Hardwick Hall was built by Bess of Hardwick, Countess of Shrewsbury. She was the daughter of a country squire, and was born at his small manor house, the "Old" Hardwick Hall in the mid-1520s. Bess had great intelligence and ambition, and was married four times. Each time she married, she improved her circumstances until she became one of the richest women in England. She outlived her first three husbands, but her last husband, George Talbot, 6th Earl of Shrewsbury, probably suffered some form of dementia and basically kicked her out of the family home at Chatsworth. Having inherited the wealth of her previous three husbands, she moved to "Old" Hardwick Hall and greatly expanded it. However, she wasn't finished with building. She decided to build another Hardwick Hall a few hundred feet away from "Old" Hardwick Hall. The new Hardwick Hall was gloriously designed with the most modern design. The great halls had immense windows of glass, unheard of at that time as glass was the most expensive building material. She also made sure everyone was aware of who built Hardwick Hall. Her initials "E.S" were carved in stone and presented underneath her coronet on top of each of the 14 towers.
Bess and George Shrewsbury were jailer to Mary, Queen of Scots for 14 years. Bess and Mary spent their days embroidering and many slips remain that were embroidered by them. Many of these slips were sewn on to velvet hangings, and are now displayed at Oxburgh Hall. They concentrated on small slips of embroidery as Mary never knew when she would be moved again. Historians believe that the 14 years Mary was their prisoner, put a lot of financial and emotional stress on their marriage, and may be part of the reason why the Earl and Bess had a falling out.
The house remained in the family for many years until it was turned over to the National Trust in 1952. The last of Bess' descendants to occupy Hardwick Hall, the Dowager Duchess Evelyn undertook the restoration of Hardwick's irreplaceable embroideries and tapestries, still seen today. The building with scaffolding is the old hall, which is being restored. It is not safe for visitors today.