It 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 William 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.
Her 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, and 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.
George 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 throne, 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