It’s inevitable when you travel around visiting different places that your list of books to read gets ever longer as you want to find out more about the locations and the characters of those who peopled them originally. A visit to Chatsworth had me re-reading Mitford books and finding new ones to get stuck into. You can read my Chatsworth related posts here.
So a visit to Hardwick Hall in the summer led me to want to find out more about Bess. Look no further if you have the same inclination because this book is everything which you could want. It not only gives amazing details of Bess’s life but adds in fascinating details of Tudor life.
The author discovered that her husband’s family had descended from one of Bess’s husbands, but it was at the suggestion of Deborah Devonshire that she took on the task of writing a new Bess biography. It seems that previous biographers had been a bit slap-dash and lackadaisical and just plain wrong about details. The trouble was that there is so much archive material to look through that it was difficult to decide what should be written about and what kept out. Bess was so organised about money that she seems to have recorded every penny which ever came into her possession. It’s not that she was mean – she was actually amazingly generous and the sums of money she was distributing to people were enormous, but she obviously liked to be in control of her money and the doling out of it. I learned that an Angel was a gold coin which is apparently why some pubs are called The Angel. Bess often gave them to children.
I hadn’t realised before that there was what was the equivalent of an internship system in operation for well off families. Youngsters would be sent off to live with a family higher up the social scale from them, the idea being that they would learn how to get on with new people and experiences which would benefit all concerned, it was a sort of finishing school for them.
I was outraged to discover that The Office of Wards, a sort of Tudor version of the Inland Revenue, took over the running and profits of an estate if the landowner died leaving an heir who had not yet reached his 21st birthday. All the income and profits went to the Crown meaning that the widow of the landowner and his children were left in dire straits financially.
Best of all though, I discovered that Bess had been maligned by historians over the years, probably because she dared to be a successful woman in what was very much a man’s world. I really liked her and I’m glad she had a passion for building and tapestries which can still be seen. She was a great housekeeper as well as a great businesswoman and she was obviously keen on the company of the wee ones of the household. It must have been heartbreaking that the children died so frequently and suddenly, I suspect that it was all for the want of a spoonful of Calpol or some such medication to bring down a fever. If you’re a parent, just think of all the times you’ve given your children something like that for teething or an ear infection, in Tudor times they just died.
It’s impossible to know exactly what her personality would have been like but I think that as she wasn’t exactly a beauty but she was still very popular with men, then she must have had a good sense of humour and been smiley and light-hearted. That always attracts men, but it usually goes along with a fiery and feisty temperament which confuses them. I did feel sorry for Bess’s last husband, the Earl of Shrewsbury, as he was stuck in between two such women, who just happen to have been redheads – and then there was Mary, Queen of Scots who was foisted on him for 14 years or so. Shrewsbury should have been proud of himself though as he managed to stop Mary from escaping, no mean feat as she had managed to escape from so many places before, including Dumbarton Castle, on the top left of my header – and an island in the middle of Loch Leven. Mary wrecked the Shrewsbury marriage though, I know I’m rambling but – I had always been told that Mary Stuart was also a redhead but according to this book she had dark hair but sometimes wore a red wig.
Anyway, if you’re at all interested in this era in history I recommmend you read Bess of Hardwick. It’s very readable history.
So ignorant was I of all this that I didn’t even realise there was an Old Hardwick Hall before I got there. Walking along the path to the ‘new’ hall, we were waylaid by the old one. We just had to visit it too so here are some photos of it.
Hardwick Hall from the old hall.
A view from one of Old Hardwick Hall’s windows.
Derbyshire from the Old Hall.
The decorative plasterwork above a fireplace of Old Hardwick Hall.
Old Hardwick Hall from the garden.
Old Hardwick Hall.
It was a lovely day out, sadly I couldn’t capture a photo of the many birds which were darting around us, I think they were swifts, and they were nesting all over the old hall. It was quite a magical experience. If you’re anywhere near Derbyshire make time to visit Hardwick and Chatsworth.