In which even the persistent rain couldn’t spoil the pleasure of a visit to the home of my historic hero, Bess of Hardwick…
It won’t surprise anyone who comes here often, that Hardwick Hall in Derbyshire exerts a powerful allure for this particular history junkie, combining as it does the attractions of a seriously grand Elizabethan great house, with an unsurpassed collection of historic textiles.
Hardwick Hall – more glass than wall – as they say…
And perhaps adding the real cherry on top, is the fact that both the building and the textiles exist here today, due to the efforts and vision of one truly remarkable Elizabethan lady – the redoubtable, Bess of Hardwick.
Bess of Hardwick, later in life when the widowed Countess of Shrewsbury
I don’t need much encouragement to go along to Hardwick, so when an opportunity came up at the weekend, off I went!
Hardwick Hall is in the care of the National Trust, which considering the nature of the building and its fragile and delicate contents, is probably a very good thing. But the downside of showing so many historic tapestries, embroideries and needleworks, is that they keep the light-levels very low to avoid light damage. So if you have the chance to visit on a day when it isn’t raining – grab it.
Sadly, I didn’t have the option, and so I apologise here and now for the poor quality of the photos. I’ve done what I could, but as you will see, it was wet and seriously dark on Saturday afternoon, so try to go with the sepia flow…
View from the New Hall to the ruins of the Old Hall (also largely rebuilt by Bess) and a ‘must’ when you visit the New Hall.
Anyway, I’m sure many of you know all about Bess of Hardwick (if you don’t, read about her here, or better still, read this book: Bess of Hardwick: First Lady of Chatsworth – Mary S. Lovell).
If Bess’s wasn’t exactly a ‘rags to riches’ story, it wasn’t far off. Honestly, I don’t understand why dramatists aren’t all over her story – married 4 times to wealthier and wealthier men, life at the court of Elizabeth I, sharing her home with Mary Queen of Scots, arranging marriages for a brood of children, building at least 3 magnificent houses, acrimonious divorce, deaths – her story has the lot!
My favourite portrait of Bess: Aged about 30. Oh how I wish that picture could talk…
And the best bit – Bess wasn’t some pawn in the game, she was a lead player. Time and again, Bess confronted difficult situations and worked at them to the advantage of herself and her family. She is for me, an incredible example of a strong woman, standing up for what she wanted and what she thought was right and at a time when this was certainly not the norm for women.
Luckily, much of her correspondence and her inventories remain, so it’s possible to read her own words, which make her feel extraordinarily real. She comes across as something of a cross between an extremely powerful business woman and your Grandmother – juggling the stresses and strains of a major business empire with the day-to-day upheavals of a complex and sometimes dysfunctional family life.
The marriages of Bess’s children, celebrated in a heraldic mantel.
I’m not sure that she would have been all that easy to live with, or to work for, but of all the people in history I’d love the chance to go back and talk to, it would be Bess – she is my all-time historic hero.
But of course there’s another reason why I love her so much. Bess was into textiles. Her homes were adorned with every kind of rich tapestry, needlework and embroideries money could buy. And although much was produced by professional embroiderers, she also stitched some pieces herself – which gives me a kind of thrill when I look at the many textiles at Hardwick and imagine her running her hands over them, or even wielding her needle.
Details from the needlework table carpet – Story of Tobit (1579)
Details from a long cushion – Fancie of a Fowler – velvet with applied needlework motifs.
I stood for a long time, working out in my mind how some of these pieces were worked. And I suppose it’s seeing something made over 400 years ago, using techniques exactly the same as the ones I use today, that gives me a special thrill. Occasionally, you find yourself understanding precisely why they chose to work in a particular way, and in that moment, there’s a connection across those 400 years. You stand there and realise that if the embroiderer was standing next to you, you’d be talking the same language.
The building itself is superb, but in a way, it overwhelms me, which is why I usually find myself looking for the odd or the quirky aspects, such as the staggered windows and the worn stone stairs. It’s the sort of house that will speak in different ways to every visitor, I’m quite sure. Certainly on Saturday afternoon, it was proving awesome to many of the visitors – which is really quite some legacy, even after all these years.
Hats off to Bess!
Visitor information from the National Trust is here.
For a wonderful and fascinating insider’s story, follow Ellen Scarlett’s delightful and informative blog – View From My Attic – Ellen works at Hardwick Hall and gives fabulous glimpses into the life of the Hall.
Oh, and the gardens…well, even in the rain, they’re wonderful…
Do visit Hardwick if you can, you’ll be very glad you did.