Bess of Hardwick

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Bess of Hardwick, Countess of Shrewsbury, by Rowland Lockey, 1592

Elizabeth Talbot, Countess of Shrewsbury (c. 1521[1] – 13 February 1608), known as Bess of Hardwick, a notable figure of 16th century Elizabethan English society. By a series of well-made marriages, she rose to the highest levels of English nobility and became enormously wealthy. She was married four times, firstly to Robert Barlow, who died in his teens; secondly to the courtier Sir William Cavendish; thirdly to Sir William St Loe; and lastly to George Talbot, 6th Earl of Shrewsbury, sometime keeper to the captive Mary, Queen of Scots. An accomplished needlewoman, Bess joined her husband's captive charge, Queen Mary Stuart, at Chatsworth House for extended periods in 1569, 1570, and 1571, during which time they worked together on the Oxburgh Hangings.[2]

In 1601, Bess ordered an inventory of the household furnishings including textiles at her three properties at Chatsworth, Hardwick and Chelsea, which survives, and in her will she bequeathed these items to her heirs to be preserved in perpetuity. The 400-year-old collection, now known as the Hardwick Hall textiles, is the largest collection of tapestry, embroidery, canvaswork, and other textiles to have been preserved by a single private family.[3] Bess is also well known for her building projects, the most famous of which are: Chatsworth, now the seat of the Dukes of Devonshire (whose family name is still "Cavendish", because they are descended from the children of her second marriage), and Hardwick Hall, which inspired the rhyme, "Hardwick Hall, more glass than wall", because of the number and size of its windows.[4] She died 13 February 1608, having reached, and possibly exceeded, the age of 80. She was interred in a vault in Derby Cathedral, also known as All Saints Cathedral, where there is a memorial to her.

Memorial in Derby Cathedral

Early life[edit]

"Bess of Hardwick" was born "Elizabeth Hardwick," the daughter of John Hardwick of Derbyshire and Elizabeth Leeke, daughter of Thomas Leeke and Margaret Fox.[1] Although Richardson suggests she was born c.1521 the exact year of her birth is unknown and some authors place it as late as 1527. The family lived on an estate of about 5,000 acres (20 km2) in the parish of Ault Hucknall on the north-east border of the county, looking over Nottinghamshire. John Hardwick died around forty years of age, leaving a widow, son (and heir), and four daughters. His widow, Elizabeth, then married the son of a neighbouring family, the Leches (Leach) of Chatsworth. Bess grew up fairly educated, as compared to her female peers of the Elizabethan Era, as indicated by her later letters. She also became familiar with city life and the Tudor Court after being sent to live in the London household of Anne Gainsford of Codnor Castle Derbyshire at the age of twelve.[2] Here, she was influenced by Lady Zouche, although evidence connecting her with the Zouche family dates from the late seventeenth century and not before. Also, her marrying life now began.

First marriage[edit]

While in London, Bess contracted the first of four marriages, in 1534, with the 13-year-old Robert Barlow, heir to a neighbouring estate, and became Elizabeth Barlow. It is thought that the couple lived at his ancestral manor house, Barlow Woodseats Hall, before his death in Dec 1535. The marriage was never consummated because of their youth and Robert's sickly health. As Robert's widow, Bess was entitled to one-third of the revenues of the Barlow estate.

Second marriage[edit]

On 20 August 1547, Bess married the twice-widowed Sir William Cavendish, Treasurer of the King's Chamber,[2] and became Lady Cavendish. The wedding took place at two in the morning, at the home of the Grey family, friends of the Cavendish duo. Sir William was more than twice Bess's age and the father of two daughters. His fortune had been made by the dissolution of monasteries; as an official of the Court of Augmentations, he was able to select choice properties for himself. Possibly acting on Bess's advice, Sir William sold his lands in the south of England and bought the Chatsworth estates in her home county of Derbyshire.

Bess of Hardwick, 1550s

Eight children were born of the marriage, two of whom died in infancy:[5]

William was the forebear of the Dukes of Devonshire and Charles of the Dukes of Newcastle.[6] Elizabeth I was godmother to their first son, Henry, and Queen Mary I of England was godmother to their third son, Charles.[2] Sir William Cavendish died on 25 October 1557, leaving Bess widowed a second time.

Third marriage[edit]

In 1559, Bess married a third time, to Sir William St. Loe (St Lowe, Saintlowe, or Sentloe), and became Lady St Loe. Her new husband was Captain of the Guard to Elizabeth I and Chief Butler of England.[2] He owned large West Country estates at Tormarton in Gloucestershire and Chew Magna in Somerset, while his principal residence was at Sutton Court in Stowey. When he died without male issue in 1564/5, in suspicious circumstances (probably poisoned by his younger brother),[7] he left everything to Bess, to the detriment of his daughters and brother.[2] In addition to her own six children, Bess was now responsible for the two daughters of Sir William Cavendish from his first marriage. However, those two daughters were already adults and otherwise well provided for.

Sir William St. Loe's death left Bess one of the wealthiest women in England. Her annual income was calculated to amount to £60,000, (£15.9 million as of 2014).[8] Further, she was a Lady of the Bedchamber with daily access to the Queen, whose favour she enjoyed. Still in her late 30s, Bess retained her looks and good health, and a number of important men began courting her.

Fourth marriage[edit]

Mary Queen of Scotts

Despite being courted by several suitors, Bess did not remarry until 1568, when she married for the fourth time to become Countess of Shrewsbury. Her new husband, George Talbot, 6th Earl of Shrewsbury, was one of the premier aristocrats of the realm, and the father of seven children by his first marriage. Indeed, two of his children were married to two of hers in a double ceremony in February 1568: Bess's daughter Mary Cavendish, aged 12, was given in marriage to Shrewsbury's eldest son Gilbert, aged 16; while Bess's son, Sir Henry Cavendish, aged 18, married Shrewsbury's daughter Lady Grace Talbot, aged 8.

In the year before Bess and the Earl of Shrewsbury were married, a political disturbance arose in Scotland to the north, which would profoundly affect their lives. Rebel Scottish lords rose up against their queen, Mary I, known as Mary, Queen of Scots, imprisoned her and forced her to abdicate in favour of her one-year-old infant son, James. In May 1568, Mary escaped captivity in Scotland, and fled south towards England, seeking the protection of her cousin, Queen Elizabeth. However, the English authorities were not sure how to receive her. On 18 May, she was taken into protective custody at Carlisle Castle by local officials.

Queen Elizabeth felt an obligation to host and protect Mary, her cousin, against the rebellious Scottish lords. However, due to Queen Mary's persistent claim to the English throne, Queen Elizabeth also regarded her as a threat. Elizabeth had Mary moved to Bolton Castle in Yorkshire, where she was lodged under the guard of Francis Knollys, pending the York Conference inquiry, regarding Mary's fate. The inquiry results were inconclusive; yet Elizabeth did not set Mary free. Instead, Mary would be detained under the custody of the Earl of Shrewsbury, and his wife Bess. Elizabeth's instruction to Bess and her husband amounted to little more than Mary's house arrest. Mary reached her new residence, Tutbury Castle, in February 1569, when she was 26 years old, and would remain in the custody of Shrewsbury and Bess for 15 years. Elizabeth shifted the burden of the imprisonment costs to Shrewsbury. Her presence in their home, as well as the financial costs and political tensions, may have contributed to the rift between Shrewsbury and Bess, which would lead eventually to the breakup of their marriage.[9][10]

While in the care of the Earl and Countess, Queen Mary lived at one or another of their many houses in the Midlands: Tutbury, Wingfield, Chatsworth[11] and Sheffield. Throughout this period, Bess spent time as Mary's companion, working together on embroidery and textile projects. Indeed, all Mary's work would become part of Bess's historical collection at Hardwick Hall.[12]

It was not until Mary was removed to another keeper, Sir Amias Paulet, that she got into the trouble that would lead ultimately to her execution. Previous to the Queen's change in custody, Shrewsbury and Bess separated for good. They had been apart, off and on, since about 1580; and even Queen Elizabeth had tried to get them to reconcile. Mary seems to have aggravated, if not created, their problems by playing them off against each other. The Countess spread rumors that her husband Shrewsbury had been in a relationship with Mary, a charge which has never been proved or disproved, but seems unlikely given Shrewsbury's disposition and increasingly poor health.[citation needed] On his death in 1590, Bess became Dowager Countess of Shrewsbury.

The Stuart connection[edit]

In 1574 Bess arranged a marriage between one of her daughters and the son of the Countess of Lennox. This was a significant match for Bess because the Countess of Lennox was Margaret Douglas, a member of the royal family, being the daughter of Margaret Tudor, Queen Dowager of Scotland and sister of Henry VIII, and therefore, also being Queen Elizabeth's first cousin. In this match, the bride was Bess's daughter, Elizabeth Cavendish, and the groom was Charles Stuart who was, himself, also, the first cousin of Mary, Queen of Scots, (also through their grandmother, the same, Margaret Tudor). The groom was also the younger brother of Henry Stuart, Lord Darnley who had been married to Queen Mary Stuart, until his death. This marriage, therefore, enabled a claim to the throne for any of Bess's grandchildren born of the marriage. The marriage ceremony took place without the knowledge of Shrewsbury, who, though well aware of the suggested match some time prior to this event, declined to accept any responsibility. Due to the Lennox family's claim to the throne, the marriage was considered potentially treasonable since Queen Elizabeth's consent had not been obtained. The Countess of Lennox, mother of the bridegroom, went to the Tower for several months, and Bess was ordered to London to face an official inquiry, but she ignored the summons, and remained in Sheffield until the row died down. The child of the marriage was Arbella Stuart, who had a claim to the thrones of Scotland and England, being the second cousin to King James VI of Scotland (and who later became King James I of England), through their great grandmother, Margaret Tudor.

Arbella was at times invited to Elizabeth's court, but spent most of her time with her grandmother away from it. A BBC documentary [13] showed that Bess very much desired Arbella to become Queen, even imprisoning the young lady to prevent her from eloping. Arbella blamed her grandmother for this, and the two fell out irrevocably when Arbella attempted to run away and marry a man who also had a claim to the throne. Bess cut Arbella from her will and begged the Queen to take her granddaughter off her hands. Arbella's royal claim was never recognized but Bess eventually ended up with a descendant on the throne: Queen Elizabeth II.


Bess is the main character in Venus in Winter by Gillian Bagwell (July 2, 2013). Bess of Hardwick is a character in The Other Queen, by Philippa Gregory, as well as the title character of A Woman of Passion by Virginia Henley. She also features prominently in the book The Captive Queen of Scots by Jean Plaidy, in the short story "Antickes and Frets" by Susanna Clarke, in her 2006 collection The Ladies of Grace Adieu and Other Stories and The Secret Confessions of Anne Shakespeare by Arliss Ryan, and is the main character in the Jan Westcott historical/biographical fiction novel The Tower and The Dream.




  1. ^ a b c d Richardson, Douglas; Everingham, Kimball G. Plantagenet ancestry: a study in colonial and medieval families, Genealogical Publishing Com, 2004. pg 379.
  2. ^ a b c d e f Digby, Elizabethan Embroidery, p. 58-63
  3. ^ Levey, Of Household Stuff, p.10-11; Levey, An Elizabethan Inheritance, p. 20-39 passim
  4. ^ Royal Institute of British Architects
  5. ^ Genealogy Database by Daniel de Rauglaudre (retrieved 23 December 2012).
  6. ^ Girouard, Mark; The National Trust of England and Wales, David Durant (1989). Hardwick Hall guidebook. The National Trust of England and Wales. ISBN 978-1-84359-217-4. 
  7. ^ Mary S. Lovell: Bess of Hardwick, pp185-186
  8. ^ UK CPI inflation numbers based on data available from Gregory Clark (2013), "What Were the British Earnings and Prices Then? (New Series)" MeasuringWorth.
  9. ^ Bess of Hardwick Empire Builder 2005 Mary S. Lovell p 210.
  10. ^ Roderick Graham The life of Mary Queen of Scots 2009 pp 314-316
  11. ^ E.Carleton Williams, Bess of Hardwick pp 74-80
  12. ^ Lovell, 2005, pp 220-221
  13. ^ "BBC Documentary Site". 


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