You would not mess with Bess of Hardwick. Her descendant, the 6th Duke of Devonshire, described her as “hideous, dry, parched, narrow minded, but my prudent, amassing, calculating buildress and progenitrix” and Edmund Lodge, an eighteenth-century historian, characterised her as “…a woman of masculine understanding and conduct, proud, furious, selfish, and unfeeling”.
She outlived four husbands, each of whom enriched her. By her second husband, Sir William Cavendish, she was the direct ancestor of two great dukedoms, Devonshire and Newcastle, and indirectly a third, Portland.
She bought the estate of her yeoman father from her debt-ridden older brother and extended the manor house in which she was born into a splendid hill-top tower-house, Hardwick Old Hall.
No sooner had her fourth and final husband, George, 6th Earl of Shrewsbury, expired in 1590 than she began work on one of the most adventurous of all Elizabethan houses, Hardwick New Hall, the finest work of the architect Robert Smythson. She moved into the New Hall in October 1597 and there she died on February 13th 1608.
Built almost entirely from the materials of her extensive estates, exuberantly exhibitionist and famously “more glass than wall”, its most audacious motif is the series of strapwork parapets around the turrets, emblazoned with her initials ES (Elizabeth, Countess of Shrewsbury) and her coronet.
Several of the turrets served as banqueting houses, for the serving of desserts in the open air on summer evenings.
When, in Shakespeare’s Romeo & Juliet, Capulet urges his guests to stay longer, he tells them, “We have a trifling, foolish banquet toward.” In the Elizabethan way, he was giving them the menu in a witty conceit.
Hardwick Old Hall is in the care of English Heritage: http://www.english-heritage.org.uk/daysout/properties/hardwick-old-hall. Hardwick New Hall and the surrounding gardens and park are maintained by the National Trust, who are extremely proud of their new visitor centre: http://www.nationaltrust.org.uk/hardwick. Both buildings are visible from the Derbyshire stretch of the M1 motorway, between junctions 28 and 29.