Bess of Hardwick rose from obscurity to be one of the richest women in England and a friend of Elizabeth I. She was, perhaps, the single most successful woman of the age and her descendants still grace the stately homes of England and HM The Queen is Bess’ 10 x great-granddaughter.
The story of Bess of Hardwick is one of determination, grit, ambition and clever management. Born a poor gentleman farmer’s daughter, she died a countess and grandmother to a possible heir to the throne. She married four times, and was sincerely attached to all her husbands, although her final marriage disintegrated under unbearable pressures, brought on by her husband’s responsibilities as gaoler to Mary, Queen of Scots.
Hardwick Hall, ‘more glass than wall’, was built by Bess in the last decades of Elizabeth I’s reign and was at the forefront of Elizabethan fashion. It was also a statement of wealth and position. Bess was a great entrepreneur, buying up decayed estates, founding manufactories to provide materials for her building projects, and checking the smallest details in her accounts. But she also gave generously to charity and took good care of her family and staff.
Like most women, Bess never left England, but she travelled regularly between her native Derbyshire and London, and to the estates of her third husband in Somerset, as well as with the court. Many of her journeys related to supervision of her magnificent constructions at Chatsworth and Hardwick.
Listen to our editor, Melita Thomas, discussing Bess of Hardwick with Heather Teysko of the Renaissance English History Podcast.