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Talbot [née Hardwick], Elizabeth [Bess] [called Bess of Hardwick], countess of Shrewsburyfree

(1527?–1608)
  • Elizabeth Goldring

Elizabeth Talbot [Bess of Hardwick], countess of Shrewsbury (1527?–1608)

by unknown artist, c. 1590

Hardwick Hall, The Devonshire Collection (The National Trust). Photograph: Photographic Survey, Courtauld Institute of Art, London

Talbot [née Hardwick], Elizabeth [Bess] [called Bess of Hardwick], countess of Shrewsbury (1527?–1608), noblewoman, was one of four daughters and one son born to John Hardwick (c.1487–1528) of Hardwick, Derbyshire, and his wife, Elizabeth, daughter of Thomas Leake of Hasland, in the same county. Although the Hardwicks had for several generations been a moderately prosperous Derbyshire gentry family, Bess's early years were marked by hardship. When her father died in 1528, a significant portion of the 400 acres he had owned in and around Hardwick was seized by the crown, to be administered by the office of wards until his son and heir, James, came of age. It is unclear whether the modest manor house that had been in the Hardwick family for several generations—and on the site of which Bess later erected Hardwick Old Hall—was also seized in this manner. Few details are known of Bess's life in these years beyond the fact that her mother married Ralph Leche of Chatsworth, Derbyshire, probably in 1529. The marriage resulted in three additional children, all daughters. Leche, however, brought little land or money to the marriage, and he spent the period from 1538 to 1544 in a debtors' prison.

While still a young girl, Bess married Robert Barlow (or Barley) of Barlow, Derbyshire. Although the precise date of the marriage is unknown, it seems to have taken place before—or perhaps on—28 May 1543. The marriage produced no children, and it was later said that Barlow 'died before they were bedded together, they both being very young' (Margaret, duchess of Newcastle, 211). Upon Barlow's death on 24 December 1544 Bess received a modest inheritance.

Lady Cavendish

On 20 August 1547 Bess married the twice-widowed Sir William Cavendish (1508–1557), who had been appointed treasurer of the king's chamber the previous year. How Bess came to meet someone of Cavendish's standing is unclear, although it has been suggested that she was, at the time of her marriage, a lady-in-waiting to Frances Grey, marchioness of Dorset. While there is no real proof of this, it would help to explain not only how Bess met Cavendish, but also why the wedding took place in the Grey family chapel at Bradgate Manor, Leicestershire. Regardless of the marriage's origins, this was a brilliant match for Bess and one which was to change the course of her life. It was also by all accounts a happy union, not least because the couple shared a fierce ambition for social advancement. Between 1548 and 1557 Bess gave birth to eight children, six of whom survived into adulthood. Bess provided Cavendish with something neither of his first two marriages had produced: a healthy male heir. In fact they had three sons, all of whom survived, and two of whom founded dukedoms. Their eldest son was Henry Cavendish. The dukes of Devonshire are descended from Bess's second son, William Cavendish (1551–1626), and the dukes of Newcastle (and, indirectly, the dukes of Portland) are descended from her youngest son, Charles.

In selecting godparents for their children, Bess and Cavendish overwhelmingly chose prominent protestants. Among them were Princess Elizabeth, William Herbert, earl of Pembroke, John Dudley, duke of Northumberland, Lady Jane Grey, and numerous other members of the extended Grey family. It is difficult to say how far the choice of godparents reflected genuine religious belief, or a shrewd sense of self-preservation at a volatile court (in 1553, for example, Bess and Cavendish asked the new Queen Mary to be godmother to their son Charles). One point, however, is incontrovertible: Bess, as a result of her marriage to Cavendish, was now moving in aristocratic and royal circles.

In June 1549 Cavendish bought the estate of Chatsworth, which until 1547 had belonged to the Leches, to whom Bess was related by marriage. They almost immediately embarked on an ambitious project of rebuilding, and—as a household inventory of 1553 reveals—began to fill Chatsworth with the most splendid and luxurious furnishings. Although Chatsworth was the most glittering of the Cavendish properties in Derbyshire, it was by no means the only one: in 1550 Bess and Sir William had purchased the manor of Ashford and 8000 acres of land from the earl of Westmorland; in 1553 they bought 250 acres in Chatsworth and Baslow; and in 1554 they purchased an additional 70 acres near Chatsworth, as well as part of Edensor, the village which immediately bordered upon Chatsworth. It is difficult not to see these purchases as reflecting a desire on the part of Bess to return to her native Derbyshire in triumph, flaunting her new-found status as Lady Cavendish. As has been observed, her

unrelenting acquisition of property and worldly goods, especially of property in the countryside of her birth, and if possible connected with her family and relatives, suggests the ambition of a local girl to demonstrate that the dim squire's daughter had made good in a sensational way.

Girouard, Hardwick Hall, 6

All the Derbyshire properties were held jointly in the names of both Bess and Sir William for both of their lives—a shrewd, if unusual, move designed to prevent the lands and property falling into wardship if, like Bess's father, Sir William should die before his eldest son attained his majority. As it happened, this proved a wise decision, for Sir William died in 1557, at which time his eldest son, Henry, was only seven years old. None the less, Bess found herself in a precarious financial situation in the wake of her husband's death, for Sir William died owing £5237 to the crown. This turn of events led Bess to lobby parliament in 1558 to protest against the proposed bill for the queen's debtors. It may also have had some bearing on the speed with which Bess married again, and on her choice of husband.

Lady St Loe

At some point after Cavendish's death, but before Elizabeth I's accession, Bess married Sir William St Loe (c.1520–1565?). Like Cavendish, St Loe was a widower when he married Bess. Unlike Cavendish, however, St Loe hailed from an ancient and noble family. He was also considerably wealthier than Cavendish had been. Bess and St Loe spent much of their married life apart: Bess resided largely at Chatsworth, where she continued to oversee the on-going building works, while St Loe, owing to his duties at court, spent a great deal of his time in London. They had no children, and when St Loe died—probably in 1565—Bess, rather than St Loe's brother Edward, inherited the bulk of the estate. At the time the St Loe family accused Bess of exercising undue influence on her husband. Recent biographers, however, have suggested that Sir William may have had his own reasons for acting as he did.

If marriage to St Loe improved Bess's finances, it also brought her into Queen Elizabeth's inner circle. At the time of his marriage to Bess, St Loe was a member of the household of the then Princess Elizabeth. In 1559 he was named captain of the guard to the new queen. In the same year Bess was appointed a gentlewoman of the queen's privy chamber (and it is the fact that she is listed as 'Mrs St Loe' in privy chamber records that suggests that her third marriage must have taken place before Elizabeth I's accession). Bess and the queen fell out spectacularly over Bess's alleged involvement in the illicit marriage of Katherine Grey and Edward Seymour, earl of Hertford; as a result Bess was dismissed from the privy chamber. None the less, the relationship between the two women was more often than not amicable. In the late 1580s, when Bess's marriage to her fourth husband, the earl of Shrewsbury, had broken down, the queen intervened on Bess's behalf, asking Shrewsbury to permit his wife to see him.

Countess of Shrewsbury

On 1 November 1567 Bess married George Talbot, sixth earl of Shrewsbury (c. 1522–1590), one of the richest and most powerful men in the north of England. At the time of their marriage Shrewsbury's property included the castles of Tutbury, Pontefract, and Sheffield, as well as a manor house at Sheffield and a lodge at Handsworth, hunting lodges at Tutbury and Worksop, and the converted monastic buildings at Rufford Abbey. Shrewsbury's union with Bess, which brought together two great fortunes, was cemented—at Bess's insistence—by the arranged marriages of four of their children: Gilbert Talbot, who became the seventh earl, wed Bess's daughter Mary, and Bess's eldest son, Henry Cavendish, wed Shrewsbury's daughter Grace.

In 1568 the queen designated Shrewsbury the keeper of Mary, queen of Scots, and the following year he and Bess received the Catholic queen at Tutbury. Mary remained in Talbot's custody until 1584, during which period she was moved on numerous occasions between Shrewsbury's various properties. In 1574 Margaret, countess of Lennox, and her son Charles Stuart came to visit the Scottish queen at Rufford, and Bess was on hand to entertain them. By the end of their five-day visit, the ever-resourceful Bess had engineered a match between Charles Stuart and her daughter Elizabeth Cavendish. They were married shortly thereafter, much to the fury of Shrewsbury and the queen, neither of whom had been consulted or informed of the marriage. A daughter, Arabella Stuart, was born in 1575. The child was frequently spoken of as a potential successor to the Virgin Queen, and Bess—who took charge of her granddaughter's upbringing after Arabella was orphaned in 1582—seems to have entertained great, if ultimately unrealized, ambitions for the young girl.

During the period of the Scottish queen's captivity, relations between the earl and countess steadily deteriorated. Bess repeatedly accused her husband of infidelities, including a probably unfounded charge that he had been intimate with Mary, queen of Scots. (This allegation may well have been designed primarily to damage Mary, with whom Bess—despite an initial period of friendship—had fallen out.) The earl, whose debts were mounting as a result of the expenses incurred as gaoler to the Scottish queen, chafed at the amount of time and money Bess devoted to the renovations at Chatsworth. In 1584 Bess separated from her husband and retired to Chatsworth.

At the time of their separation Shrewsbury attempted to claim Chatsworth as his under the terms of their marriage settlement. A legal battle ensued, which was finally resolved in 1587 when the courts awarded Bess both Chatsworth and a sizeable income from her husband. By this time, however, Bess had moved on to a new building project. In 1584, at which time Chatsworth's fate had been uncertain, Bess had purchased from her brother the family manor house at Hardwick. In 1587, armed with the financial means to realize her plans, she embarked on an ambitious plan for rebuilding, much as she and Cavendish had done earlier at Chatsworth. The majority of the renovations at Hardwick—comprising what is now called ‘Hardwick Old Hall’—seem to have been completed by 1591.

As a result of her husband's death on 18 November 1590, Bess had inherited one third of the disposable lands that Talbot had owned at the time of their marriage. Almost immediately upon completing the building of Hardwick Old Hall, she turned her attention to building another Hardwick Hall, adjacent to the old one. Owing to the survival of extensive building accounts, a considerable amount is known regarding the construction of Hardwick New Hall. The shell had been completed by the end of 1593, Bess took up residence on 4 October 1597, and the final building work was completed two years later. Bess occupied herself with furnishing and decorating the interior up until her death. This extraordinary house became the focal point of—as well as the enduring monument to—Bess's dynastic ambitions.

Probably the product of designs by Robert Smythson, Hardwick New Hall is remarkable in many respects. Like other houses designed by Smythson, it is an outward-facing, highly symmetrical structure, with an emphasis upon light and verticality (these two latter attributes achieved largely through the liberal use of bay windows). Other aspects of the design of Hardwick, however, are unique. It is the earliest surviving example of an English house with loggias but no internal courtyard. It is also unusual in that the hall, rather than running parallel to the long axis of the house, is instead placed at a right angle to it. The most distinctive feature of the house—and one which no one who has seen it can easily forget—is the emblazoning of the initials ‘ES’, surmounted by a countess's coronet, on the tops of each of the house's six towers.

The interior was, by all accounts, equally majestic and self-referential. An inventory of 1601 reveals that Bess filled Hardwick with a splendid collection of paintings, furniture, silver, tapestries, and embroidery. The public rooms, such as the long gallery and the high great chamber, were deliberately placed on the second storey rather than, as was customary at the time, on the first; the result was that all who came to Hardwick had the opportunity to process through the house, taking in its grandeur en route before being received by Bess. Even today the house reverberates with Bess's penchant for drama and self-presentation. Numerous extant features, including chimney-pieces, plaster friezes, and embroideries, integrate the initials ‘ES’—along with the arms, crests, and attributes of the Hardwicks, Cavendishes, and Talbots—into their design.

Last years

In 1601 Bess made her will, in which she bequeathed the contents of the two Hardwicks and also of Oldcotes (another Derbyshire property whose construction she had overseen) to her second and favourite son, William. The contents of Chatsworth she left to her eldest son, Henry. Bess also made provision for her other children, as well as for her grandchildren, her servants, and the residents of the almshouse that she had founded in Derby. On 20 March 1603 she altered her will, thereby disinheriting her son Henry and her granddaughter Arabella, with each of whom she had quarrelled bitterly for decades.

Bess died on 13 February 1608, and her body lay in state at Hardwick until her funeral, on or about 4 May 1608, in All Hallows (now All Saints' Cathedral), Derby. She was at the time of her death one of the richest people in England, and her tomb, designed by Robert Smythson, famously describes her as the 'aedificatrix' of Chatsworth, Hardwick, and Oldcotes. Although the intervening centuries have not always been kind to her—William Camden and Horace Walpole were just two of the many detractors who have cast her as a rapacious, social-climbing shrew—Bess is today viewed not only as the builder of perhaps the most magnificent of the Elizabethan 'prodigy houses', but also as the founder of a great dynasty.

Sources

  • D. N. Durant, Bess of Hardwick: portrait of an Elizabethan dynast, rev. edn (1999)
  • M. Girouard, Hardwick Hall (1989)
  • M. Girouard, Robert Smythson and the Elizabethan country house [new edn] (1983)
  • L. Boynton, ed., The Hardwick Hall inventories of 1601 (1971)
  • Margaret, duchess of Newcastle [M. Cavendish], The life of William Cavendish, duke of Newcastle, ed. C. H. Firth (1886)
  • A. Collins, Historical collections of the noble families of Cavendishe, Holles, Vere, Harley and Ogle (1752)
  • A. Wells-Cole, Art and decoration in Elizabethan and Jacobean England (1997)
  • S. M. Levey, An Elizabethan inheritance: the Hardwick Hall textiles (1998)
  • E. Carleton Williams, Bess of Hardwick (1977)
  • M. Stepney Rawson, Bess of Hardwick and her circle (1910)
  • B. Stallybrass, ‘Bess of Hardwick's buildings and building accounts’, Archaeologia, 64 (1913)
  • J. Summerson, Architecture in Britain, 1530 to 1830, 9th edn (1993)
  • S. M. Levey and P. K. Thornton, Of household stuff: the 1601 inventories of Bess of Hardwick (2001)

Archives

  • Chatsworth House, Derbyshire, account books
  • Chatsworth House, Derbyshire, Hardwick MSS
  • Coll. Arms, Shrewsbury and Talbot MSS
  • Folger, corresp.
  • LPL, corresp. and papers
  • Sheffield Central Library, corresp.

Likenesses

  • oils, 1560 (after H. Eworth), Hardwick Hall, Derbyshire
  • English school or R. Lockey?, oils, 1580, Hardwick Hall, Derbyshire
  • oils, 1590, Hardwick Hall, Derbyshire [see illus.]
  • tomb effigy, marble, 1603, All Saints' Church, Derby
  • R. Lockey?, oils (second version), Montacute House, Somerset

Wealth at Death

very wealthy: will, Collins, Historical Collections