Bess of Hardwick, Countess of Shrewsbury 1521-1608

  • Born: Abt. 1521
  • Died: 13 February 1608
  • Cause of Death: Old Age
  • Religion: Protestant
  • Parents: John Hardwick
    Elizabeth Leake
  • Spouse(s): Robert Barley
    Sir William Cavendish
    Sir William St Loe
    George Talbot, 6th Earl of Shrewsbury
  • Children: Frances Cavendish, wife of Sir Henry Pierrepont
    Temperance Cavendish (died in infancy)
    Henry Cavendish married Grace Talbot
    William Cavendish, 1st Earl of Devonshire
    Charles Cavendish married Catherine 8th Baroness Ogle
    Elizabeth Cavendish, wife of Charles Stuart, 5th Earl of Lennox
    Mary Cavendish, wife of Gilbert Talbot, 7th Earl of Shrewsbury
    Lucrece Cavendish (died in infancy)

Bess of Hardwick was one of five surviving children of a family of minor gentry, but was a lady of unfailing personal ambition and undoubted charisma. She had been brought up at Hardwick Hall, although her father died within a year of her birth, and the family were impoverished. In accordance with normal practice for young ladies, she was placed as part of her social education in the household of well-to-do kinsmen, initially with the Zouches. Her first marriage was arranged by the Zouche family, when Bess was fifteen and her husband, Robert Barlow, another distant kinsman in their service, was thirteen. Robert’s father had become dangerously ill, and he arranged his son’s marriage in an effort to prevent it being fixed disadvantageously by the Office of Wards, who would act as trustees of the Barlow estates during his minority. Robert outlived his father by less than two years, and the marriage to Bess was never consummated, but she took legal action to secure her dower rights to one third of the income (about £30 annually) from her husband’s estate and this eventually prevailed, demonstrating that even from an early age she was no push over in financial matters.

Meanwhile Bess had moved as a young widow to live as a serving gentlewoman with the Duke and Duchess of Suffolk, parents of Lady Jane Grey, at Bradgate Park, Leicestershire, where she befriended the tyrannical Duchess, Frances Brandon, niece of Henry VIII. It was here that she met the up-and-coming Sir William Cavendish, her second husband, who she married in 1547. Cavendish was more than twenty-one years older than Bess, but he was a rising star at Court, taking control of the assets of the monasteries as they were dissolved. This offered perquisites, and he started to amass a great fortune with which he acquired substantial areas of land, generally in Derbyshire. He may have been middle-aged and corpulent, but he was an attractive catch for the nineteen-year-old Bess. He quickly recognised her financial acumen, and she masterminded the building of the original Chatsworth as their palatial new home. It was left to her for life on his death after ten years of marriage, during which she had provided him with eight children.

In late 1558 or early 1559, Bess remarried Sir William St. Loe, who had gained distinction and popularity as a soldier in Ireland. He was now responsible for Elizabeth I’s security. As a wedding present Elizabeth appointed Bess as a Lady of her Privy Chamber [1]. He had been a secret party to Wyatt’s rebellion, which had attempted to place Elizabeth on the throne during the reign of Mary Tudor, and he gained her life-long esteem by protecting her from being implicated, thereby saving her life. When Elizabeth eventually came to the throne in 1558, he was appointed Captain of her Yeoman Guard and more lucratively, Chief Butler of both England and Wales, responsible for the excise duty on imported wines. St. Loe was a widower with two daughters when he married the thirty-one-year-old Bess, but despite a loving relationship, they had no children together. The St. Loe family held estates in Somerset, Gloucestershire and the West Country, which Sir William inherited from his father in 1558. His father had cut his unsatisfactory younger son, Edward, out of his will, but he remained a thorn in Sir William’s side. As a result, Sir William made a will secretly leaving his entire estate to Bess, as a means of thwarting him. Sir William died suddenly and unexpectedly in 1561, almost certainly as a result of being poisoned by Edward, who produced fraudulent documentation to enable him to inherit the principal St. Loe property. Bess again rose to the challenge, and despite protracted legal haggling retained her St. Loe inheritance.

It was not until 1568 that Bess remarried, but she was now an extremely eligible widow, being both wealthy and having a close ear to Elizabeth at Court. Her new husband the Earl of Shrewsbury was aged forty, a year younger than her[2]. Not only was he extremely rich in his own right, but was the premier English Earl. He held vast estates, which he worked to full advantage, mining coal, iron and lead, while also owning and operating the spa at Buxton, where he had built a four-storey house with thirty rooms, and a ‘great chamber’ around the spring. In addition to Buxton and his principal property, Sheffield Castle with its park, he owned Sheffield Manor (within the park), Wingfield Manor, Worksop Manor, Welbeck and Rufford Abbeys, together with several houses in London. He also held leases from the Crown, particularly over Tutbury Castle and Abbey in Staffordshire. All this made him arguably the richest man in England, and with Norfolk under a cloud, he became Earl Marshal of England, a role traditionally reserved for the senior peer of the realm. To cement Shrewsbury’s love for Bess, it was agreed that his eldest son, Gilbert aged fifteen should marry her daughter Mary Cavendish aged twelve, and Henry Cavendish aged seventeen should marry Grace Talbot aged eight. The joint weddings of their children took place on 9 February 1568, followed by that of Shrewsbury and Bess prior to 25 March. Bess dominated her husband with her ‘masculine understanding and conduct, proud furious, selfish and unfeeling’.

Elizabeth jumped on the opportunity of the marriage to recognise that this impeccably wealthy, trustworthy and Protestant couple would make ideal keepers for Mary Queen of Scots, who needed a long-term home. Elizabeth did not want to have to foot this bill herself. She approached Shrewsbury at Court to take the position ‘in consequence of his approved loyalty and faithfulness, and the ancient state of blood from which he is descended’. Although Mary could afford, initially at least, to pay her staff from her French income, this became increasingly irregular, and the Scottish Regency blocked transfers from her Scottish revenue. Despite his huge wealth, even Shrewsbury was caused embarrassment by the financial pressure posed by Mary. He was left to shoulder the enormous burden involved in maintaining her with the trappings of a Queen as Elizabeth expected. Although Bess had independent means, most of her wealth was being absorbed by her building projects at Chatsworth and later at Hardwick.

Bess had no reason to doubt her husband’s faithfulness following their recent marriage, and was determined to gain the friendship of the former Queen of Scotland, who well suited her aspirations to grandeur. Shrewsbury was advised from London that he should hold Mary at Tutbury Castle, although Bess saw it as the least satisfactory of their homes. It was cold and dank, having in recent years been used only as a hunting lodge and was virtually unfurnished. She requested that Mary should be housed at Sheffield, but Leicester sent advice that Tutbury was preferred because of its remoteness. Bess immediately sent workmen to make it good, furnishing it from Sheffield, which left that property temporarily uninhabitable. Even the Queen sent items from the Tower, including nineteen large tapestries, four large and twelve small Turkey carpets and four beds with feather mattresses and bolsters, with hangings and cushions in crimson and gold. Despite their efforts, Mary found it the most inhospitable of the places where she was held. Not only was it damp, cold and drafty, but bounded by a foul smelling midden forming a marsh on one side. On 25 January 1569, she set out with her entourage from Bolton through desperate winter weather, arriving at Tutbury nine days later. She was greeted there by Shrewsbury and Bess, who made every effort to make her comfortable. Neither of them came to be blamed when various plots to place Mary on the English throne were unearthed, even though some of their servants seem to have been involved.

Always ambitious, Bess did her best to ingratiate herself with Mary. They soon struck up a rapport, spending much time undertaking needlework together, joined by Agnes Livingston and Mary Seton. Bess was a considerable needlewoman, and they shared a passionate love of embroidery. Mary admitted that ‘the diversity of colours made the time seem less tedious’. While they sewed, Bess gossiped about the goings on between Elizabeth and Leicester, and Mary enjoyed all the scurrilous tittle-tattle of Court life in London. Bess’s work was of equal quality to Mary’s signed off with the letters ES for Elizabeth Shrewsbury, a monogram also used on much of the furniture at Chatsworth. She saw herself as Penelope, the most independent of the Greek heroines, depicted in her favourite tapestry flanked between Perseverence and Patience. Some of Bess’s schemes to promote her family backfired. Bessie Pierrepont, Bess’s grand-daughter was sent by her parents to be brought up in Mary’s company with hopes of future advancement. Mary was very fond of Bessie, who was her goddaughter, calling her Mignonne. She shared Mary’s bed, as was the custom, and Mary made her a black dress and provided other little gifts, referring to her as her lady-in-waiting. Yet Mary’s French secretary, Charles Nau, fell hopelessly in love with her. This was completely unrequited and was strongly disapproved of by Bess, who had greater ambitions for her grand-daughter than Mary’s French secretary. Yet he seemed to think he had the approval of Bessie’s father, Sir Henry Pierrepont. The Pierreponts blamed Mary for fostering the match, and asked for Bessie to be sent home. Mary hotly denied encouraging it, saying:

I see too much of her grandmother’s nature in her behaviour every way, notwithstanding all my pains to the contrary, and therefore now would be sorry to have her bestowed upon any man that I wish good unto.

In 1574, following the assassination of the Earl of Lennox, Lady Margaret Lennox began to realise that the propaganda blaming Mary for the murder of her son, Lord Darnley could not be true. As she was planning a visit to Stirling with her son Charles, now 5th Earl of Lennox, to see the young James, her grandson, she asked for Elizabeth’s consent to visit Mary at Chatsworth, But Elizabeth, who had heard rumours of the rapprochement, refused. As an old friend, Bess immediately invited her to stay at the Shrewsbury home at Rufford Abbey, which was on their route north. She arrived with her daughter Elizabeth Cavendish and, when Charles fell ill, they stayed for five days. Bess was keen to promote her daughter in a Royal match, and to the delight of both Lady Margaret and Bess, Charles and Elizabeth Cavendish fell for each other. Bess sweetened matters by granting a loan to Lady Margaret, and offered a dowry of £3,000 for her daughter. Charles then ‘entangled himself so that he could have none other’, and they were hastily married, despite failing to obtain Elizabeth’s prior consent, as required by the Royal Marriage Act. This was a risk that they were prepared to take. Although it has been suggested that Shrewsbury was unaware of the plan, he admitted that with ‘this taking effect I shall be well quiet, for there is few noblemen’s sons in England that she hath not prayed me to deal for at one time or another’. The virgin Queen was furious that her kinsman, Charles Lennox, should marry without her approval, and concluded that Mary was part of the conspiracy to arrange it. She summoned both Bess and Lady Margaret to London, imprisoning Lady Margaret in the Tower. Lady Margaret now made an extremely fine piece of pointe tresse lace with her grey hairs, and sent it ‘as a token of her sympathy and affection’ to Mary, who much treasured it. Yet she was soon released and their granddaughter, Arbella, was born in the autumn of 1575. Tragically, Charles died of consumption in April 1576, and his wife, Elizabeth came to live with Lady Margaret. Yet the old lady was suffering ‘a languishing decline’, and died in great poverty two years later. In 1582 Elizabeth Lennox also died, leaving the orphaned Arbella to be brought up by Bess in the company of Mary, her aunt. Mary remained touchingly fond of Arbella and tried to arrange that the Earldom of Lennox should be passed to her through the female line, but James insisted that the male line should prevail, so that the title went to the elderly Robert Stuart, Bishop of Caithness, Charles’s uncle.

Bess was now heavily involved in her building projects and Shrewsbury started work on his great house at Worksop, which had been begun by his father. This was designed by Robert Smythson, Bess’s architect. He started to blame her for undermining his authority in countering his instructions. He could see no good in her, likening her to ‘a shrew[3] with a wicked tongue’. By 1580, their marriage was falling apart after some indisputably happy years. Bess separated from him to live at Chatsworth, from where she restored and largely rebuilt her family home at Hardwick, which she had acquired from her impoverished brother, and then built a new Hardwick Hall[4] in the grounds. It was quickly rumoured that Bess’s disaffection with her husband was caused by her belief that Shrewsbury was conducting an affair with Mary, who was more than twenty years her junior. Leicester warned him that there was gossip of his over romantic liaisons with Mary. Mary believed that Bess was behind the rumours, but she was almost certainly innocent of this, and subsequently confirmed under oath that there was no impropriety between them, to scotch what may well have been Government inspired propaganda. Yet this did nothing to improve Shrewsbury’s relationship with her, and he came to refer to her as ‘my wicked and malicious wife and my professed’ enemy.

To allay suspicions of an affair with Mary, Shrewsbury needed to be seen to be reconciled with Bess. He wrote to Leicester, who was at Buxton, asking him to intercede with her at Chatsworth on his behalf, and, with Elizabeth’s approval, Leicester did so. He found her greatly distressed that Shrewsbury should have become offended against her without reason. Both Elizabeth and her close advisers had much sympathy for her, recognising the mental stress that Shrewsbury was suffering, but they did not immediately remove Mary from his supervision, and did nothing to abate the growing cost of her maintainance. Although Shrewsbury agreed to make a new start with Bess, he failed to do so. Despite every effort by Leicester and others to achieve accord, it was clear to those at Court that this hope was unrealistic. Shrewsbury had taken Eleanor Britton, his housekeeper, as his mistress and the marriage had irretrievably broken down. Mary needing a new jailer, but Bess lived on immersed in her building work until 1608.



[1] In the hierarchy of precedence for the Ladies of the English Court, the senior role was to be a Lady of the Bedchamber, generally reserved for members of the Royal Family; then there were Ladies of the Privy Chamber, followed by Ladies in Waiting, and lastly Maids of Honour, who were unmarried. Bess’s position was an extraordinary privilege for someone of her rank.

[2] Horace Walpole’s much later scurrilous verse explains Bess’s financial success quite inaccurately:

Four times the nuptial bed she warmed,
And every time so well performed,
That when death spoiled each husband’s billing
He left the widow every shilling.

[3]  The Bishop of Coventry and Lichfield, one of the many who approached Shrewsbury seeking his reconciliation to his wife, wrote:

“Some will say in your lordship’s behalf that the Countess is a sharp and bitter shrew. . . indeed, My Lord, I have heard some say so, but if shrewdness or sharpness may be a just cause for separation between a man and wife, I think very few men in England would keep their wives long . . . it is a common jest that there is but one shrew in all the world and every man hath her . . .”

[4] The extent of glass in the frontage of the new Hardwick Hall was such, that it earned the quip from Robert Cecil:

“Hardwick Hall? More window than wall.”


The principal source for this summary is:

Mary S. Lovell, Bess of Hardwick, First Lady of Chatsworth, 1527 – 1608; Little, Brown, 2005