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Elizabeth - Countess of Shrewsbury

Noeleen Kennedy,

(BESS OF HARDWICK 1527 – 1608)

Through three marriages, Bess became one of the wealthiest and most elibigable women in England.

Born in 1527, the daughter of an impoverished landowner at the old Hardwick Hall in Derbyshire’s Peak District , Elizabeth Hardwick was the greatest social climber of her day and manipulated her way to great wealth through four marriages, each husband being richer than the last.

At the age of fifteen Bess married thirteen year old Robert Barlow, heir to a neighbouring estate. They were both very young and he was too sick to consummate their marriage before dying. This was Bess’s first step up the ladder to fame and fortune as she inherited one third of the Barlow estate as Robert’s widow.

In August of 1547 Bess married Sir William Cavendish

who was already twice widowed with two daughters considerably older than herself. This marriage produced eight children, two of whom died when very young, but three sons and three daughters survived. One son was the progenitor of the Dukes of Devonshire and another the Dukes of Newcastle. Unusual for her times Bess was a shrewd business woman and builder. With her husband Sir William Cavendish they built Chatsworth, an Elizabethan mansion. This was rebuilt one hundred years after her death by Bess’s great great grandson William Cavenish the first Duke of Devonshire. It still stands and parts of the original design can still be seen today, such as the hunting tower on the hill.

Sir William Cavendish died in 1557.

Bess married for the third time in 1559, this time to Sir William St Loe, Captain of the Guard to Queen Elizabeth I. Sir William, a wealthy widower and owner of large West Country estates in England is quoted as calling Bess his "honest sweet Chatsworth" and his "own sweet Bess". St Loe was a faithful fried to the Queen whom he had aided when her life had previously been threatened.

During this marriage however, all was not well with Bess who was interred in the Tower of London for seven months because she had displeased the Queen by becoming involved with Lady Catherine Grey who married the Earl of Hertford expressly against that royal lady’s wishes.

When Sir William St Loe died in 1564 without male issue, he left all to Bess and her children. His heir should have been his brother Edward, but the two brothers suffered a disagreement when Edward tried to poison both Bess and William.

As Lady St Loe, Bess was now one of the richest and most eligible women in England. Not only was she back in favour with the Queen as Lady of the Bedchamber, her income was calculated to have been £60,000 which today would have the buying power of millions.

The Queen is quoted as saying "I assure you there is no lady in the land I better love."

Still retaining her good looks a number of important men began courting Bess and in 1568 she married again for the fourth and final time. This marriage was to George Talbot, sixth Earl of Shrewsbury a rich and powerful peer of the realm. George had seven children from his first marriage and in February 1568 two of George’s children married two of Bess’s in a double ceremony. Mary Cavendish aged twelve married Gilbert Talbot aged sixteen and Mary’s brother Henry Cavendish aged eighteen married Grace Talbot who was only eight years old.

The Queen favoured the Earl of Shrewsbury with guardianship of Mary Queen of Scots in 1569 which was very pleasing to Bess, a gesture indicating that they were again in favour with the Queen of England. Queen Mary remained in George’s custody for fifteen years of her imprisonment, during that time moving around many of George and Bess’s principal houses every time there was a threat of rescue by Mary’s loyal followers.

It was rumoured that George and Mary were lovers, but this could have been just slander and gossip spread by Bess. Shrewsbury and the Scottish Queen were very angry at these lies. As a consequence Bess separated from her husband until after Mary Queen of Scots’ execution when they reconciled for a short time.

Bess once again fell foul of the Queen of England, she had engineered the marriage of Charles Lennox, the younger brother of Mary Queen of Scot’s husband Lord Darnley to her daughter Elizabeth Cavendish. Bess was hell bent on having her family wedded into the Royal family with or without Queen Elizabeth’s consent. Queen Mary had urged the couple to marry and face the consequences later. This infuriated the Queen of England who sent for the groom’s mother Countess Lennox who was imprisoned in the Tower of London, but Bess got off with a serious warning for her actions.

When George Talbot died in 1590 his son Gilbert became 7th Earl of Shrewsbury and because of a family rift he refused Bess the portion of the estate she felt was her due. However Bess was now a wealthy and powerful woman in her own right.

The new Hardwick Hall designed for Bess by architect

Robert Smythson in the Renaissance style when it was thought no longer necessary to fortify one’s home, was built between 1590 – 1597. A splendid structure in stone with huge windows which gave birth to the rhyme "Hardwick Hall, more glass than wall." This was a powerful statement of wealth when glass was considered a luxury. By the time she built Hardwick Hall Bess was extremely wealthy, it is said she was second only in wealth the Queen Elizabeth herself. An indication of her ego is still apparent when you approach Hardwick Hall and see the huge initials E S carved into the balustrades of the six rooftop pavilions, leaving no one in doubt that this was the home of Elizabeth Shrewsbury.

Charles Lennox and Bess’s daughter Elizabeth who were in line of succession to the Throne of England produced a daughter named Arabella and when the child’s parents Charles and Elizabeth died Bess, in hope of Arabella becoming Queen of England, began grooming her for the roll. This was not to be however, as Elizabeth named her cousin James of Scotland as her heir.

Bess died at the age of 81 on 13th February 1608 and she is buried in the crypt at the east end of Derby Cathedral. An imposing pink and black marble monument in the body of the church where her effigy lies was designed and commissioned by Bess before her death.

Further reading… http://www.elizabethan-era.org.uk/bess-of-hardwick.htm



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fairlady, 2009-01-06 00:26:15
Bess of Hardwick-- Great Reading.Well done Noeleen Kenedy

Additional resources

Bess during Elizabethan times
Much has been written about Bess of Hardwick. This website adds a few more details to her very interesting life. www.elizabethanan-era.org.uk/bess-of-hardwick.htm


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