When Bess of Hardwick died, aged 81, she was the most powerful woman in Elizabethan England after the Queen. In her lifetime she had kept company with Mary Queen of Scots, married her grandchild into Royalty, was friends with Robert Dudley and William Cecil. She was close to the tragic Grey family and she was often at court. It is said that every aristocratic family in Britain has her blood running through their veins including the present Royal family. When Bess died she was the very wealthy Countess of Shrewsbury but her life had begun very differently.
There was nothing in Bess’s early life that indicated her great rise. Her family’s land was not valuable nor anything special; it was simply used to graze sheep. She was never a beautiful or a particularly well educated woman, which makes her spectacular rise to fame and fortune even more remarkable – this in an age when women had no legal rights. The best education a Tudor woman could hope to acquire was in sewing, music and perhaps if she was very fortunate the ability to read and write.
There was never much wealth in Bess’s childhood home, despite her family being part of the minor gentry. They were the distant but poor relations of Thomas Grey (Marquis of Dorset and Father of Lady Jane Grey) and Charles Brandon (Duke of Suffolk and King Henry VIII’s brother-in-law and close friend). Her family had excellent connections but when hard times came those relatives did little or nothing to help.
When Bess was still a baby, her father John died and he left his young wife Elizabeth with seven children and not much else. Times were hard. Bess’s mother married Ralph Leche who was the younger son of his own family and so had little prospect of inheriting from his own family. Even after their marriage, Ralph spent time in a debtor’s prison.
In Tudor times, titles and social networks were just as important as wealth. A rich family would happily marry into a respectable but poor one, for the connections and titles they could bring. When Bess was 12 she was sent to the household of the Lady Zouche, a distant relative, who had been a lady in waiting to Queen Anne Boleyn and Queen Jane Seymour. Here she learnt how to become a young courtier and how to run a household.
Whilst at the household of the Lady Zouche, Bess met and married her first husband Robert Barlow. She nursed him through an illness. She was 15 and Robert was 13 on their wedding day. Robert died 18 months later on Christmas Eve 1544.
It is unlikely that the couple ever had sex as it was discouraged for both sexes under the age of 15. It was because of this non consummation that her brother in law refused to pay Bess’s dower. Dowers were Tudor prenuptial agreements and they were vital for women in an age where they were entirely dependent on men for survival. Bess fought through the legal system and eventually won. Although it was not a great fortune, it was a modest income that she earned through rents.
Some time later, her family connections gained Bess a place at Bradgate Park, which was the home of her distant but Royal relatives – the Grey family. Lady Frances Grey was the daughter of Princess Mary Tudor (sister of Henry VIII) and Charles Brandon the Duke of Suffolk (The King’s great friend). They had three children, all of them girls. Bess became a great favourite of Lady Frances and her daughters. She treasured a piece of jewellery that she was given to her by Frances for all of her life.
Bess’s second wedding was held at Bradgate Park the home of the Greys and not Hardwick Hall which was Bess’s family home. This could suggest that Frances and Bess had become very close.
Her marriage was to Sir William Cavendish, a widower, who was more than twice Bess’s 19 years. William had worked for Thomas Cromwell and in 1546 was appointed the King’s treasurer and had joined the Privy Council. William was an important man and it was a lot for the teenaged Bess to take on. William had three daughters who needed a step mother and Bess was only seven years older than his eldest child.
Bess would have many houses to govern and after marriage she would become the head of the household. When they married in 1547, she gained the title ‘Lady Cavendish’ and was presented at the King’s court. She became part of an elite set of courtiers who spent lavishly on entertaining each other. Bess would have dined with the Lord Protector (Edward Seymour), the King’s last stepmother Catherine Parr and other great people of the age.
Bess’s first child, a girl named Frances, was born in June of the next year and Lady Frances Grey was the chief God mother.
It appears that Sir William was a kind and generous husband who often told Bess to give friends and family lavish gifts as well as gifts to the poor and destitute. The letters between the couple are loving and Bess often purchased silks, lace and fine linen for ‘her daughters Francy’s and Cate’ (her step children.) The archives show that the other daughter, Mary, was boarded out which could suggest that she was disabled in some way as, sadly, Tudors often sent disabled children away from home.
In 1549, Bess gave birth to a second daughter named ‘Temperance’ which was the nickname the young king Edward VI gave to his sister Elizabeth. The Godparents were Lady Jane Grey and Lady Warwick (Dudley). This shows that after the arrest of Thomas Seymour for his dalliance with Princess Elizabeth, the Dudley family were gaining more power.
Suddenly at this point, the household accounts were no longer written in Bess’s handwriting. Until now, Bess had kept a meticulous record of household expenditures. It continues in her husband’s handwriting because Temperance died and Bess was inconsolable.
The couple’s next child was a son named Henry. By now John Dudley was fast becoming the most powerful man in England and it was he and Princess Elizabeth that were Henry’s Godparents.
A letter by Lady Jane signed ‘Jane the Queen’ and a portrait said to be of her.
When the boy King Edward VI became ill, the succession crisis began. There was no male heir and England had never been successfully ruled by a woman alone at that time. The Grey girls were all hastily married and it was a race to the birthing stool. Jane who under the king’s will was next in line to the throne was married to John Dudley’s son Guildford. Bess and her family must have attended the Grand triple weddings that took place.
When the young King died, England had two Queens for 9 days (in reality about 14 days). One was Henry VIII’s daughter Mary and the other was lady Jane Grey. It ended in tragedy for the Greys as Lady Jane was executed by her reluctant cousin, Queen Mary I, along with her new husband Guildford Dudley.
This must have been a very frightening and sad time for Bess. The 19 year old Princess Elizabeth was also held in the Tower. Queen Mary I did this because she believed that Elizabeth was plotting against her after the Wyatt rebellion whose purpose had been to put Elizabeth on the throne.
Elizabeth was held in the same rooms that her mother Anne Boleyn had been in before her execution in the Tower of London.She was released on 19th May, which was the same date of her mother’s execution. Some suspect this was a deliberate act of cruelty and that until the last moment Elizabeth thought she, like her mother, was being led to the block.
Anne Boleyn: Elizabeth’s mother who was executed in 1536.
Bess of Hardwick was a practical women and when the Catholic Mary was swept to the throne she too became a Catholic. It is interesting that at this time when the Greys were so out of favour that Bess chose Henry Grey as one of her fifth child’s Godparents. Henry was later executed for treason because of his second plot to put his daughter Jane Grey on the throne. It was for this reason that Jane was executed because Jane refused to become a Catholic. If she had agreed, it is likely she would have been allowed to live because as a Catholic Jane would no longer be a threat to her cousin Mary’s throne.
Bess had eight children when her husband William died in 1557. His last few weeks were difficult as he had been called to the Star Chamber charged with embezzlement. Bess fought for her rights through parliament which was a very rare thing for a Tudor woman to do. She also wrote to her powerful friends for help, after her husband’s death. Bess kept Chatsworth and won her case.
That year, it became clear that Queen Mary I was not pregnant but dying – soon after Princess Elizabeth became the Queen. Bess next married a man who had been held and ‘examined’ in the Tower for his support and involvement of the Wyatt rebellion. His name was William St. Loe and he was a fierce supporter of the new queen.
Queen Elizabeth rewarded him for his loyalty immediately after her accession by making him captain of her personal guard. She gave St.Loe 100 marks for life and backdated his payment. He became chief Butler of England and Wales for life, including all the income that would bring him plus a few other lucrative bonuses.
The marriage took place in August 1559 and Bess became a lady of the privy chamber shortly afterwards. This gave her close regular contact with the Queen. Outside of marriage, this was the pinnacle of a Tudor woman’s career and with a queen ruling alone there were even more opportunities for well-bred women than ever before. As a man could not deliver messages to a Queen if she was alone in her private rooms or be a groom of the stool. Women were gaining more power and respect.
Sir William was very affectionate husband to Bess and encouraged her building works on Chatsworth and Sutton Court. His brother, Edward St. Loe, who was living in Sutton Court, was angry by this and felt that it was property and that Bess had no right to. He tried to claim that it had been left to his wife but it was indisputably proved not to be the case.
Bess was taken suddenly ill and poison was suspected. Edward her brother-in-law had been staying at her home. An astrologer and two others were imprisoned for the crime. The astrologer was Huge Draper and his star chart carvings can still be seen on the Tower of London walls.
Bess’s brother in law Edward St. Loe was never charged with poisoning although he was a close associate of all three imprisoned men. The argument between the brothers became deeper and Edward took William to court again. The judge allowed Edward and his wife to stay in the disputed house rent free. William was worried about what would happen to Bess if he died and he wrote a will leaving everything to Bess for her lifetime.
Lady Katherine Grey, now a maid of honour to the Queen, told Bess in private that she was married. Katherine was also very pregnant and worse still she had not asked the Queen’s permission. Bess understood at once the serious position her young friend was in and burst into tears. Both women had witnessed Lady Jane and her father die for their blood connections to the throne.
Queen Elizabeth could on occasion be petty, jealous and spiteful but this was not one of those times. The threat to her throne by Lady Katherine was very serious. Katherine had married the son of Edward Seymour who had been the Lord Protector in her brother’s reign. He is related by blood to Royalty just as the Grey sisters were by their grandmother Princess Mary Tudor, Queen of France.
The last King of England, Edward VI, considered Elizabeth to be born out of wedlock and by his will the Grey sisters were next to inherit the throne. If the child was a boy, according to this will, he would be king of England because of his sex. It was a serious threat to Elizabeth’s throne and one which could easily cause a civil war.
Edward Seymour (left), The couple’s tomb salisbury Cathedral and Katherine and her son and heir (Right).
Katherine and Edward were very much in love and were in a terrible predicament. Bess told Sir Robert Dudley late at night in his private rooms. The Queen was understandably livid. Bess was questioned probably in the tower but was acquitted and soon released. Katherine and Edward were not so fortunate and were kept imprisoned in the tower. The child was a son and so the marriage was declared invalid and the boy illegitimate – as was his younger brother that was conceived later in the Tower.
Then the news came that Bess of Hardwick’s husband, Sir William St. Loe had died suddenly. His brother Edward was by his bedside at his death. There was no proof but poison must have been suspected as William was a healthy and fit man. Once more Bess fought for her rights.
In 1568 Bess married her last husband, George Talbot, the Duke 6th Earl of Shrewsbury. Mary Queen of Scots had fled her country for refuge in England and found herself locked up by her cousin Elizabeth I. It was the Earl who became Mary’s jailor and his wife who kept the Royal prisoner company. There are fabulous tapestries on show at Oxburgh Hall in Norfolk where it is easy to imagine Bess and Mary once chatting and sewing together.
The couple spent vast amounts of money housing the Scots Queen, but Queen Elizabeth was neither grateful nor willing to recompense them. The strain began to affect the marriage. The breakdown was slow but steady and at times the great and the good attempted to give the couple marriage guidance.
Bess’s daughter Elizabeth fell in love and married the brother of Henry Darnley the murdered husband of Mary Queen of Scots. This was another blow to Queen Elizabeth because any son born to the couple could be King of England. Their child was a daughter, Arabella Stuart whose bloodline, like the Grey sisters before her, bought her nothing but unhappiness. Bess of Hardwick died on Saturday 13 February 1608, aged 81.
Four times the nuptial bed she warmed,
And every time so well performed,
That when death spoiled each husbands billing
He left the widow every shilling.
Link to Hardwick Hall website: http://www.nationaltrust.org.uk/hardwick-hall
Link to Oxbrugh Hall: http://www.nationaltrust.org.uk/oxburgh-hall This house is well worth a visit, much of Bess’s sewing with Queen Mary of Scotland is kept there. There is a wonderful priest hole that visitors can climb into to inspect. The family are the direct descendants of Henry Bedingfeld (Elizabeth’s jailor) and the family are still proudly Catholic to this day.
I admire Bess of Hardwick, she was a great house builder, she had marriages that were mostly happy, and she rose through the ranks of Tudor society by her own efforts. Bess fought for her rights through the court system, in a time when the world was a very sexist and unfair place. I admire her courage and fortitude. What do you think?
Bibliography: Bess of Hardwick: First Lady of Chatsworth:Mary S. Lovell; 2005.