For centuries England had been ruled by kings, and then Henry VIII produced two daughters who would each sit on the throne. Mary’s rein was relatively short and largely forgotten by many but for her persecution of religious dissenters. Her sister Elizabeth’s era is legendary by comparison. She was an exceptional woman. And yet there was another Elizabeth whose life overlapped the Virgin Queen’s and who also exercised a great deal of power.
Elizabeth Cavendish gained wealth and influence through a series of high-profile husbands becoming the richest woman in the country after her queen. Amongst her many accomplishments she built is associated with not one, but three great houses. Her final home, Chatsworth, is perhaps Britain’s best known stately home and continues to be inhabited by the Cavendish family to this day.
She is better known as Bess of Hardwick, and it was at Hardwick Hall, in the same county as Chatsworth, that she was born, but there are two Hardwick Halls here. The original is now an empty shell, but alongside it is the replacement that Bess had built as a more fitting statement of her power.
This is amply demonstrated by the number of windows in the structure, despite glass being an extravagance at the time. The chimneys are built into internal walls to provide more glazing opportunity so that it was said of Hardwick:
The title she acquired from her fourth husband (Cavendish was the second) was Countess of Shrewsbury, and the exterior of the building leaves no doubt that this was Elizabeth Shrewsbury’s project. Look closely at the roofline and the letters ES are far from subtly displayed.
Internally there are the usual furnishings of the period (though understandably of better quality than average) and a great number of tapestries, many of which it is believed she worked on herself. (Mary, Queen of Scots, was at one time held at Chatsworth under house arrest and the two apparently sewed together.) Most notable are the “fyve pieces of hangings” representing noble women who Bess perhaps saw as role models.
These are now part of an intricate restoration project which will hopefully see all back on display at Hardwick, though appropriately one of those already there is of Penelope, wife of Ulysses who refused to consider suitors until she had finished her own tapestry (which she unpicked every night until her husbands return, 10 years late, from the Trojan War).
The Cavendish arms feature three stags or bucks heads, and stag references are prominent throughout the building, though when you reach the Great Gallery, the deer are joined by elephants, camels and more in a stunning plaster frieze around the room. There is little doubt that this was a room designed in hope of a visit from Bess’s namesake given the decoration over the fireplace. Even the second richest woman in England had her betters!