Bess of Hard­wick


BBC History Magazine - - Contents - Tracy Borman has writ­ten nu­mer­ous books on the Tu­dor pe­riod, in­clud­ing El­iz­a­beth’s Women: The Hid­den Story of the Vir­gin Queen (Vin­tage, 2010)

Tracy Borman charts the rise of a courtier who was a thorn in the side of both El­iz­a­beth I and Mary, Queen of Scots

On 4 Oc­to­ber 1597, an elderly lady took up res­i­dence in her newly built home in Der­byshire, close to the town of Ch­ester­field. Hard­wick New Hall was no or­di­nary coun­try res­i­dence, but ri­valled queen El­iz­a­beth I’s palaces in scale and mag­nif­i­cence. Each of the three storeys was taller than the one be­low, and there were so many win­dows that it in­spired the rhyme: “Hard­wick Hall, more glass than wall.” The most strik­ing fea­ture, how­ever, was the ini­tials ‘ES’ em­bla­zoned on the tops of the six tow­ers.

By the time that she moved into Hard­wick New Hall, El­iz­a­beth (‘Bess’), Count­ess of Shrewsbury, was 70 years old and the rich­est woman in Eng­land after the queen. Built just a stone’s throw from the site of her child­hood home, the house was a de­lib­er­ate – and typ­i­cally un­sub­tle – state­ment of her wealth and power. But she de­served to revel in this sump­tu­ous sym­bol of her sta­tus for, un­like most other mem­bers of the El­iz­a­bethan no­bil­ity, Bess had striven hard for her el­e­vated po­si­tion in so­ci­ety. Hers was a story of, if not quite rags to riches, then cer­tainly hum­ble be­gin­nings to dizzy­ing heights well be­yond the reach and am­bi­tion of most Tu­dor women.

Born in around 1527, Bess was one of five chil­dren. Their fa­ther, John Hard­wick, hailed from a mod­er­ately pros­per­ous Der­byshire gen­try fam­ily, but upon his death just a year after Bess’s birth, a sig­nif­i­cant por­tion of his es­tate was seized by the crown to be ad­min­is­tered by the court of wards un­til his son and heir came of age.

It was soon ob­vi­ous that Bess was not pre­pared to ac­cept the hard­ship that fol­lowed. In the 16th cen­tury, women had few op­por­tu­ni­ties to im­prove their lot in life, ex­cept through mar­riage. Fully aware of this, when she was prob­a­bly no more than 16 years old, Bess re­solved to take a hus­band. It was a strat­egy that she would em­ploy time and again in the years to come – with star­tling suc­cess. Her choice was Robert Barlow, a Der­byshire man of about the same age. But it would prove short-lived. Barlow died in De­cem­ber 1544 – “be­fore they were bed­ded to­gether”, ac­cord­ing to one ac­count.

Mar­ry­ing into money

Hav­ing re­ceived a mod­est in­her­i­tance from her first mar­riage, Bess soon lined up a sec­ond. This one would cat­a­pult her sev­eral rungs up the so­cial lad­der. Sir Wil­liam Cavendish had re­cently been ap­pointed trea­surer of Henry VIII’s cham­ber and had won renown as one of Thomas Cromwell’s hench­men. Of noble de­scent, he was twice-wid­owed and more than 20 years older than Bess.

As well as pro­pel­ling Bess into aris­to­cratic and royal cir­cles, the mar­riage was by all

ac­counts a happy one, for the cou­ple were united by a fierce am­bi­tion for so­cial ad­vance­ment. Their first child was born a year after the wed­ding, in 1548, and dur­ing the nine years that fol­lowed Bess gave birth to a fur­ther seven chil­dren, three of whom were the vi­tal sons that they needed to se­cure their dy­nasty. The dukes of Devon­shire and New­cas­tle are de­scended from this mar­riage.

In June 1549, Bess’s hus­band bought the es­tate of Chatsworth. The cou­ple soon em­barked upon an am­bi­tious project of re­build­ing, and filled the house with an ar­ray of lux­u­ri­ous fur­nish­ings. Chatsworth ig­nited within Bess a pas­sion for lav­ish build­ing projects that would last a life­time, and dur­ing the years that fol­lowed her prop­erty port­fo­lio con­tin­ued to ex­pand.

Bess had clearly learned from her fa­ther’s ex­am­ple be­cause all of the Der­byshire prop­er­ties were held jointly in the names of both Bess and Sir Wil­liam for both of their lives. This was an un­usual and shrewd move, de­signed to pre­vent the es­tates fall­ing into ward­ship if Sir Wil­liam should per­ish be­fore his el­dest son at­tained his ma­jor­ity. The wis­dom of the pol­icy was proved in 1557, when Sir Wil­liam died and his el­dest son, Henry, was just seven years old.

By the time El­iz­a­beth Tu­dor as­cended the throne in Novem­ber 1558, Bess had mar­ried Sir Wil­liam St Loe, a wid­ower from an an­cient and noble fam­ily. Her third hus­band brought her even greater riches than Cavendish. He also pro­vided an en­trée into the El­iz­a­bethan house­hold, of which he was a mem­ber. Al­most cer­tainly thanks to his in­flu­ence, Bess se­cured the pres­ti­gious post of gentle­woman of the privy cham­ber. Now aged 31, she was one of the old­est mem­bers of the house­hold. But the court would soon prove too small to con­tain the over­bear­ing per­son­al­i­ties of Bess and her queen.

In the sum­mer of 1561, Bess be­came em­broiled in a scan­dal that was un­fold­ing in El­iz­a­beth’s house­hold. Lady Kather­ine Grey, sis­ter of the ill-fated Lady Jane, had been a thorn in the new queen’s side since her ac­ces­sion be­cause of her royal blood and Catholic lean­ings. De­spite be­ing un­der the close scru­tiny of the queen as a mem­ber of her house­hold, Kather­ine had se­cretly mar­ried an­other blood claimant, Ed­ward Sey­mour, Lord Hert­ford, nephew of Henry VIII’s third wife, Jane Sey­mour. She had

The royal court would soon prove too small to con­tain the over­bear­ing per­son­al­i­ties of Bess and El­iz­a­beth I

fallen preg­nant soon af­ter­wards and had so far man­aged to con­ceal her grow­ing belly from the queen.

One night, after the rest of the court had re­tired, Kather­ine sought out Bess and con­fessed ev­ery­thing. Fu­ri­ous at be­ing dragged into her predica­ment, Bess rep­ri­manded Kather­ine for her fool­ish­ness, telling her “she was sorry there­fore be­cause that she had not made the queen’s majesty privy there­unto”. When the scan­dal broke, the queen im­me­di­ately sus­pected Bess of con­spir­ing to oust her from the throne. “It is cer­tain that there hath been great prac­tices and pur­poses and… she [Bess] hath been most privy,” the queen de­clared. “It shall in­crease our in­dig­na­tion against her, if she will for­bear to ut­ter it.” El­iz­a­beth or­dered Bess’s ar­rest, and both she and Kather­ine were “clapt” in the Tower then closely in­ter­ro­gated. The queen only agreed to re­lease Bess sev­eral months later, but dis­missed her from the privy cham­ber and sent her back to Der­byshire in dis­grace.

Bess re­mained there for the next few years, dur­ing which time her third hus­band died, leav­ing her the bulk of his es­tate. In 1567, she took her fourth and fi­nal hus­band. She had saved the best un­til last – in the­ory, at least. George Tal­bot, Earl of Shrewsbury, was one of the rich­est and most pow­er­ful men in the king­dom, with es­tates sprawl­ing across much of north­ern Eng­land. Bess her­self was a woman of some con­sid­er­able prop­erty by the time of their mar­riage, and she in­sisted on ce­ment­ing their union by ar­rang­ing mar­riages be­tween four of their chil­dren.

The deadly ri­val

Bess’s new mar­riage soon brought her back into the queen’s or­bit, be­cause in 1568 Shrewsbury was ap­pointed the keeper of El­iz­a­beth’s most deadly ri­val, Mary, Queen of Scots, upon her flight to Eng­land. This was a heavy re­spon­si­bil­ity for the earl and his wife. Although Mary was the queen’s cap­tive, now that she was on English soil she be­came even more of a fo­cus for the dis­con­tented Catholics who wanted to get rid of the ‘ heretic’ El­iz­a­beth.

The English queen had not en­tirely for­given Bess for the Kather­ine Grey scan­dal, but she re­spected her strength of char­ac­ter and her de­ter­mi­na­tion to carve out a role for her­self in a world dom­i­nated by men – just as she her­self was try­ing to do. Bess soon jus­ti­fied the queen’s trust, for she be­came just as much Mary’s keeper as her hus­band was. She even placed her own spy in the Scottish queen’s house­hold “to give her intelligence of all things”, and re­ported ev­ery­thing back to her royal mis­tress, who praised her for this “man­ner of ser­vice”.

But things never re­mained har­mo­nious be­tween the two El­iz­a­beths for long, and in 1574 Bess again be­came em­broiled in a scan­dal in­volv­ing a blood claimant to the throne. Her part­ner in crime was an­other in­domitable ma­tri­arch. Mar­garet Dou­glas, Count­ess of Len­nox, was the niece of Henry VIII and first cousin of the queen. Bess ar­ranged for her daugh­ter El­iz­a­beth to marry Mar­garet’s son Charles, against the queen’s spe­cific in­struc­tions. When the news broke, the queen re­acted with pre­dictable fury. Lady Dou­glas was or­dered back to Lon­don and thrown into the Tower. Mean­while, Bess and her daugh­ter El­iz­a­beth were placed un­der armed guard at Ruf­ford in Not­ting­hamshire un­til in­ves­ti­ga­tions had been un­der­taken.

The queen’s anger at th­ese two trou­ble­some old women grew when she learned that El­iz­a­beth Cavendish was al­ready preg­nant. Any child from their union would have a claim to the throne – how­ever dis­tant. In the event, it was a girl, Ar­bella, born in 1575. Bess would fo­cus all of her dy­nas­tic am­bi­tions upon the young girl in the years to come.

But first, the count­ess had to ne­go­ti­ate the pit­falls of her re­la­tion­ship with the cap­tive queen of Scots. Fol­low­ing one con­ver­sa­tion be­tween the two, Mary boasted that Bess had told her “that had I been her own queen she could not have done more for me”. By con­trast, claimed Mary, Bess felt only con­tempt for El­iz­a­beth. In the now fa­mous ‘scan­dal let­ter’ that the Scottish queen wrote to El­iz­a­beth in 1584, she re­lated var­i­ous sto­ries that Bess had told her about life in the English queen’s court. The count­ess had ap­par­ently laughed at the no­tion that El­iz­a­beth was the vir­gin queen, claim­ing that she was so in­sa­tiable that she had se­duced a host of men.

But Mary’s ac­count was as con­tra­dic­tory as it was un­re­li­able, for she went on to claim that, ac­cord­ing to Bess, the English queen was “not like other women” and was in­ca­pable of hav­ing sex.

The let­ter was al­most cer­tainly a scur­rilous at­tempt to dis­credit Bess – for, though the two had once been on friendly terms, she and Mary had by now fallen out spec­tac­u­larly. At the heart of their dis­pute lay dy­nas­tic ri­valry. Mary fiercely op­posed Bess’s plans for her grand­daugh­ter Ar­bella, for they ran counter to her son James’s claim to the English throne. In a fu­ri­ous let­ter to the French am­bas­sador, Mary urged him: “I would wish you to men­tion pri­vately to the queen that noth­ing has alien­ated the Count­ess of Shrewsbury from me more but the vain hope which she has con­ceived of set­ting the crown of Eng­land on the

Mary, Queen of Scots com­plained of Bess’s “foul slan­ders” and the “in­so­lence of this vul­gar-minded woman”

head of her lit­tle girl, Ar­bella.”

In the same year as the scan­dal let­ter was writ­ten, Bess sep­a­rated from the Earl of Shrewsbury. Eager to avoid any blame for the break­down of their mar­riage, she spread ru­mours that the Scottish queen had been sleep­ing with her hus­band and had borne him at least one child, pos­si­bly “sev­eral”. En­raged by this slur on her rep­u­ta­tion, Mary com­plained about the “foul slan­ders” and “in­so­lence of this vul­gar-minded woman”.

The queen her­self in­ter­vened to try and rec­on­cile Bess and her hus­band. Although she was very fond of the earl, she seems to have felt some sol­i­dar­ity with his wife. She paid lit­tle heed to Shrewsbury’s com­plaints that Bess had tried to “rule” him and “make me the wife and her the hus­band”.

Ejected from bed

El­iz­a­beth achieved a tem­po­rary rec­on­cil­i­a­tion, and Bess and her hus­band “showed them­selves very well con­tent with her majesty’s speeches, and in good sort de­parted to­gether”. Once back at their es­tates, how­ever, they lived vir­tu­ally sep­a­rate lives, and the earl de­clared that he would “nei­ther bed with her nor board with her”.

This sit­u­a­tion was too in­tol­er­a­ble to last for long. In 1587, the same year that Mary, Queen of Scots was ex­e­cuted, the courts awarded Bess both Chatsworth and a size­able in­come from her hus­band. But Bess had al­ready moved on to a new build­ing project. Hav­ing pur­chased from her brother the fam­ily manor house at Hard­wick, she set about ren­o­vat­ing it. Three years later, her es­tranged hus­band died and Bess in­her­ited one third of his dis­pos­able lands. Al­most im­me­di­ately, she turned her at­ten­tion to build­ing an­other Hard­wick Hall, ad­ja­cent to the old one.

Her en­er­gies were also ab­sorbed in the pro­mo­tion of her young grand­daugh­ter, Ar­bella, whom she had raised after the death of her daugh­ter in 1582. Bess had given her an ed­u­ca­tion be­fit­ting a royal princess and had proudly noted that Ar­bella was “very apt to learn, and able to con­ceive what shall be taught her”.

It was ob­vi­ous to every­one that Bess was groom­ing the young girl as a successor to the English throne. The Vene­tian am­bas­sador, Scaramelli, ob­served that Ar­bella “has very ex­alted ideas, hav­ing been brought up in the firm be­lief that she would suc­ceed to the crown”. But while the queen made en­cour­ag­ing noises about Ar­bella – on one oc­ca­sion telling an am­bas­sador: “Look to her well: she will one day be even as I am” – she al­ways stopped short of nam­ing her as heir.

As she grew to ma­tu­rity, Ar­bella felt in­creas­ingly suf­fo­cated by her grand­mother’s dom­i­neer­ing na­ture. Scaramelli re­ported that Ar­bella “was un­der very strict cus­tody of her grand­mother, Lady Shrewsbury, and was never al­lowed to be alone or in any way mis­tress of her ac­tions”. In a sim­i­lar vein, King James VI and I later re­called “that un­pleas­ant life which she hath led in the house of her grand­mother with whose sever­ity and age she, be­ing a young lady, could hardly agree”.

In 1602, Ar­bella hatched a plan to es­cape. Frus­trated by the many ne­go­ti­a­tions for her mar­riage bro­kered by her grand­mother, she re­solved to find a hus­band for her­self. The man that her hopes alighted upon could hardly have been a less ap­pro­pri­ate choice. Ed­ward Sey­mour was the grand­son and name­sake of the 1st Earl of Hert­ford, who had caused such a scan­dal all those years ago by mar­ry­ing Lady Kather­ine Grey.

When the queen learned of Ar­bella’s plan, she was out­raged. That her choice of hus­band was him­self of royal blood made it cer­tain in El­iz­a­beth’s mind that Ar­bella had been plot­ting to seize the throne. Con­vinced that it was part of a greater con­spir­acy, she or­dered a thor­ough in­ves­ti­ga­tion. Bess was quick to protest that “th­ese mat­ters were un­ex­pected of me, be­ing al­to­gether ig­no­rant of her [Ar­bella’s] vain do­ings, as on my sal­va­tion and al­le­giance to your majesty I protest”. For once, El­iz­a­beth be­lieved Bess and as­sured her: “There is no lady in this land that I bet­ter love and like.” Over­joyed, Bess de­clared: “Even to the last hour of my life I shall think my­self happy to do any ac­cept­able ser­vice to her majesty.”

In fact, it was El­iz­a­beth who died first, in March 1603. Just be­fore the queen breathed her last, Bess al­tered her will and dis­in­her­ited Ar­bella, as if to prove her loy­alty. She sur­vived El­iz­a­beth by al­most five years and died on 13 Fe­bru­ary 1608. Flam­boy­ant even in death, her body lay in great state at Hard­wick un­til her fu­neral three months later.

Hav­ing lived through six reigns and four hus­bands, this ex­tra­or­di­nary woman was not only a great sur­vivor, but one of the most suc­cess­ful builders of dy­nas­ties – and houses – that Eng­land has ever seen.

Hard­wick New Hall – one of Tu­dor Eng­land’s most mag­nif­i­cent res­i­dences – with (in­set) Bess’s ini­tials, “ES” (El­iz­a­beth Shrewsbury), em­bla­zoned on top of one of the six tow­ers

Bess’s grand­daugh­ter Lady Ar­bella Stu­art, aged 13. Bess groomed her young rel­a­tive to suc­ceed El­iz­a­beth I, only for Ar­bella to marry her way out of the queen’s favour

The Mary, Queen of Scots Room in Hard­wick Hall. Bess and Mary’s ex­plo­sive re­la­tion­ship be­gan when Bess’s hus­band was ap­pointed the Scottish queen’s keeper dur­ing her in­car­cer­a­tion in Tut­bury Cas­tle, Shrop­shire

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