At the end of the 16th century, while Elizabeth the Queen was at the height of her powers in the courts and castles of London and the home counties (southern England) another strong-willed and powerful redhead was making good. Also by the name of Elizabeth, she too was at the zenith of her own sparkling and opulent realm. But this was based around Hardwick Hall. It is some distance away from the capital, in Derbyshire to the north.
Bess of Hardwick
The redoubtable Countess of Shrewsbury, otherwise known as Bess of Hardwick and a legend in her own lifetime, had just taken possession in 1597 of her latest creation in stone and glass. This was the magnificent Hardwick Hall in Derbyshire. Bess's rise to power from humble beginnings to a position from which she hoped one day to see a relation of her own ascend to the throne of England itself, makes for a story that would grace the pages the most improbable and romantic of historical novels. Yet it is all true. Four husbands, four times widowed, she survived them all, becoming more wealthy at each stage to eventually enjoy the status as one of the most influential and powerful women in the land, with wealth, works of art, fabulous furnishings and jewels to rival that of the Queen herself.
Bess's 4th and final husband was the Earl of Shrewsbury, responsible for guarding the person of the unfortunate Mary Queen of Scots during her imprisonment in various nearby castles up until her execution in 1587.
Well worth a visit
Hardwick Hall is well worth a visit if you ever come to England. Especially if you have time to leave the well-beaten tracks around the popular palaces and castles of the south. The architect of Hardwick was Robert Smythson. The building itself stands in a commanding position, set within beautiful gardens and grounds amid the gently rolling hills of the region. Nearby, is the old ruins of an earlier structure, probably never lived in by Bess and abandoned in favour of Smythson's new design. Beautifully proportioned in Renaissance style, it was begun shortly after the death of the Earl of Shrewsbury in 1590 when Bess wasted no time in applying her latest substantial increase in personal wealth to begin building her dream home.
Interior: long gallery or Great Hall.
More glass than wall
As you can see, Smythson's design makes use of very large windows - this at a time when glass was extremely expensive. Bess wanted a bright interior to show off her works of art and the magnificent tapestries (still on show today). So remarkable was this feature of the building that the locals affectionately named the edifice 'Hardwick Hall, more Glass than Wall!' The initials ES are very obvious on display outside, in tall, ostentatious stone carving on the cornices. Inside, meanwhile, the visitor climbs a cavernous, broad stone staircase to halls and rooms of spectacular paintings, friezes, 16th century tapestries and gigantic fireplaces. And just at the present time, visitors can also see a new exhibition of letters and other documents, entitled 'Unsealed.' This relates to Bess's life and those of her adoring husbands. Quite a lady!
Poster to accompany the 'Unsealed' exhibition, with notable residents of Hardwick Hall.
PS. If you do ever go visit, I would also recommend taking in the nearby Haddon Hall. This must be one of the best-preserved medieval castle in the world. I've been to each twice myself and I can promise you that both are truly stunning. Especially recommended for anyone interested in English history.