The house of sad women

Hardwick Hall, which sits on a high hill in Derbyshire, is one of the finest Elizabethan houses in England. Because it’s owners, the Dukes of Devonshire, preferred one of their other houses, nearby Chatsworth, it was not modernised during the four centuries it has stood on its hill. Martin, Paul, and I visited it today, and I found it to be one of the most atmospheric of all the houses I’ve ever visited. I particularly felt the strong presence of three sad women.

Before we entered the house we walked, on a bright February morning, through its large, empty, and wooded parklands. We saw the stately hall from a distance, with the semi-ruined Old Hall beside it. Down a long row of trees we could see the symmetrical, three story hall, with its three floors, enormous windows, and large letters E and S around the top of the building. ES stands for Elizabeth Shrewsbury, better known as Bess of Hardwick, who built the hall. The higher stories have higher ceilings than the lower floors: the grander people lived at the top. The huge windows mean that the house is filled with light unlike most Elizabethan and Tudor houses; the windows also signify wealth because glass was extremely expensive in the 16th century.

After coffee we entered the house, and you are at once hit by its intactness, coherence, and integrity. This is a house that still contains much of what it contained when first built, in particular tapestries, some of which Bess contributed to herself. Tapestries line most of the rooms and the surprisingly wide staircases. The rooms at the top are the most striking:  a gallery some 50 yards long and 20 feet high runs the length of the back of the hall; while at the front of the house is the great hall with a vast fireplace and elaborate plaster work all around the upper half of the walls telling the story of Diana the hunter. This is where you would have eaten with Bess, and once you’d eaten the tables would have been pushed back for music, dancing, plays, and gaming.

Hardwick Hall

Filled with light, I found it easy to imagine this room as being very jolly, but it was thoughts of the three sad women who preoccupied me.

Bess of Hardwick

Bess of Hardwick

The least sad was Bess herself: born in the Old Hall in 1527, when Henry VIII still had 20 years to reign, she had four husbands and was widowed four times. Her husbands were rich, and she was left the richest woman in England after Queen Elizabeth herself. Her wealth allowed her to build both Hardwick Hall and Chatsworth. She served Queen Elizabeth and together with her fourth husband, the Count of Shrewsbury, helped guard Mary Queen of Scots. (In the hall you can see embroidery that belonged to Mary Queen of Scots with thistles and lilies symbolising countries she ruled, Scotland and France, and roses that she never did, England.)

Perhaps it was her wealth and contact with royalty that made her aspire to have one of her own family rule England. The grandeur of Hardwick Hall showed how that was possible. She married one of her daughter’s into the House of Stuart, legitimate pretenders to the throne. She did so without the consent of Queen Elizabeth, a risky thing to do as Elizabeth was ruthless in her destruction of rivals. The marriage produced not a son but a daughter, Arbella, the second sad woman of Hardwick Hall.



Arbella Stuart

Arbella was Bess’s hope to have one of her family on the throne, as successor to Queen Elizabeth. Born in 1575, Arbella was kept a prisoner by Bess. Bess was worried that she might elope or perhaps be captured or assassinated. Queen Elizabeth died in 1603, and James, son of Mary Queen of Scots, was quickly made king. The possibility of a plot to replace James with Arbella persisted, and after Bess died in 1608 aged 82 Arbella was imprisoned in the Tower of London, where she eventually refused to eat and died a broken woman in 1615 aged 40.

The saddest of the three women is Arbella who never knew neither freedom nor love, but Beth died knowing that her great ambition would never be fulfilled.

The third sad woman is Evelyn, Duchess of Devonshire, who was the last occupant of Hardwick Hall. The hall has a portrait of her, she is small in the corner of the painting looking oppressed and sad but determined. I have no doubt that she loved the Hall, almost as she might have loved a child, but I can’t help think that the weight of history would be very heavy in such a place: it would be only an afternoon before you joined the ancestors you lived among every day. Life is short, death in the waiting family tomb is long. Bess has already been there 400 years.


Evelyn, Duchess of Devonshire, painted by John Singer Sargent

Evelyn was born in 1870 and painted by John Singer Sargent in 1902. Born at the height of Britain’s greatness she believed in that greatness and had a Victorian sense of duty. Like Bess she was close to royalty, this time Queen Mary, wife of George V. Through marriage she became Duchess of Devonshire in 1908 and soon took over responsibility for four English houses and one Irish castle. She “adhered strictly to etiquette and her position” (was a snob) and was “accustomed to authority.” She was described as “cold, authoritarian, and frugal,” a true Victorian who perhaps lived too long into a very different age.

Evelyn with daughters

Evelyn, Duchess of Devonshire, with her daughters

Her sadness began in 1925 when the Duke suffered a stroke and was transformed from a jolly man into one who was miserable, bitter, and angry who could not tolerate his wife. Perhaps he never could but now showed it. When the Duke died in 1938 Evelyn took up residence at Hardwick Hall, but her second tragedy struck in 1950 when her son, the next Duke, died suddenly. In order to pay death duties the family had to hand Hardwick Hall to the government, and the National Trust took it over in 1959. Evelyn stayed in the house until her death in 1960, but she hated the National Trust and was bitter about what had happened to her family.

As I wandered through the house and watched stuttering films of Evelyn opening public buildings and “doing her duty,” I felt sure that she felt closer to Bess and Arbella than to anybody living; and like Arbella she was a prisoner, of the National Trust, and only death freed her as it freed Arbella.


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