Bess of Hardwick: Life Story

Chapter 1: Youth & First Marriage

Elizabeth, or Bess, as she is popularly known, was born during the early 1520s to John Hardwick, a small landowner of Hardwick, Derbyshire and Elizabeth Leake. Her actual birthdate is unknown – from as early as 1521 to as late as 1527 have been postulated.

The Hardwicks had been established at Hardwick Hall for generations – their relatives were solid members of the gentry class, who married between themselves and passed on their well-cultivated acres to the eldest son, with a comfortable dowry in cash or goods for daughters. But when Bess’ father died in early 1528, the family was thrown into turmoil. The heir, her brother James, was only two years old, and immediately became a ward of the King himself.

During a ward’s youth, his lands would be administered by whomever the King granted the wardship to. Although the lands could not be diminished, the income went into the pocket of the guardian, who had to provide for the heir. Like many other landowners, John Hardwick sought to give his lands to trustees, but inadequate arrangements had been made by the time of his death, although his will referred to them. Curiously, as there is no evidence of how the relationship came to pass, John Harwick named the Earl of Shrewsbury as the overseer of his will.

The initial Inquisition Post Mortem, which was always held after the death of a landowner accepted the arrangements, but the following year a second inspection was held by the Court of Wards and it was held that John had died in full possession of his lands.

The widow was entitled under common law to a third of the income of the land in dower, and from this she had to maintain the younger children. The other two thirds were in the hands of the Court. Some of the land was subject to the jointure rights of another individual, and the remainder was divided – part was retained by the Crown and probably leased back to Elizabeth Hardwick, and the remainder, together with the wardship of James Hardwick, was sold to an official. Once James reached the age of twenty-one, he could sue out his livery and re-take possession.

Within a couple of years of her widowhood, Elizabeth remarried. Her second husband, Ralph Leche, was a younger son of a family of similar standing, although he, too, had little income. From this marriage, a further three daughters were born. The similarity of his name to Elizabeth’s maiden name suggests he was a connection – spelling was not consistent and phonemes were spelt in various ways.

Despite their precarious financial situation, the family had good connections, and Bess was placed in the household of Anne Gainsford, Lady Zouche. There is no contemporary evidence for this, but Bess’ two main biographers believe the circumstantial evidence is realistic. The Zouches of Codnor were distant relatives, and the custom of placing young people in families of higher social standing was universal. Lady Zouche had been a maid of honour to Queen Anne Boleyn and it was allegedly she who had introduced the Queen to William Tyndale’s ‘Obedience of Christian Man’ with impressive results. If Lady Zouche was a committed Evangelical that would certainly explain Bess’ own firmly Protestant views, despite her origins in an area of the country that clung to the old faith.

At some time before 28th May 1543, Bess married for the first time. She was probably about fifteen, and her husband was younger. Although early marriages were not uncommon, it is surprising in this case, where Bess’ dowry under her father’s will was not extensive (around 40 – 60 marks, depending on how the will interpreted) and her new husband, Robert Barlow, was a minor, and also a Ward of Court. It has been suggested that the early marriage was arranged by Robert’s dying father to keep the one-third of the estate that Bess would have had as jointure, out of the Court of Wards, and prevent any guardian to whom Robert’s wardship was sold getting control of the whole estate.

The whole thing is clouded in the usual complex monetary negotiations of the time, with debts and contra-debts being cancelled and sums paid backward and forward. When Barlow senior died, Robert’s wardship was bought by George Bosvyle, who was betrothed to Bess’ sister, Jane Hardwick.

As a married woman, Bess had more status than previously, but nothing is known of the couple’s life together, or even where they lived. It is unlikely, in view of the groom’s age, that the marriage was consummated. In any event, there were no children before Robert died on 24th December 1544.