Even now, the flamboyant and spirited nature of Bess Hardwick is one to be admired. Born into a minor gentry family in 1527, Bess’ life unfolded into a series of personal tragedies that she never allowed herself to succumb to. Instead she persevered with grace and dignity, her situation and station improving each time. Over the course of sixty-six years and four marriages, Bess elevated herself from the daughter of a ‘gentleman-yeoman’ house to an exorbitantly wealthy businesswoman and close friend of Queen Elizabeth.
Located in the Derbyshire countryside, Hardwick Hall stands as a glorious symbol to Bess’ lifelong ambitions and achievements. “Hardwick Hall – More Glass than Wall” is a popular saying associated with the spectacular estate. It is more than a cute rhyme. All four sides of the three-storey building are neatly lined with grid windows. Back in the Elizabethan age, windows leaked out indoor heating like no man’s business, making the act of heating an entire home even more costly.
Following the disastrous end of her fourth marriage to George Talbot – the sixth Earl of Shrewsbury – the now Countess Elizabeth Shrewsbury moved back to her family estate of Hardwick. From 1587 to 1597, she supervised the construction of the two Hardwick Halls. Money was no object, and both buildings stand as lavish displays of this great woman’s wealth.
Hardwick Hall, a seven year endeavour, spreads over three floors. A pioneering structure, the estate was one of the first in the country to be designed by an architect – in this case, Robert Smythson. Diamond pane windows range in size between floors to delineate the purpose of each room. The interior provides no less of an affluent air. Set in the second floor, the Long Galley runs through the entire east side. Displaying tapestries and portraits with immaculate detail and a plethora of colours, these intricate pieces would have signified the depth of Bess’ wealth to all her guests.
The windows, both grilled and diamond paned, pour sunlight over the ornate decorations. And it is not only the wall art and windows that help Hardwick Hall maintain its classic style. The floor of the Long Galley is fully carpeted with rush matting. Handwoven and sturdy, plaited rush matting was a staple of Tudor households. Made of bulrushes harvested from reed beds, the dried material is interwoven with camomile, lavender, herbs, and wormwood to subtly perfume the space. When fraying, the matting in Hardwick is either patched together and reused or given new life as mulch for the garden or bird nesting support.
Standing at the foot of Hardwick Hall’s grand façade sits its gardens. A mosaic of rectangular courts, the gardens grow both culinary and medicinal herbs. More than being aesthetically pleasing, the vegetables and herbs grown in the gardens are used in the Great Barn Restaurant. During the months of July and August, visitors are able to sample all the flavours the garden has to offer with Taster Days. Great lawns dotted with crab apple trees have comfortable lawn chairs provided by National Trust. With a cool breeze running through the trees and plenty of shade provided by trees and archways, it is the perfect place for an afternoon stroll.
Continuing the stroll through the estate, Hardwick Old Hall hangs at the periphery. Only five years younger than Hardwick Hall, the old hall drew on contemporary innovations in Italian design. When Bess died in 1608, her son William Cavendish was left in charge of the estate. William re-situated the family in Chatsworth, which became the family’s preferred seat over time. By the 1750s, the family commissioned for the partial dismantling of the old hall. Vulnerable to the elements, many of the original overmantels still stand to the this day. The ruins overlook an endless horizon of countryside on all sides. When construction for the new hall began, the old hall was still incomplete. This is not to say the first hall was abandoned. The two were intended to complement each other. And though it stands a shadow of its former glory, the remains of the Old Hall are still a sight to see.
Leaving with a neck sore from marveling at tapestries and architecture, I left feeling inspired by the sheer grit of Bess Hardwick, a remarkable woman who faced the odds and came out victorious.