Updated: Dec 18, 2022
Built to the rules of symmetry, and incorporating huge glass windows and six striking turreted towers, the National Trust’s Hardwick Hall is one of the finest examples of Elizabethan architecture in England.
Hardwick Hall is one of those places you absolutely have to visit before you die. Perched atop a large hill in the Derbyshire countryside, Hardwick Hall can be seen from miles around, and is a well-known sight to people traveling by on the M1.
If the Hall seems overly showy, then that’s because it is. Its builder – Elizabeth Shrewsbury – had accrued a massive wealth in the late sixteenth century, second only to Queen Elizabeth in fact, and the spectacular house she built at Hardwick was designed to leave no one in any doubt about its provenance.
Read on to find out more about the history of Hardwick Hall, how it came to be, and how Bess of Hardwick became the second richest person in Elizabethan England.
A short history of Hardwick Hall
The history of Hardwick Hall is very much entwined with that of its builder, Bess of Hardwick. This is not quite a ‘rags to riches’ story, but it is an exceptional one nonetheless
Elizabeth ‘Bess of Hardwick’ Shrewsbury
As wealthy and powerful as Bess of Hardwick might have been, it had not always been plain sailing for her. Born in the 1520’s to a family of modest circumstances, Bess became a shrewd and formidable woman who advanced her social standing by marrying no fewer than 4 times.
Bess’s first marriage in 1543, to the heir of a neighboring estate, was short lived with her husband dying suddenly the following year. A widower at only 15, Bess soon married her second husband Sir William Cavendish. Ten years her senior, Cavendish had amassed a small fortune as a commissioner for the Dissolution of the Monasteries, and with him Bess purchased several properties in Derbyshire, including the manor of Chatsworth.
Bess’s marriage to Cavendish is considered a successful one, with the couple embarking on the construction of a great mansion at Chatsworth, and Bess also giving birth to his two sons.
Cavendish, heavily in debt, died in 1557, leaving Bess to fight for her lands. In 1559 she found a new husband in William St Loe, a member of Queen Elizabeth’s household. This marriage landed Bess a position within the Queen’s household, and when St Loe died in 1565, he left his entire fortune to her.
Although Bess now possessed significant landholdings, had financial security and social standing, it was her marriage to the head of the oldest, grandest and richest family in England that really propelled her into the very upper echelons of society.
Unlike her previous marriages, her marriage to George Talbot, 6th Earl of Shrewsbury was not a happy one. In fact, by 1583 she was estranged from the Earl, and had bought the family home of Old Hardwick from her brother. The Earl had effectively barred Bess from entering her own properties, and ever determined to build a home for her family, Bess applied the skills she had obtained from running Chatsworth and embarked on a massive project to remodel the Old Hall at Hardwick.
Old Hardwick Hall
Old Hardwick Hall was indeed a magnificent manor. Bess had transformed it from a modest country house, to a mansion fit for a woman of her standing. The house was tall, featured huge expanses of glass windows, and featured two magnificent great halls. Old Hardwick however, had been build piecemeal on a small site, and Bess wished to apply her skills and experience to constructing something new and magnificent.
Chatsworth House as it appears today
The ruins of Old Hardwick Hall
An Elizabethan masterpiece
It’s likely that the foundations of New Hardwick Hall had already been dug by the time her estranged husband, George Talbot, died in 1590. Her finances had been absolutely transformed, and Bess spared no expense building her new masterpiece. Bess hired the best architect of the day, Robert Smythson, to help design the new Hall, and with her own team of master builders, built a Prodigy house fit for a queen.
Built to the rules of symmetry, the new Hardwick Hall was like nothing seen before in England. Incorporating six tall turreted towers, each topped by huge stone letters depicting its owner’s initials ‘E.S’ (Elizabeth Shrewsbury), and featuing huge dazzling windows upwardly growing in size to dramatic effect, Hardwick was certainly the marvel of its age.
Bess was indeed a magnificent woman. Not only had she created one of the finest Prodigy houses the world had ever seen, but she had also become the second the richest person in England, and founder of the great Cavendish Dynasty. Little could she have imagined that her Great Grandson would become the first Duke of Devonshire.
What to see at Hardwick Hall
Visitors to Hardwick Hall will be absolutely blown away by the size and scale of the place. The Hall was designed as a showpiece, or ‘Prodigy’ House, and visitors get a sense of this as soon as they arrive at the main entrance.
Whilst the Hall sits very much center stage within the grounds, the gardens too are very pleasant. Perhaps not quite as busy as some National Trust gardens, those of Hardwick comprise of four different Courts surrounding the house.
Visitors actually approach the house via the South Court. Whilst this once consisted of an empty paddock, in the later 19th Century the hedges we see today were planted. Hidden within these are a selection of 18th Century statues which were originally from Chatsworth.
The South Court is divided up into 4 different sections, and these make up the bulk of Hardwick’s gardens. Within one sits a lovely orchard, and in another visitors will find one of the largest herb gardens in the country.
An unconvenional Great Hall
The house is accessed from the West via the Great Hall. This is just a taste of what is to come, and whilst certainly a large space, the Great Hall is perhaps not quite as grand as you might expect. Hardwick’s Great Hall however, served more of a functional purpose back in the day. This was where guests would have been greeted, and it also served as the main hub for the servants.
Interestingly, unlike Great Halls found in other large period houses, the one at Hardwick lies from front to back, and effectively cuts the house in two.
From the spectacular staircase is where things really start to get interesting. I am not sure I have ever experienced such a massive and elaborate staircase, but the stone staircase at Hardwick is absolutely enormous. This leads from the Great Hall and passes through the First Floor, all the way to the Second.
When I visited in late Autumn 2020, I was very taken aback by this spectacular staircase. It created a weird feeling, almost like I was climbing into some sort of Ceremonial Tomb. You might expect to find a stone staircase like this in a grand medieval castle, but encountering it within an Elizabethan house is just spectacular.
High Great Chamber
The second floor is ordinarily accessible to the public, but on my visit it was sadly closed due to Coronavirus. This however serves as the family floor, and contains more intimate spaces where the family could get together to relax, and socialise with close friends.
High Great Chamber
What is quite a common theme at Hardwick, is that the house does not fit with convention. The Hall is almost built upside down, with the State Rooms being situated on the Second Floor and the servents situated downstairs.
The first room visitors enter is the High Great Chamber. This is quite a jaw dropping experience as nothing prepares you for the scale of this massive space. This is where the host would have welcomed her esteemed guests, and also served as a banqueting hall. Like the other State Rooms, the walls are adorned by beautiful Tapestries and make the room feel exceptionally grand.
A Long Gallery fit for a Queen
The Long Gallery at Hardwick is hall is the longest Elizabethan Long Gallery in existence, and largely contains its original wall tapestries and pictures. This is quite frankly one of the most stunning indoor spaces I have ever experienced. I was absolutely lost for words when I first entered this colossal space, and the scale of it is difficult to comprehend.
The stunning tapestries that hang from the walls are absolutely exquisite, but it’s useful to remember that they are centuries old, and back in the 16th Century these would have been brighter, bolder and even more spectacular.
The Long Gallery is similar in size and grandeur to what you might expect to find in a Royal Palace, and again, this is no accident. This spectacular space is in every sense breathtaking. There really is nothing else like this anywhere in the country.
Guest Bedrooms and Kitchen
Whilst the Long Gallery runs the entire length of the second floor, there are several other fantastic rooms to explore.
In addition to the High Great Chamber and the Long Gallery, the Third Floor also contains the Withdrawing Chamber, Green Velvet Room, Blue Room and the beautiful Mary Queen of Scots Room.
I was particularly impressed by the opulent looking Green Velvet Room. Originally Hardwick’s main guest bedroom, today this is dominated by a green velvet bed which dates back to the early 18th Century. This is complemented by stunning Flemish wall tapestries which depict the Abraham story.
During the early years of Bess and the Earl of Shrewsbury’s marriage, the couple were handed the apparent ‘honor’ of guarding Mary Queen of Scots. It is not entirely clear wether Mary spent much time at Hardwick (if any), but the Mary Queen of Scots Room is a stunning reminder of the time she spent with Bess and the Earl.
A scrumptious black velvet bed takes center stage, and is complimented by black lacquered furniture. Mary’s arms can be found above the door and a portrait of her and her murdered husband Lord Darnley is hung on one of the walls. Prior to being decorated to this theme, the room served as a bedchamber which was part of a small apartment.
From the second floor, visitors can pass by the private chapel, before taking a flight of stairs back down to the ground floor. This route incorporates the main kitchen that once serviced the house. The furnishings are not original to Bess’s time, but reflect that of the 6th Duke (late 18th Century).
How you can support Hardwick Hall
When I visited Hardwick at the back end of Autumn 2020, my visitor experience was a little different to what one might ordinarily expect. Although the house and grounds were open, due to the Coronavirus pandemic, visitor numbers were being restricted. This meant buying our tickets in advance, and also having to wait for a time slot to enter the house. All understandable of course!
Although we didnt get to see the more homely first floor, we were very fortunate to have actually been able to access the house at all. Clearly Coronavirus is going to have massive ramifications for heritage sites such as this, but for Hardwick it really did hit me how much of a monumental task it was maintaining the site and preserving it for future generations.
Sadly, and understandably for a house of this age, I did notice some cracks, flaked paint and water damage around the house. The National Trust are doing a sterling job keeping the house in order, but I think we owe it to the nation to help out in any way we can. Should this mean becoming a National Trust member, visiting the propert, or becoming a volunteer, the Trust needs all the support it can muster in order to keep the memory of Bess alive, and maintain this national icon.
One way you can support Hardwick Hall through this crisis is by clicking here and donating a few of your hard earned coins to the Hardwick Hall Building Repairs Project. Your donation will really make a difference and I know the National Trust will really appreciate any amount you can spare.
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