Bess of Hardwick is probably best remembered for two things: having survived four husbands and having built Hardwick Hall, about which Elizabeth I’s advisor Robert Cecil quipped, “Hardwick Hall? More window than wall.”
Bess was born at Hardwick Manor in Derbyshire, probably on October 4, 1527, according to her biographer Mary Lovell. Hardwicks had been living there for two hundred years, and Bess, who was descended from Edward I and Eleanor of Castille, was a gentlewoman. But her father had died when she was a baby, her mother had remarried, and her stepfather was imprisoned for debt when Bess was about ten, so the family lived in genteel poverty.
At around the age of twelve, Bess was sent to be a lady-in-waiting to her distant relation Anne Gainsford, Lady Zouche. This kind of service in noble households was the standard way in which well-born boys and girls were introduced to influential people who could help them rise in the world and to potential mates. Bess is a shining example of how effective this system could be.
Both Lady Zouche and her husband, Sir George Zouche, had been in the household of Anne Boleyn. Lady Zouche served Jane Seymour after Anne Boleyn’s death in 1536, and in about 1540, Sir George became a gentleman pensioner to Henry VIII. This elite group of attendants were never far from the king both in London and when he went on progress during the summer, and it’s likely that Bess was in London and around the court of Henry VIII during some very interesting times.
At the age of about fifteen, Bess married young Robert Barlow, who also served in the Zouche household, and when he died the following year, her “widow’s dower,” a third of the income of the Barlow properties, provided her with thirty pounds a year, a respectable income when a maidservant’s annual pay was three pounds.
In about 1545, Bess entered the service of Frances Brandon Grey, the Marchioness of Dorset. Frances was the daughter of Henry VIII’s sister Mary Tudor and her second husband Charles Brandon, the Duke of Suffolk. Bess became close to Frances’s children, the famous Lady Jane Grey and her younger sisters, Catherine and Mary.
It was probably through the Greys that Bess met her second husband, Sir William Cavendish (pictured), who was about twenty years older than she was and already wealthy, largely as a result of his work on the nuts and bolts matters of the dissolution of the monasteries.
Bess’s marriage to Sir William entitled her to be called Lady Cavendish, and took her up a few rungs on the ladder of society. He was well connected at court and was fortunate to have the patronage of Edward Seymour, the Earl of Hertford, who became even more powerful as Duke of Somerset and Lord Protector of the young King Edward VI following the death of Henry VIII.
During their ten years of marriage, Bess and William had eight children and began building the palatial Chatsworth House, intended to be the family seat of their descendants. Sir William died in 1557, leaving Bess a very wealthy thirty-year old widow.
Lady St. Loe
Bess’s third marriage, to Sir William St. Loe, came not long after Elizabeth I succeeded to the throne in 1558. The queen chose Bess’s wedding date, August 27, 1559, and may have been at the wedding, for she had recently made Sir William the captain of her yeoman guards. He had been in charge of her security for several years, and had likely risked his life on her behalf during the unsuccessful Wyatt Rebellion of 1554, by carrying Elizabeth’s message to Thomas Wyatt that she would go along with his plan to put her, Elizabeth, on the throne in place of her sister Mary. Possibly out of gratitude to Sir William, the queen made Bess one of her ladies of the privy chamber.
Sir William died only six years after marrying Bess, possibly poisoned by his brother. His will left everything to Bess. She was mistress of many valuable properties, had a substantial income, and could have lived comfortably for the rest of her life.
Countess of Shrewsbury
But Bess wasn’t done marrying yet. She returned to court, and after considering many suitors, chose as her fourth husband, George Talbot, the sixth Earl of Shrewsbury. The marriage took her to the peak of society, for Shrewsbury was not only enormously wealthy, but also the highest ranking nobleman in England, and as his wife, Bess became Countess of Shrewsbury.
George Talbot also had children who were around the same age as Bess’s, and their marriage was part of a grand dynastic alliance that secured the property of both families for future generations. On February 9, 1568, around the time that Bess married Shrewsbury, his fifteen-year-old son, Gilbert Talbot, married Bess’s twelve-year-old daughter Mary Cavendish, and Bess’s seventeen-year-old son, Henry Cavendish, married eight-year-old Grace Talbot. (It wasn’t uncommon for girls in noble familiies to be married so young. The marriages weren’t consummated until the girls were much older.)
Bess’s marriage to the Earl of Shrewsbury was her longest, and also the unhappiest. Soon after she and her husband were married, they became the caretakers of Mary Queen of Scots. It was an honor that Queen Elizabeth trusted them with this important duty, but she didn’t provide near enough money to support Mary’s large retinue. And what Bess and her husband had expected to be a temporary arrangement dragged on for almost seventeen years, contributing to the utter destruction of their marriage.
It was only after Shrewsbury died in 1590, that Bess, now sixty-three years old, extremely wealthy, and completely independent, embarked upon her most ambitious project: the building of Hardwick Hall near her childhood home. Bess’s granddaughter Arbella was a possible successor to the English throne, and Bess intended Hardwick Hall to be impressive and fit for a queen. There were no architects as we know them in those days, but the house was likely designed by master builder Robert Smythson, who had also built Longleat House. Among the house’s revolutionary features were the many tall windows, each formed of numerous small diamond-shaped panes of glass manufactured by Bess’s own glassworks.
The building account books list the names of 375 workmen, many of whom had worked for Bess on Chatsworth House and other projects. Over the years of construction, she personally oversaw the armies of tradesmen and artisans, and she moved into the not-quite-completed building on October 4, 1597, which was probably her seventieth birthday.
It was James I and not Arbella Stuart who succeeded Queen Elizabeth, so Bess never got to be grandmother to a queen. But her careful planning of her children’s marriages was successful, and she is the ancestor of many of the noble families of Britain, including the dukedoms of Devonshire, Portland, Somerset, and Newcastle; the Earls of Lincoln, Portsmouth, Kellie, and Pembroke; the Baron Waterpark; and the current queen. In fact, Prince William and Prince Harry are descended from Bess on both sides.
Gillian Bagwell’s novel about Bess of Hardwick, Venus in Winter, was released on July 2.