Privacy & Inventories

Wednesday 15 September the Privacy staff gathered for a Learning Together Seminar on the use of inventories for privacy research.[1] After a short introduction on some of the particularities of historic house inventories, we tried to reconstruct the floorplan of the first floorplan of the sixteenth-century Chatsworth House.

As an architectural historian I get a big kick out of historic architectural floorplans or sections, but in many cases those do not exist, either because they were never made or because they got lost over time. Floorplans only really became widespread and in-fashion starting from the nineteenth century, with the emergence of building applications. While façade drawings might have sufficed in the early years, soon floorplans of all floors were required for the building administration.

Prior to 1800 floorplans were more the exception than the rule. For important buildings or rich commissioners, they still occasionally got made, often in combination with inventories. And sometimes inventories is all we have left. This is partly because of the way archives store documents. In the nineteenth century there was the habit of separating iconographic sources from their accompanying textual sources. Iconography usually ended up in collections like ‘maps and plans’, while the texts were stored thematically. This can make the search for accompanying material quite difficult, but it does mean that the plans are usually kept under better condition, stored separately between layers of acid-free paper.

Inventories are an indispensable source for research into historic houses that might have changed considerably or even completely disappeared over time.[2] Very often inventories were part of a last testimony and will and they are used to literally ‘inventory’ the possessions in order to decide who inherited what. For the Chatsworth case, the inventory made for Bess of Hardwick in 1601 is an excellent example. However, other occasions might also call the need for the drawing up of an inventory. When the Danish royal family moved into the first Christiansborg in 1740, several inventories were made.[3] Another reason might be a thorough restoration, which allows us now to reconstruct a ‘before and after’ situation.

The way in which inventories were made is fairly straightforward. Someone – usually a clerk – went from room to room to record everything that was present in that room. The difficulty here is that the route of the clerk is a little bit of a mystery to our 21-century reading. Staircases were often omitted (since there was no furniture to record there), so the text can jump between floors and rooms. If the clerk took a lunchbreak and started on a complete opposite end of the residence afterwards, that often leaves no trace in the written account. Figuring out what route the clerk took can thus be quite a challenge.

So what is being recorded in an inventory? Basically, all the things that could be moved or sold. We would expect furniture to be in there, and it is. But there is a lot more. The concept of ‘movable heritage’ went a little further in early modern times than it does today. Wall paneling, for example, is often part of the inventories; mantelpieces could be taken apart and rebuilt. Some of the most interesting inventories even give the amount of windows, the type of floor and so on.

The second part of the seminar the entire group looked at the 1601 inventory for the first floor of Chatsworth House in Derbyshire, UK.[4] The house was built by Bess of Hardwick in the second half of the sixteenth century, and in 1601 she drew up her will with 3 adjoining inventories: one for each of her important building projects, that is Chatsworth, the New Hardwick Hall and the Old Hardwick Hall. Both the old and new Halls at Hardwick, together with their contents, were bequeathed to Bess of Hardwick’s second son William Cavendish and his male heirs. Her eldest son, Henry Cavendish, was to inherit Chatsworth but not its contents, a reflection of their troubled relationship. The contents were bequeathed to William.[5]

Based on the inventory and additional iconographic material, we came to an interesting reconstruction of the spatial organization of Chatsworth House’s first floor.[6] Since no floor plan survives, this reconstruction should be considered more of an organogram, a schematic representation of connections and sequences. Room dimensions, windows or other architectural details can not be deduced from this preliminary reconstruction. Ideally this inventory could be combined with other source material, such as building accounts or descriptions of visits, something we will hopefully be able to do during our visit to Chatsworth in three weeks!



[1] I want to thank all the Privacy colleagues for their wonderful input and new ideas on the knowledge that can be gained from inventories.

[2] Antenhofer, Christina Inventories as Material and Textual Sources for Late Medieval and Early Modern Social, Gender and Cultural History (14th-16th centuries), in: MEMO 7: Textual Thingness /Textuelle Dinghaftigkeit 2020: 22-46. doi: 10.25536/20200702

[3] Rigsarkivet, Overhofmarskallatet, F: Inventarieregnskaber. Two inventories, dated 1739 and 1741.

[4] Transcriptions of all three of the inventories were published: Levey, Satina, and Peter Thornton. Of Houshold Stuff: The 1601 Inventories of Bess of Hardwick. London: National Trust, 2001.

[5] White, Gillian. ‘“That Whyche Ys Nedefoulle and Nesesary”: The Nature and Purpose of the Original Furnishings and Decoration of Hardwick Hall, Derbyshire’. PhD thesis, University of Warwick, Centre for the Study of the Renaissance, 2005.

[6] Mark Girouard has done a similar exercise, with the difference that he based the reconstruction of rooms on the floorplans of the new Chatsworth, as they were included in the Vitruvius Britannicus. Girouard, Mark. ‘Elizabethan Chatsworth’. Country Life CLIV (1973): 1668–72.