Today, Hardwick Hall cuts a proud shadow over the Derbyshire countryside. With its immense windows and four-storey towers, each emblazoned with the initials E. S., this Elizabethan ‘prodigy house’ now stands as a permanent reminder of a woman ahead of her time.
This woman was Elizabeth Talbot, Countess of Shrewsbury – otherwise known as Bess of Hardwick. Through an innate talent for social climbing and a keen head for business, Bess outgrew her humble origins to become the second richest woman in England after Elizabeth I. Four influential marriages, a strong personality and a forward-thinking attitude later, she established a dynasty that would hold a place in British history to the modern day.
Despite her eventual rise to wealth, Bess was in fact born largely into obscurity in around 1527, to a family of ‘yeoman-gentleman’ status. Little is known about her early life, except that her father passed away aged 40 leaving behind a mother and six siblings.
As a female member of the minor gentry, her social horizons at this point would have limited to the surrounding north-East Derbyshire area. Thus, the Hardwicks looked to the small community of surrounding gentry families for the security of an inheritance.
While still ‘of tender years’, (aka under the age of 16), Bess married her first husband Robert Barlow in 1543. Robert was himself only around 14 years old, yet a romantic anecdote follows that the sickly boy met Bess whilst working in the household of Anne Gainsford, a previous lady-in-waiting to Anne Boleyn.
Bess supposedly took pity on the boy and nursed him back to health, after which he fell in love and insisted they be married. The likelihood of this story is dubious however, and the severely more boring version is that the marriage stemmed from their families’ need to cement a lineage and secure their properties.
True love or not, within a year Robert was dead, leaving Bess a teenage widow. In a fight over her widow’s pension, Bess’ grit from a young age can be seen, when her brother-in-law refused to grant her what she was owed. She retaliated by waging a successful court case against him.
Now at a loose end, the young Bess joined the household of Lady Frances Grey, Henry VIII’s niece and mother of the ill-fated Lady Jane Grey. Her charm and wit catapulted her into the family’s affections, and most importantly into the realm of courtly life. Here, she would begin her rise to infamy, mixing with the upper echelons of Tudor society and even striking up a friendship with the then Princess Elizabeth.
In 1547, through an amazing feat of social elevation, Bess married the eminent Sir William Cavendish, Treasurer of the King’s Chamber. He was twice her age and already had two grown up daughters, yet the couple were reportedly very well-suited. They were both intelligent and focused on building their wealth and social status together, investing in land and various business pursuits. It seemed that Bess had met her match.
The couple shared a happy marriage and had six children, from whom the current Dukes of Devonshire stem. Bess in fact encouraged the purchase of the Chatsworth estate, the home of their family seat today.
Following ten years of marriage however, things took an unfortunate turn. In 1557, Cavendish was suspected of embezzling funds belonging to the Crown, and the following year died before the matter could be resolved. Bess was left with his exorbitant debt, and six small children to look after.
Lady St Loe
The following year however she was offered a lifeline when Elizabeth became queen in 1558. She was made a Lady of the Bedchamber, one of the most prominent positions at court, and thus had access to the queen and her most illustrious courtiers.
A third marriage followed to Sir William St Loe, Captain of the Guard. St Loe was a favourite of the queen, and managed to convince her to reduce Bess’ debts, eventually paying them off in full on her behalf. St Loe’s ‘own sweet Bess’ had once more used her charm to reverse her fortunes in an era that afforded women little agency of their own.
Again however, their marriage would be short-lived. After around six years St Loe mysteriously died, with many holding that he was poisoned by his power-hungry younger brother.
At around 30 years old, Lady St Loe would once again be a widow. Unlike her second husband however, St Loe did not leave her in immense amounts of debt. He left her his entire estate with an annual income of £60,000 – the equivalent of £19,000,000 today.
Countess of Shrewsbury
Though ludicrously wealthy, Bess pursued a final marriage in George Talbot, 6th Earl of Shrewsbury, in order to continue her legacy-building. Keen to ensure the future of her children with Cavendish, she very cleverly orchestrated the joint wedding of two of her children to two of Shrewsbury’s, irrevocably intertwining the families further.
Bess and Shrewsbury’s marriage was reportedly a happy one at first. In their letters, Talbot affectionately referred to her as ‘None’, likely a contraction of ‘Mine own’, and expressed his sorrow that they were parted.
Their relationship would however be ruined when Elizabeth entrusted them with the house arrest of a certain Scottish fugitive queen.
Mary, Queen of Scots
Following her forced abdication, Mary, Queen of Scots fled to England seeking support from Elizabeth I. The queen was extremely wary of her cousin however, fearing her strong claim to the throne would endanger Tudor rule. She was placed under house arrest, the burden (and expenses) of which fell onto Bess and her husband.
For 15 years the couple housed Mary at various of their different estates, chosen for their inland locations reasonably far from both London and Edinburgh.
During this time the Scottish queen was purported to spread vicious rumours about the couple, instilling deep mistrust between them. The huge monetary cost of their role also put a strain on their marriage, with Shrewsbury at one point suffering a stress-induced illness.
Elizabeth attempted to reconcile the now warring couple, but to no avail. In 1590 Shrewsbury died, and Bess turned her attentions to building her beloved estates, such as the iconic ‘Hardwick Hall, more glass than wall’.
With Shrewsbury’s inheritance, Bess was now second only to Elizabeth I in wealth. As established, the two eminent women had been friends for many years, with the queen once stating ‘there is no lady in this land that I better love or like’. Despite this, their relationship was fraught with tension.
In 1574, Bess pushed her dynastic ambitions too far, seriously angering the queen. She had secretly secured the marriage of her second daughter Elizabeth to Charles Stuart, a nephew to Henry VIII. Any children they had would thus be in line for the throne, and in perhaps her boldest power-play, Bess had pushed her family directly into the line of succession.
Her granddaughter from this marriage, Arbella Stuart, would indeed contest the throne with Bess’ support. The story ends in tragedy however, with Arbella defying her grandmother, and ending up in the Tower where she died in 1615.
From obscurity to royalty, Bess propelled her fortunes through her charm, strategic mind, and dedication to her children. In a system designed to subordinate her on the basis of gender, Bess rose to heights greater than any of her husbands and is remembered not by any of her marital names, but her own – Hardwick.
Fierce companion to Elizabeth I, her dynastic ambitions were eventually realised. She is the 10x great-grandmother of our own Elizabeth II.