Situated 100m southwest of Hardwick Hall is the ruin of the Old Hall. The Countess of Shrewsbury, Bess of Hardwick, was the second most powerful woman in England next to Queen Elizabeth. Gaining wealth through her four husbands, Bess was born in the Old Hall in 1527 and returned here in 1584 following the breakdown of her marriage to the Earl of Shrewsbury. Although planning her new hall opposite, Bess began to extend the Old Hall in 1587. The Old Hall was for Bess, her family and entourage whereas the new Hall would be for ostentation, entertainment and special guests.
Constructed of local sandstone and finished with rough plaster, the Old Hall was a radical modern mansion with the latest Italian innovations in house design. Evidence suggests that the south and west walls predate the rebuilding of 1587 indicating that the old manor house which stood on the site in 1525 had been incorporated into the building.
The Italian Renaissance villa layout was replicated with the great hall placed in the centre of the house in an attempt to create a symmetrical layout. The great hall retained its symbolic importance as the heart of the house and was still the first reception room for all visitors.
The hierarchy of room status is echoed in the layout – the higher the room, the better it was. The third floor of the building was the highlight for visitors and was made to impress. The Great Hill Chamber still features part of the deep plaster frieze of a double arcade, which was the fashion in northern Italian houses. With design elements taken from Roman architecture, the decoration was strongly influenced by Renaissance art. Hardwick Old Hall is Grade I Listed and maintained as a controlled ruin by English Heritage.