Last updated on August 23rd, 2023 at 11:19 am
Bess of Hardwick, Countess of Shrewsbury, was one of the characters of Elizabethan England. Like the winner of a reality show, rising from relatively humble beginnings to rub shoulders with royalty, Bess is famous for being famous, a status assured through her cannily accumulated and managed wealth. In her case, prosperity arrived by means of a series of marriages to a succession of increasingly more affluent men, all of whom predeceased her. Of course, this kind of thing is beyond our comprehension today. What a happy coincidence for her that she was attracted to such well-off chaps. In return, Bess helped ensure each one of them would be remembered – as her husbands. And Bess of Hardwick’s legacy, aside from descendants that include Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II and the Dukes of Devonshire and Norfolk, are her properties – not limited to but including Hardwick Hall and the adjacent Hardwick Old Hall. Oh – and the ducal Chatsworth, but that’s another story.
Just look at Hardwick Hall. It is one of Britain’s most recognisable Elizabethan residences, set in formal gardens and parkland within a historic landscape. This house is a statement of a woman’s independence and screams wealth and privilege down at the humble visitor. Its walls are windows, highly expensive in Tudor times – ‘Hardwick Hall, more glass than wall’ runs the rhyme. The initials ‘ES’ (Elizabeth Shrewsbury) are mounted no fewer than 14 times on the parapets of its grand towers; personalised number plates seem almost shy and tasteful in comparison. This was no cosy home, but a building designed to command respect; and it certainly wasn’t built by some shrinking violet.
Elizabeth Hardwick was born, sometime around 1527, in a modest manor house she would later return to remodel and that we now know as Hardwick Old Hall. When she was around 15, she married a neighbour, 13 year old Robert Barlow, who died little over a year later. Even at a young age, Bess showed her mettle by fighting for a rightful share of her deceased husband’s estate – although it took her until 1553 to secure it.
Bess of Hardwick’s 2nd husband
Sometime in the 1540s, the young widow was propelled to the headier heights of Tudor society as lady-in-waiting to Frances Grey, Marchioness of Dorset, at Bradgate Park in Leicestershire. Frances was the daughter of Charles Brandon, Duke of Suffolk, and Mary Tudor, Henry VIII’s younger sister – so she was the King’s niece. She was also the mother of Lady Jane Grey. These were people worth knowing. At Bradgate Park, young Bess met Sir William Cavendish, Treasurer of the King’s Chamber, twenty years her senior and twice widowed. Sir William had gathered a fortune in Henry VIII’s service, including as one of the King’s commissioners for the dissolution of the monasteries, and the couple married in 1547. Bess persuaded him to sell his property in the south and buy the Chatsworth manor estate in her native Derbyshire, where in 1549 the two set about building a new, grand, house. Between 1548 and 1556, they also had eight children, though two died in infancy. Somehow, despite their close connections, Sir William and Lady Cavendish managed to survive the tragic brouhaha surrounding the attempt to place the teenage Lady Jane Grey on the throne. And, despite being Protestants, the couple also survived the reign of Catholic Queen ‘Bloody’ Mary (1553-58); indeed, Mary was godmother to their third son, Charles. Good move, Bess. Bess was also good friends with Mary’s half-sister, Elizabeth – godmother to the Cavendishes’ first-born son, Henry. These were careful people. Trouble came in 1557, however, when Sir William admitted to being substantially in debt and was accused of embezzlement. He died the same year, leaving Bess to sort everything out.
Bess of Hardwick’s 3rd husband
In 1558, Queen Mary died and Bess was appointed lady-in-waiting to her friend Elizabeth, the new and formidable Queen. A brace of Besses? Appointed as Captain of the Guard and Chief Butler of England was Sir William St Loe, who Bess already knew. He was a wealthy man and became husband number three in 1559. Notwithstanding an ongoing dispute with William’s brother, Sir William and Lady St Loe settled into married life, the latter continuing her development at Chatsworth. In 1563, Sir William was able to help clear his wife’s debt and all seemed tickety-boo. However, in 1565, he died suddenly – some say he was poisoned – and Bess found herself a widow again, albeit an extremely wealthy one; William had left the bulk of his large estate to her.
Bess of Hardwick’s 4th husband
In 1568, Bess really hit the social jackpot by marrying George Talbot, 6th Earl of Shrewsbury. Husband number four was one of the richest men in the kingdom, a widower with seven children and several properties dotted across the midlands and the north, and one of the Queen’s leading Protestant aristocratic allies. Bess was now Elizabeth Talbot, Countess of Shrewsbury. However, it is worth pointing out that she was already financially independent; this marriage seems to have been a match of genuine mutual affection. Part of the deal, though, was that the families were first joined through their children. In a double ceremony in February 1568, Bess’s daughter Mary Cavendish, 12, was given in marriage to Shrewsbury’s eldest son Gilbert, aged 16; and Bess’s oldest son, Sir Henry Cavendish, 18, married Shrewsbury’s daughter Lady Grace Talbot, aged 8. Significantly, Bess also retained control of the St Loe and Cavendish properties, including her beloved Chatsworth.
Marriage in trouble
Unfortunately, life was about to bowl the newly-weds a bit of a curved ball. In the same year they were married, Mary, Queen of Scots, fled to England where she sought sanctuary and help from her dear cousin, Queen Elizabeth of England, to reclaim the throne of Scotland. In fact, Mary was a threat to Elizabeth’s position and Shrewsbury was given the dubious honour of keeping the Scottish Queen safe, but very secure. His properties were ideal – not too close to either the Scottish border, or London. Mary arrived at his castle at Tutbury in 1569 and remained a distinguished guest of the Earl and Countess for the next fifteen years, shuttled between various properties, including Chatsworth. It was a huge drain on their resources – because Queen Elizabeth never contributed enough to the massive costs of maintaining and guarding a royal captive, an anointed monarch, who was also a source of trouble and intent on escaping. At the end, Shrewsbury took part in Mary’s trial and was an official witness at her execution in Fotheringhay. That is to skip ahead. Although initially all was well – and in fact Bess was something of a companion for Mary, working with her on embroidery and chatting – ultimately, they fell out. Mary was divisive and keeping her in custody placed an enormous strain on marital relations. By the 1570s, the Talbots were squabbling, although for a variety of other reasons. One problette arose when Bess secretly arranged a marriage between her daughter Elizabeth and Charles Stuart, Earl of Lennox, who had a possible claim to the English throne – as would any child of the marriage. Charles Stuart’s brother had been Henry, Lord Darnley, the second husband of Mary, Queen of Scots; their son was the future James VI/I. Shrewsbury was not impressed – such an arrangement without the Queen’s permission could be very dangerous. In the event, he and Bess survived. However, the child of the marriage, Arbella Stuart (who grew up at Hardwick Hall), was seen as a threat by Elizabeth’s successor and Arbella’s cousin, the aforementioned King James; she died in the Tower of London in 1615.
Relations worsened between Bess and Shrewsbury and they spent more and more time apart. Shrewsbury had serious money problems, whereas Bess was doing very nicely, thank you. A false rumour even circulated that Shrewsbury and Mary were having an affair – which both denied. Even the Queen got involved in attempting a reconciliation. Eventually, things descended to violence when the Earl believed he was entitled to the income from Bess’s properties. So Bess went back to her roots – sort of.
Building Hardwick Hall
In 1583, Bess had bought the old family home of Hardwick Hall from the estate of her late brother, James, who had died a bankrupt. It was in a very poor state and now became her new project. Between 1585 and 1590, the modest old manor house was extravagantly and gradually transformed to provide a suitably sumptuous home for Bess, her son William and his family.
Then, on 18 November 1590, Shrewsbury died. Whatever Bess of Hardwick’s thoughts about this, it left her even wealthier than she already was. It is said she was the richest woman in England after Queen Elizabeth, and maybe that, if true, refers to this time in her life. In any event, with the plaster on the old manor walls barely dry, she promptly set about not one, but two new building projects, both from scratch using an architect, Robert Smythson – also known for Wollaton Hall and Burton Agnes Hall. Firstly, New Hardwick Hall, right next to Old Hardwick Hall, was intended for Bess herself. Secondly, Oldcotes, begun in 1593, 20 or so miles away, was to be a new home for William and his family. No trace of Oldcotes remains today. The year it was completed, 1598, William’s wife Anne died and William and his young children remained at Hardwick. The New Hardwick Hall became a combined home for them and Bess from 1597 and was finished in 1599. The Old Hall then provided additional guest accommodation.
Bess of Hardwick died in her new home in the cold winter of 1608. She was in her mid-80s and was buried in Derby Cathedral.
Visiting Hardwick Hall
Hardwick Hall remained in the Cavendish family and the Dukes of Devonshire for three and a half centuries after its builder died, albeit as a secondary home to the main Chatsworth estate. In 1956 it was given to HM Treasury in lieu of death duties, who subsequently passed it to the National Trust. Today’s visitor approaches the house from the side and therefore does not immediately fully appreciate its astonishing glazed nature. It is as though the walls are merely frames for the windows, the height of which increases from ground to second floors. They are a mirror for the prevailing weather, reflecting blue skies or grey and all shades around. Unlike many houses of the period, including Chatsworth, it was not extensively modernised in the 18th or 19th centuries and therefore still has the feel of a house of its time, a sensation you get as soon as you enter the great hall, with the Hardwick coat of arms over the fireplace. Much of the furniture and other house contents are listed on an inventory that Bess of Hardwick compiled; it dates from 1601. Particularly notable is what the National Trust claims to be one of the “finest collections of Elizabethan tapestries and embroideries in Europe”. I’m not going to argue with that: I really have no idea, but they are ubiquitous, the wall coverings of a vanished Elizabethan England depicting scenes from classical times that most of us have never heard of, but can certainly wonder at. Two rooms, beyond the hall, dominate. The High Great Chamber is an astonishing space, where the Mistress of Hardwick would sit, enthroned beneath a sumptuous canopy, and regally receive visitors. Running around the room above the tapestries is an astonishing, colourful, lively, plaster frieze depicting Diana, huntress and virgin goddess, with woodland and hunting scenes. The E-shaped Long Gallery is window on one side and portrait gallery the length of the other. The portraits, which are fascinating in themselves, hang over fabulously worked tapestries. They include a wonderful portrait of Queen Elizabeth I.
Hardwick is impressive, certainly; fascinating, definitely; but I can’t say I found it a massively comfortable experience. There is no doubt that many of the tapestries are absolutely beautiful and I could have spent much longer appreciating them. Of course, I am a mere plebian – and that was probably the issue; after a little while, evidence of massive over-wealth starts to grate on my egalitarian soul. It was probably the crass initials over the towers that did it. Whilst there is much to admire about Bess of Hardwick, her acumen and her achievements, ostentation is an unattractive trait. It’s like the bore who, unasked, insists on telling you how much they spent on their holiday. I’m sure my views will change just as soon as A Bit About Britain turns me into a multi-millionaire, or I win the jackpot in the Albanian national lottery.
Hardwick Old Hall
The refurbished birthplace of Bess of Hardwick is now roofless and ruined. The Cavendish family let it go over the years, removing fittings to other properties. It is normally possible to visit its ghostly remains, but as of 2021 it was undergoing significant conservation work and closed to the public. Still, it is a beguiling ruin, as many are. The remains of fabulously decorated plasterwork clinging to old walls can be spotted through empty windows. Like coy glances from an aging film star, they affirm what once was. The Old Hall wants to be loved, I thought; unlike the new, which feels that admiration is a birthright.
The two halls are a stone’s throw from one another, yet the gate in the wall that connects the two was, irritatingly, not open to visitors the day ABAB came to call. This necessitated a healthy, but frustrating, stride across parkland – no hardship for those of us in Olympic training, but impossible for anyone with walking difficulties; and it adds an extra hour to a visit.
A final word on Bess of Hardwick
I wondered, as I began writing this, whether I should have liked Bess of Hardwick. Despite (or maybe because of) her upwardly-mobile, self-made status, she does not strike me as particularly humble; she would probably have derided me for the miserable peasant I am. Like many successful women, she has been described as a virago, hard, acquisitive. Yet you have to admire this obviously intelligent lady. Not merely for her buildings – and the Hardwick Halls, Chatsworth and Oldcotes are just four of the properties touched by her construction fervour – but for her incredible resilience. Lesser souls would so easily have crumpled, but she fought and bounced back better each time. Bess not only survived the often fatally dangerous politics of her time, but did so as a woman in a man’s world. Maybe her relationship with Queen Elizabeth helped. As I dipped in and out of various books and websites, I got whiffs of an individual who may have been tough, but also fair and sometimes generous; devoted to her family and a loyal friend. I need to read a biography.