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13 February 2019

A window to the Elizabethan world

By Professor Lisa Hopkins | Twitter

Friday 6 October 2019 • Viewing time: 2 minutes

Our research into Bess of Hardwick’s Derbyshire residence sheds new light on the Elizabethan era.

Hardwick Hall is one of the country’s best-preserved Elizabethan houses. But it is more than just a time capsule.

By analysing the art and furnishings of Hardwick Hall in our research, we’ve gained unique insight into a fascinating historical figure and her world.

Bess of Hardwick

Bess of Hardwick grew from relatively humble beginnings to become one of the era’s most powerful noblewomen, with significant land holdings and business interests ranging from mining to manufacturing.

Her shrewd personal, political and business decisions led to enormous wealth and influence within Elizabethan society. Such was her status that she and her husband were entrusted with holding Mary, Queen of Scots in captivity.

Aside from her extraordinary wealth and formidable reputation, Bess was also noted for her intense interest in art — particularly needlework. It is her extensive and world-renowned collection of embroideries that allows us to delve deeper not only into Bess’ tastes and interests, but into the wider Elizabethan world.

A global outlook

Through her embroideries, Bess managed her public image and broadcast her allegiances and ideas. 

She surrounded herself with subversive, politically-charged artwork and imagery. Several motifs in Hardwick Hall reference vengeful virgin goddesses, which would have resonated powerfully in Elizabethan England.

In another work, Bess is cast as the mythical figure Penelope. This is Odysseus's wife, who managed her household alone during the Trojan wars, using a needlework trick to keep male suitors at bay. The piece sends a clear message about Bess's own independence and resourcefulness.

Persian rugs and depictions of Muhammed are also present, demonstrating Bess’s global outlook. A portrait of Elizabeth, shown to be wearing a skirt which may have been embroidered by Bess herself, meanwhile shows her close ties to the Queen.

A mirror to Elizabethan society

Bess lived in a Britain that was beginning to expand its horizons and challenge long-held traditions.

By looking closely at the objects Bess bought, commissioned and made, we've shown how material culture helped shape and influence Elizabethan society. 

In turn, that insight can help to shape and influence the way we study and teach the past.

About this project

Explore the people and organisations behind this research, and find related publications by the research team.

Related courses

Our teaching is informed by research. Browse undergraduate and postgraduate courses with links to this research project, topic or team.

Get in touch

Find key contacts for enquiries about funding, partnerships, collaborations and doctoral degrees.

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