This article was first published in the August 2018 edition of BBC History Magazine
On 4 October 1597, an elderly lady took up residence in her newly built home in Derbyshire, close to the town of Chesterfield. Hardwick New Hall was no ordinary country residence, but rivalled queen Elizabeth I’s palaces in scale and magnificence. Each of the three storeys was taller than the one below, and there were so many windows that it inspired the rhyme: “Hardwick Hall, more glass than wall.” The most striking feature, however, was the initials ‘ES’ emblazoned on the tops of the six towers.
By the time that she moved into Hardwick New Hall, Elizabeth (‘Bess’), Countess of Shrewsbury, was 70 years old and the richest woman in England after the queen. Built just a stone’s throw from the site of her childhood home, the house was a deliberate – and typically unsubtle – statement of her wealth and power. But she deserved to revel in this sumptuous symbol of her status for, unlike most other members of the Elizabethan nobility, Bess had striven hard for her elevated position in society. Hers was a story of, if not quite rags to riches, then certainly humble beginnings to dizzying heights well beyond the reach and ambition of most Tudor women.
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Born in around 1527, Bess was one of five children. Their father, John Hardwick, hailed from a moderately prosperous Derbyshire gentry family, but upon his death just a year after Bess’s birth, a significant portion of his estate was seized by the crown to be administered by the court of wards until his son and heir came of age.
It was soon obvious that Bess was not prepared to accept the hardship that followed. In the 16th century, women had few opportunities to improve their lot in life, except through marriage. Fully aware of this, when she was probably no more than 16 years old, Bess resolved to take a husband. It was a strategy that she would employ time and again in the years to come – with startling success. Her choice was Robert Barlow, a Derbyshire man of about the same age. But it would prove short-lived. Barlow died in December 1544 – “before they were bedded together”, according to one account.
Marrying into money
Having received a modest inheritance from her first marriage, Bess soon lined up a second. This one would catapult her several rungs up the social ladder. Sir William Cavendish had recently been appointed treasurer of Henry VIII’s chamber and had won renown as one of Thomas Cromwell’s henchmen. Of noble descent, he was twice-widowed and more than 20 years older than Bess.
As well as propelling Bess into aristocratic and royal circles, the marriage was by all accounts a happy one, for the couple were united by a fierce ambition for social advancement. Their first child was born a year after the wedding, in 1548, and during the nine years that followed Bess gave birth to a further seven children, three of whom were the vital sons that they needed to secure their dynasty. The dukes of Devonshire and Newcastle are descended from this marriage.
In June 1549, Bess’s husband bought the estate of Chatsworth. The couple soon embarked upon an ambitious project of rebuilding, and filled the house with an array of luxurious furnishings. Chatsworth ignited within Bess a passion for lavish building projects that would last a lifetime, and during the years that followed her property portfolio continued to expand.
Bess had clearly learned from her father’s example because all of the Derbyshire properties were held jointly in the names of both Bess and Sir William for both of their lives. This was an unusual and shrewd move, designed to prevent the estates falling into wardship if Sir William should perish before his eldest son attained his majority. The wisdom of the policy was proved in 1557, when Sir William died and his eldest son, Henry, was just seven years old.
By the time Elizabeth Tudor ascended the throne in November 1558, Bess had married Sir William St Loe, a widower from an ancient and noble family. Her third husband brought her even greater riches than Cavendish. He also provided an entrée into the Elizabethan household, of which he was a member. Almost certainly thanks to his influence, Bess secured the prestigious post of gentlewoman of the privy chamber. Now aged 31, she was one of the oldest members of the household. But the court would soon prove too small to contain the overbearing personalities of Bess and her queen.
In the summer of 1561, Bess became embroiled in a scandal that was unfolding in Elizabeth’s household. Lady Katherine Grey, sister of the ill-fated Lady Jane, had been a thorn in the new queen’s side since her accession because of her royal blood and Catholic leanings. Despite being under the close scrutiny of the queen as a member of her household, Katherine had secretly married another blood claimant, Edward Seymour, Lord Hertford, nephew of Henry VIII’s third wife, Jane Seymour. She had fallen pregnant soon afterwards and had so far managed to conceal her growing belly from the queen.
One night, after the rest of the court had retired, Katherine sought out Bess and confessed everything. Furious at being dragged into her predicament, Bess reprimanded Katherine for her foolishness, telling her “she was sorry therefore because that she had not made the queen’s majesty privy thereunto”. When the scandal broke, the queen immediately suspected Bess of conspiring to oust her from the throne. “It is certain that there hath been great practices and purposes and… she [Bess] hath been most privy,” the queen declared. “It shall increase our indignation against her, if she will forbear to utter it.” Elizabeth ordered Bess’s arrest, and both she and Katherine were “clapt” in the Tower then closely interrogated. The queen only agreed to release Bess several months later, but dismissed her from the privy chamber and sent her back to Derbyshire in disgrace.
Bess remained there for the next few years, during which time her third husband died, leaving her the bulk of his estate. In 1567, she took her fourth and final husband. She had saved the best until last – in theory, at least. George Talbot, Earl of Shrewsbury, was one of the richest and most powerful men in the kingdom, with estates sprawling across much of northern England. Bess herself was a woman of some considerable property by the time of their marriage, and she insisted on cementing their union by arranging marriages between four of their children.
The deadly rival
Bess’s new marriage soon brought her back into the queen’s orbit, because in 1568 Shrewsbury was appointed the keeper of Elizabeth’s most deadly rival, Mary, Queen of Scots, upon her flight to England. This was a heavy responsibility for the earl and his wife. Although Mary was the queen’s captive, now that she was on English soil she became even more of a focus for the discontented Catholics who wanted to get rid of the ‘heretic’ Elizabeth.
The English queen had not entirely forgiven Bess for the Katherine Grey scandal, but she respected her strength of character and her determination to carve out a role for herself in a world dominated by men – just as she herself was trying to do. Bess soon justified the queen’s trust, for she became just as much Mary’s keeper as her husband was. She even placed her own spy in the Scottish queen’s household “to give her intelligence of all things”, and reported everything back to her royal mistress, who praised her for this “manner of service”.
But things never remained harmonious between the two Elizabeths for long, and in 1574 Bess again became embroiled in a scandal involving a blood claimant to the throne. Her partner in crime was another indomitable matriarch. Margaret Douglas, Countess of Lennox, was the niece of Henry VIII and first cousin of the queen. Bess arranged for her daughter Elizabeth to marry Margaret’s son Charles, against the queen’s specific instructions. When the news broke, the queen reacted with predictable fury. Lady Douglas was ordered back to London and thrown into the Tower. Meanwhile, Bess and her daughter Elizabeth were placed under armed guard at Rufford in Nottinghamshire until investigations had been undertaken.
The queen’s anger at these two troublesome old women grew when she learned that Elizabeth Cavendish was already pregnant. Any child from their union would have a claim to the throne – however distant. In the event, it was a girl, Arbella, born in 1575. Bess would focus all of her dynastic ambitions upon the young girl in the years to come.
But first, the countess had to negotiate the pitfalls of her relationship with the captive queen of Scots. Following one conversation between the two, Mary boasted that Bess had told her “that had I been her own queen she could not have done more for me”. By contrast, claimed Mary, Bess felt only contempt for Elizabeth. In the now famous ‘scandal letter’ that the Scottish queen wrote to Elizabeth in 1584, she related various stories that Bess had told her about life in the English queen’s court. The countess had apparently laughed at the notion that Elizabeth was the virgin queen, claiming that she was so insatiable that she had seduced a host of men.
But Mary’s account was as contradictory as it was unreliable, for she went on to claim that, according to Bess, the English queen was “not like other women” and was incapable of having sex.
The letter was almost certainly a scurrilous attempt to discredit Bess – for, though the two had once been on friendly terms, she and Mary had by now fallen out spectacularly. At the heart of their dispute lay dynastic rivalry. Mary fiercely opposed Bess’s plans for her granddaughter Arbella, for they ran counter to her son James’s claim to the English throne. In a furious letter to the French ambassador, Mary urged him: “I would wish you to mention privately to the queen that nothing has alienated the Countess of Shrewsbury from me more but the vain hope which she has conceived of setting the crown of England on the head of her little girl, Arbella.”
In the same year as the scandal letter was written, Bess separated from the Earl of Shrewsbury. Eager to avoid any blame for the breakdown of their marriage, she spread rumours that the Scottish queen had been sleeping with her husband and had borne him at least one child, possibly “several”. Enraged by this slur on her reputation, Mary complained about the “foul slanders” and “insolence of this vulgar-minded woman”.
The queen herself intervened to try and reconcile Bess and her husband. Although she was very fond of the earl, she seems to have felt some solidarity with his wife. She paid little heed to Shrewsbury’s complaints that Bess had tried to “rule” him and “make me the wife and her the husband”.
Ejected from bed
Elizabeth achieved a temporary reconciliation, and Bess and her husband “showed themselves very well content with her majesty’s speeches, and in good sort departed together”. Once back at their estates, however, they lived virtually separate lives, and the earl declared that he would “neither bed with her nor board with her”.
This situation was too intolerable to last for long. In 1587, the same year that Mary, Queen of Scots was executed, the courts awarded Bess both Chatsworth and a sizeable income from her husband. But Bess had already moved on to a new building project. Having purchased from her brother the family manor house at Hardwick, she set about renovating it. Three years later, her estranged husband died and Bess inherited one third of his disposable lands. Almost immediately, she turned her attention to building another Hardwick Hall, adjacent to the old one.
Her energies were also absorbed in the promotion of her young granddaughter, Arbella, whom she had raised after the death of her daughter in 1582. Bess had given her an education befitting a royal princess and had proudly noted that Arbella was “very apt to learn, and able to conceive what shall be taught her”.
It was obvious to everyone that Bess was grooming the young girl as a successor to the English throne. The Venetian ambassador, Scaramelli, observed that Arbella “has very exalted ideas, having been brought up in the firm belief that she would succeed to the crown”. But while the queen made encouraging noises about Arbella – on one occasion telling an ambassador: “Look to her well: she will one day be even as I am” – she always stopped short of naming her as heir.
As she grew to maturity, Arbella felt increasingly suffocated by her grandmother’s domineering nature. Scaramelli reported that Arbella “was under very strict custody of her grandmother, Lady Shrewsbury, and was never allowed to be alone or in any way mistress of her actions”. In a similar vein, King James VI and I later recalled “that unpleasant life which she hath led in the house of her grandmother with whose severity and age she, being a young lady, could hardly agree”.
In 1602, Arbella hatched a plan to escape. Frustrated by the many negotiations for her marriage brokered by her grandmother, she resolved to find a husband for herself. The man that her hopes alighted upon could hardly have been a less appropriate choice. Edward Seymour was the grandson and namesake of the 1st Earl of Hertford, who had caused such a scandal all those years ago by marrying Lady Katherine Grey.
When the queen learned of Arbella’s plan, she was outraged. That her choice of husband was himself of royal blood made it certain in Elizabeth’s mind that Arbella had been plotting to seize the throne. Convinced that it was part of a greater conspiracy, she ordered a thorough investigation. Bess was quick to protest that “these matters were unexpected of me, being altogether ignorant of her [Arbella’s] vain doings, as on my salvation and allegiance to your majesty I protest”. For once, Elizabeth believed Bess and assured her: “There is no lady in this land that I better love and like.” Overjoyed, Bess declared: “Even to the last hour of my life I shall think myself happy to do any acceptable service to her majesty.”
In fact, it was Elizabeth who died first, in March 1603. Just before the queen breathed her last, Bess altered her will and disinherited Arbella, as if to prove her loyalty. She survived Elizabeth by almost five years and died on 13 February 1608. Flamboyant even in death, her body lay in great state at Hardwick until her funeral three months later.
Having lived through six reigns and four husbands, this extraordinary woman was not only a great survivor, but one of the most successful builders of dynasties – and houses – that England has ever seen.
Queens and courtiers: 7 major players in Bess’s life
William, Bess’s second husband, was treasurer of Henry VIII’s chamber – and, as such, propelled his wife into royal circles. William and Bess had eight children, six of whom survived into adulthood, and made Chatsworth their home.
Bess had a rollercoaster of a relationship with the Tudor queen. In the early 1560s, Elizabeth had Bess thrown in the Tower, after becoming convinced that she was trying to oust her from the throne. But – in her role as keeper of Mary, Queen of Scots – Bess would regain Elizabeth’s trust.
Lady Katherine Grey
Lady Jane Grey’s sister was the cause of Bess’s first clash with Queen Elizabeth. Katherine confided in Bess that she was pregnant with Edward Seymour’s child – and so, when the queen got wind of the relationship, she directed much of her ire at Bess.
The Earl of Shrewsbury was Bess’s fourth and final husband. He was one of the richest men in the kingdom, and the couple’s marriage would create a powerful new dynasty, before ending in acrimony.
In 1574, Bess found herself in the queen’s bad books once more – this time for arranging her daughter’s marriage to the son of Margaret Douglas, first cousin of the monarch. Elizabeth had forbidden the union and, when she found out about it, had Margaret thrown in the Tower.
Mary, Queen of Scots
Bess was effectively Mary’s keeper for 15 years, during the Scottish queen’s long incarceration in England. The pair soon fell out spectacularly, their mutual enmity fuelled by competing designs on the English throne.
Bess dominated Arbella’s early life, determined that she should succeed Elizabeth I to the throne. But Arbella would rebel against her domineering grandmother and, as a consequence, find herself written out of her will.
Tracy Borman has written numerous books on the Tudor period, including Elizabeth’s Women: The Hidden Story of the Virgin Queen (Vintage, 2010).