Bess of Hardwick

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Bess of Hardwick, Countess of Shrewsbury, by Rowland Lockey, 1592 in the collection of the National Portrait Gallery, London
Arms of Elizabeth Hardwick, as displayed on the plaster over mantle in the great hall of Hardwick Hall:[1] Argent, a saltire engrailed azure on a chief of the second three cinquefoils of the first.[2] Lozenge-shaped shield as appropriate for a female armiger
Arms of Elizabeth Hardwick displayed on parapet above main entrance of Hardwick Hall. The supporters two stags are those of the Cavendish family

Elizabeth Cavendish, later Elizabeth Talbot, Countess of Shrewsbury (née Hardwick; c. 1527  – 13 February 1608), known as Bess of Hardwick, of Hardwick Hall, Derbyshire, was a notable figure of Elizabethan English society. By a series of well-made marriages, she rose to the highest levels of English nobility and became enormously wealthy. Bess was reportedly a shrewd businesswoman, increasing her assets with business interests including mines and glass-making workshops.

She was married four times. Her first husband was Robert Barley (or Barlow), who died aged about 14 or 15 on 24 December 1544.[3] Her second husband was the courtier Sir William Cavendish. Her third husband was Sir William St Loe. Her last husband was George Talbot, 6th Earl of Shrewsbury, sometime keeper to the captive Mary, Queen of Scots. An accomplished needlewoman, Bess joined her husband's captive charge at Chatsworth House for extended periods in 1569, 1570, and 1571, during which time they worked together on the Oxburgh Hangings.

In 1601, Bess ordered an inventory of the household furnishings, including textiles, at her three properties at Chatsworth, Hardwick, and Chelsea, which survives. In her will she bequeathed these items to her heirs to be preserved in perpetuity. The 400-year-old collection, now known as the Hardwick Hall textiles, is the largest collection of tapestry, embroidery, canvaswork, and other textiles to have been preserved by a single private family. Bess is also well known for her building projects, the most famous of which are Chatsworth, now the seat of the Dukes of Devonshire (whose family name is Cavendish as they descend from the children of her second marriage), and Hardwick Hall.


Elizabeth Hardwick was the daughter of John Hardwick of Derbyshire by his wife Elizabeth Leeke, daughter of Thomas Leeke and Margaret Fox.[4] Her exact birthdate is unknown, occurring in the period 1521 to 1527; that said, according to her witness statement under oath[5] at a court hearing in October 1546, in which she gives her age at the time of her first marriage in May 1543 as being "of tender years", i.e. less than 16, would indicate 1527. It cannot be later than 1527 because of the date of her father's death, given in his Inquisition Post Mortem.[6]

The Hardwicks had arrived in Derbyshire from Sussex by the mid-thirteenth century, and farmed land granted by Robert Savage, lord of the manor of Slingsby, on the north-east border of Derbyshire, looking over Nottinghamshire. By the mid-fifteenth century the family had risen to "gentleman-yeoman" stock, with an estate of a few hundred acres located mainly in the parish of Ault Hucknall in the manor of Slingsby. The Hardwick coat of arms of Hardwick was probably granted c. 1450 to William Hardwick. The blazon is: Argent, a saltier engrailed azure on a chief of the second three cinquefoils of the first.[2] When giving evidence of his right to arms in 1569, Bess's only brother, James Hardwick (1525-1580/1), provided the heralds with a pedigree of his family which began with this William, who died c. 1453.

James was the last surviving legitimate male member of the Hardwick family. The Hardwicks were members of the minor gentry of Scarsdale; no male member of the Hardwick family rose above the status of esquire or held any important local or county offices. Bess was born into this relatively minor gentry family. Her fourth marriage to the earl of Shrewsbury in 1567 elevated her to the rank of "countess", and following the earl's death in November 1590, Bess became one of the richest women in the kingdom. She set about building her greatest monument, Hardwick New Hall, which was completed in 1599.

Early life[edit]

John Hardwick died aged about 40 leaving a widow, son (and heir), and four daughters (five daughters were alive at the time he wrote his will). His widow Elizabeth Leeke then married Ralph, the second son of the neighbouring Leche (or Leach) family of Chatsworth, in Derbyshire, by whom she would leave an additional three co-heiresses.

Little is known of Bess's early life. She appears to have been espoused to her first husband during the 1530s, and probably married for the first time in 1543. Despite the story being often repeated, there is no contemporary evidence whatsoever to support Dugdale's later claims that she became familiar with city life and the Tudor Court after being sent to live, aged twelve, in the London household of Anne Gainsford, Lady Zouche of Codnor Castle in Derbyshire,[7] where she was supposedly influenced by Lady Zouche. Despite a lack of evidence, it is possible – but no more than that – that at some point, perhaps after the death of her first husband, she entered the service of the Zouches at Codnor Castle in Derbyshire.

A close family associate was a man named Henry Marmion whose family held land close to Codnor, and may have commended Bess to the Zouches who, along with the Vernons, were the only major Derbyshire family likely to have taken in such children. However, Anne Gainsford was in service in the households of Anne Boleyn and Jane Seymour, and despite marrying Sir George Zouche in 1533, spent much of her time at court until after 1536, when she and Sir George made Codnor Castle their main residence. Not surprisingly, this period coincides with the time that Dugdale claimed Bess was in service to Anne Gainsford in London and at Codnor. However, there is no evidence to support the story, and Dugdale would have known much more about the early life of Lady Zouche than was known of Bess's origins. Again, according to Dugdale, from Codnor Bess entered the service of the Greys at Bradgate in Leicestershire, where she met and married her second husband, Sir William Cavendish. She certainly married Sir William at Bradgate, but that in itself does not prove that Bess was in service at Bradgate. It remains possible that she met Sir William elsewhere, possibly at Codnor.

Bess's four marriages[edit]

First marriage[edit]

In 1543, Bess married 13-year-old Robert Barley (or Barlow), heir to a neighbouring estate. The exact date of her marriage to Robert is unknown. It is thought that the marriage took place late May 1543, shortly before the death of Robert's father on 28 May. There is no evidence that they lived together as man and wife.[8] Robert died in December 1544. There was no issue from the marriage, which had been arranged locally, probably initially to protect the Barley patrimony and to mitigate the impact of wardship on the Barley estate should Robert succeed his father as an underage heir. The traditional story that Robert and Bess met in London while in the service of a "Lady Zouche" is based on oral history, which can only be dated to the late seventeenth century (some eighty years after Bess's death). The marital claims to Robert's estate were disputed, and following his death Bess was refused dower by Peter Freschevile. A court battle ensued, which resulted in Bess being awarded her claim on the Barley estate and compensation, albeit several years after Robert's death.

Second marriage[edit]

Arms of Cavendish: Sable, three buck's heads cabossed argent[9]

On 20 August 1547, Bess married the twice-widowed Sir William Cavendish, Treasurer of the King's Chamber,[7] and became Lady Cavendish. The wedding took place at two o'clock in the morning, at the home of the Grey family, friends of the couple. Sir William was more than twice Bess's age and the father of two daughters. His fortune had been made following the Dissolution of the Monasteries, since as an official of the Court of Augmentations he was able to select choice properties for himself. Possibly acting on Bess's advice, Sir William sold his lands in the south of England and bought the Chatsworth estates in her home county of Derbyshire. Sir William Cavendish died on 25 October 1557, leaving Bess widowed a second time and in deep debt to the Crown. Upon his death, Bess claimed the sum of his property, having insisted that his land be settled on their heirs. The eight children of the marriage, two of whom died in infancy, were as follows:[10]

Third marriage[edit]

Arms of St Loe: Argent, a bend sable[13]

In 1559 Bess married a third time, to Sir William St Loe (1518–1565) (alias St Lowe, Saintlowe, Sentloe, etc.) and became Lady St Loe. Her new husband was Captain of the Guard to Queen Elizabeth I and Chief Butler of England. Due to his relationship with Queen Elizabeth I, he was able to reduce the debt Bess owed and paid it back in full on her behalf.[14] He owned large West Country estates at Tormarton in Gloucestershire and Chew Magna in Somerset, while his principal residence was at Sutton Court in Stowey. When he died without male issue in 1564/5, in suspicious circumstances (probably poisoned by his younger brother),[15] he left everything to Bess, to the detriment of his daughters and brother.[7] In addition to her own six surviving children, Bess was now responsible for the two daughters of Sir William St Loe from his first marriage. However, those two daughters were already adults and otherwise well provided for.

Sir William St Loe's death left Bess one of the wealthiest women in England. Her annual income was calculated to amount to £60,000, equivalent to £20,000,000 in 2021.[16] Further, she was a Lady of the Bedchamber with daily access to the Queen, whose favour she enjoyed. Still in her late 30s, Bess retained her looks and good health, and a number of important men began courting her.

Fourth marriage[edit]

Arms of Talbot: Gules, a lion rampant within a bordure engrailled or[17]

Despite being courted by several suitors, Bess did not remarry until 1568, when she married for the fourth time to become Countess of Shrewsbury. Her new husband, George Talbot, 6th Earl of Shrewsbury, was one of the premier aristocrats of the realm, and the father of seven children by his first marriage. Indeed, two of his children were married to two of hers in a double ceremony in February 1568: Bess's daughter Mary Cavendish, aged 12, was given in marriage to Shrewsbury's eldest son Gilbert, aged 16; while Bess's son, Sir Henry Cavendish, aged 18, married Shrewsbury's daughter Lady Grace Talbot, aged 8.

In the year before Bess and the Earl of Shrewsbury were married, a political disturbance arose in Scotland, which would profoundly affect their lives. Rebel Scottish lords rose up against Mary, Queen of Scots, imprisoned her, and forced her to abdicate in favour of her one-year-old infant son, James. In May 1568, Mary escaped captivity in Scotland, and fled south towards England, seeking the protection of her cousin, Queen Elizabeth. However, the English authorities were not sure how to receive her. On 18 May, she was taken into protective custody at Carlisle Castle by local officials.

Queen Elizabeth felt obliged to host and protect Mary, her cousin, against the rebellious Scottish lords. However, due to Mary's persistent claim to the English throne, Elizabeth also regarded her as a threat. Elizabeth had Mary moved to Bolton Castle in Yorkshire, where she was lodged under the guard of Francis Knollys, pending the York Conference inquiry, regarding Mary's fate. The inquiry results were inconclusive; yet Elizabeth did not set Mary free. Instead, Mary would be detained under the custody of the Earl of Shrewsbury, and his wife Bess. Elizabeth's instruction to Bess and her husband amounted to little more than Mary's house arrest. Mary reached her new residence, Tutbury Castle, in February 1569, when she was 26 years old, and would remain in the custody of Shrewsbury and Bess for 15 years. Elizabeth shifted the costs of the imprisonment to Shrewsbury. It was recorded that Mary would use the couple's insecurities against each other, even convincing Talbot that Bess was stealing.[14] Mary's presence in their home, as well as the financial costs and political tensions, may have contributed to the rift between Shrewsbury and Bess, which would lead eventually to the break-up of their marriage.[18][19]

While in the care of the earl and countess, Queen Mary lived at one or another of their many houses in the Midlands: Tutbury, Wingfield Manor, Chatsworth House,[20] and Sheffield Manor. Throughout this period, Bess spent time as Mary's companion, working with her on embroidery and textile projects. Indeed, all Mary's work later became part of Bess's historical collection at Hardwick Hall.[21]

Bess of Hardwick, 1550s

Bess joined Mary at Chatsworth for extended periods in 1569, 1570, and 1571, during which time they worked together on the Oxburgh Hangings.[7]

It was not until Mary was removed to another keeper, Sir Amias Paulet, that she got into the trouble that would lead ultimately to her execution. Previous to the Queen's change in custody, Shrewsbury and Bess separated for good. They had been apart, off and on, since about 1580; and even Queen Elizabeth had tried to get them to reconcile. Mary seems to have aggravated, if not created, their problems by playing them off against each other. The Countess spread rumors that her husband Shrewsbury had been in a relationship with Mary, a charge which has never been proved or disproved, and in any case which she later retracted,[22] but seems unlikely given Shrewsbury's disposition and increasingly poor health.[citation needed] On his death in 1590, Bess became Dowager Countess of Shrewsbury. She lived mostly at Hardwick, where she built the new mansion Hardwick Hall, which inspired the rhyme, "Hardwick Hall, more glass than wall", because of the number and size of its windows.[23][24] She was indeed one of the greatest builders of her time at Hardwick, Chatsworth House, and Oldcoates.[22]

The Stuart connection[edit]

In 1574 Bess arranged a marriage between one of her daughters and the son of the Countess of Lennox. This was a significant match for Bess because the Countess of Lennox was Margaret Douglas, a member of the royal family, being the daughter of Margaret Tudor, Queen Dowager of Scotland and sister of Henry VIII, and therefore, also Queen Elizabeth's first cousin.

In this match, the bride was Bess's daughter, Elizabeth Cavendish, and the groom was Charles Stuart, who was himself also the first cousin of Mary, Queen of Scots, (through their grandmother, the same Margaret Tudor). The groom was also the younger brother of Henry Stuart, Lord Darnley who had been married to Mary until his death. This marriage, therefore, enabled a claim to the throne for any of Bess's grandchildren born of the marriage.

The marriage ceremony took place without the knowledge of Shrewsbury, who, though well aware of the suggested match some time prior to this event, declined to accept any responsibility. Due to the Lennox family's claim to the throne, the marriage was considered potentially treasonable, since Queen Elizabeth's consent had not been obtained.

The Countess of Lennox, mother of the bridegroom, went to the Tower for several months, and Bess was ordered to London to face an official inquiry, but she ignored the summons, and remained in Sheffield until the row died down. The child of the marriage was Arbella Stuart, who had a claim to the thrones of Scotland and England as the second cousin to King James VI of Scotland (later King James I of England), through their great-grandmother, Margaret Tudor.

Arbella was at times invited to Elizabeth's court, but spent most of her time with her grandmother. A BBC documentary[25] showed that Bess very much desired Arbella to become Queen, even imprisoning the young lady to prevent her from eloping. Arbella blamed her grandmother for this, and the two fell out irrevocably when Arbella attempted to run away and marry a man who, as a descendant of Henry VII, also had a claim to the throne. Bess cut Arbella from her will and begged the Queen to take her granddaughter off her hands.

Arbella's royal claim was never recognized. Despite disinheriting Arbella and her eldest son (Henry: for aiding Arbella's escape); Bess later had a "lukewarm reconciliation with her granddaughter.[14] Bess has been an ancestor of the royal line since 1952; Queen Elizabeth II being Bess's descendant through the dukes of Portland, in whose family was Elizabeth II's maternal grandmother, Cecilia Cavendish-Bentinck.

In 1604 Bess was involved with Queen Anne in an unsuccessful attempt to found a college or university at Ripon in Yorkshire. The scheme was promoted by Cecily Sandys, the widow of the Bishop Edwin Sandys.[26]

Death and burial[edit]

Effigy of Elizabeth Hardwick wearing a coronet of a countess. Derby Cathedral
Inscribed memorial tablet above the effigy of Elizabeth Hardwick in Derby Cathedral

Bess of Hardwick died at 5 pm on Saturday 13 February 1608, aged 81. At the time of her death she remained "one of the richest, and most powerful women in the kingdom".[14] On 16 February her body was placed in a vault in All Saints Church, Derby, then the parish church of that city (demolished 1723 and rebuilt, since 1927 Derby Cathedral), under an elaborate monument with a laudatory inscription which she took care to put up in her lifetime.[22] The monument with effigy survives, having been saved from the former demolished building.[citation needed] Stories of her body lying in state for weeks in the Great Chamber at Hardwick are mythical.[citation needed] Her accumulated estates were left to her children from her second marriage.[22]



  • A 10-part BBC series about Bess titled Mistress of Hardwick was broadcast in 1972, with Hilary Mason in the title role. The script was written by Alison Plowden, and the series won the Writers' Guild Award for the best educational television series. Most of the episodes are now lost. Plowden wrote a tie-in book, also called Mistress of Hardwick, which was published by the BBC in April 1972.




  • The song "Hardwick's Lofty Towers" by Sarah McQuaid is from the perspective of Bess. It appears on her 2012 album The Plum Tree and the Rose.


  1. ^ The Hall, Hardwick Hall.
  2. ^ a b Burke's General Armory, 1884
  3. ^ Wilson, A. N. (24 April 2012). The Elizabethans. Farrar, Straus, and Giroux. ISBN 9781466816190.
  4. ^ Mary S. Lovell: Bess of Hardwick
  5. ^ Public record Office, Kew; C1/1101
  6. ^ PRO:E/150/743/8
  7. ^ a b c d e f Digby, Elizabethan Embroidery, pp. 58–63
  8. ^ a b Durant, David N. (January 1978). Bess of Hardwick: portrait of an Elizabethan dynast. Atheneum Publishers. p. 9.
  9. ^ Debrett's Peerage, 1968, p. 355, Duke of Devonshire
  10. ^ Genealogy Database by Daniel de Rauglaudre (retrieved 23 December 2012).
  11. ^ "Cavendish, Henry (1550–1616), soldier and traveller". Oxford Dictionary of National Biography (online ed.). Oxford University Press. 2004. doi:10.1093/ref:odnb/4935. (Subscription or UK public library membership required.)(subscription required)
  12. ^ Girouard, Mark; Durant, David (1989). Hardwick Hall guidebook. The National Trust of England and Wales. ISBN 978-1-84359-217-4.
  13. ^ Burke's General Armory, 1884
  14. ^ a b c d Lovell, M. S. (Spring 2018). Bess of Hardwick. National Trust Magazine, 148, 32-33.
  15. ^ Mary S. Lovell: Bess of Hardwick, pp185-186
  16. ^ UK Retail Price Index inflation figures are based on data from Clark, Gregory (2017). "The Annual RPI and Average Earnings for Britain, 1209 to Present (New Series)". MeasuringWorth. Retrieved 11 June 2022.
  17. ^ Debrett's Peerage, 1968, p. 1015, E. of Shrewsbury & Waterford
  18. ^ Bess of Hardwick Empire Builder 2005 Mary S. Lovell p 210.
  19. ^ Roderick Graham (2009) The Life of Mary Queen of Scots. pp 314–316
  20. ^ E. Carleton Williams, Bess of Hardwick pp 74–80
  21. ^ Lovell, 2005, pp 220–221
  22. ^ a b c d Chisholm, Hugh, ed. (1911). "Shrewsbury, Elizabeth Talbot, Countess of" . Encyclopædia Britannica. Vol. 24 (11th ed.). Cambridge University Press. p. 1017.
  23. ^ "Royal Institute of British Architects". Archived from the original on 21 September 2013. Retrieved 20 September 2013.
  24. ^ Levey, Of Household Stuff, pp. 10–11; Levey, An Elizabethan Inheritance, pp. 20–39 passim
  25. ^ "BBC Documentary Site".
  26. ^ Francis Peck, Desiderata Curiosa, vol. 1 (London, 1779), p. 290.
  27. ^ Sayers, Dorothy (2012). Gaudy Night. Open Road Media. pp. 68–69. ISBN 9781453258958. Retrieved 14 October 2014.


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