Bess of Hardwick

On our recent trip to Hay-on-Wye, I picked up a copy of Mary S. Lovell’s book, Bess of Hardwick, First Lady of Chatsworth. Although I’ve known bits and pieces about Bess for a long time, this is the first time I’ve read a whole biography of this remarkable woman.

Bess was no beautiful princess like her contemporary Queen Elizabeth I, no tragic heroine like Mary Queen of Scots, but she knew both of these women very well indeed and lived a life every bit as moving.

But what I find most endearing, is that this Tudor lady was in many respects a working mother, on a scale that today’s high power executives would have trouble matching.

I won’t attempt to detail everything about her life here. If you’re interested, then there are plenty of sources. Suffice to say that Bess came from fairly humble beginnings (at least by Tudor standards) but through a series of advantageous marriages, and by extremely good management of her resources, climbed to the top of Elizabethan society, being regarded as the second most wealthy woman in England after the queen.

Bess of Hardwick (later Elizabeth Countess of ...
Image via Wikipedia

The reason why I so admire Bess, is that she really was responsible for making the very best of her lot in life, things could have turned out very differently for her on numerous occasions, but she learned how to play the system and make it work for her – and she did all this, whilst placing her commitment to the advancement of her family, firmly centre stage.

Throughout her life, she suffered periods of stress and acute worry. Deaths of loved ones, malicious gossip, spiteful lawsuits, court intrigue and plotting and more, but she survived it all, and through what must have been indredible strength of character, she triumphed.

In an age when patronage was essential to advancement, and when many ambitious nobles bankrupted themselves in their pursuit of favour with the monarch, Bess managed to build magnificent new houses, (the original building at Chatsworth and the existing Hardwick Hall are both her creations) without becoming insolvent – what could she teach us today about financial management! Apparently she was meticulous with her accounts – a true hands-on manager.

She was a adept business manager, and a fantastic networker. Over the long years of her life, she was sure to make friends with the right people at the right time – not a question of luck – she set out to do it. But she also seems to have made true and lasting friendships, which implies that she was an authentic person, appreciated for her own worth and recognised for her personal integrity.

Hardwick Hall, the house Bess built in her later years.

What I particularly love about Bess is her energy and enthusiasm for life. Fifty was pretty old in Elizabethan times, but at this age, when others were slowing down and succumbing to illness and death, Bess was as driven and sprightly as ever. She was in her sixties when she started the building at Hardwick – moving into her new house on or around her seventieth birthday. No slowing down for her.

Throughout her life, she seems to have valued and enjoyed the company of children and young people, perhaps this partly explains her joie de vivre. And at her death, Bess had left strict instructions as to the manner of her funeral – not to be too lavish – in fact she had prepared her estate better than most of us would attempt today, to provide the basis for her children’s inheritance.

She ended her life it seems, having achieved so much and still having maintained her sense of humility and integrity – what an inheritance.

I believe that Bess still has a lot to teach us, especially our daughters, about what can be achieved and what are the essential values to hold on to throughout life.

  • Chatsworth is still owned by Bess’s descendants, the Dukes of Devonshire, and is a wonderful place to visit, although vastly altered since Bess’s time.

  • Hardwick Hall remains very much as Bess left it and is one of the most stunning great houses of England – it is managed today by the National Trust. If you visit, make sure to see Bess’s needlework – what a woman. Hardwick Old Hall, just a step away from the new Hall is also open to the public and although ruined, is still a poignant link to Bess.

Hardwick Hall Gets Our Thumbs Up.

If you’re in the Peak District, don’t miss the opportunity to visit Hardwick Hall. We’ve just returned from a few days camping and cycling between Buxton and Bakewell and decided to take in the Hall on our way back to the M1 (it’s just off Junction 29).

Glorious Hardwick Hall, Derbyshire.

We had been once before. That was years ago, when the girls were really small and if I remember rightly it was rather a dull day. But I very much wanted to go again and have a better look at the famous tapestries and other needlework pieces.

Well, what can I say – to date, this has to have been the friendliest National Trust property we’ve visited (and that’s quite a lot).

Right from our arrival, all the people we met were incredibly affable, knowledgable, and thank the Lord, child-friendly. I just want to say an enormous thank-you to all the volunteers and other staff who’ve proved that it really is possible to run an historic property in a way that welcomes all kinds of visitors.

Hardwick, in case you’re not familiar with it, is a huge Elizabethan prodigy house, built by the redoubtable Bess of Hardwick, four times married and ending her life as the Countess of Shrewsbury (having seen off her poor fourth husband). This woman was probably the second most powerful and richest lady in England after the Queen herself. Her life was pretty amazing – and very long too. I’m not sure you’d particularly have liked her, but you have to admire the spirit. There are lots of books about her if you’re interested. (I haven’t actually read any, so I’m not going to recommend which one to read – but Google Bess of Hardwick, or look on Amazon and you’ll see quite a lot of choice).

Bess was quite a needlewoman and Hardwick has a wonderful collection of textiles (OK, I know that’s not everyone’s cup of tea, but I can’t help being a bit of a needlework freak – bear with me). But even if a pile of musty old tapestries only makes you want to sneeze, it’s still worth going to Hardwick, because it’s the most amazing building. The windows alone mark it out as an architectural triumph, but it also has an interior that simply takes your breath away.

After going around the Hall, we strolled out into the gardens. A herb garden has been developed, and frankly I think I could go and spend an entire afternoon there (OK, herbs are another passion, but it’s nothing to be ashamed of…)

The girls stayed and played games on the lawns in front of the Hall – like I said, the Trust have got it right here.

If you’re a complete historic house geek (like me!), you’ll be delighted to know that the ruins of Hardwick Old Hall are quite literally on the doorstep of the new Hall, so you can have a double helping.

Do go and have a look, it’s lovely.

Hardwick’s official website has details of opening times etc.