The woman known to history as Bess of Hardwick was born Elizabeth Hardwick, one of five daughters in a family of minor gentry in 1527. For perspective, this was about six years before the birth of Queen Elizabeth I, making the two women contemporaries. During this particularly chaotic time in English history, those who sought power had to make careful choices on who to support, knowing that men like Cardinal Wolsey and Thomas Cromwell could be favourites one day and executed for treason the next. For anyone to thrive in this culture spoke to their cleverness, resiliency, and good luck. And for a woman like Bess to succeed – without royal pedigree, without powerful allies – demonstrates the depth of ambition, intelligence, and ruthlessness she must have possessed.
This isn’t a story about a woman victimized by men who winds up executed. Bess of Hardwick’s story is one of the resiliency of a self-made woman in a time when she was set up by societal conventions to fail. This is a story with a happy ending.
Bess and her family lived in a modest manor in Hardwick, their ancestral land in the county of Derbyshire. Her father died when she was very young, leaving a very small dowry to be split among Bess and her sisters. With her brother set to inherit the Hardwick lands, it was up to the girls to make themselves appealing matches for prospective husbands. With that in mind, Bess was sent at age 12 to serve in the household of her distant relation Lady Zouche at nearby Codnor Castle. The purpose of this sort of appointment was to allow young men and women from less-notable families the opportunity to meet influential people in order to improve their stations. Lady Zouche was in service to Queen Jane Seymour at the time that Bess came into service for her. This likely meant that Bess got to travel with her mistress to and from the royal court of Henry VIII, giving her an insider’s view of the turmoil and intrigue that went on there.
While in service to Lady Zouche, Bess made the acquaintance of teen aristocrat Robert Barley. The pair married in 1543 when she was about sixteen years old, and Barley died about a year later. As his widow, she should have been entitled to a portion of his family’s estate but the Barley family initially refused to provide it to her. Bess pursued the matter in a series of court battles and finally was awarded about thirty pounds a year as her widow’s dower. She was still not wealthy, but much better off than she had been as a child of the Hardwick household. With these funds, and her experience with Lady Zouche, Bess sought to elevate her position yet higher.
In 1545, she was placed in a position in the household of Lady Frances Grey, the Marchioness of Dorset. Frances was the daughter of Henry VIII’s sister, Mary Tudor, and was the mother of three girls: Lady Katherine, Lady Mary, and Lady Jane Grey. These girls were all about ten years younger than Bess, and they seem to have become good friends with Bess like a cool older sister figure to them. Due to the Grey family’s connection to Henry VIII, Bess would again have gotten the opportunity to spend time at royal court. During her time in this household, she met a man named Sir William Cavendish, who would become her second husband.
Cavendish was a definite catch for Bess. He was the Treasurer of the King’s Chamber, a highly influential role in Henry VIII’s court, had been widowed twice before, and had two daughters who were about Bess’s age (Cavendish was about 42 years old to Bess’s 20). His rank meant that Bess was now given the title of Lady Cavendish, and his wealth meant that she was now able to entirely change her lifestyle. They were married in 1547, a few years after Henry VIII had dissolved the monasteries as part of the Protestant Reformation. This meant that all of the highly valuable land previously owned by religious orders could now be taken over by rich people in search of land, and Cavendish and Bess were powerful enough they got first pick of which property they wanted. It had to have been at Bess’s suggestion that they would up claiming property in Derbyshire near where she’d grown up. You know Bess just loved knowing that all the people she grew up with could see her being rich and fancy. They began to build a home that’s still around today to visit, called Chatsworth House.
Bess gave birth to eight children during her time with Cavendish, six of whom survived infancy. Her older husband died in 1557, leaving the now 30-year-old Bess once more a widow. While Cavendish had lived a lavish lifestyle and owned property, he had died with considerable debt to the crown for which Bess was now responsible. During this time, the country entered a state of newfound chaos as the crown passed quickly between the boy king Edward IV, Bess’s former friend Lady Jane Grey, and finally to Queen Mary I. Mary I died shortly after Bess had been widowed, and Elizabeth I was crowned to widespread concern and uncertainty. Bess knew she had to find a new husband, someone even richer than Cavendish, to help her pay off her debts and to help raise her star even higher among the other courtiers. She looked to the court of Elizabeth I for options and decided her best option was a guy named Sir William St. Loe.
Just to make it very clear, each of Bess’s husbands was more politically powerful and wealthy than the previous, and St. Loe was truly a catch for her: he was Elizabeth I’s Captain of the Guard and Chief Butler of England, which was apparently a very prestigious thing to be. Like Cavendish, he owned lots of prestigious estates, so Bess was able to continue her new passion for building and flipping castles (but not selling them to anyone; she kept them all for herself). And like Cavendish, he had daughters from a previous relationship but unlike most other people, he had an extremely problematic brother. St. Loe’s brother, Edward, wanted nothing more than to inherit all of the St. Loe estates and money. He hoped that since no sons had been born to his brother, then he would be the main heir. So he saw Bess as a threat, because she was still young enough (32) to have a son, and if there was a new Baby St. Loe, Edward wouldn’t inherit anything. And so… he decided to kill her.
So, shortly after hosting a visit by Edward and his maybe-also-evil wife Margaret, Bess became very very very ill. Everyone immediately assumed that Edward had poisoned her: St. Loe believed it to be true, as did his mother. Bess’s condition improved and she didn’t die thank goodness, and an investigation found that Edward had been working with a necromancer! But nobody was sent to jail because Bess hadn’t died and really, people back then fell ill for a number of hygiene-related reasons, so they all decided to just move on. Except for Edward, who was still determined to cut Bess out of St. Loe’s will and make himself the only heir. He brought his brother to court, and the verdict there was that Edward’s wife Margaret would inherit the manor known as Sutton Court as long as she lived. St. Loe and Bess had his will rewritten so that Bess would inherit all of his money, leaving nothing for Edward.
During this time period, Bess was on such good terms with the Queen that she received a royal gift for New Year’s and Elizabeth agreed to waive all of the debt Bess still owed on behalf of her second husband, Cavendish. Bess spent much of her time overseeing the construction at Chatsworth House while St. Loe hung out being a butler etc. at royal court. But in 1564, Bess was called back to London because her husband had become very ill.
St. Loe had already died by the time Bess got there, and she was fairly certain he’d been poisoned by his horrible brother, Edward. But Edward didn’t know that the will had already been changed, cutting him out of inheritance altogether. St. Loe’s daughters were unhappy not to inherit anything from their father (remember, the property went to Edward’s wife and the money went to Bess). It wasn’t a good look on Bess, who looked a bit like a black widow/golddigger, and Edward took her to court to contest the terms of the will. Nothing changed, though; Margaret St. Loe still got the house, and Bess still got the money.
One assumed glad to have that all behind her, Bess headed off to hang out in Derbyshire and oversee yet more construction projects because she was now a real estate/castle building maven. She was rich, wealthy, and influential and could have chosen to live out the rest of her life as a widow but that was not Bess’s style. She returned to royal court in 1566 and everyone started gossiping about if and when she’d take a new husband. Bess was so rich she could have her pick of anyone, and a year later it was announced that she had become engaged, with royal permission, to George Talbot, the Earl of Shrewsbury. Talbot was the richest man in England, and marrying him meant Bess now had the title of Countess of Shrewsbury.
George was already the father of seven children from a previous marriage, and was basically her equal in terms of income and influence. Part of their marital arrangement also included the marriage of four of their children to one another: Bess’s teenage daughter Mary was married to George’s teenage son Gilbert, and Bess’s teenage son Henry was married to George’s young daughter Grace. There were caveats listed in these arrangements that if any of the children died before their marriages were consummated (given the young age of Mary and Grace, that wouldn’t happen for a few years), the marriages would then be moved onto the next younger sibling in each family. I mean, I guess that’s just how things were done back then?
So things were going great! With her new title came new lands and money, and Bess set about to build even more amazing palaces. From the letters that survive, she and George clearly adored one another. Theirs was a marriage they’d both chosen to enter into because they were both so rich nobody (other than the Queen) could tell them what to do, so they were equally rich, equally powerful, and made a Tudor-era supercouple. What could possible go wrong?? Well…
Into this extremely rich and marriage-focused family, came Hurricane Mary, Queen of Scots. If you’ve forgotten her whole deal you can click on this link for a reminder but basically: Mary QofS was a cousin of Elizabeth I and a lot of people thought she should be the queen of England instead of Elizabeth. Mary’s plans to take over England were set aside by two truly horrible husbands, one of whom she’d (allegedly) helped conspire to blow up before running off with the second one. She was now on the run from Scottish jail, because they didn’t like her blowing-up-husbands habit, and made her abdicate as Queen of Scotland. So she wound up in England, hoping her cousin/rival Elizabeth would help her out (despite Mary having actively tried to remove Elizabeth from power like five minutes ago). Elizabeth wasn’t sure what to do with her for obvious reasons; Mary’s motivations seemed shady as hell. But Elizabeth couldn’t just execute her because if she did, then others would think it’s OK to execute queens, and they might try and go for Elizabeth next. So finally, Elizabeth decided to put Mary in house arrest in the home of Bess and George and their weirdo intermarried Brady Bunch of a family.
Now. Mary was 26 years old when she arrived; Bess was 42. This isn’t a huge age gap all things considered, but just something to keep in mind. Having Mary sent to live with her was a huge honour for Bess, as it showed that Elizabeth trusted her. But it also really sucked because Elizabeth decided not to pay for Mary’s living expenses, so Bess and George wound up having to pay for all of Mary’s living expenses, which included: paying her sixteen personal servants, paying for thirty carts to transport Mary’s stuff between different properties as she was moved around, food for her personal chefs to prepare her thirty-two options for every meal. So like: the costs were not insubstantial. Chatsworth House was finished by then, so that’s where Mary spent a lot of her time in an apartment now known as the Queen of Scots room. And what did she do all day? Well, both she and Bess were really skilled at embroidery and they worked together on a series of panels known as the Oxburgh Hangings. You can view these in person if you go and visit Oxburgh Hall! You can tell who stitched which as Mary’s have the initials MS on them and Bess’s have ES on them (because her official name at that time was Elizabeth Shrewsbury).
But while it was all stitching and girl talk for the first little while, Bess was finally like, “Queen Liz I, how long is your cousin going to stay with me, like… a few years? Five years? What’s the deal?” And Elizabeth was like, “Well, I was thinking about fifteen years,” except that conversation never happened. The years just went by, and suddenly it had been fifteen years and Mary’s expenses were bankrupting Bess and George, and her ongoing psychological warfare had permanently ruined Bess and George’s marriage. But honestly, is it any wonder that, between the political tensions and financial strain, Bess and George’s marriage began to fall apart? Like not to blame Mary per se, but these two were her prison guards and all she had to do all day was embroider when what she really wanted was to take over England, so can you blame her for pitting Bess and George against each other?
To keep her mind off of her imploding marriage and her crafty houseguest-prisoner, Bess got busy figuring out the most advantageous marriages for her remaining single children. Her pal Lady Margaret Douglas, aka the mother-in-law of Mary Queen of Scots (and the mother of the ODIOUS LORD DARNLEY), was like, “What if we marry my non-Darnley son, Charles, to your cute daughter Elizabeth?” And Bess was like, “Hell yes, let’s do this.” Because even though Bess was literally the richest woman in England other than the Queen, she was herself not royal and none of her children were married to royals. Margaret Douglas was royal-adjacent, which meant that any children Charles Douglas and Elizabeth Cavendish had together would be possible heirs to the throne. Because by now Elizabeth I was in her 40s and people were starting to figure out she wasn’t ever going to get married or have children. So all of the maybe-heirs, people like Charles Douglas, were suddenly way more valuable.
Now, as we all remember from the whole Lady Katherine Grey scenario, sort-of-heirs had to get royal permission before getting married. But Bess and Lady Margaret were like, “Let’s just skip that step,” and arranged a quickie marriage for Charles and Elizabeth. Which basically meant that all four of them (Bess, Lady Margaret, Charles, and Elizabeth) had just committed treason. But by the time Elizabeth found out about it, it was too late to annul anything — Elizabeth was pregnant! And the child she had with Charles would become another heir to the throne. What to do?? Well, Elizabeth threw Lady Margaret in the Tower of London, and put Bess and Elizabeth under house arrest. Bess was like, “Oh no, I have to stay inside my huge palace house I’ve built for myself, the place where I’d be anyway? Woe is me, etc.”
In the midst of all this drama, Charles Douglas died of old-timey reasons, leaving Bess and her daughter Elizabeth in a Gilmore Girls scenario with a new baby. The new maybe-heir baby was named Arbella Stuart, and her life was VERY INTERESTING due to her being born from a treasonous marriage and being a possible candidate for Queen of England and Scotland. She deserves her own essay and rest assured, I will write one soon, and sort of skip over her stuff here so you aren’t spoiled for her feature.
During all of this, don’t forget, Mary Queen of Scots was still sitting around Chatsworth House. She’d grown tired of just doing embroidery and ruining Bess’s marriage, and had started (allegedly) scheming with some others to (allegedly) have Elizabeth assassinated. When Elizabeth found out about this, she transferred Mary from Bess’s property to a more prison-esque environment. Finally, Bess was free! And then a few years later, George (who had been living separately from her for quite awhile now anyway) died, leaving Bess 63 years old, the richest woman in England, with the title Dowager Countess of Shrewsbury.
Her daughter Elizabeth also died young, leaving Bess as the primary role model and guardian of her maybe-royal granddaughter, Arbella Stuart.I picture this as sort of a Miss Havisham scenario, with Bess training her granddaughter from an early age everything she needs to know about being an expert schemer and manipulator. They lived in Bess’s latest construction, a new palace build in Derbyshire that she called Hardwick Hall. Since she was grooming Arbella to be the next Queen, this estate was just as fancy if not fancier than the places where Elizabeth I lived, and had so many windows that people made up the rhyme “Hardwick Hall, more glass than wall.” If you’re curious, it’s still open to the public to visit!
But while Bess used all of her cleverness to leverage Arbella’s position, she hadn’t counted on Arbella inheriting Bess’s exact same very high amount of stubbornness and awesomeness. So despite all of Bess’s scheming, Arbella wound up running away to marry a man she’d chosen for herself, with an assist from her Uncle Henry. At this point, Bess effectively disowned her and removed her from her will and started calling Henry, her own son, “Horrible Henry.” It was a whole thing and at one point Arbella tried to escape dressed like a man and again: don’t worry, I’ll write about it another time. But just know that the battle of wills between Bess of Hardwick and Arbella Stuart was one for the ages.
Despite us not knowing the day, month or even year of her birth, it’s sort of nice to know that Bess was so important that we know the precise time of her death: 5pm on February 13th, 1608. She was 81 and, presumably, died of the sort of old timey diseases that you’d catch when you were that age in that time period. She was buried in Derbyshire, the place where she’d grown up in obscurity but wound up the most famous woman in town. There’s still a monument to her honour that you can visit if you’re there.
POSTSCRIPT: Although her granddaughter Arbella never became Queen, Bess of Hardwick did wind up an ancestor to royalty. Bess’s son William’s line leads to Elizabeth Bowes-Lyon, aka the mother of Queen Elizabeth II. And through her, she is an ancestor to Queen Elizabeth I and all of her heirs, including the adorably opinionated toddler Princess Charlotte.
Further Reading And Viewing
A BBC mini-series called Mistress of Hardwick aired in 1972, though most episodes are now lost. It must have been really great though, with noted historian Alison Plowden credited as the writer, and the series winning a Writers Guild Award. You can still read a book Plowden wrote to tie-in with the mini-series, also called Mistress of Hardwick. In the upcoming movie Mary Queen of Scots, Bess will be portrayed by the preternaturally elegant Gemma Chan.
Bess’s story is so dramatic, and she’s so clearly such a dynamic character, it’s no wonder there have been several novels written about her. The most recent book is the 2013 novel Venus in Winter: A Novel of Bess of Hardwick by Gillian Bagwell. She’s also a lead character in The Other Queen by Philippa Gregory, which focuses on the time Mary spent living with Bess and George.