Devices and Desires: Bess of Hardwick and the Building of Elizabethan England

Written by Kate Hubbard
Review by Charlotte Wightwick

Devices and Desires explores the life of Bess of Hardwick and of her great building projects, especially the still-extant Hardwick Hall. It is both a biography of an exceptional woman and an account of the architectural explosion of elaborate houses built by the Elizabethan aristocracy to demonstrate their status and wealth. Bess started life as a member of the minor gentry. Over four marriages she improved her financial and social status; by her death in 1608 she was the dowager Countess of Shrewsbury and one of the wealthiest women in England. She was involved in high politics too: Lady Jane Grey was a family connection, Bess and her husband oversaw the incarceration of Mary Queen of Scots, and her granddaughter Arbella was a candidate for the crown on Elizabeth I’s death.

Hubbard’s account of Bess’s life is intelligent and enjoyable. She uses a range of primary sources – letters, wills and household accounts to bring Bess, her family and retainers to life. This is not only a biography of a forceful and determined woman, however. The accounts of Bess’s extensive building works at Chatsworth, Hardwick and others are used as a jumping-off point for Hubbard to explore architecture at this time and its meaning within the social and political world of Elizabethan England. An enjoyable and interesting read.