Devices and Desires: Bess of Hardwick and the Building of Elizabethan England
"Kate Hubbard tells the story of Bess of Hardwick in clear and engrossing writing while carefully navigating the complexities of building, entitlement, estate, marriage, and politics in Tudor England."
Elizabeth Hardwick, born ca. 1521 among six children orphaned "in precarious circumstances," "from modest beginnings forged her way through the Elizabethan world." She succeeded spectacularly "not merely by a judicious choice of husbands, but by shrewd exploitation of whatever assets those husbands brought her."
Bess became "a woman of considerable wealth and property." Those resources included houses.
With death so common, individuals married, remarried, often survived children, and still died young. Bess' first marriage, to a 14-year-old boy, left her with a modest inheritance. With her second marriage, she had her children but also became mother to her prominent husband's children from his first two marriages.
Bess' fourth marriage had a domestic battle for decades and even refereed by Queen Elizabeth I. During that same time, her husband became a major player in the conflict between Elizabeth I and Mary Queen of Scots.
Kate Hubbard writes a study of Bess of Hardwick, centered on her development as a builder, however. The author begins with a survey of the mansions and ruins close to the Countess of Salisbury. They tell of "an age of great builders" in the Tudor age, today in Derbyshire among the modern highway M1 and coal's "slag heaps, scars from defunct pits, disembowelled mining villages."
"Bess was not the first female architectural patron" and "the seventeenth century saw a number of women who commissioned buildings, or managed projects." Her contemporary Lady Anne Clifford, for example, "set to work restoring her six castles, repairing her churches and chapels, and building a school, a bridge and a parish church."
"Bess built in the spirit of her times" although "as a female builder she was an anomaly." She did not merely restore from "aristocratic privilege," charity, or piety but intended "to make her mark, to leave a legacy in the shape of bricks and mortar."
For her greatest project, Hardwick Hall, she hired Robert Smythson, mentioned throughout Devices and Desires and famed now for "the legacy of his houses—high, compact, full of drama and light." He served Bess, however, not as an architect. "She simply needed his help in drawing up a plan."
Henry VIII popularized these great expressive houses. His dissolution of the ties to the Church of Rome allowed former monasteries to "be incorporated into and reworked as private houses, or demolished as quarries." Nobility, almost all men, took "a close and competitive interest in each other's plans" to build spectacular manor houses and lodges.
These "homes" served many purposes but chiefly as "expressions of wealth and status." "In an age of political and religious upheaval . . . obfuscation and concealment paid" and "nothing delighted the Elizabethan mind more than the device . . . to intrigue and amaze," even in architecture.
The paperwork survives of Bess' greatest project (as well as for much of life after her second marriage). She built New Hardwick Hall 20 miles from Nottingham in the 1590s when she was in her seventies. "It's six turrets are crowned with what appear to be outsize 'ES's'" (her initials).
"Bess was a seasoned builder" who could have lived "more than comfortably, with her existing houses." A wealthy widow by the death of her fourth husband, she set out "to inspire admiration, envy and awe" with a house "to display not only wealth and status, but wit and intelligence."
Kate Hubbard tells the story of Bess of Hardwick in clear and engrossing writing while carefully navigating the complexities of building, entitlement, estate, marriage, and politics in Tudor England. The author does this without losing the subject in the history and personalities of the times.