‘Networking’ seems a very 21st century idea, conjuring up images of executives working a room, handing out business cards and treating strangers like long-lost friends – but the reality is that networking has underpinned political and business life since the dawn of civilization. Read any history of ancient Egypt, Rome, Greece or China and it will immediately become clear that who you knew was far more important than what you knew.
It was no different in the fifteenth, sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. To get ahead, you need to build connections, in a system referred to in the earlier part of the period as ‘good lordship’. You would write to someone more important, or more influential than yourself, preferably someone with a remote blood relationship, give them a present – food, hunting dogs, gloves – explain what you needed and ask the person to be ‘good lord’ or ‘good lady’ to you. In due course, when your ‘good lord’ wanted something in return – support in battle, putting in good word with the king, a job for a connection, or a land exchange, you were expected to return the favour.
These networks of reciprocal obligation were enhanced by the complex web of family relationships across the nobility and the gentry. Within the ruling class, from the senior nobles, right down to country gentry who seldom attended the court, marriages were used to cement an alliance, or settle disputes.
Because there was so much intermarriage, it often transpired that families found themselves on different sides of a dispute, because of more important or valuable obligations to others. The Wars of the Roses exemplify this – sisters would often find their husbands in conflict, and brothers would sometimes be on opposing sides. During the sixteenth century, the fault line of religion broke families apart. The Throckmorton family produced both confirmed Protestants, such as Elizabeth (Bess) who married Sir Walter Raleigh, and a Catholic branch involved in the Gunpowder Plot. In these circumstances, long-standing networks and connections of ‘good lordship’ were often invoked to help the political loser out of a tricky corner.
So, in an age of political complexity and danger, keeping on good terms with your friends, relatives and connections was an integral component of a successful career – and there was no better networker than Elizabeth (Bess) Hardwick, who used what we might call her ‘people-skills’ to build a career that took her from minor Derbyshire gentry, to the richest woman in England, after the queen.
How Did She Do It?
Bess took her first steps on the Tudor career ladder in about 1540, when she was anything between 13 and 19 years old. Kinship ties had been invoked and Bess was accepted into the household of a distant cousin, that of George, Lord Zouche of Codnor, as attendant to his wife. Lady Zouche (née Anne Gainsford) in her youth had been attendant on Queen Anne Boleyn, and is credited with introducing the queen to the work of William Tyndale. This influence may account for Bess’ firm Protestantism, despite Derbyshire generally being conservative in religion.
There are no direct records of Bess’ time in the Zouche household, or whether she visited the court during that period, but her later network of friends and acquaintances suggest that she did. Bess was briefly married 1543 – 45 to Robert Barlow whose early death left Bess in financial difficulties. Until she won a court case for her dower rights in 1553, she needed to find financial support elsewhere. Her own family were in financial difficulties, so it was probably the need to find a home and income that took her into the household of Frances, Marchioness of Dorset, niece of King Henry VIII.
The Marquis, Henry Grey, was strongly evangelical in his views, and this like-mindedness in religion may have made Bess a good fit with the household at the time. Lady Zouche had a family connection to the marquis, as they were both descended from the Woodville family, but it was not close and they may not have been aware of it – on the other hand, it may have been strong enough for the marquis to take a recommendation as to Bess’ suitability.
Bess now connected with a group of people who would hold power in England during the reign of Edward VI (1547 – 1553), which began soon after she joined the Dorsets, and again in the reign of Elizabeth I (1553 – 1603). Bess would maintain these friendships assiduously and they would stand her in good stead for the rest of her life.
There were the Dorsets themselves, and their daughters, the Ladies Jane, Katherine and Mary Grey. There was also the Marchioness’ step-mother and close friend, Katherine, Dowager Duchess of Suffolk, another notable evangelical who remained friends with Bess until Katherine’s death in 1580. Of lower rank, but in the long-term of greater influence, there was Sir William Cecil, initially a supporter of Edward Seymour, who as Duke of Somerset and Lord Protector to the new king, would be the most powerful man in England. Cecil and Dorset moved into the orbit of Somerset’s successor, John Dudley, Duke of Northumberland, with Dorset being promoted to the dukedom of Suffolk.
In the Suffolk circle, there was also Sir William Cavendish – initially an associate of Thomas Cromwell, who, like many others, had been able to snap up valuable bargains after the Dissolution of the Monasteries and was a wealthy man. Before long, Bess and Cavendish were married, and she was a wealthy wife, and soon the mother of some eight children.
Bess remained close to the Duke of Northumberland’s family – indicated by the name of her second daughter, Temperance. The duke had had a daughter of the same unusual name, which hints that either he or his wife was godparent to Temperance Cavendish. Bess became friends with the Northumberland children, of whom Robert, Ambrose, Mary and Katherine Dudley would go on to play an important part in public life.
On the edge of this circle was King Edward’s half-sister, the Lady Elizabeth. Whilst for much of Edward’s reign, Elizabeth lived quietly in the country, she was on good terms with her brother, willing to conform to the religious changes implemented during it, and a visitor to the court from time to time. There is no record of when she met Bess, but we can infer that they are likely to have met at court occasions – such as the marriage of Robert Dudley to Amy Robsart in 1550.
Another member of the royal family whom Bess may have met during Edward’s reign, was Margaret, Countess of Lennox, cousin to both the king and to her old mistress, Frances. Lady Lennox was seldom in the south, her conservative religious position inclined her to keep well away from London, but she was there during the great court occasion when Marie of Guise, Dowager Queen of Scotland visited. It is likely Bess formed one of the throng of ladies and gentlemen rustled up for the occasion.
The future looked rosy for Bess and Cavendish in 1553, but then came news of the death of the king – and the attempt by the Duke of Northumberland and the Duke of Suffolk to put Suffolk’s daughter, Jane, married to Northumberland’s son, Guilford, on the throne, in place of Edward’s half-sister, the Lady Mary. Bess, of course, knew Jane well, and it is likely that she would have been pleased had the attempt succeeded. Her religious outlook was very different from that of Mary.
The coup failed, and Bess and Cavendish fell under suspicion for complicity, but no action was taken against them. Bess sought to ingratiate herself with Queen Mary by requesting her to stand godmother to her new-born son, Charles Cavendish. With her old network of friends now out of power, imprisoned, and in danger of execution, Bess needed new friends quickly. Its not hard to imagine that she built on whatever acquaintanceship she had with Lady Lennox, who was Queen Mary’s closest friend.
Lady Jane and her father were executed following a second insurrection by Suffolk – Bess kept a picture of Jane by her bed for the rest of her life. But she still needed new friends. Lady Jane’s sister, Katherine, did not suffer for her father’s foolishness, and was given a place in Queen Mary’s bedchamber. Bess requested Katherine to stand godmother to her next child – it was a good way to maintain closeness to the Grey family, and to keep in with the queen.
But Bess was careful to keep close to her old friends, too – she invited the Lady Elizabeth, now heir to the throne, unless Queen Mary had a child of her own, to be godmother to yet another daughter, and she continued to keep up with Sir William Cecil, who, although he was not a member of the government had managed, despite his Protestant beliefs, to strike up a warm relationship with Cardinal Pole, the new, Catholic, Archbishop of Canterbury.
It became apparent that the queen would not have a child of her own. Whilst the Lady Elizabeth was not in favour with her sister, Bess, widowed again in 1557, gambled that the queen’s health was deteriorating to such an extent that Elizabeth would soon inherit. Along with Cecil she kept closely in touch with the princess, and probably visited her at Hatfield, becoming friendly with Elizabeth’s attendants, including Frances, Lady Cobham. This strategy paid off. On Elizabeth’s accession in November 1558, Bess was appointed as one of her ladies – she was now in more-or-less daily contact with the source of all honour and wealth – important for a widow with seven children to find places for.
Elizabeth’s closest companions were Bess’ friends of the early 1550s. Cecil became Secretary, and Elizabeth’s senior minister for forty-five years. Lord Robert Dudley was the queen’s closest friend, his brother, Ambrose, Earl of Warwick was also favoured by her, and their sister, Mary Dudley, now Lady Sidney another of Elizabeth’s ladies.
Bess was at the centre of the most powerful network of friends and connections in England and her favour was sought. Lady Katherine Grey, demoted from her place in the Privy Chamber may have sought help from Bess when she found herself pregnant following a secret marriage. But Bess was far too canny to get involved in a secret that would offend the queen, and apparently gave Katherine short shrift.
Bess had remarried in 1559, to another well-connected man, Sir William St Loe, who had been one of Elizabeth’s gentlemen for many years. The marriage was happy, but short-lived. Widowed again in early 1565, Bess had no need to remarry for money or position, but she managed to find a fourth husband who was extraordinarily powerful and well-connected – George Talbot, 6th Earl of Shrewsbury.
The Talbots had come to prominence in the early fifteenth century, when John ‘Old Talbot’ was one of the stars of Henry V’s French wars. Granted the earldom of Shrewsbury, the Talbots had intermarried with the other great noble families – Staffords, Nevilles, Mowbrays and Beauchamps in the fifteenth century, and Howards, Cliffords, Percies and Dacres in the sixteenth century. Bess was presented with five step-children and it was quickly agreed that there would be cross-marriages with her own children. Her network was spreading far and wide.
In 1568, she wrote to no lesser a personage than the Archbishop of Canterbury, seeking a place for the brother of one of her husband’s gentlemen. She assured the archbishop of the young man’s religious zeal. The letter was written in the usual flowery style of these types of requests ‘wherein, although I must confess myself unable to acquit your goodness already showed, yet shall I think myself greatly beholden unto your grace in this behalf.’ For the archbishop to have one of the queen’s premier earl’s wives owing him a favour might well be of use later.
The first few years of the Shrewsbury marriage were happy, but then disaster struck. The earl was appointed as the guardian of Mary, Queen of Scots, who was being held in England, against her will. Bess was careful initially to be on good terms with Mary – many considered her to be the heir to the throne, and, if Elizabeth had died suddenly, and Mary had inherited, the way the Shrewsburys and treated her as a prisoner would have had a bearing on their subsequent status.
On the other side of the coin, Bess was requested for favours. In around 1570, the Earl of Rutland, whose aunt Gertrude had been Shrewbsury’s first wife, wrote to Bess on behalf of a Mistress Higgins, once in Gertrude’s employ, asking Bess to help her to find a post. Whilst it may seem surprising that an earl should bestir himself for the benefit of a former employee of a dead aunt, that was how the system worked – the bonds of service enmeshed both employer and employee.
Time marched on, and by the mid-1570s it appeared that history would repeat itself, with the death of a childless queen. Elizabeth was in good health, but Bess looked to the future. Whilst it was unlikely that Mary of Scotland would inherit the English crown, her son, James VI, King of Scots probably would. His grandmother was none other than Lady Lennox, whom Bess had known for many years and who was a close friend of another of Bess’ old friends, Katherine Willoughby, Dowager Duchess of Suffolk.
Before long, Bess and Lady Lennox had presided over what they claimed was a love-match between Bess’ daughter, Elizabeth Cavendish, and Lady Lennox’ son, Lord Charles Stuart. This was doubly good for Bess and her daughter. If King James inherited, then her daughter would be his aunt-by-marriage, but if there were objections to a foreign-born king, Lord Charles himself, born in England, was Elizabeth’s next male heir.
The queen, predictably, was furious. And this is where Bess’ long nurturing of her friends and acquaintances paid off. Shrewsbury wrote to Cecil (now Lord Burghley, but still Elizabeth’s first minister) that Bess had no treasonable intentions. The Earl of Huntingdon was deputed to investigate the matter. He and his wife, Katherine Dudley, were old friends, convinced Protestants, and were probably sympathetic to Bess. So, whilst Catholic Lady Lennox was sent to the Tower, Bess escaped punishment.
But nothing is free, and Bess needed to restore herself to the queen’s favour. She wrote to her old friend Lady Cobham, still amongst the queen’s attendants, for advice on suitable gifts. She was steered away from money, and sent a gift of clothes instead. Bess’ half-sister, Elizabeth Wingfield, was also one of the queen’s ladies – a position probably procured for her by Bess, and wrote to her sister of how well the queen had received the peace-offering. Wingfield and others had been busy persuading the queen of Bess’ loyalty ‘your honour (Bess) shall know that after my cousin William and my (Wingfield) careful toil…we have reaped such recompense as could not desire better first her majesty never liked anything you gave her so well the colour and strange trimmings of the garments with the rich and great cost bestowed upon it have caused her to give out such good speeches of my Lord (Shrewsbury) and your Ladyship as I never heard of better.’
The young Lennoxes both died within a few years, leaving a daughter, Lady Arbella Stuart, who was permitted to remain with Bess after Lady Lennox’ death. Whilst having a potential heir to the throne in her hand seemed initially to be a dream come true for Bess, as time passed, it became a nightmare, as did her once happy marriage to Shrewsbury.
The strain of guarding the Queen of Scots destroyed Shrewsbury’s mental well-being, and his marriage. For reasons that are not entirely clear, Shrewsbury took against his wife, and began to accuse her of trying to defraud him. This was not helped by Shrewsbury’s finances deteriorating sharply, whilst Bess seemed to make money with everything she touched, refusing to allow him to reduce any of the payments he was due to make to her under their various marriage settlements. She and Queen Mary also fell out and Shrewsbury was at his wits’ end.
Soon, the scandal of the Shrewsbury’s marital breakdown was so widely known that the queen ordered an investigation. Once again, Bess could rely on her network of friends to help her. Leicester wrote to Shrewsbury, telling him to make peace with his wife. Matters deteriorated, and Shrewsbury made a formal complaint against his wife to the Privy Council. Leicester, still sympathetic to his old friend, paid her a visit to hear her side of the story.
Queen Mary was also bitter against Bess now – perhaps seeing that Bess planned to use Arbella to cut both Mary and James from the succession. With accusations flying about that Shrewsbury and Mary were lovers, Elizabeth convened a hearing. Bess travelled to London where she was warmly received by Elizabeth and all her friends at court. The hearing resulted in Shrewsbury finally being relieved of the burden of the Scots queen, but this did not lead to reconciliation with Bess. Instead, he sought separation.
For Bess, such a step would have been a calamity. In a world where a woman’s rank and honour was heavily dependent on that of her husband, to be cast off would be a disgrace. Now, she needed the support of everyone she had ever befriended. The commission to investigate found entirely in Bess’ favour, and over the following years, as Shrewsbury refused to take her back to the marital home, repeated investigations found for Bess. Her investment in people paid off.
With the execution of Queen Mary in 1587, Bess began to put more hope in Arbella’s future, and cultivated a new generation of courtiers – Burghley’s son, Sir Robert Cecil; Leicester’s step-son, the Earl of Essex, and another of the queen’s favourites, Sir Walter Raleigh. Whilst this did not have the desired effect of encouraging support for Arbella as a potential queen, it did ease Arbella’s situation when Elizabeth died, and James of Scotland became of England. Arbella, however, did not learn from her grandmother’s example of pragmatism, and careful cultivation of her network, and came to a tragic end.