These 16 Facts Will Open Your Eyes to Bess of Hardwick, the Other Elizabeth of Elizabethan England

Hardwick Old Hall, which Bess built on the site of her birthplace, a smaller medieval manor house, Derbyshire. English Heritage

Ancestry

Given the above, it is jaw-dropping to learn that Bess achieved everything she did with such humble origins. Bess was born in 1527 to John Hardwick and Elizabeth Leake. The couple were very minor gentry who lived at the small manor house of Hardwick, Derbyshire. The family had lived in the manor for at least two centuries in 1527, and the house was a standard, medieval half-timbered affair, whose only claims to grandeur or peculiarity came from its position on a hill overlooking the surrounding Derbyshire countryside. They farmed 450 acres, and rented out another 100 in nearby Lincolnshire.

John Hardwick was a very distant descendant of King Edward I of England (1239-1307), the mighty medieval king known as ‘The Hammer of the Scots’ for his brutal conquest of England’s northern neighbor, and his wife, Eleanor of Castile. Bess’s mother, Elizabeth Leake, was of a similar station in life to John Hardwick. She was the daughter of Thomas Leake of Hasland, lord of another minor manor not far from Hardwick Hall. The Leakes had no such impressive ancestry, however distant, as the Hardwicks, but their economic station was roughly equal to that of the latter, making a suitable match.

Besides a few well-placed connections, the Hardwicks were in no sense prominent in national life, and do not seem to have had many pretensions towards greatness. They held no local county offices, or ever moved to a station above esquire. Instead, they quietly farmed the estate’s land, sold its produce, and collected rents from their tenants, and there is nothing to suggest that they made a particularly big-deal of their royal ancestry. In around 1450, though, they were awarded a coat of arms, in recognition of their status as gentlemen, with which Bess enthusiastically decorated her later building projects.