These 16 Facts Will Open Your Eyes to Bess of Hardwick, the Other Elizabeth of Elizabethan England
These 16 Facts Will Open Your Eyes to Bess of Hardwick, the Other Elizabeth of Elizabethan England

These 16 Facts Will Open Your Eyes to Bess of Hardwick, the Other Elizabeth of Elizabethan England

Tim Flight - August 16, 2018

When we think of the Elizabethan age, the name that first springs to mind is Queen Elizabeth I (1533-1603), a figure so dominant that she gave her name to the period. Good Queen Bess never married, claiming that she was married to the country, and was immortalized as The Virgin Queen. Her rule saw an end to the unpopular Catholicism fiercely reintroduced by her loathed sister, Mary, the beginning of English colonialism, the defeat of the Spanish Armada, and the immortal plays of William Shakespeare. Elizabeth was an inspired and inspiring ruler, mostly adored by her subjects and many suitors.

But she was far from the only Bess to live through the period, or to leave so great a mark upon it. For perhaps her greatest rival to the position of most prominent woman in the country was Elizabeth Hardwick (1527-1608), better known as Bess of Hardwick. Through a succession of marriages, this Bess rose from humble origins to possess an empire of wealth, property, influence, and prominent offspring. She was an equally strong-willed and brilliant woman whose legacy lives on in the Cavendish dynasty, art, and some of the world’s greatest mansions. Her unforgettable story deserves to be told.

These 16 Facts Will Open Your Eyes to Bess of Hardwick, the Other Elizabeth of Elizabethan England
Allegory of the Tudor Succession by Lucas de Heere, depicting Henry VIII (centre) with Mary on the left, Edward VI and Elizabeth on the right, London, c.1572. Wikimedia Commons

England, 1527-1608

Bess lived a long life through one of the most unstable periods in British history, so it’s worth beginning by summarizing the events that were going on around her. When Bess was born, Henry VIII ruled over a Catholic country with his pious Spanish wife, Catherine of Aragon. When Henry could not sire a son and heir, he broke England from the Catholic Church, divorced Catherine, and married Anne Boleyn. The religion changed from Catholicism to Protestantism, with Henry instead of the Pope as head. Meanwhile, Henry married a further four times, beheading two of his wives including poor Anne.

Henry’s son, Edward VI, reigned from 1547 until he died aged 15 in 1553. He named Lady Jane Grey as his heir, but she lasted only 9 days before being replaced by Edward’s older half-sister, Mary I. ‘Bloody Mary’ set about turning England back to a Catholic nation, burning Protestants who refused to revert, and marrying the unpopular Philip of Spain. She died childless, and was succeeded by her younger half-sister, Elizabeth I, in 1558. Elizabeth set about turning England back to Protestantism, overseeing a glorious period in English history known as the Elizabethan Age until her death in 1603.

Elizabeth never married, and died childless, instead naming her cousin’s son, James VI of Scotland, as King of England. James stuck with the Protestant faith, but his reign was subject to schemes to replace him by Catholics disappointed with his religious views, including the Gunpowder Plot of 1605. Bess of Hardwick saw six different monarchs in her lifetime, three sea-changes in the country’s religion, the burning of heretics, and the thwarting of a Spanish invasion in 1588. It was an extremely changeable and violent period of history, in which people went to bed an ally, and woke up a traitor.

These 16 Facts Will Open Your Eyes to Bess of Hardwick, the Other Elizabeth of Elizabethan England
Hardwick Old Hall, which Bess built on the site of her birthplace, a smaller medieval manor house, Derbyshire. English Heritage

Ancestry

Given the above, it is jaw-dropping to learn that Bess achieved everything she did with such humble origins. Bess was born in 1527 to John Hardwick and Elizabeth Leake. The couple were very minor gentry who lived at the small manor house of Hardwick, Derbyshire. The family had lived in the manor for at least two centuries in 1527, and the house was a standard, medieval half-timbered affair, whose only claims to grandeur or peculiarity came from its position on a hill overlooking the surrounding Derbyshire countryside. They farmed 450 acres, and rented out another 100 in nearby Lincolnshire.

John Hardwick was a very distant descendant of King Edward I of England (1239-1307), the mighty medieval king known as ‘The Hammer of the Scots’ for his brutal conquest of England’s northern neighbor, and his wife, Eleanor of Castile. Bess’s mother, Elizabeth Leake, was of a similar station in life to John Hardwick. She was the daughter of Thomas Leake of Hasland, lord of another minor manor not far from Hardwick Hall. The Leakes had no such impressive ancestry, however distant, as the Hardwicks, but their economic station was roughly equal to that of the latter, making a suitable match.

Besides a few well-placed connections, the Hardwicks were in no sense prominent in national life, and do not seem to have had many pretensions towards greatness. They held no local county offices, or ever moved to a station above esquire. Instead, they quietly farmed the estate’s land, sold its produce, and collected rents from their tenants, and there is nothing to suggest that they made a particularly big-deal of their royal ancestry. In around 1450, though, they were awarded a coat of arms, in recognition of their status as gentlemen, with which Bess enthusiastically decorated her later building projects.

These 16 Facts Will Open Your Eyes to Bess of Hardwick, the Other Elizabeth of Elizabethan England
The earliest known portrait of Bess, England, c.1560. Wikimedia Commons

Early Life

In 1527, the Hardwicks were probably hoping for a son, as they had only one male infant and another would have provided extra security to the integrity of the Hardwick estate. Little is known of Bess’s early life in Hardwick Hall, but she later recalled that her mother had been a doting and sensible woman. John Hardwick died of an unknown illness when Bess was only 7 months old, leaving Elizabeth Leake a widow at only 28. Fortunately, he had time to make arrangements and write a will before he died. His brother, Roger, took over management of the estate.

Unfortunately, there were legal complications surrounding the precise value of the estate, not helped by John’s heir being 18 months old when his father died. Eventually, the Crown took about a third of the Hardwick estate and Roger died two years after his brother, and so Elizabeth remarried to help the family. Her new husband was Ralph Leach, a younger son with a few pieces of land whose family lived at Chatsworth, by whom she had three more daughters to add to her son and four daughters. The Chatsworth manor was to play a big part in Bess’s later life.

Aged 12, Bess was sent away to live with a distant cousin, Lady Zouche of Codnor Castle, in her London residence. Although technically a servant, Bess would have learned how to be a lady. Her service would have been attending family events, aiding Lady Zouche’s toilette, learning to hunt, and learning to dance. Courtly manners aside, the main motivation for such arrangements was to network with important people. Lady Zouche had been a lady-in-waiting to Queens Anne Boleyn and Jane Seymour, and had many important connections. Bess’s time in London possibly helped to develop her appetite for luxury.

These 16 Facts Will Open Your Eyes to Bess of Hardwick, the Other Elizabeth of Elizabethan England
A map of Tudor London, as it would have roughly appeared in Bess’s time with Lady Zouche, c.1572. Lost City of London

Husband #1

Bess first married Robert Barlow of Barlow, also from Derbyshire, in 1543. Bess was about 15 at the time, and Robert 13. It is uncertain how they met, but the nearest account, from Nathaniel Johnson’s history of the Earls of Shrewsbury from 1692, states that they had met when Bess was ‘attending the Lady Zouche at such a time as Mr Barlow lay sick there of Chronical Distemper. In which time this young gentlewoman made many visits upon account of their neighborhood in the country, and out of kindness to him’. They would then have been 14 and 12, respectively.

Johnson’s account is disputed, but their marriage did factually take place. The Hardwick and Barlow families were known to one another, and were very distantly related through marriage. Surviving documentation from Barlow’s father, purchased by Bess, suggests some urgency to marry off his son and heir to the third-daughter of John Hardwick, who enjoyed few prospects, possibly to avoid the Crown pinching his lands like the Hardwick estate. Bess’s father in law, Arthur Barlow, died shortly after the marriage. Given their age, it is likely that Bess and Robert stayed in the Zouche household, and that the marriage was unconsummated.

Unfortunately, Robert died barely eighteen months after the wedding. Although doubtless tragic, his death cruelly coming on Christmas Eve 1544, Bess was entitled to a widow’s dower from Robert’s lands. The Barlow family refused, and Bess showed great tenacity in pursuing her due despite her tender years. She eventually won the case, and was given 50% of the revenues from her late husband’s estate. Although she always felt that she was due more, and the sum was not of national significance, Bess enjoyed a handsome income for a woman of her age, and tasted financial freedom for the first time.

These 16 Facts Will Open Your Eyes to Bess of Hardwick, the Other Elizabeth of Elizabethan England
Bess’s second husband, Sir William Cavendish, England, c.1550. Wikimedia Commons

Husband #2

Sometime in 1545, Bess probably became a waiting gentlewoman in the household of Lady Frances Grey, mother of the Nine Days’ Queen, Lady Jane, then about 9 years old. Lady Frances was the niece of Henry VIII, so this was a significant step-up from the Zouches. There she met her next husband, Sir William Cavendish (c.1505-57), a friend of Henry Grey. Cavendish was more than twice her age, and rather fat, but Bess decided to accept his advances, and they married in 1547. Marrying Cavendish, the Lord Treasurer, made Bess Lady Cavendish, and significantly improved her social standing.

Cavendish was a close friend of Henry VIII, and instrumental in the Dissolution of the Monasteries, which made him enviably rich and allowed to choose which monastic estates to have for himself. Cavendish was, however, twice-widowed, and already had two daughters. He owned significant lands in the South of England, but possibly under Bess’s influence, sold these off and purchased Chatsworth in Derbyshire. Bess bore Cavendish a staggering eight children, two of whom died in infancy, making a very large household indeed. The couple spent lavishly on improving and decorating their estates and living a life of the finest luxury.

Unfortunately, when Cavendish died in 1557, he was heavily in debt, having lost a court case brought by Mary I over his alleged mismanagement of treasury funds, and was deemed personally responsible for certain expenditures. Once again, Bess fought hard against the debt, using her new network of contacts, in order to save her estate. Learning that Mary was fatally ill, Bess cunningly petitioned her likely successor, Princess Elizabeth, godmother to one of her children, to drop the debt when she became queen. She visited her namesake at Hatfield, where she also met one William St Loe, a wealthy knight…

These 16 Facts Will Open Your Eyes to Bess of Hardwick, the Other Elizabeth of Elizabethan England
Bess’s third husband, Sir William St Loe, in tilt armour, England, 1560. Pinterest

Husband #3

One of Elizabeth’s first appointments of her reign was to make Sir William St. Loe (1518-65) her personal Yeoman Guard. At almost the same time, William’s father died, and he inherited a vast and ancient assemblage of lands in the South West of England, properties, and titles. The St. Loe family came to England around 1100, when they were mentioned at the court of Henry I. St Loe himself had proven his loyalty to Elizabeth by his involvement in the plot to replace Bloody Mary with the younger princess. In the winter of 1558-59, he fell in love with Bess.

The feeling was reciprocated, though Bess was doubtless also impressed with St. Loe’s means and position. Queen Elizabeth approved of the marriage, and possibly attended the wedding on August 27, 1559. As Bess continued to build at Chatsworth, however, trouble was brewing. William’s brother, Edward, had assumed that he would be his sonless brother’s heir, and was hence threatened by this new marriage. He began to quibble over the specifics of William’s inheritance, and in 1560 Bess narrowly survived being poisoned by her troublesome brother-in-law. Despite public knowledge of his part in the poisoning plot, Edward was not punished.

William St. Loe died in 1565, possibly poisoned by Edward, who suspiciously stayed with his estranged brother in his dying days and immediately produced a dubious indenture from his father giving him one of his William’s properties. Bess and St. Loe had managed to reduce the Cavendish fine exponentially, and her inheritance from the unfortunate William was enormous, but she was still determined not to lose what she felt was rightfully hers. Thus she fought another lengthy legal battle, and came out on top. She was now second only to Queen Elizabeth herself as the most eligible woman in England.

These 16 Facts Will Open Your Eyes to Bess of Hardwick, the Other Elizabeth of Elizabethan England
Bess’s fourth and final husband, George Talbot, Earl of Shrewsbury, England, 1580. Wikimedia Commons

Husband #4

In January 1567, the wife of George Talbot, 6th Earl of Shrewsbury (1528-90), died. A few months later, he was paying addresses to Bess, who had discouraged all suitors up to this time. The Talbot family was another ancient one, and had even greater landholdings than the St. Loe dynasty. To Talbot, Bess, with her extensive landholdings in the West Country and Derbyshire and several houses, was an attractive prospect. Bess probably saw Talbot in a similar light, with the added attraction of marrying into an ancient family and becoming Countess of Shrewsbury. They were married in early 1568.

Interestingly, almost at the same time some of their children were married, possibly to secure their respective estates in the event of one of the parents dying. Thus, a son and daughter from both sides married one from the other. This may have been at Bess’s behest, for she realized the strength of her own position and gave several conditions for her accepting Talbot’s proposal, mostly concerning control of her property. Despite these financial aspects, the marriage was at first a happy and loving alliance. The marriage, however, became strained during the imprisonment of Mary, Queen of Scots (see below).

Feeling the financial burden of keeping the troublesome queen prisoner, but not wanting to disappoint Queen Elizabeth, Talbot instead began to complain that Bess and her children lived too extravagantly, despite the ridiculous wealth he had. Bess would not brook any nonsense from Talbot, and continued to live as she felt fit, as stipulated in their marriage contract, and from spring 1580 the marriage began to fall apart. They argued in public, and Bess and her sons were accused (though cleared) of starting a rumour of Talbot and Mary having a love affair. Talbot, estranged from Bess, died in 1590.

These 16 Facts Will Open Your Eyes to Bess of Hardwick, the Other Elizabeth of Elizabethan England
The ‘Armada Portrait’ of Elizabeth I, painted to commemorate her victory over the Spanish Armada, England, c.1588. Wikimedia Commons

The Two Besses

The lives of Queen Elizabeth and Bess of Hardwick were intertwined. As mentioned above, Elizabeth was godmother to Henry, Bess’s eldest son with Cavendish, and her second daughter of that marriage was named in honor of the Queen. In 1559, Elizabeth named Bess a Lady of the Privy Chamber, a significant honor which involved only minor tasks, such as folding nightgowns and caring for jewelery. This also meant that Bess had direct access to the Queen, and could bring matters to her attention. This appointment helped Bess to have Cavendish’s debt, for which she was then responsible, drastically reduced.

When Bess was the subject of malicious rumors about her relationship with a tutor to her children, shortly before marrying Talbot, Elizabeth helped her to put the scandal to bed. It is not surprising to learn that the two got along well: both were self-assured, fiercely independent women in a time when being male was everything. Elizabeth was even recorded once to say of Bess, ‘I assure you, there is no Lady in this land that I better love and like’, and requested her attendance on several occasions. In turn, Bess was ever loyal and respectful to the Queen.

Inevitably, there were some clashes between the two, which some historians have blown out of proportion. Chief amongst these was Bess’s continued closeness to Katherine Grey, sister of Lady Jane, and widely seen as Elizabeth’s likely successor. Katherine secretly married without Elizabeth’s permission, and her royal blood meant that, by law, this was punishable by death. Katherine was thrown in the Tower, and a plot to usurp Elizabeth was suspected. Bess, who had been informed by Katherine shortly before her arrest, was questioned about her involvement. There was no plot, and Bess was released, and good relations thenceforth resumed.

These 16 Facts Will Open Your Eyes to Bess of Hardwick, the Other Elizabeth of Elizabethan England
Mary, Queen of Scots, painted during her captivity by Nicholas Hilliard, England, c.1578-79. Wikimedia Commons

Mary, Queen of Scots

Mary, Queen of Scots (1542-87) was a thorn in Elizabeth’s side for much of her reign. Mary had been unpopular in Scotland because of her Catholic faith, and when she was suspected of having her husband killed and marrying his murderer, she was forced to flee to England in 1568. She hoped her cousin, Elizabeth, would help her to regain the throne of Scotland, but Elizabeth instead imprisoned her, perhaps wary of her appeal to Catholic subjects who wished to replace her with a Catholic monarch. Elizabeth entrusted her divisive and dangerous prisoner to the care of Talbot and Bess.

Elizabeth insisted that her cousin suffer no discomfort, and so Bess refurnished Talbot’s castle at Tutbury for her arrival. The arrangement also required the couple to stay at Tutbury, rather than their beloved Chatsworth or wherever they fancied. In a sense, they, too, were prisoners. In addition, though Bess and Mary were close and spent a lot of time together, Talbot baulked at the prisoner’s ludicrous demands for the upkeep of herself and her enormous retinue, which far exceeded the stipend allocated by Elizabeth. Over the next 15 years, Mary was moved between several of Bess’s homes across the country.

Whilst in Bess’s custody, Mary was involved in several plots to escape and recapture Scotland or replace Elizabeth. This meant that Bess’s friendship with Mary was scrutinised, and the stress of this and Mary’s incarceration expenses led Talbot to mistreat his wife (see above). Paradoxically, whilst taking out his frustration on Bess, Talbot doted on Mary, and rumours spread that they were having an affair, and even had an illegitimate child. This all effectively ended Bess and Talbot’s marriage. They were eventually relieved of their charge, and Mary was executed in 1587 after one plot too many to replace Elizabeth.

These 16 Facts Will Open Your Eyes to Bess of Hardwick, the Other Elizabeth of Elizabethan England
Hardwick New Hall, Derbyshire, UK. Visit Nottinghamshire

Hardwick Hall

Though she rose to the dizzying heights of a countess, Bess never forgot her roots. In 1581 her brother, James, died a debtor, and she purchased Hardwick Hall. In 1584, as her marriage to Talbot effectively ended, she set about turning the ramshackle, medieval manor house she was born in into an Elizabethan treasure. The so-called Old Hall was built in style, with several state rooms and accompanying chambers with spectacular views across the Hardwick estate. However, in 1590 she began building the New Hall, right next to the as-yet incomplete Old Hall, which was even grander than the first.

The two halls were intended to complement each other, like the wings of a building. The New Hall was one of the first in the world to be built by a professional architect – Robert Smythson – who made a plan before building began. Indeed, the building remains remarkable today. The locals still say of it, ‘Hardwick Hall, more glass than wall’, and the house also incorporates one of the largest long galleries in Europe. Bess left no doubt about who was responsible for the building, incorporating her initials, ‘ES’ (‘Elizabeth [Countess of] Shrewsbury’) along the rooftops for all to see.

This may be a touch of solipsism on Bess’s part, but make no mistake about it: this was her project. Though she hired an architect to realize her vision, Bess was very specific about what she wanted from the house. The rebuilding of the Halls came about because Talbot refused to budge from Chatsworth, and Bess could not bear to be around him. Hardwick New and Old Hall contain 101 rooms between them, by contrast to the 97 at her beloved Chatsworth. Having the two halls meant that she could put less welcome or unimportant guests in the Old Hall.

These 16 Facts Will Open Your Eyes to Bess of Hardwick, the Other Elizabeth of Elizabethan England
Chatsworth, Derbyshire. The Crown Chronicles

Chatsworth

Although there was a house and park at Chatsworth in the 15th century, the famous house of today owes its true origin to Bess. Bess, then just Lady Cavendish, and her husband purchased Chatsworth in 1549, and she spent the next 30 years building a grand dwelling befitting a woman of her station. Bess’s house, of which little survives in the current iteration, was medieval in appearance, with battlements, turrets, and three floors. Although this sort of design was dated even when building began in 1553, Bess’s Chatsworth was the first country house built in the North of England.

The hunting tower Bess built in the 1580s still stands above the current house. But perhaps her most visible legacy at Chatsworth today is the outside. To the existing hunting park that adjoined the house, Bess added pleasure gardens, orchards, terraces, fish ponds, and gazebos. The wooded hillside behind the current house is covered with trees Bess had planted on the bare hill. Sadly, the house the Cavendishes built at Chatsworth was intended to be the seat of their new dynasty, but Sir William’s death but a stop to the plan. Bess, however, happily lived to see the project completed.

Bess was as determined in her building projects as she was in other areas of her life. Surviving correspondence from the construction of Chatsworth dating to 1561 reveals her uncompromising approach to workmen: ‘if he do tell you he is any penny behind for work done… he doth lie like a false knave… and as for that other mason, that Sir Thomas Folijambe told you of, if he will not apply his work, you know he is no mete [suitable] man for me’. It was a brave, or rather foolish, man who tried to cross Bess of Hardwick.

These 16 Facts Will Open Your Eyes to Bess of Hardwick, the Other Elizabeth of Elizabethan England
Bess of Hardwick, c.1580. Art UK

Patroness of the Arts

As well as her love of building exquisite houses, Bess was also a keen art collector. After all, what was the use in having a beautiful house without à propos decorations and furnishings? Her taste for fine furnishings is thought to have come from her time with the Grey and Zouche families as a teenager. The description of her bed at Chatsworth is astonishing, and reveals the opulence of her tastes: ‘a bedstead, a tester valance and posts, covered all of black wrought velvet and gold lace and gold fringe [with] curtains of black damask all trimmed with gold lace’.

One of Bess’s main passions as a collector was tapestries. A 1553 inventory from Chatsworth reveals that Bess owned 58 fine tapestries, some of which were embroidered with gold, silver, and even pearls. Bess was also a talented needlewoman, and would often weave her own tapestries, sometimes to memorialise her deceased husbands. At Wingfield, she even sewed with Mary, Queen of Scots, to pass the time. In the winter of 1592-93, Bess spent a whopping £326 on the Gideon Tapestries from the estate of Sir Christopher Hatton. She used the 7×6 metre tapestry to decorate the long gallery at Hardwick.

Bess also commissioned and purchased fine oil paintings, including scenes from the Bible and Classical Literature. She also had many portraits, including one of Queen Elizabeth painted sometime in the 1590s, and several of herself. Her taste in furniture also leaned towards the elaborate and beautiful, including the so-called ‘Sea-Dog Table’, a walnut table top supported by four winged dogs with fish-tails. The lack of a library at Hardwick Hall occasioned comment, but Bess owned a few books, and never professed to be an academic. She was, however, an aesthete, and one with a fortune to spend on fine art.

These 16 Facts Will Open Your Eyes to Bess of Hardwick, the Other Elizabeth of Elizabethan England
A fraction of Bess’s collection of tapestries at Hardwick Hall, Derbyshire. WordPress

Wealth

After the death of her third husband, Sir William St Loe, Bess inherited his wealth, and indisputably became the second-richest woman in the country. At that time, her annual income was estimated at £600, 000, equivalent to £17.22 million in today’s money ($22.19 million). This only increased with Talbot’s death. However, it would be wrong to see Bess as simply the beneficiary of her husbands’ wills. She was an astute businesswoman, lending money, acquiring profitable land, and running her estates at a consistently healthy profit, well into old age. She seldom sold land, but preferred to rent it out.

Although she spent lavishly on herself, Bess was also a very generous woman. Even when on poor terms, she gave liberally to her children and grandchildren. She frequently made small gifts to her servants, and when her maids were due to give birth would pay for the best midwife available. She would also generously tip tradesmen who met her expectations in delivering items for her many projects. And she did not forget those less fortunate than herself outside of her employment. There are several instances of her giving ‘twenty shillings to the poor of Chelsea’ in her financial records.

Historians of a more misogynistic age saw Bess as something of a black widow, whispering slanderous theories about her killing her four husbands to benefit from their estates. Lamentably, these accusations have stuck, despite there being absolutely no evidence to back them up. At a time when the mortality rate was significantly higher than today, it was not uncommon for someone to marry several times, especially someone as rich and charming or as long-lived as Bess. Although she doubtless did benefit from the estates of her husbands, this was the expected dividend due to widows in 16th-century England.

These 16 Facts Will Open Your Eyes to Bess of Hardwick, the Other Elizabeth of Elizabethan England
Bess’s effigy in Derby Cathedral, c.1608. English Heritage

Death

The end must come for all of us, even those as energetic and strong-willed as Bess. As she grew older and increasingly frail, Bess began to pass on more of her business to her son, William Cavendish. Although her physical health was dwindling – most of all her hip, which caused her considerable pain – Bess’s mind remained active, and she took a great interest in affairs of state and the lives of her children from her homes at Hardwick and Chatsworth. Queen Elizabeth died in 1603, and Bess must have realized that her own end was fast approaching.

Bess once again showed her characteristically sensible approach to business, as she took her time over her carefully-considered will. With all her children, step-children, and grandchildren, it would have been a disaster if she had died intestate. In early 1608, Bess’s health rapidly deteriorated, and she was almost constantly attended by her son and heir to her great empire, William Cavendish. Poor Bess had contracted pneumonia, and began to suffer from delusions. By February, she needed the attendance of a professional, Dr. Hunton, who gave her herbal remedies and nursed her through her final eleven days on earth.

On 13th February, Bess was surrounded by her children William, Mary, and Charles, and son-in-law Gilbert. That cold winter evening, at 5pm, she passed away, having fought a brave battle against pneumonia. She was around 81, an incredible age for the period. She had been staying at Hardwick Hall, and thus died yards from where she was born. Bess’s body lay in state for almost two months at Hardwick, whilst two public funeral services were arranged. Meticulous to the very end, Bess had chosen her vault at All Saints Church, Derby (now Derby Cathedral), and approved her own effigy.

These 16 Facts Will Open Your Eyes to Bess of Hardwick, the Other Elizabeth of Elizabethan England
The Mary, Queen of Scots room at Hardwick Hall, with yet more tapestries. Blogspot

Offspring

There are, frankly, too many of Bess’s children, step-children, and grandchildren to discuss in this brief space, and so we will focus on two of the most interesting. Her favorite son and heir, William Cavendish, was made the 1st Earl of Devonshire in 1618, at a cost of £10, 000. He was an ambitious man who was dedicated to the running of his family estates. He either inherited or learned his business acumen from Bess, for he secured the future of his estates and made a very wise investment in the East India Company before dying in 1625.

By far the most troublesome of Bess’s relatives was Lady Arbella Stuart (1575-1615), one of her grandchildren. She was adopted by Bess aged 7 after the death of her parents, and her grandmother devoted huge amounts of money and energy to her upbringing. Unfortunately, despite all this and her candidacy for being Elizabeth’s successor, Arbella was a disappointment. She was sent home from court after making a faux pas in a procession, plotted a marriage without Elizabeth’s permission, and ran up huge debts. In 1607, Bess wrote her granddaughter out of her will due to her spendthrift nature.

The unsuitable marriage she had meditated during Elizabeth’s reign had been to a member of the Seymour family, who also had a claim to the throne. In 1610, she resurrected the plan, intending to marry another of the Seymour brothers, William. King James I denied permission on the grounds that an alliance of two claimants to the throne was too dangerous, made all the worse by Arbella’s suspicious conversion to Catholicism. Arbella ignored him, and married in secret in 1610. James imprisoned Arbella, who escaped several times, and she finally died after a hunger strike in the Tower of London.

These 16 Facts Will Open Your Eyes to Bess of Hardwick, the Other Elizabeth of Elizabethan England
Bess of Hardwick’s coat of arms on the balustrade of Hardwick Hall. Pinterest

Legacy

Famously, the great architect, Sir Christopher Wren (1632-1723), was buried beneath an understated tombstone with the inscription: si monumentum requiris, circumspice (‘if you are searching for his monument, look around’). The grave is in St Paul’s Cathedral, Wren’s greatest architectural achievement, and so is in no way modest! A similar epitaph would fit Bess, the great house builder. For her most visible legacy, too, lies in stone. Anyone who has visited Hardwick Hall will not easily forget it, and we should remember her innovative use of an architect for the project, which paved the way for Wren and his disciples.

Although little remains of her building efforts at Chatsworth, the estate took its form under her ownership, and the house was only replaced and consumed by the current edifice in the 19th century. Bess is also remembered by her collection of furniture, art and, of course, tapestries in the UK. One feels that the mixture of charity, in letting commoners view the art, and ostentation, with the collections loudly-proclaiming their former owner in both their decoration and through information boards where they are housed, would appeal to these conflicting sides to her personality, could she see them today.

The vast sum of money she accumulated through marriage and smart business sense was instrumental in the creation of the Dukes of Devonshire, who still live at Chatsworth today. But for her greatest legacy, we have to look at gender politics. Bess was a woman of relatively humble origins who rose above, and bested, the most prominent men of her day. Her management of her wealth and estates showed that women were just as capable as men, and were it not for that other great feminist icon, Elizabeth I, the period would have been remembered as the Age of Bess.

 

Where did we find this stuff? Here are our sources:

Durant, David N. Bess of Hardwick: Portrait of an Elizabethan Dynasty. London: Weidenfeld and Nicolson, 1978.

Girouard, Mark. Hardwick Hall. London: National Trust, 1989.

Hattersley, Roy. The Devonshires: The Story of a Family and a Nation. Penguin, 2014.

Hubbard, Kate. Material Girl: Bess of Hardwick, 1527-1608. London: Short, 2001.

Levey, Santina. An Elizabethan Inheritance: The Hardwick Hall Textiles. London: National Trust, 1998.

Lovell, Mary S. Bess of Hardwick, First Lady of Chatsworth. London: Abacus, 2005.

West, Susie. Hardwick Old Hall. London: English Heritage, 2008.

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