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Hardwick Hall ~ A memorable place created by an formidable lady

This is my review bit

Whenever we are in Derbyshire, notably for the Chatsworth Horse Trials, or to visit some friends who live in this great part of the world, we always try and make sure a visit to Hardwick Hall is on our itinerary.

National Trust membership (or being married to someone who works for the Trust 😊 ) provides free entry to Hardwick Hall and all its wonders, including the Old Hall even though is now under the care of English Heritage. We always enjoy our visits to Hardwick as there are so many things to see, and this visit proves that return visits are well worth doing as they are always adding new features, exhibits and experiences.

The staff are consistently helpful, convivial and knowledgeable, and we enjoy ambling around without any imposed time pressures. (There are timed tours with expert guides, from which you can undoubtedly learn a lot but often we choose to free-wheel it). Obviously good weather helps if you want to spend some time at the old Hall or in the gardens and grounds.

Hardwick Hall is testament what the money, power and vision of Bess of Hardwick, and succeeding generations could make happen. With the influence and wealth that Bess had, it is clear that she could utilise the best and most innovative craftsmen, belying the fact that construction started in the 16th century, to create something that was built to impress. One obvious and acknowledged statement of wealth was the “more glass than wall” approach, and this was augmented by the number of floors and the quantity of rooms, which were decorated with fine tapestries, artwork and furniture.

The house (and the old Hall from which Bess “traded up”), the gardens, the grounds and the setting never fail to impress. The National Trust are also continually introducing and tweaking things to make the visitor experience better and more varied with topical exhibitions and new discoveries, and we are aware that the “roof-top tours” will soon be introduced.

We will be back again next time we’re in Derbyshire…’s definitely a place to go and to enjoy and we would positively recommend it’s on your “to do “ list.


And for those who like the historical bit

Bess was born in October 1527 at Hardwick Manor (in Derbyshire), where the Hardwicks had been living for several generations, descending from Edward I and Eleanor of Castille. Bess’ father died when she was a baby, her mother then remarried but when she was about 10 years old her step-father was imprisoned for debt. The family were then said to be living in “genteel poverty”.

Bess’s connections to higher society started indirectly at first, when, at the age of twelve she was sent to be a lady-in-waiting to her distant relation Anne Gainsford, Lady Zouche. Service in noble households was a way in which well-born children like Bess were introduced to influential people thereby improving their opportunity to rise in society. Bess is a shining example of how effective this system could be. Sir George Zouche and Lady Zouche had connections with the households of Anne Boleyn and Jane Seymour and the court of Henry VIII, so Bess would have been around this high stratum of society in her formative years.

At the age of about fifteen, Bess married young Robert Barlow, who also served in the Zouche household, and when he died the following year, her “widow’s dower,” a third of the income of the Barlow properties, provided her with thirty pounds a year, a respectable income when a maidservant’s annual pay was three pounds.

In 1545, Bess entered the service of Frances Brandon Grey, the Marchioness of Dorset, who was the daughter of Henry VIII’s sister Mary Tudor and the mother of Lady Jane Grey. This connection was where Bess met her second husband, Sir William Cavendish. He was some twenty years older but already wealthy, due primarily to his work for Henry VIII dealing with the dissolution of the monasteries.

With her marriage to Sir William she became Lady Cavendish, and so her elevation in society had well and truly started. Cavendish was well connected at court, and enjoyed the patronage of Edward Seymour, the Earl of Hertford, who became even more powerful as Duke of Somerset and Lord Protector of the young King Edward VI following the death of Henry VIII. During their ten years of marriage, Bess and William had eight children and began building the palatial Chatsworth House, intended to be the family seat of their descendants. Sir William died in 1557, leaving Bess a very wealthy thirty-year old widow.

Bess’s third marriage, to Sir William St. Loe, was on 27th August 1559 and this cemented the connection with Elizabeth I who had succeeded to the throne in 1558. The queen may have been at the wedding, for she had recently made Sir William the captain of her yeoman guards due to his heroic actions on her behalf in the Wyatt Rebellion, and probably out of gratitude to Sir William, the queen made Bess one of her ladies of the privy chamber. Sir William died only six years after marrying Bess, allegedly poisoned by his brother and in his will he left everything to Bess. She was mistress of many valuable properties, had a substantial income, and could have lived extremely comfortably for the rest of her life.

Nevertheless, Bess returned to court, and after considering many suitors, chose as her fourth husband, George Talbot, the sixth Earl of Shrewsbury. The marriage in February 1568 took her to the peak of society, for Shrewsbury was not only enormously wealthy, but also the highest-ranking nobleman in England, and as his wife, Bess became Countess of Shrewsbury. The dynasties were further connected by family weddings. George’s fifteen-year-old son, Gilbert Talbot, married Bess’s twelve-year-old daughter Mary Cavendish, and Bess’s seventeen-year-old son, Henry Cavendish, married eight-year-old Grace Talbot. (It wasn’t uncommon for girls in noble families to be married so young, with the main aim being to secure property for subsequent generations and with consummation happening when the girls reached maturity.)

Queen Elizabeth I entrusted them with the important duty of being “caretakers” of Mary Queen of Scots, but the arrangement, which lasted over seventeen years, was a considerable drain on even their large resources as the queen didn’t provide the necessary funds to support Mary’s large retinue. Bess’s marriage to the Earl of Shrewsbury was her longest but this “honourable” arrangement proved to make it her most troublesome.

It was only after Shrewsbury died in 1590, that Bess, now sixty-three years old, extremely wealthy, and completely independent, embarked upon her most ambitious project: the building of Hardwick Hall near her childhood home. Bess’s granddaughter Arabella was a possible successor to the English throne, and Bess intended her home to be impressive and fit for a queen. It is understood that Hardwick Hall was designed by master builder Robert Smythson, who had also built Longleat House. Among the house’s revolutionary features were the many tall windows, each formed of numerous small diamond-shaped panes of glass manufactured by Bess’s own glassworks. It was Elizabeth I’s advisor Robert Cecil who was said to comment ” Hardwick Hall? More window that wall!”

The building account books list the names of 375 workmen, many of whom had worked for Bess on Chatsworth House and other projects. Over the years of construction, she personally oversaw the armies of tradesmen and artisans, and she moved into the not-quite-completed building on her 70th birthday in October 1597.

It was James I and not Arabella Stuart who succeeded Queen Elizabeth, so Bess never got to be grandmother to a queen. But her careful planning of her children’s marriages was successful, and she is the ancestor of many of the noble families of Britain, including the dukedoms of Devonshire, Portland, Somerset, and Newcastle; the Earls of Lincoln, Portsmouth, Kellie, and Pembroke; the Baron Waterpark; and the current queen. Indeed, Prince William and Prince Harry are descended from Bess on both sides.

Summing up

I hope you can now see why we find this place so fascinating. As well as being a great place in a great setting, it has an infectious and captivating quality arising from its history.

And here’s a slideshow I’ve put together from some of my photographs from our recent visit which I’ve posted on YouTube

Hardwick Hall Slideshow ~ just click the arrow and then maximise to fullscreen to get the best effect

If you feel like finding out more then visit



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