The Second Elizabeth.

Portrait of Elizabeth I at Hardwick Hall

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.

Bess of Hardwick

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.

Old Hardwick Hall

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:

Hardwick Hall, more glass than wall

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!


666 is no longer alone*

* Genesis – Supper’s Ready


People attach special significance to certain numbers whether they’re religious, freemasons, or just seeking the advantage of a little luck.  Depending on which sources you read, any number from 1-25 (and many more beyond that including the number of the beast in my title) has special meaning in the bible.

One such person was the recusant Sir Thomas Tresham, an Elizabethan nobleman who constructed a number (sorry, couldn’t resist) of properties where his obsession with symbolism took shape, and significant shapes at that.  The numbers 3,5 and 7 were particularly important to Tresham, three because Christ rose on the 3rd day, because of the Holy Trinity and perhaps because it has parallels with his surname, which is of Norman origin.  The five may be more significant to Islam (Five Pillars), but for Tresham related to Christ’s wounds, the Pentateuch, and was symbolic of God’s grace.  Seven is used so commonly within the bible: there are seven deadly sins, seven trumpeting priests bring down the wall of Jericho, there are seven pillars of wisdom, and so many references to seven in the book of Revelation that that alone would justify the number’s importance.

All of this is necessary as background to another National Trust property visit; this time to Lyveden New Bield, an Elizabethan Garden Lodge, designed by and built for Tresham, but never completed.  Tresham was a catholic at a time when this was injurious to your health, but despite this sought ways to proclaim his beliefs to the world in tangible, but obscure ways as an architectural way of giving the authorities the finger.

Whilst the building may resemble a burnt out shell, the truth is that it was never completed because Tresham had problems with some other numbers; 12 children, including 6 daughters requiring dowries, numerous fines imposed and the financial impact of long periods of imprisonment due to his religious beliefs (catholics were seen as a threat at a time when Philip of Spain had designs on removing our protestant Queen) meant that he died with huge debts.  Hearing that the estate was bankrupt the builders walked off leaving the structure much as we see it 400 years later.

Seen from above, the perfectly symmetrical structure forms a Greek cross with bays at the end of each arm comprising 5 windows (the dimensions of these bays feature the same number but my memory fails me at this point).  There are 3 rooms on each of the floors, the fourth arm of the cross being used for a staircase.  Taking into account the basement servants area there are 3 floors.  Now so far this could all be seen as coincidental, but look more closely at the exterior.

There is an incomplete inscription at the top of the building (Gaude Mater Maria) and a little lower a frieze of 7 repeating panels, each of which features a religious symbol (Judas’ bag of silver, a chi-ro featuring the 3 nails of the crucifixion, the IHS monogram incorporating the ladder used at the crucifixion, and some that remain a mystery).

At the bottom of each wing are sets of three shields; none yet carved with arms, some still rectangular.  The perimeter of each wing is 81 feet (3×3 squared), and were I more expert in semiotics I could go on.

There’s plenty more here too including the graffiti of visitors throughout the centuries who left their own inscriptions, and Elizabethan gardens which are still being investigated (recently discovering a labyrinth).

Despite being seen as threat for his Catholicism, Tresham’s resistance went no further than these symbols.  His son Francis was more active.  He took part in the Gunpowder Plot, but that’s a whole other story!