AQA GCSE History (Environment study)

Investigating the Cultural and Architectural Elements of Hardwick Hall

By Ken Hughes M.A.  (July 2017)

Hardwick Hall’s creator and owner, the fabulously wealthy Bess of Hardwick, was living proof that a woman could succeed in a man’s world in Tudor England. The struggles of Bess mirrored the challenges and successes of Queen Elizabeth I, underpinned by gender expectations and limitations. By 1587, free from Lord Shrewsbury following her divorce, Bess built the magnificent Hardwick Hall in Derbyshire, next to the old hall owned by her family. The structure of the new Hardwick Hall said many things. The glass windows were an outward show of wealth, status and success, giving it an ethereal appearance. They were crystal clear which was unusual for the time and showed the glass was of the finest quality and the small window panes were held together by lead. Her financial and corporate portfolio included glass and lead, thus showing that her success and connections directly manifested itself in her tangible creation.  The divorce, which had ruled in her favour, had given her another injection of wealth to create this new hall. Sara Steen (1994) called her 'the greatest woman builder ever known.'[1]  However, for Bess, a fine building was an integral part of her world, a bringing together of her social, economic, commercial, cultural and dynastic drive and determination.

Hardwick Hall was built to receive, impress and even unnerve its guests. Its formidable glass and stone structure displayed to all visitors, their host’s social status, credentials  and superiority, further confirmed by the ostentatious display of  her initials, title and ducal coronet, significantly and symbolically looking down on all visitors and reminding them that they were about to be received by a powerful woman. Bess’s full coat of arms had been engraved in stone, above the entrance as guests walked through the Renaissance inspired loggia and into the classically inspired Great Hall.  On the inside the Great Hall is designed in pure Italian, classical style, with guests walking under a stone screen and into a hall with brightly coloured tapestries and another Bess coat of arms above the imposing fireplace. A spectacular portrait of Bess even adorns the walls opposite the fireplace. The colour of the tapestries would have been uplifting and powerful, set against the bright whitewashed walls and the sunlight gleaming through the massive windows. This was a unique alternative to the dark and dingy prodigy houses of Elizabethan England.

The Great Hall was an area of noise and jostle amongst the servants, many of whom rested and slept there. Upon receiving guests, the usher would have called ‘Pray, silence for…’ introducing whoever was visiting. The servants would have lined up as the guests were shown through the Great Hall and towards the staircase. The Great Hall runs across the centre of the structure from front to back, exactly central to the building. Hardwick Hall was architecturally ground-breaking because Bess broke with tradition to have her grandest rooms at the top of the building. The view over her lands was as impressive as her building and was shown to guests after dinner, as they consumed their deserts on the roof top.  Meanwhile, guests walking up the spiral staircase would have been hit by the blaring light through the massive windows and the white washed walls. They would have stopped half way into their ascent in a small porch-like area. They would have seen the carved head of a sentry above a lone door, standing guard and informing guests not to enter. Instead guests would have been dutifully led up the winding staircase (bypassing the middle floor) and past the hanging carpets (they were too expensive to walk on). The accompanying senior household servant would have bowed to the guests at the top and opened the doors to the High Great Chamber.

Once inside the High Great Chamber, guests would be in the presence of the dowager Countess seated on her elaborately embroidered chair. Above her the breath taking frieze along the top of the wall showed the strength of powerful female biblical and mythological characters. The Queen’s royal coat of arms hangs above the majestic fireplace, a sign of respect and loyalty should her majesty pay a visit; Elizabeth never did visit Hardwick Hall. Mary Lovell (2005) says that the Great High Chamber was specifically designed to welcome a visiting monarch but Bess was never gratified. [2]  The adjoining Long Gallery, the second biggest in England, runs across the entire eastern front of the building, proudly showing the tapestries and paintings connected to Bess and her family, as well as Elizabeth I and Mary, Queen of Scots. Other paintings show  Bess’s grandaughter, Arbella. The idea of having a long gallery was a Tudor architectural fashion, therefore Hardwick Hall mixed classical and contemporary architecture.

Life at Hardwick Hall was completely self-sufficient, taking fruit from the trees, honey from the bees (as well as their wax for making candles) and dairy products from its own dairy on site. There was a fresh water well and fish, cattle and deer were reared for food. Hens, chickens, eggs and lamb from the estate were a fresh supply of food. Even the wool from the sheep was turned into garments. Indeed, the stone for its very construction came from the cliff behind the old Hardwick Hall. The new Hardwick Hall is a very different building to Chatsworth House which Bess had lovingly spent years building, losing it to her husband and then estranged son, Henry. The new Hardwick Hall was built by Bess, determined that she would keep it, thus initialling it on all sides. It is smaller than Hardwick Old Hall and smaller than Chatsworth. In addition, Hardwick Hall was not finished internally to the high standard of Chatsworth House. Instead, Bess focused on the modern state-of-the art glass structure flooding light into the largest rooms. In the design, Bess was adamant it was symmetrical. Charles Phillips (2012) calls Hardwick’s exterior ‘bold and over exaggerated’[3] but it hides the most delicate and intricate tapestries, needlework and plasterwork often proudly displaying the initials of Bess of Hardwick, the second richest woman in England.


[1]Sara Jayne Steen (ed.), The Letters of Lady Arbella Stuart, Women Writers in English 1350-1850 (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1994), p.12.

[2] M. Lovell, Bess of Hardwick (London: Abacus, 2005), p.449.

[3] C. Phillips, Castles, Palaces and Stately Home of Britain and Ireland, (London, Hermes House, 2012), p.122/3.