Bess of Hardwick

I’ve never been much of a non-fiction person, but recently I’ve gotten very interested in biographies.   I think it’s because I read a lot of historical fiction (it’s pretty much the only thing I read) and sometimes I want to know the real story behind the person in the novel.  You know, how much is true and how much is the author’s invention.  Just as with fiction, however, I’m very picky.  I prefer reading about the wealthy of the past—especially those who weren’t born into it—or the businessmen/women.  Not that the lives of ordinary people can’t be interesting, but it’s the extraordinary people we can really learn something from.  I’ve decided to write a short blog about the people I read about, not only because I find them interesting, but also just to keep a record.

The first person I read about was Bess of Hardwick, aka Elizabeth Talbot, Countess of Shrewsbury.  Bess was the richest person in England during her time, and the most powerful behind Queen Elizabeth I.

Bess was born in 1527 in Derbyshire.  Her family was respectable enough, but not wealthy.  In fact, after her father died during her childhood, the family fell on hard times.  Bess was sent to Sir John and Lady Zouche of Codnor Castle when she was 12 to learn how to be a “lady.”  It was there that she met her first husband, Robert Barlow.  They married when he was 14 and she was 15 however, the law stated that the marriage could not be consummated until both spouses reached the age of 16, and sickly Robert died before then.  Though the marriage was never consummated, Bess was entitled to a widow’s pension of 1/3 the revenue of the Barlow estate for the rest of her life.

Bess then went to serve in the household of Henry Grey and Frances Brandon, the Duke and Duchess of Suffolk (parents of Lady Jane Grey, later to be known as the “Nine Day Queen”).  Four years later, at age 20, she became the third wife of Sir William Cavendish, Treasurer of the King’s Chamber.  He was twice her age and had two daughters from previous marriages, but it was believed to be a mutually happy union.  During their 10 year marriage, Bess bore 8 children (6 of whom survived to adulthood) and learned how to run a business and manage property.  She had an astute mind for it and was soon the sole keeper of the books of the Cavendish lands, and made recommendations to her husband about which properties to buy and which to sell.  Sir William died in 1557, leaving Bess their mutual estates, and a widow’s pension from the profitable clothe shop the couple had owned.

Two years later, Bess married her third husband, Sir William St Loe, Captain of the Guard and Chief Butler of England.  He also owned several large properties throughout England.  St Loe was enamoured with Bess, to the point that when he died under suspicious circumstances in 1564 (likely poisoned by his younger brother) he left everything to Bess and her heirs—giving nothing to his daughters and brother.  This would come back to haunt Bess for the rest of her life in the form of legal battles against the other St Loes.

St Loe’s death left Bess one of the most eligible women in England. Not only was she a Lady of the Bedchamber with daily access and the favour of the Queen, but her income was calculated to amount to $20.8 million in present day dollars. In her late 30s, she still retained her looks and good health, and a number of important men began courting her. In 1567 she married her fourth—and last—husband, George Talbot, 6th Earl of Shrewsbury.  Talbot was one of the wealthiest and most influential nobles in England, and marriage to him raised Bess’s position higher than she ever would have dreamed, as she was, after all, the daughter of a merchant/landowner.

Bess and George’s marriage was a very happy one in the beginning.  Bess continued acquiring properties and renovating her favorites—including the famous Hardwick Hall and her beloved Chatsworth.  She also continued her now-well-known role as a moneylender, property dealer, and exploiter of iron works, coal mines, and glass works.

The happiness ended when the couple were named guardians of Mary, Queen of Scots.  To make a long story short, Queen Elizabeth had no money to keep a royal prisoner, so she passed the cost off onto Shrewsbury, promising to reimburse him, but full of excuses when the time came.  Technically only George was in charge of Mary, so he drained his accounts while Bess kept collecting her three widow’s pensions and the rents from her lands and the fabric shop.  Bess was smart, you see, and got George to sign what was basically a pre-nup guaranteeing that the land she brought to the marriage would remain hers and pass to her heirs when she died.  As if money troubles weren’t enough to ruin a marriage, George fell in love with Mary.  Bess was not a woman to be second-best, so she stopped helping with the cost of the Queen and even sued George when he wouldn’t give her “the sum due a proper wife.”

Mary was removed from George’s care after 15 years, but the divide between the Talbots had run too deep for reconciliation.  George died in 1590, still bitter about his marriage.

Bess spent the rest of her life advancing her family, even risking the wrath of the Queen for the sake of advantageous marriages for her children and grandchildren.  When she died in 1608 at the ripe old age of 80, she left a legacy never forgotten in England.

At first glance, the motto of Bess’s life seems to have been “marry rich,” but that was only part of it.  She became rich in her own right—something very rare for an Elizabethan woman—due to her shrewd business sense and drive to fight for her rights in courts of law which almost always favored men.  She knew that sometimes you had to risk everything to get everything, and as long as you knew what you were doing and didn’t give up, everything would work out.


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