Four times the nuptial bed she warmed
And every time so well performed
That when death spoiled each husband’s billing
He left the widow every shilling.
Written by Steph Stohrer
Bess of Hardwick is one of those provocative characters from history that elicit emotion. Was she a ruthless social climber or a shrewd businesswoman? Did she feel genuine love for her husbands or was she using them to improve her standing? She had many enemies, yet somehow achieved genuinely loving marriages with each of her husbands, including the last, right up until the unexpected arrival of a somewhat unwanted houseguest. Her reputation as a “strict, bossy, belligerent old woman” (Joseph Hunter, 1819) has become widely accepted, yet one can’t help but wonder if her astute instinct for personal and financial growth is simply cause for jealousy on the parts of those who were both her contemporaries or examiners.
Elizabeth Hardwick was born somewhere between 1521 and 1527, to John Hardwick of Derbyshire and his wife Elizabeth. John died in 1527 and most of his modestly prosperous estate went to the crown, until his son would come of age. As she was not necessarily from a privileged upbringing, Bess’ ambition began to develop as young as 16, believing that a strategic marriage would be beneficial to her status. She married Robert Barlow who passed quickly, widowing the young lately by 1544. Bess fought for and won her husband’s assets, and she moved on to live as a lady in waiting to Frances Grey in her household, where she ultimately met her second husband William Cavendish.
Cavendish was a treasurer of Henry VIII’s chamber and one of Thomas Cromwell’s allies during the Dissolution of the Monasteries. During the early years of their marriage, Bess convinced him to sell the former monastic lands he had amassed and move back to her home county. In 1549, they purchased Chatsworth Manor for £600 and began building the first house in 1552. This estate was to be rebuilt and furnished extravagantly.
The couple were equally ambitious and together worked to increase their wealth and standing throughout their relationship. And yet, all Derbyshire properties they shared were in both of their names. This unusual effort proved both Cavendish’s faith in his wife, as well as her intuition on the possibility of her estates going to the crown if he died before their heirs were of age to inherit them. Their happy, stable marriage of ten years produced eight children, six of whom survived to adulthood.
Unfortunately, William Cavendish died in 1557 and left Bess a wealthy widow. She made the decision to enter into a third prosperous marriage with captain of the yeoman guards William St. Loe. It was during this marriage that the drama surrounding Bess would start taking effect and her story really begins.
During the time Bess was in the household of Frances Grey, she became close to the family and their three daughters. When their second daughter, Lady Katherine Grey, secretly married Edward Somerset, 1st Earl of Hertford without permission from the Queen, and was eight months pregnant with his child, Katherine confided in Bess, confessing her situation and pleading for her help to cajole the queen into being accepting of the situation. Irate and embarrassed, Bess would not hear any of it, as she was not interested in being an accomplice of such deceit. Katherine’s claim to the throne was strong enough that Elizabeth was wary of her and any heirs she may have, and Bess knew that there would be no leniency in a situation such as this. Yet Bess’ avoidance and confession to Queen Elizabeth held no weight, as she was convinced that Bess was collaborating with Katherine to replace her. Both Katherine and Bess were imprisoned in the tower. Unlike Katherine, Bess was ultimately released, yet removed from her position at court.
In 1565, William St. Loe died unexpectedly, due to what many believe was poisoning by his brother. As the theory goes, St. Loe’s brother wanted his fortune, yet unbeknownst to him, everything was left to Bess anyway. She once again came out on top, and continued to amass her fortune. By this time, she could have lived quite comfortably on her own, yet she chose to wed for a fourth time, as every husband she chose was wealthier than the last, and continued to improve her fortune. In 1567 she married George Talbot, 6th Earl of Shrewsbury. In another unsurprising and calculated move to secure their wealth, Bess & George married Bess’ daughter Mary Cavendish to Gilbert Talbot (George’s heir) AND her eldest son to Talbot’s daughter.
Although the early stages of this marriage seem to have been healthy, things took a turn for the worse in 1568 when Shrewsbury was appointed keeper of the Queen’s rival, Mary, Queen of Scots. When the uprising against her began in Scotland, she left her home country and was assigned to be protected and guarded by Shrewsbury in their home at Chatsworth. Queen Elizabeth knew that if not sufficiently guarded and watched, Mary was capable of taking her throne. Many in England did still want a Catholic monarch, so Bess earned back some of the favor she had lost after the Katherine Grey mishap by participating fully in the security and careful watch of Mary. She was a prisoner there various times throughout 1569 and 1584.
Adding to the tumult of the times, during Mary’s stay with the Talbots, Bess and Margaret Douglas, the Countess of Lennox (daughter of Margaret Tudor and Archibald Douglas) sought to have their children married. Not unlike her prior behavior of securing matches in line with her ambition, Bess married her daughter Elizabeth Cavendish to Douglas’ son Charles Stuart – the brother of Mary, Queen of Scots’ second husband Henry Stuart, Lord Darnley. Predictably, this greatly displeased Queen Elizabeth and she sent Douglas to London, while Bess and her daughter were placed under watch at Nottinghamshire. To make matters worse for the queen, Elizabeth Cavendish was already pregnant with yet another rival to her position on the throne. This baby, born in 1575, was Arbella Stuart.
After years of discontent due to the strain their houseguest brought on the marriage, Bess and Shrewsbury split. He had become bitter and angry towards Bess for going to court and visiting friends and family while he had to remain at Chatsworth and make sure that Mary was under constant supervision. Contrarily, Bess started spreading stories of Mary, Queen of Scots having been sleeping with her husband and potentially even bearing his children while under his care. It was at this time in 1584 that Mary wrote to Elizabeth, declaring that her custodian Bess made mention on numerous occasions that her queen was “in no way a virgin” (as she was famously known for being) and also somehow “incapable of sex, as she is ‘not like other women'”.
Despite the commotion caused by the letter and the unwelcome marriage arranged by Bess, Queen Elizabeth still even tried to help the couple reconcile, but without success. Bess and Shrewsbury remained estranged, as he claimed she “tried to rule him and make him the wife and her the husband”. By 1587, Bess was living completely separately from her husband and was already back at her family manor house at Hardwick, to renovate it. She began constructing around her old home, what is now known as Hardwick Old Hall. Then, in 1590, Bess’ estranged husband died, increasing her lands and wealth even further, expanding her affluence well beyond what any other woman at the time could even dream. Before the old hall was complete, and almost immediately after the death of her husband, foundations for Hardwick New Hall were being dug. This new building was rich and lavish looking, with contemporary architecture for the time, and windows reaching from the ground up. Turrets at the top displayed the initials “ES” for Elizabeth Shrewsbury. The new construction gave rise to often-quoted description “Hardwick Hall, more glass than wall“.
All the while, since the death of Bess’ daughter in 1582, she was raising her granddaughter Arbella and grooming her to potentially succeed Queen Elizabeth I. Feeling suffocated by her overbearing and determined grandmother, Arbella wanted to make a marriage match of her own choosing, rather than one of her grandmother’s. She married William Seymour, the grandson of Edward Seymour, 1st Earl of Hertford whom Queen Elizabeth already hated after the previously mentioned Katherine Grey scandal. Elizabeth assumed this was purposeful and meant to threaten her position on the throne. Once again, Bess and Queen Elizabeth were at odds, and once again Bess had to prove her loyalty to the crown by convincing her that she had no knowledge of her granddaughter’s secret marriage. To demonstrate her unwavering devotion to Elizabeth, Bess disinherited Arbella from her will.
Elizabeth Shrewsbury died in 1608 and was buried in a tomb in Derby Cathedral. Her ambition motivated every choice she made in life, and she died as the one of the wealthiest women in England, second only to Queen Elizabeth herself. No matter how many bridges she burned along the way, Bess of Hardwick had an unparalleled sense of determination and drive, worthy of all the success that was afforded to her throughout her life.
Hubbard, Kate. Devices and Desires: Bess of Hardwick and the Building of Elizabethan England
Levin, Carole. A Biographical Encyclopedia of Early Modern Englishwomen.
Lovell, Mary S. Bess of Hardwick: Empire Builder
Rawson, Mary Stepney. Bess of Hardwick & Her Circle.