick Hall Textiles and is the largest family collection in the UK.
Hardwick Hall passed from generation to generation of Bess’s descendants who used it as a secondary home to Chatsworth. This meant it escaped fashionable re-modelling and remains true to its original design; something which has lead to the Hall being a sought-after film location. In 1950, the unexpected death of the 10th Duke of Devonshire invoked massive death duties. In lieu of payment, Hardwick Hall was given to the National Trust in 1959.
Hardwick Hall is surrounded by fine gardens with herbaceous borders, a bucolic orchard and ornamentally arranged vegetable garden. These contrast wonderfully with the somewhat austere nature of the Hall, while the whimsically-pruned trees add an additional touch of humour and charm.
The estate also includes the shell of Hardwick Old Hall where Bess of Hardwick’s story first began. Managed by English Heritage, the largely roofless building still has interesting fireplaces and remnants of plasterwork.
At Violets & Tea, we love every visit to this fascinating, historical estate.
We visit Hardwick Hall on our Great Estates of Derbyshire & the Hampton Court Garden Festival tour in 2021.
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Images © Eliza Ford