Chatsworth House under the 1st–4th Earls of Devonshire (1610–c. 1700): notions of privacy in a specific household, its material space and intellectual climate

The team investigates notions of privacy in English country houses as environments for architectural innovation as well as scholarly pursuits of the nobility. We focus on the Elizabethan Chatsworth, built by Bess of Hardwick (c. 1527-1608) in the middle of the sixteenth century, and the new Hardwick Hall, which she also built at the end of this century next to the old Hardwick.

The first earl of Devonshire, William Cavendish (1552-1626), hired Thomas Hobbes (1588-1679) in 1608 to tutor his son, William (1590-1628), future second earl of Devonshire. Hobbes remained almost all his life at the service of the Cavendishes, at Chatsworth and Hardwick. We investigate in particular his role as private tutor for the earls of Devonshire and as librarian in charge of ordering books, cataloguing and shelfing them for the private library. By combining inventories, account books, and library catalogues, we aim to reconstruct the physical and intellectual environment for knowledge production at Chatsworth and Hardwick. The history of the Devonshire private library is one of a significant transition from private closets with no label at the end of the sixteenth century to a dedicated public ‘library floor’ at the end of the seventeenth. 

The interdisciplinary approach, combining intellectual history with architectural history allows for a new history of the private Cavendish library, its contents, location and accessibility.

From 1687 on, Chatsworth was completely rebuilt, which allows for a comparative analysis between the ‘old’ and the ‘new’ Chatsworth building, looking at the evolution of privacy in the seventeenth century.


  • Frank Ejby Poulsen and Sanne Maekelberg, “Out of the Closet: Practices of Knowledge at the Devonshire Private Library in the Seventeenth Century”, special issue of KNOW: A Journal on the Formation of Knowledge, edited by Natacha Klein Käfer and Natália da Silva Perez (in peer review).
  • Sanne Maekelberg, “Rebuilding Chatsworth. Tracing the Evolution of Private Life in the English Country House”, to be submitted end of August.

Activities and presentations

  • 18 – 28 October 2021: The team spent 10 days at Sheffield for archival research in the Devonshire archives at Chatsworth and architectural visits to the various properties of the Cavendish family. The team selected sources at the Devonshire archives and scanned them. The team visited Chatsworth house and its local village Edensor, the new Hardwick Hall (the old Hardwick Hall was closed), Bolsover castle, and the Portland collection at Harley Gallery.
  • Frank Ejby Poulsen and Sanne Maekelberg, “Out of the Closet: Practices of Knowledge at the Devonshire Private Library in the Seventeenth Century”, conference presentation at the 2022 conference of the International Society of Intellectual History: Histories of Knowledge: Political, Historical and Cultural Epistemologies in Intellectual History, Venice, September 2022.
  • 19 October 2022: Staff meeting presentation on the collaboration and research output of the Chatsworth team.
  • 24 November 2022: Chatsworth seminar with speakers Timothy Raylor (Carleton), Noah Dauber (Colgate), Kate Retford (Birkbeck) and Christina Strunck (Friedrich-Alexander-Universität Erlangen-Nürnberg): Private Life in the English Country House: An Interdisciplinary Workshop.
  • 11 May 2023: Staff meeting presentation on privacy and space in a seventeenth-century country house.
  • 8-9 June 2023: presentation “Rebuilding Chatsworth. Tracing the Evolution of Private Life in the English Country House” at the Privacy and Space – Theory and Practice



Within the Chatsworth team we have managed to bridge the gap between intellectual and architectural history, as identified in the research literature on private libraries. Through the research on the Devonshire library we tracked and identified the evolution of the library both as an architectural space and an intellectual hub of knowledge. We have co-written an article on our insights featuring the unique and original reconstruction of the library and its use.

Through a reconstruction of Elizabethan Chatsworth we investigate the modifications made to the spatial organization during the reconstruction of Chatsworth House (1685-1702), with a specific emphasis on the growing demand for privacy and comfort. By examining accessibility alongside the evolving political and social milieu of the seventeenth century, we aim to chart the shifting conception of privacy throughout the rebuilding process.


Our research on the private library owned by the Devonshire family shed new light on the evolution of the collection and its accessibility. We identified the development, both architectural and intellectual, of life in knowledge pursuits from a private to a social space inside the household. While the sixteenth-century collection of books was often kept in chests, closed off to everyone except the owner, there is a clear evolution to a more public display of knowledge over the course of the seventeenth century. Through the analysis of inventories, booklists and architectural plans we were able to not only locate the changing locations of the library and its accessibility, but also to map the increasingly public character of the knowledge contained in it. The library then becomes a powerhouse of knowledge, since its owner could authorize and control access to its book collection to external members of the local community.

A comparison between the ‘old’ (Elizabethan) and the ‘new’ Chatsworth we observed a reordering of the relationship between the different inhabitants and visitors of the country house. Additional transitional spaces – representing new and elaborate thresholds - appeared in the floorplan and spatial segregation became a marker of social status.

Spin-off projects such as grant applications, collaborations etc.

The Chatsworth case has served as a basis for developing a future research project on early modern private libraries. This project will examine how the world entered the home by examining books and other artefacts and art forms displayed in private libraries. Frank Ejby Poulsen has already applied for short-term funding for this project and will apply for an ERC Starting Grant in 2023.

Case team members

Sanne Maekelberg and Frank Ejby Poulsen (former member)