08 June 2011

The Other Queen Bess

Bess of Hardwick, ancestor of the Dukes of Devonshire, was the second richest woman in the land, after Elizabeth I. As Countess of Shrewsbury (resulting from her fourth marriage, to George Talbot, the sixth Earl), she displayed vitality, vision and innovation of a high order.

Bess was born in the early 1520s, at what is now called Old Hardwick Hall. She was estranged from the Earl in 1584, and left Chatsworth House to return home. Between 1587 and 1596 she embarked on a massive rebuilding programme. Old Hardwick Hall rises over six storeys, the most striking features its spacious staircases, large windows, and brilliant plasterwork (that in the Forestry Room was so realistic that birds apparently nested).

Shrewsbury died in 1590 and Bess's finances improved dramatically. She immediately began the building of the 'New' Hall (below), the English Renaissance work of Robert Smythson (Longleat, Wollaton Hall), and famous as "Hardwick Hall, more window than wall." In the sixteenth century glass was an expensive luxury, and upon its hilltop between Chesterfield and Mansfield the Hall showed off its opulence to great effect.

No comments: