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Hardwick Hall, "More Glass Than Wall"

by Julia Hickey

Hardwick HallAscend the hill towards the dramatic silhouette on the Derbyshire skyline. Here, looking towards the patchwork hills of the Peak District, is Hardwick Hall, an icon of Tudor architecture. The ruins of the nearby Old Hall are an imposing reminder of earlier times. Both buildings are part of the legacy left by a singleminded Derbyshire lass: Elizabeth, Countess of Shrewsbury, who began life as plain Bess of Hardwick.

Her mark is upon everything, from the grand ES turrets that proclaim her ownership of the glittering symmetrical sandstone Hall to the curling Cavendish snakes that twist around the lead drainpipes. The house is her creation and her monument. It took just seven years to build following the death of her estranged husband and one-time gaoler to Mary Queen of Scots -- the Earl of Shrewsbury -- in 1590.

Pass through the portals of the porter's lodge into a walled garden. Its symmetry mirrors the house and it doesn't seem to matter what the season is, for the gardeners always provide a riot of color and texture. Walk up the path to the wide porch with its tapering columns. It is often possible to encounter a Tudor housekeeper here. In the summer months she relates tales of Bess of Hardwick, who seemed driven to create the most magnificent house in the kingdom. Little wonder she was also called "the costly countess."

Proceed into the baronial hall dominated by Bess's coat of arms supported by two stags, cross the creamy flags and take in the assorted weaponry, mounted stags heads, enormous hearth and long oak table with matching benches. This room is not only the main entrance, but harks back to a time when servants were part of the household dining in the hall, sleeping in the same rooms or near their masters and mistresses rather than being kept below stairs. All of it is presided over by a portrait of Bess.

Study the delightful patchwork screens before continuing out of the hall. The images are created from a rich patchwork of velvets, silks and cloth of gold. Much of the material comes from medieval ecclesiastical vestments. The colour and the detail can only be maintained by carefully controlled lighting. It is for this reason that Hardwick, despite the number of windows it boasts, seems dimly lit. The needlework collection here is of national importance -- indeed, the screens are perhaps the most important part of the collection as they represent a complete set of Tudor hangings. All kinds of needlework techniques and fabrics are on display throughout the house -- many examples worked by Bess herself, others by her embroiderer called Webb. Visitors must also wonder how Beth must have been influenced by the other great Tudor needlewoman, Mary Queen of Scots.

Hardwick HallTake advantage of the Threads of Time exhibition housed in the ground floor nursery to see some of the needlework in more detail, learn about the techniques that created the golden caterpillars and butterflies that decorate much of the furniture and find out how important the symbolism contained in the tapestries was to Beth and her contemporaries. It is perhaps of no surprise that much of Bess's needlework portrays family crests and it is not hard to imagine hawk-eyed Bess selecting tapestries from Brussels that she believed told her own story and celebrated her own characteristics.

Continue through the Evidence Room, where countless wooden boxes are filled with documents detailing every aspect of Bess's kingdom, and into a room dominated by a partially completed hanging. Take advantage of a book or audio commentary to discover the fascinating process from selecting and creating a design to the countless hours of painstaking stitchery required for a finished piece.

Walk through twisting hallways partitioned by sturdy doors fitted with stout bolts and heavy locks to the broad stair case that sweeps majestically up to the first floor landing and Bess's private chapel. The arras in the chapel is as bright as the day it was made. It is also possible from the careful seating arrangements to see the significance that the Countess and her descendants placed on social hierarchy. Pause on the continuing upwards climb to admire the great glass lantern with its panes of bull's eye glass -- it is probably the fitting mentioned in the 1601 inventory -- before continuing a stately progress to the second floor and the magnificent great High Chamber.

This room is fit for a queen. The plasterwork frieze tells the story of Diana the huntress -- a deliberate reference Queen Elizabeth -- so it is possible that Bess intended that the room be ready for a visit from her monarch. However, she herself sat beneath the canopy with her feet on the footstool whilst her attendants held court balanced on the needlework covered stools around the room. The other significant feature is the Elizabeth looking glass -- an expensive rarity. Clearly Bess had a sense of her own importance and wanted other people to recognise her as a wealthy and independent woman -- the queen of her own little kingdom.

Statue of Mary Queen of ScotsDuck through the door hidden by tapestries to enter the Great Hall. Like the previous chamber, it is carpeted by rush matting of the kind that Bess would have recognised. The sweet smell of oats and meadowland lift the atmosphere in these two rooms on the dreariest of days. The hall is lined with portraits of Tudor, Jacobean and Carolinian nobility. Mary Queen of Scots stares down at chattering school children who gather beneath her picture. Her beauty is fading -- a consequence of her captivity. Despite the portrait and the statue to the rear of the house, Mary never visited Hardwick. There is only one piece of needlework in the hall that can be directly ascribed to her, but it is well documented that in the early days of Shrewsbury's wardenship Mary and Bess sat and stitched together. Sadly the friendship withered as Mary grew steadily more disquietened by Bess's overwhelming ambition and the pressure of caring for the royal prisoner put a strain on the Shrewsbury marriage best illustrated perhaps by the fact that the earl is buried in Sheffield Cathedral whilst Bess -- ever the builder -- is buried in Derby, commemorated by a monument of her own design.

Further along the great Hall is a picture of James I of England as a young boy, and at the far end of the hall Queen Elizabeth I keeps watch. Many of the other portraits are of Bess's family. Her first marriage was childless; her second marriage was to an older man who was smitten by her beauty and sold his estates to buy land in Derbyshire and Nottinghamshire. This union was probably Bess's happiest and it was the one that gave her children. These children sired the lines of the Duke of Devonshire, Newcastle and Portland. However, it was on her grand-daughter Arbella Stuart that Bess pinned the hopes for her family. It is also worth noting a portrait of an elderly gentleman -- Thomas Hobbes -- was tutor to the 2nd and 3rd Dukes of Devonshire. He died at Hardwick in 1679.

The tour continues through a warren of rooms with overmantels, panels, distinctive furnishings and tapestries depicting historical and mythical stories. The Green Velvet Room is large and splendidly furnished with a massive 18th-century four-poster bed. On the other side of this room is a tiny chamber that could once be found in Chatsworth. When the old house at Chatsworth was torn down to be replaced by the present house, this room was dismantled and carted through the valleys of Derbyshire to Hardwick. The room belonged to Mary Queen of Scots. In this chamber stands the bed that she once slept in. It is very heavily restored and there is no evidence to suggest that she worked the designs on the hangings. Despite its change in location there is no doubt that everything about the room is authentic.

Pass through more winding corridors, down the North staircase -- a rather less grand wooden structure -- back to the first floor. The dining room is ready for an 18th-century banquet. Further on the drawing room has an 18th-century interior and displays family photographs. As ever in this house the Hardwick stags are given prominence. Look for the touching picture of a little girl in Elizabeth dress. She is clutching her doll and staring through the frame with a serious expression her face. This wide eyed child in her richly embroidered dress with her gold necklace is Lady Arbella Stuart.

Hardwick Hall
TulipsAt the time this portrait was painted Arbella was two years old and her grandmother's delight. The cunning countess had taken advantage of a meeting between her daughter Elizabeth Cavendish and Charles Lennox (Lord Darnley's brother). The pair had been married. Queen Elizabeth's wrath was so great that Lennox's mother had been sent to the Tower. Somehow Bess managed to escape similar punishment. Sadly for Arbella, she was orphaned soon after her birth and passed into the care of Bess. Little Arbella had a claim to the throne. The scene was set for a tragedy. Bess was determined to capitalise on Arbella's heritage.

Arbella's bed chamber is a suite of rooms designed for a future queen. Poor Arbella grew up in a confined atmosphere. She was closely watched by her grandmother. She even slept in Bess's room. For Arbella, Hardwick was a prison. Sadly Arbella escaped into an inadvisable marriage and from there back into imprisonment -- this time in the Tower of London on the orders of James I, her cousin. The bonny little girl in the portrait starved herself to death in 1615 after enduring years of imprisonment. She is buried in Westminster Abbey with Mary Queen of Scots; her aunt by marriage would have understood the mental anguish of prolonged imprisonment.

Return through the house and down another set of stairs. A heady aroma of food fills the air. Don't worry -- these are not the ghostly manifestations of an old house. The kitchen with its pewter plates, copper pans, kettles and scales has been transformed into a restaurant serving locally inspired food. The Bakewell tart and custard is a real treat, as is the treacle sponge pudding that evokes cold winter evenings of childhood.

There's just as much to see outside the house. The gardens are tranquil, lined with carefully maintained yew and holly hedges. Wander through the herb garden and inhale the scents of mint, thyme and lavender or admire brightly coloured tulips, irises, poppies, roses and chrysanthemums, depending upon the season. Continue along manicured avenues towards the house or relax in the orchards. A small summerhouse provides a brief display outlining the development of gardens four hundred years in the making. A final garden at the back of the house mirrors the one visitors first see on their entrance through the porters lodge. The views lead towards an avenue of distant trees. Walk through the opening in the hedge to take a closer look at the ha-ha. This is a clever device to make it look as if the garden stretches out into the surrounding countryside. The grazing sheep are prevented from nibbling roses and borders by a wall that drops into a ditch out of sight of the garden's genteel visitors.

Stainsby Mill

It is also possible to visit the stone mason's yard. Hardwick has its own quarry further down the hill. Find out how the grand old house is maintained through the loving care of a team of dedicated masons. And why not explore the parklands? Traces of earthworks dating from the eleventh century can be seen in the slopes below the hall, but as ever it is Bess's stamp that dominates the scenery. Extensive ponds filled with water lilies and wild life once provided the hall with a plentiful supply of fish.

Virtually everything required for the building of Hardwick came from Beth's estates; her self-sufficiency is well documented, so why not round off the visit with a stop at Stainsby mill also owned by the National Trust? A mill has stood on this site since the Middle Ages. Its great waterwheel still turns the mill stones and flour is still produced just as it once was for the countess's tenants.

Old Hardwick Hall

Before venturing to Stainsby don't forget to take a look at the Old Hall. It is in the care of English Heritage. In Bess's time it wasn't a ruin. She built upon and extended her childhood home before beginning work on the new hall. The whole site was one vast complex, the Old Hall housing servants and visitors. Explore the empty rooms and climb the stairs to the chamber containing the plasterwork figures of Gog and Magog. You'll be following in the footsteps of Queen Victoria, who is said to have surprised her entourage by reaching this point in the old building before any of them.

Summer visitors wishing to make a full day of their excursion to Hardwick can make use of the Heritage Coach Service -- a 1940's bus -- which runs between Chesterfield, Bolsover Castle, Sutton Scarsdale Hall, Stainsby Mill and Hardstoft Herb Garden on Sundays, bank holidays and Thursdays. Other places to visit near Hardwick include Chatsworth House and historic Chesterfield with its famous twisting spire -- definitely worth a stop.

Visitors wishing to find out more about Mary Queen of Scots should visit Wingfield Manor and Tutbury Castle. Chatsworth House is much changed from the place Mary would have known however her arbour and a hunting lodge may still be viewed here.

Tomb of Bess of Hardwick

More Information:

Hardwick Hall

Hardwick Hall (The Heritage Trail)

Bess of Hardwick

Julia Hickey is passionate about England's heritage and particularly of Cumbria, where her husband comes from. In between dragging her family around the country to a variety of historic monuments, she works part-time as a senior lecturer at Sheffield Hallam University. She spends the rest of her week writing. In her spare time, she enjoys walking, dabbling in family history, cross-stitch, tapestry and photography.
Article © 2006 Julia Hickey; Photos © 2006 Adam Hewgill


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