Sunday, 7 February 2016

Bess of Hardwick, a remarkable Tudor woman

Bess of Hardwick was one of the most remarkable women not of royal blood to emerge from the Tudor Age. From relatively modest origins she rose to enjoy considerable wealth and prestige, and some of the buildings she commissioned are among England’s premier attractions.

Early Life

She was born as Elizabeth Hardwick in about 1527. She was one of five children born to John Hardwick, a member of the minor gentry of Derbyshire. Her father died when Bess was very young, and the family fell on hard times as a result. Her mother remarried, but her second husband brought little wealth to the family although he fathered three more children for her to look after. He later spent six years in a debtors’ prison.

Bess escaped this life of genteel poverty by marrying when still very young – possibly at the age of 16. She was a widow at 17, but she gained a modest inheritance as a result of her husband’s early death.

Second husband

Bess’s luck really changed three years later when she married Sir William Cavendish, the personal treasurer of King Henry VIII. It is possible that Bess had been working as a lady-in-waiting to the Marchioness of Dorset (the mother of Lady Jane Grey) and that this was how she met Sir William. Otherwise it is difficult to see how she would have had access to that particular social circle.

As it was, Bess’s second marriage was happy and productive, with eight children being born 1548 and 1577, six of them surviving to adulthood. Among the godparents of her children were Princess Elizabeth (the future Queen Elizabeth I) and several notable Protestant aristocrats.

In 1549 Sir William bought the Derbyshire estate of Chatsworth and then acquired several other estates in the county. The properties were owned jointly by the couple, which meant that, should Sir William pre-decease her, ownership would not immediately pass from Bess to the next generation.

This proved to be a sound move, because Sir William died in 1577. Even so, Bess was not free of financial worry because her husband died with debts of more than £5000. Although she sought to offset the debts by petitioning Parliament, it would clearly have been in her best interest to find another husband, and preferably a very rich one.

Third husband

This turned out to be Sir William St Loe, a very wealthy widower who was a member of the household of Princess Elizabeth. The couple did not spend much time together, because Bess preferred to be at Chatsworth, where she oversaw the building of the magnificent house that stands to this day, while St Loe was mainly in London. There were no children of this marriage.

At some time after the accession of Elizabeth to the throne (in 1558), Bess became a gentlewoman of the privy chamber, a position that she held until the two women had a major disagreement and Bess was dismissed.

Fourth husband

William St Loe died in 1565, leaving the bulk of his fortune to Bess, and in 1567 she married for the fourth and last time. This was to George
Talbot, the 6th Earl of Shrewsbury, who was even rich than husband number three. Shrewsbury was one of the wealthiest men in the north of England, being the owner of three castles and a number of other houses as well as huge areas of land.

Bess lost no time in uniting the fortunes of her house and that of her husband, which she did by arranging marriages between a son and daughter of hers and a daughter and son of the earl.

In 1568 Queen Elizabeth gave Shrewsbury the task of being jailer to the captured Mary Queen of Scots. Mary spent time at several properties owned by the earl, and Bess therefore came into contact with her. Bess and Mary did not get on well together, especially after Bess suspected that Mary and her husband had had an affair – which was almost certainly untrue.

Bess also annoyed her husband (and Queen Elizabeth) when she engineered a marriage between her daughter Elizabeth Cavendish and Charles Stuart, the son of the Countess of Lennox who had paid a five-day visit to her former friend Queen Mary.

Shrewsbury also complained that his wife was spending too much money on the work at Chatsworth when he was facing increasing expense in looking after Queen Mary in a style that befitted a queen.

In 1584 the couple separated and Bess retired to Chatsworth. The earl claimed Chatsworth as his, under the terms of their marriage settlement, and it took a protracted legal debate before Bess was eventually awarded complete ownership of Chatsworth and a substantial financial settlement for good measure.

Hardwick Hall

At the time when it looked as though she might lose Chatsworth, Bess bought the Hardwick estate from her brother and started to renovate the house that is now known as Hardwick Old Hall. This work was virtually complete by 1591.

However, no sooner was the work completed than Bess decided to build a completely new house only a few yards away from the old one. This is Hardwick New Hall. Bess was able to do this because the Earl of Shrewsbury died in 1590 and left Bess one third of all the property he had owned at the time of their marriage.

The shell of Hardwick Hall (i.e. the new building) was completed in 1593 and Bess (who remained a widow for the rest of her life) moved in in 1597, although she continued to make changes up to her death in 1608.

It is a remarkable building in many respects, partly because of its large number of windows, giving rise to the description “Hardwick Hall – more glass than wall”. Window glass was very expensive in Elizabethan England, and a measure of one’s wealth was how many glass windows one had in one’s house.

Bess did not only show off her wealth and status by living in large rooms with floor-to-ceiling windows (which incidentally made the house extremely difficult and expensive to heat), but had her initials (ES for Elizabeth of Shrewsbury) prominently displayed at the top of each of the Hall’s six towers. She also filled the house with furniture, paintings, tapestries and embroidery with no expense spared.

Bess died in 1608 at the age of around 81 (given the uncertainty over the year of her birth). As well as the magnificent houses at Chatsworth and Hardwick she left behind a dynasty that was to play important roles in later events. The Dukes of Devonshire are descended from her second son William Cavendish and the Dukes of Newcastle and Portland from her youngest son Charles.

© John Welford