Bess of Hardwick

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Bess of Hardwick

BORN: 1527 • Derbyshire, England

DIED: February 13, 1608 • Derbyshire, England

English landowner

Elizabeth Hardwick, known as Bess of Hardwick, rose from modest origins to become the wealthiest woman in Elizabethan England after the queen herself. Bess owned enormous estates on which she built magnificent great houses that made her famous throughout the country. She used her fortune to increase her status and to promote the ambitions of her children. As a lady-in-waiting, or a woman in the queen's household who attends the queen, to Elizabeth I (1533–1603; see entry), Bess associated with some of the most powerful members of the royal court and used these contacts to enhance her own position in society. Admired as an extraordinary businesswoman, she created splendid buildings that stand as examples of the best architecture of the era. She has also been acknowledged as a woman who managed her husbands' properties with great success.

"There is no lady in this land that I better love and like [than Bess of Hardwick]."

Elizabeth I. Quoted by A. L. Rowse in Eminent Elizabethans.

Early life

Bess was born into a family of modest means. She was the third surviving daughter of John Hardwick of Hardwicke, Derbyshire, and his wife, Elizabeth Leake. It was customary in Elizabethan times for families to give their daughters marriage settlements, which consisted of income or property that the girl would bring with her when she married. A generous marriage settlement could improve a girl's chances of finding a wealthy husband. But John Hardwick died when Bess was still a child, leaving her and her sisters with little to inherit. Since this poverty made it unlikely that Bess would be able to find a wealthy and powerful husband, it was necessary for her to make her own way. At age fourteen she began work as a servant on the Barlow estate nearby. There she fell in love with Robert Barlow, the twelve-year-old heir to the estate. Robert was ill, and Bess nursed him. He fell in love with her and they were married, but he died soon afterward. As a widow Bess inherited one-third of the income from the Barlow estate.

At age twenty Bess married again. Her husband, Sir William Cavendish (1505–1557), whose two previous wives had died and who had two daughters, was more than twice her age. The marriage, a happy one, produced eight children, of whom six survived. Cavendish became quite wealthy as one of the officials in charge of seizing property belonging to Roman Catholic monasteries and transferring it to the government. Henry VIII (1491–1547; see entry) had authorized this action after rejecting the authority of the pope and making himself the supreme head of the church in England in the 1530s. The monasteries possessed a fortune in gold and silver, and they also owned an enormous amount of land—as much as ten percent of the land in England. By taking over these goods and properties for the state, Henry greatly enriched his treasury. He rewarded the "visitors of the monasteries," as these officials were called, by allowing them to take a share of the confiscated properties.

As a trusted servant of Henry VIII and of his successor, Edward VI (1537–1553), Cavendish had social contacts among the most important Protestant nobility in England. In fact, he and Bess were able to name several high-ranking people as godparents to their six children. Edward's half-sister, Princess Elizabeth—later to become Queen Elizabeth I—became godmother to Bess's first son, Henry Cavendish. Elizabeth's half-sister, Mary I (1516–1558; see entry), stood as godmother to Bess's third son, Charles Cavendish.

Bess advised Cavendish to sell his properties in southern England and buy the Chatsworth estate in Derbyshire. Bess and her husband began enclosing large portions of their property, which meant fencing off areas that local people had traditionally been able to use. Bess planned and oversaw extensive improvements to the great house at Chatsworth, a task that took many years to complete.

Close acquaintance with the queen

After Cavendish's death, Bess married a third time in 1559. Once again she chose a rich and powerful spouse. Her husband, Sir William St. Loe, was captain of the guard to Elizabeth I and chief butler of England. He owned magnificent estates at Tormarton in Gloucestershire and Chew Magna in Somerset. Bess had no children with St. Loe, who died in 1564 or 1565 and left all of his property to Bess. St. Loe's two adult daughters and his brother, who was suspected of having poisoned St. Loe, were left out of his will.

Through St. Loe, Bess had become a lady-in-waiting to Queen Elizabeth. This position gave Bess the opportunity to become a close friend of the queen, and she used this role to great advantage. But her relationship with Elizabeth, who could often be demanding and easily offended, was not always smooth. In 1561 Elizabeth imprisoned Bess in the Tower of London, a fortress on the Thames River in London that was used as a royal residence, treasury, and, most famously, as a prison for the upper class. Bess had angered the queen because she had kept a secret from her. Lady Catherine Grey (1540–1568), daughter of Bess's friend, Frances Brandon (1517–1559), had secretly married Edward Seymour (Lord Hertford; 1537–1621) and Bess had refused to tell the queen. Because Catherine had been named in Henry VIII's will as next in succession (the legal sequence in which individuals inherited the throne) after Elizabeth, Catherine's marriage was a matter of state concern. Elizabeth strongly preferred that Catherine should remain unmarried, thereby not producing an heir. When she found out about the secret marriage, she threw both Seymour and his wife into prison, and kept Bess in the Tower for seven months. Eventually Bess, known for showering the queen with lavish gifts, was able to regain Elizabeth's favor.

By the time her third husband died, Bess was the wealthiest woman in England except for the queen. Her income was estimated at £60,000 per year, which today would equal millions of dollars. She remained attractive and healthy, catching the interest of several eligible men. In 1568, with the queen's approval, Bess married George Talbot (Earl of Shrewsbury; 1528–1590), a widower with seven children. Talbot was one of the richest and most powerful aristocrats in England. He owned seven mansions and was one of Queen Elizabeth's leading noblemen. Though Talbot admired Bess at first, he quickly grew to dislike her. Once speaking affectionately of her as his "sweetheart" or his "jewel," as quoted in John Guy's The True Life of Mary Stuart, Queen of Scots, within a few years Talbot called Bess "my wicked and malicious wife" or "my professed enemy." They separated around 1580 and the earl refused thereafter to spend a single night under the same roof with her.

Mary Stuart's keeper

In 1568 Elizabeth gave Talbot the job of guarding Mary Stuart (Queen of Scots; 1542–1587; see entry). Mary had fled to England after the Protestant lords in Scotland had removed her from power and forced her to give the Scottish throne to her infant son, the future James I (1566–1625; see entry). She begged Elizabeth, her cousin, to allow her to remain in England. Elizabeth allowed this, but ordered Mary to be watched carefully. There was good reason to fear that Mary might inspire English Catholics to rebel against their Protestant queen and put Mary, a great-granddaughter of Henry VII (1457–1509), on the throne instead. It was necessary to keep a close watch over Mary to prevent any rescue attempts or uprisings. For fifteen years Talbot and Bess acted, in essence, as Mary's jailers.

Keeping Mary Stuart housed and safe was a huge responsibility that placed a considerable strain on Talbot's finances. The queen provided a modest sum for Mary's upkeep, but this was not sufficient to cover all of Mary's expenses. The queen of Scots kept several ladies-in-waiting and other servants, and these all had to be supported. Talbot himself was forced to pay these considerable extra costs. Occasionally Elizabeth's spies uncovered various conspiracies to rescue Mary; when this happened, Mary had to be moved to a new location with better security. This responsibility, too, fell to Talbot to organize and finance.

Life under guard was stressful and boring for Mary. Often forbidden even to go outdoors, she passed much of her time doing embroidery with Bess. After fifteen years Mary was finally passed into the custody of another noble. By this time, however, Bess had accused Talbot of having entered into a romantic affair with Mary. Historians do not consider this charge very likely, but it added further stress to the marriage between Bess and Talbot, who separated permanently soon thereafter.

Arbella Stuart

As the childless Queen Elizabeth grew older, the question of the succession to the throne became increasingly important. England had no clearly established laws regarding the succession, and families with royal blood held competing claims to the throne. Bess's granddaughter, Arbella Stuart, was a cousin of the young king of Scotland, James VI (later James I), who had Tudor royal blood through his mother, Mary Stuart. Since Arbella was a Catholic and had been born in England, many who objected to a Protestant monarch supported Arbella's claim to the throne over James's. Bess raised her granddaughter to believe she was destined to become queen of England. She was given a good education and was treated like royalty.

Though Bess hoped for an advantageous marriage for Arbella, Elizabeth demanded that Arbella should remain single. The queen had named James VI of Scotland to be her successor; if Arbella were to marry and bear a child, this heir would have a claim on the succession that would compete with that of James's children. Despite Elizabeth's wish, Arbella devised a plan to escape from her grandmother and elope with Edward Seymour (1586–1618), the oldest grandson of Lady Catherine Grey. Since the Greys had royal blood, a union between Arbella and Seymour was seen as particularly threatening to Elizabeth and James. The queen ordered Arbella to be sent to live in the custody of the earl of Kent, where the girl could be kept under close watch.

James, too, remained wary of Arbella, who was associated with several plots against him soon after he took the English throne in 1603. But in 1608 he allowed her to come back to the royal court. Two years later she secretly married William Seymour (1588–1660), the younger brother of her first intended husband. This marriage caused alarm at court, and James ordered Seymour and Arbella imprisoned. Seymour was sent to the Tower of London, while Arbella was placed under house arrest at the home of Sir Thomas Perry. Arbella plotted an escape; dressed in men's clothes, she fled her captors and boarded a ship for France, where she hoped to meet her husband. James's agents, however, captured Arbella in Calais, France, and returned her to England. James ordered her placed in the Tower of London. Though she attempted another escape, this failed and she never saw her husband again. She died in the Tower on September 27,1615—according to some stories, after having starved herself—and was buried at Westminster Abbey, London. Arbella became known in England as the "Queen That Never Was."

Promotes interests of her children

In 1574 Bess invited Margaret Douglas (Countess of Lennox; 1515–1578) to visit her. Margaret was the niece of Henry VIII and granddaughter of Henry VII (1457–1509), which gave her children a strong claim to the succession. During the visit Bess's daughter, Elizabeth Cavendish, fell in love with Charles Stuart (1555–1576), the Countess's son and brother of Mary Stuart's second husband, Henry Stewart (Lord Darnley; 1545–1567). Because the Lennox family had a claim to the throne of England, Elizabeth could not marry Charles without the queen's permission. Otherwise, the marriage could be considered an act of treason. But Bess, intent on securing a prominent social position for her daughter, arranged for the marriage to take place without the queen's prior knowledge. When Elizabeth received this news, she ordered Margaret Douglas imprisoned for several months. She also demanded that Bess come to London and explain herself. But Bess ignored this order and remained at her home in Sheffield until the queen's anger weakened.

Elizabeth Cavendish and Charles Stuart had one daughter, Arbella Stuart (1575–1615). Bess doted on this granddaughter, whom she raised after the girl was orphaned in infancy. Bess even hoped that Arbella might one day become queen of England, but the girl grew up to be so spoiled and disobedient that Bess eventually cut Arbella out of her will. Denied official permission to marry, Arbella eloped and was imprisoned in the Tower of London, where she died.

Major building projects

Among Bess's most notable building projects was Chatsworth House, in Matlock, Derbyshire. Chatsworth is the seat of the dukes of Devonshire, whose family name is Cavendish; this family is descended from William Cavendish, Bess's second husband. The house, on the River Derwent, contains an extensive art collection and its garden is one of the most famous in England. Bess and her husband began building it in 1553. Bess finished the house in the 1560s after Cavendish's death, and lived there with her fourth husband, Talbot. Mary Stuart was lodged at Chatsworth several times from 1570 onward.

Hardwick Hall in Doe Lea, Chesterfield, Derbyshire, became a secondary residence for the dukes of Devonshire. The great house was designed for Bess by Robert Smythson (1535–1614). The house is considered a symbol of Bess's wealth and power. It became particularly famous for its numerous large windows. Since glass was an expensive material in Elizabethan times, this architectural detail demonstrated that Bess could afford great luxuries.

Bess died in the middle of a particularly cold winter, on February 13, 1608. People said that she was so disappointed that the snow outside had halted her building projects that this caused her death. She was buried in a vault in Derby Cathedral, where a memorial to her was built. She has been remembered as perhaps the best example of the powerful Elizabethan woman who managed both her husbands and her children with great authority.

For More Information


Dunn, Jane. Elizabeth and Mary: Cousins, Rivals, Queens. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 2004.

Guy, John. The True Life of Mary Stuart, Queen of Scots. Boston and New York: Houghton Mifflin Company, 2004.

Rowse, A. L. Eminent Elizabethans. Athens: University of Georgia Press, 1983.


"Arbella Stuart." (accessed on July 11, 2006).

"Bess of Hardwick." Tudor Place. (accessed on July 11, 2006).

"Hardwick Hall—Derbyshire." UK Heritage. (accessed on July 11, 2006).

"History of Chatsworth and the Cavendish Family." Chatsworth. (accessed on July 11, 2006).