Bess of Hardwick is probably best known for having survived four husbands, and for having built the grand house about which Robert Cecil famously quipped, “Hardwick Hall? More window than wall.” But in an age when women rarely wielded much power or had control of their own money, Bess not only built from the ground up the forty-six room house that was then referred to as New Hardwick Hall, she also converted her childhood home, Hardwick Manor, into a grand edifice known as Old Hardwick Hall; built Chatsworth House, still the seat of her descendants the Dukes of Devonshire; and carried out extensive improvements to several other houses that she and her husbands owned.
Bess’s third husband, Sir William St. Loe, addressed her fondly in a letter as “chief overseer of my works,” and she was that. In those days there were no architects as we know the term, but a master builder would be responsible for the design of a house. Bess worked with Robert Smythson, a master stonemason who also designed Longleat, on building Hardwick. But on that project as well as Chatsworth, she personally oversaw armies of masons, carpenters, sculptors, plasterers, painters, glaziers, and other tradesmen and artisans. She employed some of them for years or even decades. The account books for the building of the new Hardwick Hall list more than 375 men, many of whom had also worked on Chatsworth.
In December, 1551, Bess and her second husband Sir William Cavendish paid master mason Roger Worde twenty shillings to design a house at Chatsworth. They were living in part of the new house by 1554, though construction wasn’t fully complete until more than thirty years later. Bess’s house doesn’t exist as she knew it because of extensive rebuilding in 1687-1707 by her descendant William Cavendish, the first Duke of Devonshire, which resulted in the elegant and imposing house that visitors can still see today.
But Hardwick Hall remains as Bess built it. She didn’t begin the project until after the death of her fourth husband, George Talbot, the Sixth Earl of Shrewsbury. She had great ambitions when she built the house, because her granddaughter Arbella Stuart was a possible successor to Queen Elizabeth, and she made bold architectural choices that set the place apart from its contemporaries, most notably the vast windows, produced by her own glassworks.
Bess moved into the house amid great festivities on October 4, 1597, which her biographer Mary Lovell believes was Bess’s seventieth birthday. Arbella didn’t succeed to the throne, but Bess became the wealthiest and most powerful woman in England next to the queen, and through her six children that survived to adulthood, she is the ancestor of numerous noble lines in Britain, including the Dukedoms of Devonshire, Norfolk, Somerset, and Newcastle; the Earls of Lincoln, Portsmouth, Kellie, and Pembroke; the Baron Waterpark; and the current queen. Princes William and Henry are descended from Bess on both sides, so it seems likely that Bess’s progeny will occupy the throne for a very long time.
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