Tu­dor pow­er­house

JOANNE PAUL rec­om­mends a dy­namic bi­og­ra­phy of one of the Eliz­a­bethan age’s most savvy and in­flu­en­tial women

BBC History Magazine - - Reviews - Joanne Paul is lec­turer in early mod­ern his­tory at the Uni­ver­sity of Sus­sex

De­vices and De­sires: Bess of Hardwick and the Build­ing of Eliz­a­bethan Eng­land By Kate Hub­bard Chatto & Win­dus, 384 pages, £20

In 1570, the im­pris­oned Mary, Queen of Scots came face to face with her great­est ad­ver­sary. This was not her cousin Queen El­iz­a­beth I, who stayed well away and was largely am­biva­lent about Mary’s fate, but Wil­liam Ce­cil, sec­re­tary of state, who was quite clear on his con­dem­na­tion of the Scot­tish Catholic queen. The par­ties ne­go­ti­ated for two weeks, though their ac­cords were never acted upon, leav­ing Mary to stew and scheme for an­other 17 years be­fore Ce­cil fi­nally suc­ceeded in re­mov­ing her as a threat.

Kate Hub­bard’s De­vices and De­sires draws our at­ten­tion to the set­ting for this his­toric meet­ing, Chatsworth House, and a fig­ure in the back­ground of the ex­change: El­iz­a­beth, Count­ess of Shrews­bury, bet­ter known to his­tory as Bess of Hardwick. Bess, Hub­bard shows, is rather like the build­ings to which she ded­i­cated so much of her en­ergy and re­sources: of­ten in the back­ground of his­toric mo­ments, on the pe­riph­ery of many his­to­ri­ans’ at­ten­tions. And yet, her strong, in­flu­en­tial char­ac­ter lends a sub­tle shap­ing to key events.

Mary was at Chatsworth be­cause Bess’s fourth hus­band, Ge­orge Tal­bot, 6th Earl of Shrews­bury, was the queen’s jailor, but also be­cause Chatsworth, as Bess had seen it con­structed, was the per­fect com­bi­na­tion of se­cu­rity and com­fort: ideal for hous­ing a ri­val claimant to the English throne. The house was de­signed to be at the cut­ting edge of ar­chi­tec­tural style, with long gal­leries for dis­play, dozens of pan­elled rooms, an or­chard, ponds and a third storey with a se­cond set of state rooms. Bess’s im­pres­sive stately home pro­vided an ex­trav­a­gant prison in­deed for a cap­tive queen.

And Bess was more than a by­stander in go­ings-on. It was while shar­ing needle­work with Bess that Mary pro­duced one of the most strik­ing im­ages as­so­ci­ated with her: an em­broi­dered panel show­ing a gin­ger cat toy­ing with a grey mouse, a re­flec­tion per­haps of her re­la­tion­ship with her royal cousin El­iz­a­beth. Mary also wrote a let­ter con­tain­ing some of the gos­sip she had pre­sum­ably gleaned from Bess: that El­iz­a­beth was a nympho­ma­niac who had slept with much of her court, and that Bess and oth­ers laughed at the queen’s ap­pear­ance, so hideous no one could look her in the face.

The ad­van­tage of Hub­bard’s treat­ment of Bess is that it does not solely rely on her re­la­tion­ships with other no­ta­bles, such as Mary, Queen of Scots or El­iz­a­beth I, to demon­strate her im­por­tance to his­tory. In­stead, the fo­cus is on Bess’s own achieve­ments, par­tic­u­larly in build­ing, which set her above many of her con­tem­po­raries. Given the pa­tri­ar­chal sys­tem in which she lived, this is a great tes­ta­ment to her strength and tenac­ity. Bess was, as a con­tem­po­rary put it, “hum­ble in speech and stout in ac­tions”, and as­tute when it

Bess is of­ten in the back­ground of his­toric mo­ments, on the pe­riph­ery of his­to­ri­ans’ at­ten­tions

came to ma­nip­u­lat­ing to her own ad­van­tage sys­tems de­signed to op­press her. The great over­ar­ch­ing story of De­vices and De­sires is the build­ing-up of Bess’s own sense of strength, pur­pose and in­de­pen­dence: from teenaged bride and vic­timised young widow to de­fi­ant and pur­pose­ful busi­ness­woman.

Like many pop­u­lar his­to­ries, Hub­bard’s book could go fur­ther in at­tempt­ing to avoid the well-worn tropes of his­tor­i­cal writ­ing. This is es­pe­cially the case with some of the sur­round­ing char­ac­ters, such as Mary, Queen of Scots, who falls into the usual cat­e­gory of the “al­lur­ing” woman but “fa­tally bad de­ci­sion maker”, be­trayed by her sub­mis­sion to the “swash­buck­ling”

Bess was as­tute at ma­nip­u­lat­ing to her own ad­van­tage the sys­tems in­tended to op­press her

Both­well (who, it is ca­su­ally men­tioned, prob­a­bly raped her).

Yet the book does suc­ceed in paint­ing a dy­namic por­trait of Bess’s life, us­ing let­ters and other sources to give it colour. The strong­est mo­ments come when Hub­bard makes cre­ative use of of­ten­over­looked sources, such as lists of pur­chases, to flesh out Bess’s daily life and sur­round­ings, and how she sought to shape both. The fas­ci­nat­ing re­la­tion­ship be­tween Bess’s bi­og­ra­phy and her build­ing projects is also brought to the fore.

Bess of Hardwick emerges from De­vices and De­sires as a fas­ci­nat­ing and in­flu­en­tial woman well de­serv­ing of many his­to­ri­ans’ at­ten­tion. By fo­cus­ing on her as an in­no­va­tive builder of some of Eliz­a­bethan Eng­land’s most im­pres­sive homes, Hub­bard presents a facet of Bess that she her­self would have wanted re­mem­bered by pos­ter­ity.

Bess of Hardwick in a c1560s oil paint­ing. A new book by Kate Hub­bard ex­am­ines her power­broking and build­ing projects

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