Hardwick is approached from below; the road winds round through the valley with a tantalising vista opening up, offering a glimpse of golden stone looming above, and then disappearing once more as you climb. Still invisible on the long drive through parkland scattered with sheep, Hardwick only reappears when you are almost upon her (she, glinting in the low sun, is surely female). Then there she is, splendid and curiously monolithic, those famous windows reflecting back the sky, and you wonder how it was possible for her to hide so easily behind the curves of the Derbyshire countryside.
Research trips can be like pilgrimages and that first sight of Hardwick brought with it a frisson of excitement in the knowledge that my latest heroine, Arbella Stuart, had spent much of her youth behind those walls. But I challenge anyone approaching the place, for even the most mundane of reasons, to not feel charged with anticipation on the first sight of this house. Lest we forget the woman who brought Hardwick into being, by sheer hubris and social mountaineering, the six square towers are topped with carvings spelling out ES for Elizabeth Shrewsbury, more commonly known as Bess of Hardwick, the illustrious Shrewsbury title having these days taken second place to Bess as a figure of success in her own right. An intriguing woman born into the minor gentry she was widowed four times, cannily amassing vast wealth and the means to build prodigy houses to demonstrate her position.
Hardwick sits perched surveying the rolling hills of Derbyshire and it is easy to imagine Bess looking out and feeling as if she owned the entire world. But Bess’s ambition knew no bounds and she cleverly negotiated a marriage between one of her daughters, Elizabeth Cavendish and a Scottish prince, Charles Stuart, brother of Mary Queen of Scots’ murdered husband Lord Darnley. This union produced a daughter, Arbella who was raised as heir to the English throne. Alas destiny had other ideas for Arbella but her story demonstrates Bess’s driving aspirations, which are so apparent in the architecture of Hardwick. Indeed Hardwick is not a single house but two great houses a hundred yards apart. The Old Hall, a vast building that replaced the original modest manor house of Bess’s youth, was not even finished in 1587 when work began on the new building and the two were designed to work as a single grand dwelling, with future generations using the Old Hall to house the servants. Sadly the Old Hall is now in ruins but it is still possible to see its scale and grandeur and imagine how the family and its many dependants might have inhabited it. Though it has many of the features of an older style there are some architectural innovations in the design of the Old Hall, drawing on Italian models. These are taken further in the New Hall and one gets the sense of the changes in style moving swiftly in the period and the New Hall somehow having shaken off entirely its links with the past.
It is the windows that make this house so very unique and were so unusual at the time as to provoke the rhyme: ‘Hardwick Hall more glass than wall. Glass was an expensive commodity and the sheer expanse of the material is yet another testimony to Bess’s ambition. The outsize windows may be a splendid display and offer dramatic views but they make the house itself freezing cold and rather draughty, making me imagine Arbella, who lived a virtual prisoner within its walls for some years, shivering and pacing the vast rooms in a bid to stay warm.
You enter by through the Great Hall, passing through it to the back of the house and a wide, tapestry-lined, stone staircase which takes you up two floors to the Great High chamber, where Bess would have received her most illustrious guests. As you enter you are instantly seduced by the sheer scale and stateliness yet the prevailing smell comes from the rush matting, commonly used in Elizabethan houses, giving the place a fresh and curiously out-of-doors atmosphere. The room is hung with tapestries – Hardwick is known for its remarkable needlework – above which is a painted plaster frieze depicting a woodland scene that runs round the entire space. A door leads to the Long Gallery, an impressive space as long as a football pitch, stretching the entire length of house and covered floor to ceiling in portraits, some frustratingly too high to be able to see. An anecdote from one of the house’s more recent incumbents was that he tried to make more use of the gallery with his guests by gathering chairs convivially around the fireplaces; but that it never really lent itself to comfort and so those efforts were soon abandoned.
The prevailing feeling in the vast state chambers of Hardwick is that they are waiting for a visit from royalty. The expected royal visitor was Elizabeth I, but she never came, which one senses must have irked Bess. Once beyond the state rooms you move on through to the more intimate spaces of the house, the rooms reserved only for privileged guests. One bedroom is described as Mary Queen of Scots room, though she was executed before the house was finished. She had been held as Elizabeth I’s prisoner under the guard of Bess’s husband the Earl of Shrewsbury for many years, with her Queen’s retinue laying waste to his fortune, but never at Hardwick. A double portrait of Mary and Darnley is hung on the landing, tucked away above a door, inconveniently behind a hanging lamp, reminding us of the infinite number of extraordinary works of art the house holds, and that this gem is simply one of many. Once through these rooms you descend by another staircase to the floor below and the spaces the family lived in when they had no guests. Still capacious yet more intimate than the magnificent rooms above, it is easy to picture the family: someone playing at the virginals in the window bay, another seated nearby reading or sewing, a dog curled on the matting beside the fire and Bess gazing from the window contemplating perhaps her extraordinary life.
These two houses, perched together on top of their Derbyshire hill, make for a magical visit, operating as a lens though which to gain a deeper understanding of the Elizabethans who inhabited them. One of these people was Bess’s granddaughter Arbella Stuart, a girl full of Tudor blood and raised as Elizabeth’s heir, who is to be the subject of my next novel.
Elizabeth Fremantle is the author of Queen’s Gambit, a novel about Katherine Parr, and Sisters of Treason, which tells the story of Lady Jane Grey’s tragic younger sisters. Watch the Lady, exploring the life of Penelope Devereux, sister of the doomed Earl of Essex and muse to Sir Philip Sidney, will be published in June 2015.
Hardwick New Hall is a National Trust property (images courtesy of The National Trust)