Elizabeth, or ‘Bess’ of Hardwick was the daughter of a Derbyshire gentleman. The family was not well off, although it had well-connected relatives, and when Bess’ father died, his widow and children were left, if not in real poverty, certainly in difficult circumstances. Bess’ brother, James, was a minor so he, together with much of the Hardwick estate were in the control of a guardian, appointed by the Court of Wards.
When Bess was in her early teens, she probably joined the household of Anne, Lady Zouche, at Codnor Castle. Lady Zouche, born Anne Gainsford, had been one of Queen Anne Boleyn’s maids-of-honour, and shared the Queen’s inclination towards religious reform. This may have been the root of Bess’ firm Protestantism, despite Derbyshire generally being conservative in religious matters.
It was during this time that Bess married for the first time. Her husband was Robert Barlow or Barley, from another Derbyshire family, and distantly related to Bess. There is no information on how the couple came to marry – tradition has it she nursed him through an illness and they fell in love, but the eminent suitability of the match suggests that, if it were not actually arranged by the families, it was certainly one they deemed suitable.
Robert Barlow was still a minor, so it is possible that the marriage was arranged by his dying grandfather to keep that the part of the estate settled on Bess as part of the marriage articles, preserved from falling into the hands of the Court of Wards. This might have worked had Robert lived, but he died before reaching his majority.
Bess was entitled to dower of one-third of the estate from the guardian of the next heir, Robert’s brother, but it was initially refused. Bess, not more than sixteen, showed the steely determination to have what was rightfully hers and instigated a court case. At first, she was forced to compromise, but continued to fight it until the matter was resolved in her favour some eight years later.
Without an assured income, Bess needed somewhere to live until she remarried – a step no-one could doubt she would take. She entered the household of Lady Frances Grey (née Brandon), Marchioness of Dorset. Although the Dorsets’ main seat was at Bradgate, in Leicestershire, they had strong court connections as Lady Dorset was the niece of the king, Henry VIII.
Bess became attached to the Dorsets, and they to her. All her life she treasured a ring of agate Lady Dorset gave her, and a picture of the eldest daughter, Lady Jane Grey. Whilst in their service, Bess married one of the Dorsets’ court connections, Sir William Cavendish.
Cavendish had been a protégé of Thomas Cromwell and had a position in the Court of Augmentations. Like many others, Cavendish had used this to good effect to amass the beginnings of a significant estate.
The couple were well matched – ambitious, intelligent and determined to build a solid financial position. Like many people whose childhood had been financially insecure, Bess worked all her life to build a solid base of wealth.
Lady Cavendish & Lady St Loe
Bess and Cavendish spent the early years of their marriage mainly between their house in London, and an estate just outside, called Northaw. During this period - the reign of Edward VI - they moved in the Protestant circles that surrounded the Dorsets – or Suffolks as they became when the Marquis of Dorset was created Duke of Suffolk in 1552.
Others in the group of friends were Sir William Cecil; the Marquis of Northampton (brother of the late Queen Katherine Parr); John Dudley, Duke of Northumberland, and his children, and peripherally, the Lady Elizabeth, half-sister of the King.
In 1553, the Cavendishes disposed of their estate at Northaw and concentrated more on their estates in Derbyshire, based around the village of Chatsworth. Much of the land had been purchased from the Leche family, on the death of Bess’ brother-in-law, Francis Leche. It has been suggested that one reason for disposing of Northaw was the fear that King Edward would die without a child of his own, and that once his sister, the Catholic Lady Mary, became queen, there might be a move to restore the monastic estates.
King Edward did die, childless, and the Cavendishes were suspected by the new queen of involvement in the attempted coup by which she was to have been replaced by Lady Jane Grey, but no charges were brought against them. They even sought royal favour by inviting Queen Mary to stand as godmother to their youngest son, Charles. Nevertheless, they avoided the court, spending much of their time in Derbyshire.
In 1557, Cavendish was accused of embezzlement of Crown funds. He died in early 1558 before the matter could be resolved, and Bess was left with six young children, two step-daughters and a huge debt to the Crown. Bess could only hope that the debt would be forgiven, and her chances of this improved as it became apparent that Queen Mary would soon be succeeded by her half-sister, Lady Elizabeth.
Bess had long been on good terms with Elizabeth, and she probably began to cultivate the friendship even further. Her efforts paid off, as, when Elizabeth became queen in November 1558, Bess was appointed as a Lady of the Privy Chamber. Shortly after, she married for a third time.
Bess’ third husband, Sir William St Loe, was highly favoured by Elizabeth and was soon named as Captain of the Guard. He and Bess married in 1559. St Loe had estates in Somerset, but was hampered by an extremely difficult brother, who constantly disputed ownership of various family properties. Edward St Loe may even have gone so far as to attempt to poison Bess, when William made her heir to all his unentailed lands.
The other benefit of Bess’ position in favour at court was the forgiveness of the debt hanging over her after Cavendish’s death.
Although only around 31 at the time of her third marriage, Bess did not have any more children, so, having passed the most dangerous time of a woman’s life, Bess could look forward to a long life, with St Loe, in favour at court, and with plenty of money.
In 1561, the Queen’s cousin, Lady Katherine Grey, whom Bess had known since Katherine’s childhood, found herself pregnant after a secret marriage. Many biographers believe she confided in her old friend, Bess, who refused to have anything to do with the matter. Some then state that Bess was sent to the Tower for not immediately informing the Queen. Other biographers do not believe that Bess was involved at all, and that the Mistress St Loe sent to the Tower was a cousin of Sir William, implicated in the attempt by Edward St Loe to poison Bess.
If Bess was in the Tower, she soon emerged without charge, but life took another turn when St Loe died suddenly in 1565. Bess was not with him at the time – she spent a good deal of her time at Chatsworth with her children, where she was supervising the construction of a new house.
Countess of Shrewsbury
Bess was now a very wealthy widow. She did not need to marry for money or children, but soon an offer came her way that could not be refused. Her suitor was none other than the recently widowed George Talbot, Earl of Shrewsbury. Bess and Shrewsbury were of an age, and his letters to her suggest that there was a good deal of affection between them – he had a pet name for her, ‘None’ (presumably from the contraction of ‘mine own’) and regretted any nights they spent apart.
From a practical perspective, it was a good match – the Shrewsbury estates were centred on Staffordshire and Yorkshire, and married up well with Bess’ Derbyshire holdings. By careful arrangement, Bess had retained all of the Cavendish lands for her lifetime, rather than them immediately devolving to her son – Shrewsbury now had access to them all for Bess’ lifetime. Part of the marriage agreement was for Bess’ oldest son, Henry Cavendish, to marry Shrewsbury’s daughter, Grace Talbot, and for her daughter, Mary Cavendish, to marry Gilbert Talbot, Shrewsbury’s second son.
For the first couple of years, everything went well. Bess was now a Countess, and one of the highest ranking women in England. Her husband was respected and trusted by the queen, but was not one of the men she liked to keep at her side. All seemed set fair.
But then Elizabeth decided that Shrewsbury was the right man to guard Mary, Queen of Scots, who had escaped to England after being dethroned. For over fifteen years, Shrewsbury was responsible for guarding Mary, and trying to control Mary’s unending attempts to escape.
To begin with, Bess and Mary were on good terms and spent many hours creating beautiful needlework, and Shrewsbury managed his responsibilities to Elizabeth’s great satisfaction.
In 1574, Bess offended the Queen deeply. She conspired with Queen Mary’s mother-in-law, Lady Margaret Douglas, Countess of Lennox, for her daughter, Elizabeth Cavendish, to marry Lady Lennox’s son, Lord Charles Stuart. As Lord Charles had a very respectable claim to the throne, permission should have been asked for the match. The Queen was furious, but Bess’ friends managed to calm her down and persuade her that the two countesses were not plotting against the throne. The marriage resulted in a granddaughter for Bess, Lady Arbella Stuart, who, after the premature death of her father, was Elizabeth’s nearest English heir, and, by strict primogeniture rules, only behind James VI of Scotland in right of succession.
Over time, the strain of keeping Mary prisoner began to tell on Shrewsbury’s health. He became sick with stress, he began to believe that Bess was undermining him with his sons, and that she was attempting to defraud him of property. Bess seems to have been genuinely amazed and horrified about Shrewsbury’s accusations. She attempted reconciliation repeatedly, and was supported by his son, Gilbert, who thought her ill-used. Mary saw an opportunity to create mischief and perhaps have her guardian changed to another, less conscientious one. She accused Bess of spreading rumours that Mary and Shrewsbury were having an affair.
By the early 1580s, the Earl and Countess’ of Shrewsbury’s domestic tribulations were a national scandal, and their mutual friends, including the Earl of Leicester, tried to patch things up. Eventually the Queen herself became involved and insisted on a settlement. Shrewsbury allowed Bess back into his home, but he did not enter into the spirit of reconciliation, and seldom spent time with Bess at Wingfield Manor, where Elizabeth had agreed they should live.
In 1584, Shrewsbury was finally relieved of the burden of Mary, but he and Bess did not find a happy solution to their troubles. They lived separately, with Bess spending most of her time either at Chatsworth, or at Hardwick Hall, which she had bought after her brother James died a bankrupt.
In 1590, Shrewsbury died, and Bess was left as the richest widow in England. She was about sixty-three, but still full of the energy of a much younger woman. She completed the rebuilding of Chatsworth and remodelled Hardwick Old Hall, before beginning a whole new house at Hardwick, and continued to manage her estates with tireless enthusiasm, reviewing all her accounts to the penny.
Bess was generous to her family and friends, and gave large sums to charity, but she used her money to control her children. She would never relinquish any of her lands, and refused to pay her sons’ debts.
As the 1590s progressed, Bess’ granddaughter, Lady Arbella, became a problem. Well educated and attractive, she had been taken to court a couple of times, but Elizabeth had no taste for a young, pretty, potential heir to the throne hanging about her court and Arbella was left in Derbyshire. There were rumours of plots to kidnap her, and Bess was obliged to keep her strictly. Arbella felt like a prisoner and attempted to escape, aided by her uncle, Henry Cavendish.
Bess was heartbroken, and begged Elizabeth to either allow Arbella to come to court, or let her live elsewhere, but the requests were refused.
In 1603, Elizabeth died, and Bess was relieved of responsibility for her granddaughter, when James VI, now James I of England, welcomed her to his court. Unfortunately, grandmother and granddaughter remained estranged.
Bess died following the exceptionally hard winter of 1607-8 and was buried in Derby Cathedral. Her life was monument to what a clever, ambitious, and charming woman could achieve in the Tudor era. Her descendants are still Dukes of Devonshire, Dukes of Norfolk and Earls of Lincoln. HM Queen Elizabeth II is Bess’ 10 x great-granddaughter via Bess’ son, Sir Charles Cavendish, and her 11x great-granddaughter via Bess’ other son, Sir William Cavendish, 1st Earl of Devonshire.