The formidable Bess of Hardwick

Bess_of_Hardwick_as_Mistress_St_LoIt is often noted, and not without reason, that history mainly belong to the men in it. But there are a number of strong and impressive women who to a large extent shaped their own destiny, and one of those was without a doubt Elizabeth Talbot, known to history as Bess of Hardwick, which is what she will be called in this post.

Her exact birthdate is not known, and suggestions are made with in the wide range of 1521 to the last part of 1527, the latter more commonly accepted. She was the daughter of John Hardwick of Derbyshire and his wife Elizabeth Leeke who belonged to the minor gentry. Not much is known in detail about Bess’ early years, but she had four sisters of which one would later die at quite a young age, and a brother who would be heir to the family’s holdings when her father passed away around the age of 40.

It has been suggested that Bess at the age of 12 got to know both London and the Tudor court through the influence of Anne Gainsford, Lady Zouche, who was lady-in-waiting of Anne Boleyn (and the one who introduced Anne B to the writings of William Tyndale), but there is no contemporary evidence to back this up.

What is clear though is that Bess, like so many other girls of her time, married very early, at “a tender age” which suggests she was younger than 16 and her first husband was the 13 year old Robert Barley. This marriage didn´t last long, due to Robert dying just a year or two later, and there is no evidence that they ever lived together as husband and wife. After his death Bess was denied her dower, which resulted in a court battle which lasted for years, but eventually was won by Bess.

By the time it was won she was already remarried, this time to the twice-widowed 593px-William_Cavendish_c1547William Cavendish, who had two daughters and was appointed Treasurer of the King´s Chamber. This marriage took place on August 20th 1547, the very last year of Henry VIII´s life. It would only last 10 years, as William Cavendish died in 1557, but the marriage resulted in eight children of which six survived. The death of Cavendish however left Bess heavily indebted to the Crown.

As the prospects for an unmarried woman was next to none in 16th century society, Bess remarried a second time in 1559 to her third husband, this time to William St Loe, making her Lady St Loe. By this time Elizabeth was on the throne, and William St Loe was captain of the Queen´s guards as well as Chief Butler of England, an appointment which basically included what the title suggests, but primarily at coronation banquets.  He held large estates in Somerset and Gloucestershire, and when he after only around six years of marriage died, something that seems to have been due to poisoning, the lack of male heirs (he had two daughters) made his worldly goods pass on to his widow Bess.

While the previous husband had left Bess in financial difficulties, William St Loe did the exact opposite, and made Lady St Loe one of the absolutely wealthiest women in the country with an annual income of £60 000, a sum which today would equal £ 16,8 million. To that should be added that she was also a Lady of the Bedchamber which gave her close and daily contact with Elizabeth I, something which undoubtedly gave her a certain amount of influence, and there is no wild guess to think that that in combination with her fortune and good looks was what made prospective husbands flock around her.

Maybe it was the knowledge that she was financially secure in her own right that kept her from rushing into a fourth marriage, as it took around three years, maybe slightly more, for her to remarry.

800px-George_Talbot_6th_Earl_of_Shrewsbury_1580Her last husband was George Talbot, 6th Earl of Shrewsbury, and before going into his life with Bess -or rather, her life with him – I just as a curiosity feel the need to mention that there a couple of generations back in his family tree is to be found a certain Eleanor Talbot, later Butler, who is no other than the female party in the alleged and oh so discussed pre-contract with Edward IV. But that´s all that will be said in regards to that matter in this post.

It´s maybe not easy to say who benefited most from what, but clear is that both Bess and George saw advantages in really tying their families together, because not only did the two get married, Bess 12 year old daughter Mary Cavendish was married to George´s 16 year old son Gilbert, while George´s 8 year old daughter Grace was married to Bess´s 18 year old son Henry Cavendish in a double ceremony.

Whether these two unions was to be happier than that of their parents I cannot say, but fact is that Bess and her husband George Talbot would eventually have a falling out, allegedly fuelled by no other than Mary Queen of Scots. When the Scottish queen had been driven into exile by her disgruntled lords and sought out the protection of her cousin Elizabeth I, we all know what happened, she ended up in an 18 yearlong house arrest, which for the greater part, 15 years, took place in the home of Bess of Hardwick and her husband.

It seems the Mary and Bess must have found some kind of friendship bond, andoxburgh together they spend hours at needlework, something they were both proficient at. The result is now known as the Oxburgh Hangings and can be found at the Victoria and Albert Museum, Bess´s tapestries marked by the initials BS, and part of Mary´s other embroideries were to become part of Bess´s extensive collection which can now be seen at Hardwick Hall. But there were downsides to the arrangement as well, Mary seems to have played out the Talbots against each other, with the result that Bess started rumours of her husband having an affair with the deposed queen. The marriage was falling apart, and even Elizabeth herself tried to act as a kind of marriage counsellor, but to no avail.

Hardwick_Hall_in_Doe_Lea_-_DerbyshireGeorge Talbot died in 1590, making Bess of Hardwick the Dowager Countess of Shrewsbury. Bess, now in her 70´s, did not marry again, but she did continue another “hobby”, she after having built Chatsworth House in 1560, she now embarked on Hardwick Hall, in the vicinity of the old Hardwick Hall where she lived as a child. The new hall was given it´s very own rhyme due to it´s design with an unusual amount of windows; “Hardwick Hall, more glass than wall”.

While she spent over a decade basically being a guarding an heir presumptive to the Lady_Arabella_Stuartthrone, Bes would in time herself raise one herself, her granddaughter Arabella, or Arbella, Stuart. Arabella was the daughter of Bess daughter Elizabeth Cavendish and Charles Stuart, younger brother of Henry, Lord Darnley, second husband of Mary Queen of Scots.

This made Arabella great great granddaughter of Henry VII, and yet another possible heir to the throne. While Bess indeed had such ambitions for her granddaughter, Arabella herself was less than inclined, something which would eventually lead to a complete break between the two. Seven year after her grandmother´s death, Arabella would herself die as a prisoner in the Tower due to her own actions, but more about that in a separate post.

Due to Arabella´s refusal to stake her claim to both the Scottish and the English throne, Bess never got to see a descendant as monarch, but she does in fact have one right now; Elizabeth II

While no date of birth exist for Bess, the information on her death is more specific, and this formidable woman passed away at 5 pm on February 13th, which was a Sunday, 1608 at the age of 81. She was put to her final rest in All Saint´s Parish Church, Derby, today´s Derby Cathedral.

Over the past years a large number on letters, to and from Bess of Hardwick has been found and compiled in an online database by the University of Glasgow. The letters has helped change the view of Bess and I will return to them in a later post.



Mistress of Hardwick – Alison Plowden

The Life of Elizabeth I – Alison Weir

Bess of Hardwick; Portrait of an Elizabethan Dynasty – David Durant


Oxburgh Hanging – Copyright Victoria and Albert Museum

Hardwick Hall in Doe Lea, Derbyshire/Wikimedia

Arabella Stuart – Robert Peake/National Galleries of Scotland

The king´s fool – Will Somers

Until the the overthrow of Charles I, the tradition of not only court jesters, but also in

the households of prominent noblemen was a common feature, even if the name jester didn´t appear until mid-16th century, among earlier names we would find fol (fool), disour, and bourder The Royal Shakespeare Company has described them as follows:

In ancient times, courts employed fools and by the Middle Ages the jester was a familiar figure. In Renaissance times, aristocratic households in Britain employed licensed fools or jesters, who sometimes dressed as other servants were dressed, but generally wore a motley (of mixed colours or materials) coat, hood with ass’s ears or a red-flannel coxcomb and bells. Regarded as pets or mascots, they served not simply to amuse but to criticize their master or mistress and their guests. Queen Elizabeth is said to have rebuked one of her fools for being insufficiently severe with her. Excessive behaviour, however, could lead to a fool being whipped, as Lear threatens to whip his fool.

There is no wonder that Royal Shakespeare Company has had reason to explore the fool, as they are recurring in several of Shakespeare´s plays. In Twelfth Night, it is stated that the jester is the one who is wise enough to play the fool.

The fools of Elizabeth, or at least one of the, is someone who is the reason for this entire post and I will return to him, but first I want to look at the jester, or the fool, as a cultural phenomenon. Apart from criticizing the king or queen, and –maybe one can say – serving as a kind of conscience for the monarch, the jester also of course provided entertainment such as storytelling, joggling, magic and acrobatics. It could also be the jester who delivered bad news to his or her monarch when no one else dared, something which was maybe facilitated by the ability to play the “fool” and maybe thereby taking the “edge” of the bad tidings.

The jester, of fool, that I hinted at earlier, is of course Will Somers, who was with every Tudor monarch from Henry VIII to Elizabeth I, if even only up until the coronation of Elizabeth.

800px-WillSommers_engraving_300dpiWill Somers was born in Shropshire and had somehow ended up in Calais where he apparently dazzled the merchant Richard Fermour with his humour, because Fermour introduced Will to Henry VIII at Greenwich as early as 1525, and he would not only stay with the king throughout his reign but as I mentioned earlier, server all of his three children, even if retiring after the coronation of Elizabeth.

It seems a genuine friendship grew between the king and fool, maybe fueled by the fact that unlike the nobles, Will Somers never seem to have tried to capitalise on his friendship with the king, something which no doubt was something of a new experience for the king. Even so, the friendship wasn´t entirely without friction, around 10 years after Will Somers had entered the court Sir Nicholas Carew dared him to call queen Anne a ribald and young princess Elizabeth a bastard, something that sent the king into such a flying rage that he threatened to kill the Somers with his own bare hands.

The poor jester had to hide at Carew´s home in Beddington until the king´s anger had abated. Even so, it was around this time the king really started having physical ailments, something which would only grow worse over the years until the time of his death, and while Will Somers obviously could be at the receiving end of Henry´s anger, it is said that he was the only one who could lift the kings spirit when the pain from his ulcers kept him confined to his chamber or made it difficult for him to be in a benign mood.

Towards the end of the king´s life, Will Somers would be one of less than a handful of people to whom Henry VIII shared his most inner thoughts.

When Henry died, one can say that Will Somers was part of the inheritance left to Edward, Mary and Elizabeth, but he had lost his prominent position in relation to the reigning monarch, while it is noted that he made Edward laugh, he was in large parts reduced to a sidekick of Mary´s own Jane the Fool. His last recorded performance was at the coronation of Elizabeth I.


He is believed to be the Will Somers whose death is recorded on June 15th 1560 in the parish of St. Leonard´s, Shoreditch.


Fools and jesters at the English Court – John Soutworth

Notes of the Fool – Royal Shakespeare Company

Jester – Encyclopaedia Britannica

King & Court – Alison Weir

The Six Wives of Henry VIII – Alison Weir


Images: Wikipedia

It is said that the man in the background of the painting of Henry´s family is believed be Will Somers

Grief fills the room up of my absent child – Hamnet Shakespeare

At this time 419 years ago, there is reason to think that William Shakespeare was at MTE1ODA0OTcxNzgzMzkwNzMzhome with his family in Stratford-upon-Avon. It seems he had been on tour in Kent at the time, but there is no reason to think that he may not have returned home when hearing that his son was sick.

That was an occurrence that wasn´t that common, the playwright spent most of his time in London where he had his theatre, or on the road, travelling with his company, The Lord Chamberlain´s Men, but on this day, a young boy was brought to his final resting place; Hamnet Shakespeare, the 11 year old son of William and his wife Anne Hathaway.

1024px-Shakespeare's_family_circleHe was not the only child in the family, he had an older sister, Susannah, born only six months after the marriage between William and the older Anne, but he also had a twin sister, Judith, both of the most likely named after Shakespeare´s friend and neighbour Hamnet Sandler and his wife Judith. Some scholars have suggested that the play Hamlet had lent his name from the son who passed far too early.

It has been pointed out that while for example Ben Johnson wrote heartfelt about the loss of his own son, Shakespeare himself did never really openly introduce the character of his lost child in any of his plays, and it has been suggested that since Shakespeare in reality “abandoned” his family when the twins still were just infants to pursue his career as an actor and playwright in London, only to visit on occasion, his grief may have just been brief, not least since a one out three of children at the time died before the age of 10. The explanation should have been that parents could not really “afford” to invest too much emotion into a child they may never see grown up anyway

But we all grieve differently and in an article from 2004 Stephen Greenblatt pointsHamnetDeath out that while Shakespeare during the four years that followed Hamnet´s death, wrote some of the most light-hearted plays of his production, such as The Merry Wives of Windsor, Much Ado About Nothing and As You Like it, he also just the year after Hamnet´s death introduces a grief stricken mother in his play King John which includes a line that could break the heart of anyone with children in their lives; “Grief fills the room up of my absent child”.

One can of course argue that Shakespeare had hardly seen the boy since he was an infant, but as we are collectively so willing to state how little we know of Shakespeare the man, we of course know nothing of his feelings faced with the fact that he was no longer the father of a son.

Greenblatt also suggest that the grief of Ophelia´s brother in Hamlet, the play with the name so closely resembling that of the lost son, is Shakespear´s grief, that when Laertes lament the lack of ceremony at her grave, it is the Bard himself that laments the same at his son´s grave?

Only a few years after Hamnet´s death his grandfather, John Shakespeare, died, a man who is said to have had Catholics leanings in a world that had over the last decades turned more and more protestant, and one suggestion is that the play is his eulogy over both his son and his father


The death of Hamnet and making of Hamlet – Stephen Greenblatt, The New York Review of Books

Shakespeare´s Last Will and Testament

William Shakespeare: A Compact Documentary Life – Samuel Schoenbaum

Images: Wikipedia


This is not only NOT a text about the Renaissance history. We´re not even still in medieval times.  This time we´re going further and this blog can be said to have returned from summer vacation.

When going back as far as to before the beginning of the last millennium, say to around 940, sources and information may be a bit scarce, even more so if the information you´re looking for is pertaining to a woman.

Even so, I will try to write a few lines about Wulfhilda, at one point in time abbess atwulfhilda Barking Abbey.

She was born around 940, presumably the daughter of a wealthy Wessex nobleman by the name of Wulfhelm. During her childhood, she was raised and educated by Benedictine nuns at Wilton Abbey, and when she came of age she herself took the vows to live as a nun.

According to legend, she caught the eye of king Edgar the Peaceful who ruled between 959 and 975, and he decided to woo her, something that proved not to be easily done, and while it´s difficult not to at least smile at the description that has survived of the peaceful Edgar, that “he was extremely small in both stature and bulk”, I do hope that this was not the reason to why Wulfhilda rejected him – which she did – but for her vocation to her life as a nun.

It is however said that after several attempts to win her love, Edgar decided to enlist her aunt Abbess Wenflaeda of Wherwell who by faking an illness managed to lure Wulfhilda to where the king was waiting instead of her aunt. Not even the prospect of becoming a queen could change Wulfhilda´s mind, and on this special occasion she is said to have fled through the drains, leaving only her glove behind. Faced with this kind of resistance the king eventually made her Abbess of Barking Abbey and in time also Horton Abbey.

Something else he eventually also did was to get married, and one version of this story states that he the woman who became his queen, AElfthryth, was so jealous of Wulfhilda that she after the death of Edgar deposed Wulfhilda from her position as Edgar the peacefulAbbess at Barking Abbey.

It is said that Edgar´s and Ælfthryth´s son, Æthelred the Unready, restored her to her former position.

Like so many other stories old enough to make it difficult to say if they are just legends, if even with a grain of truth as so often in legends, or if they are plain truth, there are of course two versions to Wulfhilda´s fall from the role as Abbess, which maybe can be taken as a sign that we at least can be sure of that much: she was in fact disposed and retired to Horton Abbey

In this second version, it is indeed the queen who remove Wulfhilda from her role as Abbess, but not due to her own jealousy, but instead as a result of complaints from the nuns. It is also queen Ælfthryth who reinstates Wulfhilda 20 years later.

When reading the section about Wulfhilda her section in the Oxford Index, it is stated that her reign was “not peaceful nor uneventful”. What is that supposed to mean? I have a feeling Wuldhilda may get another visit from me.

Regardless of the reason for Wulfhilda losing her position, it seems that during the 20 years she was absent, it was in fact Ælfthryth – now a widow – who assumed the role as Abbess.

Wulfhilda died in or around the year 1000, and would later be beatified for performing some miracles, one that I have been able to find was that of multiplying drinks at a time when king Edgar and his retinue was visiting the abbey.

St. Wulfhilda´s Day is celebrated on September 9th


Gesta Regum Anglorum – William of MalmsburyOxford Dictionary of National Biography – Anne Williams, Barbara Yorke

A dictionary of saintly women – Agnes Dunbar

 Oxford Index/Oxford University Press.