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Elizabeth Talbot, Countess of Shrewsbury (c. 1527-1608)  known as Bess of Hardwick, was 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. Her exact birthdate is unknown but is most likely to be in the last half of 1527 according to her witness statement under oath  at a court hearing in October 1546, in which she gives her age at the time of her first marriage in May 1543 as being 'of tender years', ie less than 16. It cannot be later than 1527 because of the date of her father's death gven in his Inquisition Post Mortem.
She was married four times, firstly to Robert Barlow, who died aged about fourteen or fifteen on December 24th 1544; 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.
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. 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.
Elizabeth Hardwick was the daughter of John Hardwick of Derbyshire by his wife Elizabeth Leeke, daughter of Thomas Leeke and Margaret Fox.The Hardwicks had arrived in Derbyshire from Sussex by the mid-thirteenth-century and farmed land granted by Robert Savage, lord of the manor of Slingsby, on the north-east border of Derbyshire, looking over Nottinghamshire. By the mid-fifteenth-century the family had risen to 'gentleman-yeoman' stock with an estate of a few hundred acres located mainly in in the parish of Ault Hucknall in the manor of Slingsby. The Hardwick coat of arms of Hardwick was probably granted c.1450 to William Hardwick. The blazon is: Argent, a saltier engrailed azure on a chief of the second three cinquefoils of the first. When giving evidence of his right to arms in 1569 Bess's only brother, James Hardwick (1525-1580/1), provided the heralds with a pedigree of his family which began with this William who died c. 1453. James was the last surviving legitimate male member of the Hardwick family. The Hardwicks were members of the minor gentry of Scarsdale, no male member of the Hardwick family rose above the status of esquire or held any important local or county offices. Bess was born into this relatively minor gentry family. Her 4th marriage to the earl of Shrewsbury in 1567 elevated her to the rank of 'countess' and following the earl's death in November 1590 Bess became one of the richest women in the kingdom and set about building her greatest monument, Hardwick New Hall, which was completed in 1599 a little over three years before she herself died in February 1608.
John Hardwick died aged about forty leaving a widow, son (and heir), and four daughters (five daughters were alive at the time he wrote his will). His widow, Elizabeth Leeke then remarried to the second-son of the neighbouring Leche ( or Leach) family of Chatsworth, in Derbyshire. Little is known of Bess' early life. She appears to have been espoused to her first husband during the 1530s and probably married for the first time in 1543. Despite the story being oft repeated, there is no contemporary evidence whatsoever to support Dugdale's later claims that she became familiar with city life and the Tudor Court after being sent to live, aged twelve, in the London household of Anne Gainsford, Lady Zouche of Codnor Castle in Derbyshire. where she was supposedly influenced by Lady Zouche. Despite a lack of evidence, it is possible - but no more than that - that at some point, perhaps after the death of her first husband, she entered the service of the Zouches at Codnor Castle in Derbyshire. A close family associate was a man named Henry Marmion whose family held land close to Codnor and may have commended Bess to the Zouches who, along with the Vernons, were the only major Derbyshire family likely to have taken in such children. However, Anne Gainsford was in service in the households of Anne Boleyn and Jane Seymour and despite marrying Sir George Zouche in 1533 spent much of her time at court until after 1536 when she and Sir George made Codnor Castle their main residence. Not surprisingly, this period coincides with that Dugdale claimed Bess was in service to Anne Gainsford in London and at Codnor but there is no evidence to support the story and Dugdale would have known much more about the early life of Lady Zouche than was known of Bess's origins. It is again down to Dugdale that the story came about that from Codnor Bess entered the service of the Greys at Bradgate in Leicestershire where she met and married her second husband, Sir William Cavendish. She certainly married Sir William at Bradgate but that in itself does not prove that Bess was in service at Bradgate and it remains possible that she met Sir William elsewhere, possibly at Codnor.
Bess married 13 year-old Robert Barley, heir to a neighbouring estate. The exact date of her marriage to Robert is unknown. It is thought that the marriage took place late May 1543 shortly before the death of Robert's father on the 28th May 1543 although there is no documentary evidence to substantiate this. There is no evidence that they lived together as man and wife. Robert died in December 1544. There was no issue from the marriage which had been arranged locally, probably initially to protect the Barley patrimony and to mitigate the impact of wardship on the Barley estate should Robert succeed his father as an under-age heir. The traditional story that Robert and Bess met in London while in the service of Lady Zouche is based on oral history which can only be dated to the late seventeenth-century (sixty years after Bess's death). The rights to Robert's marriage were disputed and following his death Bess was refused dower by Peter Freschevile. A court battle ensued which resulted in Bess being awarded her claim on the Barley estate and compensation, albeit several years after Robert's death.
On 20 August 1547, Bess married the twice-widowed Sir William Cavendish (died 1557), Treasurer of the King's Chamber, and became Lady Cavendish. The wedding took place at two o'clock in the morning, at the home of the Grey family, friends of the couple. Sir William was more than twice Bess's age and the father of two daughters. His fortune had been made following the Dissolution of the Monasteries since 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. Sir William Cavendish died on 25 October 1557, leaving Bess widowed a second time and in deep debt to the Crown. Upon his death, Bess claimed the sum of his property, having insisted that his land be settled on their heirs. Eight children were born of the marriage, two of whom died in infancy:
In 1559, Bess married a third time, to Sir William St Loe (1518–1565) (alias St Lowe, Saintlowe, Sentloe, etc.) and became Lady St Loe. Her new husband was Captain of the Guard to Elizabeth I and Chief Butler of England. 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), he left everything to Bess, to the detriment of his daughters and brother. In addition to her own six surviving 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, (£16.4 million as of 2014). 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.
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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.
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 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.
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. On his death in 1590, Bess became Dowager Countess of Shrewsbury.
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  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 of Hardwick died aged 86 at 5 pm on Saturday 13 February 1608. On Tuesday 16 Feb her body was placed in a vault in All Saints parish church, Derby, now Derby Cathedral, where there is a memorial to her. Stories of her body lying in state for weeks the Great Chamber at Hardwick are a myth.
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, and 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,
She is mentioned in the 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.
|Ancestors of Bess of Hardwick|