On 15th May 2019, a group of GOTH members visited Hardwick Hall in Derbyshire for the first GOTH away day. Hardwick Hall is a distinctive Elizabethan country house created by Elizabeth, Countess of Shrewsbury, usually known as Bess of Hardwick, one of the richest and best-connected women of the time. There are actually two halls on the site: the Old Hall, now ruined, was begun in 1587, and the New Hall in 1590, before the Old Hall was completed. Both halls were architecturally innovative when they were built, and they have remained some of the finest examples of Elizabethan building in the country.
We arrived at Hardwick on a sunny morning, and began our visit in the Old Hall. We were lucky enough to have the Open University’s Susie West, Senior Lecturer in Art History, with our group, who has worked extensively on the site and even wrote the English Heritage guidebook for it! Susie started us off with an overview of Bess and her work on the hall, highlighting her shrewdness and knowledge of her own worth, as well as her love of architecture. Bess brought in a professional architect for the New Hall, but designed the Old Hall herself; she clearly knew what she was doing in this regard, and must have been exposed to the latest humanist culture at the court of Queen Elizabeth the First.
Susie told us about the design of the Old Hall, which was more functional than artistic: the house is not particularly well situated in its gardens from the back. But the arrangement of the chimneys on the inner walls provided attractive façades, flat roofs offered the opportunity to walk on the leads after dinner, and Bess’s modelling of the house on an Italian villa was innovative, one of the first of its kind in Britain. Nevertheless, the house doesn’t quite convey Bess’s status as much as the New Hall: the Old Hall’s windows are small, and it doesn’t have a gatehouse. We walked around as much of the Old Hall as we could, though it was under renovation at the time, and also viewed the exhibition that Susie curated, which pulled together interesting information and objects from the site.
After lunch and a GOTH brainstorming session, we moved on to look at the New Hall. Here we were particularly keen to see the set of cutwork wall hangings designed by Bess and variously called ‘Virtuous Women’, ‘Heroines and Virtues’ or ‘Noble Women of the Ancient World’. GOTH Director Peg Katritzky has worked on the importance of these pieces as Bess’s homage to women as textile producers, and she was able to tell us a lot about the specific resonances of each scene. The pieces were a collaboration with Mary, Queen of Scots, and involved the two women sharing their knowledge of English and European embroidery techniques. They depict Penelope, Lucretia, Zenobia, and Artemisia, and a lost fifth hanging showed Cleopatra.
From here we moved to Bess’ bedchamber, where Gemma Allen spoke to us about Bess’s literacy and particularly her letter-writing. Bess left over 200 letters from over the course of her life, and Gemma noted that she didn’t quote famous writers in them much, which was the fashion at the time. Gemma suggested that perhaps Bess didn’t feel she needed this added authority, and indeed, over the years, the tone of Bess’s letters becomes less and less deferential. Questions have been raised about the 1601 inventory of the property, which listed only 6 books in Bess’s possession; these were all religious books, and so perhaps Bess wanted to draw attention only to these.
At the end of the day, we advocated reinscribing Bess as a woman of writing if not a woman of letters – she was no ‘dim squire’s daughter’ (M. Girouard, Hardwick Hall (1989) p.6). We saw evidence of her architectural knowledge, design expertise, planning, and knowledge of the Humanities. Hardwick was also playing host to an exhibition at the time of our visit called We Are Bess, which placed photographic portraits of modern women amongst the portraits in the long gallery in the New Hall, alongside texts written by these women about ways in which their own lives mirrored Bess’s. It’s clear that Bess of Hardwick has an incredible legacy, not just in the creation of the amazing Hardwick Hall, but in her distinctive character and artistic production during the Elizabethan era.