An Elizabethan Masterpiece

Queen Elizabeth was a very formidable woman. In the 1590s, in England, the next most formidable was probably Elizabeth, Countess of Shrewsbury, otherwise known as Bess of Hardwick. In wealth, second only to the Queen; in importance, a trusted friend of the Queen; in ambition, inordinate and in good fortune, she was almost without equal. But she had not always been so. Born in 1527, her father died when she was only one. He had been a Gentleman farmer, farming 300 acres with a manor on the site of Hardwick Old Hall. She left home, as was the custom, at 12 to enter service for a neighbour at Codnor Castle. There she met, and subsequently married, her cousin, a sickly boy of 13. He died a few months later leaving her a share of his income. She probably continued in service, possibly for the Marchioness of Dorset, mother of the hapless Lady Jane Grey who was Queen for nine days in 1553 before losing her head.

While working for the Marchioness, she married Sir William Cavendish. He was much older than her and had been married twice before.He was also very wealthy having been one of the commissioners for the dissolution of the monasteries, in the course of which he acquired extensive properties. To please his new young wife, he sold his properties in the south of England and bought land around Chatsworth where they started to build a new house on the site of the present house. They had eight children of whom six survived; three sons and three daughters. From her second son, William descended the Dukes of Devonshire, of Chatsworth and Hardwick. From her third son, the Dukes of Newcastle and Dukes of Portland.

In 1557, when she was still only 30 years old, Sir William died leaving her much of his property. Two years later she married Sir William St Loe, a wealthy West-countryman. Sir William was a favourite courtier of Queen Elizabeth and so the marriage was another step up socially. Sadly, he died five years later leaving much of his property to Bess. She was now a very attractive marriage prospect, at 40, and sensationally she married George Talbot, 6th Earl of Shrewsbury. He was a 40 year old widower with six children who was also head of one of the oldest, grandest and richest families in England. Unusually, the match was sealed in a triple wedding. Lord Shrewsbury married Bess, his second son married her daughter Mary and his daughter married her eldest son, Henry. They were married for 23 difficult years. Mary, Queen of Scots, fled to England two years after they were married and Queen Elizabeth gave Lord Shrewsbury custody of her. As can be imagined, she was a challenging house guest. Her retinue of more than 40 people had to be fed and housed. It is reported that she insisted that dinner consist of ten courses! The whole circus had to be moved from house to house, as the Queen directed, to avoid plots. In all they moved 25 times in the 15 years that Lord Shrewsbury was responsible for her. This caused considerable strain. Another strain was caused by Bess’ plans for the house at Chatsworth which Lord S. considered to be his. As a consequence, Bess then concentrated first on remodelling Hardwick Old Hall and then when Lord Shrewsbury died in 1590, on building a new, even grander house near it. Hardwick New Hall was ready to be lived in in 1597 and Bess lived there until she died in February 1608, at the grand old age of 81, an enormous age for the time.

Externally, one is struck by two aspects of the building; its symmetry and the delicacy of the construction. Gone was the requirement to be able to defend the house. This was a major statement of her opulence.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The building has six towers and three floors. Each floor is higher than the one below it and the windows, an expression of wealth, are bigger; two panes high on the first floor, three on the second and four on the grandest third floor. Each tower is surmounted by the initials ES, Elizabeth Shrewsbury. It was said of this building that it was, “more window than wall”. Another remarkable aspect of this house is its contents. ES ordered an inventory of the house in 1601. Many of the items identified in that inventory are still in the house, some in the same room. Because it was not the main house of the Cavendish family, it was left unchanged for centuries. When changes were made, it was to move Elizabethan items into the house from their other houses. The result is a feast of tapestry and furniture from the era of Bess.

The High Great Chamber is the ceremonial centre of the house and it is built in very grand style. It was where formal state dinners were served, usually at 11.00am or at 5.00pm. Once finished, guests would withdraw to the withdrawing chamber allowing the meal to be cleared before music or dancing began. The other formal room was often the Long Gallery which, in Hardwick Hall, is stunning.

It was also used for dancing, and for exercise in cold and wet weather. It is thought that this ceiling was done after Bess’ time. Such a Gallery would have reinforced the status of the owner as a person of enormous wealth and influence.

Hardwick Hall is run by the National Trust to whom it was given in 1959 in lieu of death duties owed following the death of the10th Duke of Devonshire in 1950. The house and grounds make a lovely day out, especially, when the sun is shinning. You can find it here:


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Skipton Castle

Something less than 1000 years ago, a Norman baron built a castle on a rocky outcrop to protect the neighbourhood from marauding Scots. Seven hundred years ago King Edward II granted the castle to a Robert Clifford who he appointed Lord Clifton of Skipton. The first Lord got busy improving and strengthening the castle but sadly, four years later was killed at the Battle of Bannockburn (1314) fighting the Scots. For the next three hundred and thirty years, the Lords Clifford prospered and the castle grew in strength and importance. During the English Civil war, the castle was the only royal stronghold in the north of England and in 1642, the Parliamentarians laid siege to the castle. It withstood the siege for 3 years until in 1645, an honourable surrender was negotiated and the garrison of 300 was allowed to leave with drums beating and flags flying. They paraded down the main street and dispersed.

Cromwell was not one to leave such a stronghold standing and ordered its destruction which was done, apparently, in an unenthusiastic way by local people. In 1605, George Clifford, 3rd Earl of Cumberland had died. He willed the estate to his brother, rather than leave it to his daughter, the redoubtable Lady Anne Clifford, who was only 15 at the time. As a child she had been a favourite of Queen Elizabeth I and had known Queen Anne of Denmark, the queen of King James I of England. She was having none of that and entered into a long and complex legal challenge. It was not until the 4th Earl’s son died in 1643 that she managed to secure the family estates and in 1649 she was able to take possession. Almost immediately, she set to work to restore the castle at Skipton.

She was granted permission to do so on the understanding that the walls would not be as thick as before, and the roofs would not be flat and able to bear cannon. The repairs were carried out and to mark their completion, she planted a yew tree in the Conduit Court in 1659.

She worked tirelessly on her castles in the North despite her two marriages to other noblemen. In 1609 she had married the Earl of Dorset and, six years after he died in 1624, she married the Earl of Pembroke and Montgomery.

This castle is a wonderful synthesis of styles. The entrance tower is full of Norman touches such as the entrance, the approach to which used to be a drawbridge.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Inside the Court was a secure area and so all of the formal rooms face inwards. Though small, this gives the courtyard a cosy, almost homely feel. The Great Hall would have been used for all meals, usually taken around mid-day. The Lord, his Lady and all the main people of the Garrison would gather and be served by Retainers from the adjacent kitchen. For those caught short, it was not far to go to relieve oneself. The garderobe or privy was just the other side of the kitchen it delivered its gifts into the river below, as did the garbage from the kitchen.

 

The first picture shows the Great Hall. Both chutes can be seen in the picture on the right.

The entrance to the castle is an imposing mix of medieval fortress and later-day house. Inside the gateway, on the right, there is a Renaissance Grotto; one of only two preserved in the country. Created between 1626 and 1629 for Henry, Lord Clifford, it is made from coral and oyster shells and represents the four elements, fire, wind, air and water.

Lady Anne Clifford died in 1676 at the ripe old age of 86. When she died she was Baroness Clifford, Dowager Countess of Dorset and Dowager Countess of Pembroke and Montgomery. Her daughter died the same year, at which point it ceased to be lived in. In the 1970’s the castle was bought by the Fattorini family. They had arrived early in the nineteenth century and in 1831 opened a jewelery shop in Harrogate. Twenty years later they opened another in Bradford. They specialised in sports trophies and medals making, amongst others, the FA Cup and the Rugby League Challenge Cup. They have done much to restore the castle and to open it to the public. The family live in a wing of the castle.