Bess of Hardwick

Bess of Hardwick was an extraordinary character of the Elizabethan era. She was born Elizabeth, fourth daughter of John of Hardwick and Elizabeth Leake near Ault Hucknall, south of Bolsover in 1527. John Hardwick died in 1528 leaving £26 13s 4d to each of his daughters. Elizabeth remarried to Ralph Leche, who came from the family that owned Chatsworth. The children of Elizabeth and Ralph became Bess’s closest companions for the rest of her life.

The family de Herdewyk took their name from their manor which means “sheep farm” and had been in the area since the 13th century at least. Robert, son of Jocelin de Hardwick was sued for taking and detaining an ox in 1314.

In about 1540, Bess went into service in the household of Sir John Zouche of Codnor Castle. It was normal practice for the children of gentry to be a gentlewoman or upper servant in a big household. At the age of fifteen Bess married Robert Barlow of Barlow, who was two years younger then herself. He died the following year and left Bess a third of his estates.

In 1547 she married Sir William Cavendish of Suffolk to become his third wife. Sir William was a powerful courtier and a Privy Councillor who had made a great deal of money from the Dissolution of the Monasteries. Bess persuaded him to sell his estates in the south and purchase land in Derbyshire. Bishop Kennett states this was done “at her desire”. It seems surprising that Sir William would leave his native soil to move north and gives an early indication of Bess’ strength of character. Sir William bought Chatsworth from the Leches and began to build, at his wife’s request, a new mansion.

When Mary ascended the English throne in 1553, Sir William fell foul of the government. He was accused of corruption “probably with considerable justification”, although the real reason was that he was a staunch Protestant close to Mary’s sister, Elizabeth. He faced a huge fine. The couple had eight children of whom six, three sons and three daughters survived. Sir William already had two daughters by a previous marriage.


The Dukeries are a large area of Nottinghamshire so named in the 18th century because of the proximity of five ducal estates – Portland, Leeds, Norfolk, Kingston and Newcastle – all of which can be traced back to the children of Bess.

Sir William died in 1557 and Bess became Lady in Waiting to Queen Elizabeth I when she acceded to the throne in 1558. In 1559 she married Sir William St. Loe, Captain of the Queen’s Guard and Butler to the Royal Household. Sir William was so enamoured of Bess, he disinherited his children, Mary and Margaret by his first marriage to Jane Baynton. William and his brother Edward did not see eye to eye on this matter and on one occasion Edward attempted to poison Bess and William.

In 1561 Bess was sent to the Tower for seven months in 1561. This imprisonment occurred due to her involvement with Lady Catherine Grey. Catherine confessed that she had married the Earl of Hertford secretly against the Queen’s wishes and was pregnant. Bess wanted nothing to do with the matter and did not tell the Queen. On learning this, Elizabeth was most displeased and Bess was punished.

Sir William St Loe died in 1564 leaving everything to Bess and her heirs. Margaret and Mary were left penniless. It has been suggested his death was a successful poisoning by his brother Edward.

Bess was now a Lady of the Queen’s Bedchamber, which gave her daily contact with Elizabeth, had extensive estates and an income of £60,000 per annum, a huge sum of money. In 1568, at the age of 50, embarked on her fourth and last matrimonial foray and her most prestigious in the form of George Talbot, Sixth Earl of Shrewsbury. As part of the marriage terms, Talbot was to allow Bess’ daughter Mary to marry the Earl’s second son Gilbert and her eldest son, Henry to marry the Earl’s youngest daughter, Grace. This bound the interests of the Cavendish, Hardwick and Talbot families closely together.

The first few years of marriage seem very happy. In 1573 George wrote to his wife, “Of all the joys I have under God, the greatest is yourself. To think that I possess one so faithful and one that I know loves me so dear is all and the greatest comfort that this earth can give.

The Earl of Shrewsbury had eight principal houses; Sheffield Manor, Sheffield Castle, South Wingfield Manor, Rufford Abbey, Welbeck Abbey, Worksop Manor, Buxton Hall and Tutbury Castle. He also owned two properties in London. In 1569 he was required by the Queen to become guardian of Mary Queen of Scots.

Mary, daughter of James V of Scotland, returned to Scotland in 1559 after the death of her husband, King François II of France. In 1565, she married Henry Stuart, Lord Darnley, her first cousin. This had followed years of plotting firstly by Henry VIII and then Elizabeth I to marry Mary to someone “safe”, Henry’s son and later, Lord Robert Dudley. Elizabeth was furious about the marriage, as both Mary and Darnley were descendants of Mary Tudor, Henry VIII’s sister and had good claims to the English throne. They had a son, James. In 1567, Darnley died in an explosion which has been blamed on various parties, including James Hepburn, 4th Earl of Bothwell. Mary married Bothwell according to Protestant rites which infuriated the Scottish nobility, mainly Catholics. In July 1567, she was forced to abdicate the Scottish throne in favour of her one year old son James VI. In 1568 she raised an army to seize back the throne but was beaten at the Battle of Langside. Mary fled to England and was arrested at Carlisle. Thus began eighteen years of confinement before Elizabeth decided Mary was too much of a liability and following a trial for treason, she was beheaded at Fotheringhay Castle in 1587.

The Earl of Shrewsbury and Bess kept Mary firstly at Tutbury Castle, but moved from house to house, particularly after any threat to free Mary. Bess became jealous that her husband spent so much time in the company of Mary that she decided to become a close friend to the Queen of Scots and they spent much time together doing tapestry, embroidery and chatting. On one occasion when the Earl was taken ill at Wingfield Manor, they returned to Buxton leaving Mary behind. They did not have time to get permission from Elizabeth who was most displeased and sent a physician to Buxton to ensure the Earl’s rapid recovery.

In 1574, Bess and Elizabeth Cavendish went to Rufford where they had invited the Countess of Lennox and her son, Charles, younger brother of Lord Darnley. The Countess fell ill and was nursed by Bess. In the meantime, the two young people were left on their own and fell madly in love. Elizabeth became pregnant with what was to become their only child, Lady Arbella Stuart. Whether this was all planned by Bess or just happened is a matter of conjecture. In any event, the couple were clandestinely married. Queen Elizabeth was incandescent with rage. If anything happened to James, Mary’s son, Arbella would be the heiress to the throne. The Queen sent for the Countess Lennox, Bess and the bride and groom. George Talbot, who probably knew nothing of these happenings, wrote abject letters to his monarch. He also wrote to Lord Burghley a pitiful letter stating, “There are few nobleman’s sons in England that she hath not prayed me to deal for at one time or another. So I did for my Lord Rutland, with my Lord Sussex, for my Lord Wharton, and sundry others; and now this comes unlooked for, without thanks to me.”

The journey to London was awful – sleeting gales, floods on the Midlands and the usual bad roads of the time. They arrived in December 1574 and sent to their London homes, Lennox to Hackney and Bess to Shrewsbury House in Chelsea. Following an interview with the Queen, both were sent to the Tower of London. Charles and Elizabeth Lennox were placed under house arrest in Hackney. Francis Walsingham undertook a commission of enquiry to try and discover who had started the marriage negotiations. The Earl of Huntingdon questioned both ladies and their servants down to the least kitchen maid. But there was no evidence of any treasonable activity and by January 1575, Bess was back in Sheffield. It must be remembered that Bess was the most powerful woman in England after Queen Elizabeth. Apart from her wealth, her sons had were all powerful lords and she was Mary’s jailor. It was not in Elizabeth’s interest to keep Bess locked up without very strong cause.

Bess, however, had been given a stern warning by the Queen. That and being sent to the Tower made her indignant and she was soon spreading any gossip she could find about Elizabeth. Mary, Queen of Scots was still at Sheffield Castle but the relationship between her and Bess had changed. Bess stated of the atmosphere, “it was as though a sharp wind blows through the house”.

Around 1580, it appears that George was having an affair with a serving maid, Eleanor Britton. This infuriated Bess who, with the aid of her sons, spread rumours that the Earl and Queen Mary were having an affair. The idea that gouty old George and Mary would have an affair was highly unlikely. When Queen Elizabeth wrote enquiring after Mary’s well being, Bess replied, “Madame, she cannot do ill while she is with my husband, and I begin to grow jealous, they are so great together.” Mary was furious and wrote to Elizabeth denying any such liaison and reporting that Bess had been spreading rumours about Elizabeth herself. Bess and her sons went to court and stated that the affair was just malicious rumours and signed a declaration that Mary had had no child whilst in England. George had left Bess and set up with Eleanor, who according to legend ruled him with a rod of iron!

Charles Lennox had died in 1576, Countess Lennox died in 1578 and Elizabeth Cavendish died in 1581, at which point Arbella Stuart was taken in by Bess, although she was the ward of William Cecil, 1st Baron Burghley. Queen Elizabeth had hinted that Arbella may be named her heir. She gave a £200 per annum allowance for the child. Bess was extremely strict with six year old child, believing her granddaughter was destined to rule England. However, she always suspected that James VI of Scotland would not allow Arbella to inherit the Lennox earldom. Bess wrote to Robert Dudley, Earl of Leicester:- “The Bishop of Katnes to whom it seems that the King has granted the Earldom, is a very old man, sickly and without child, and I can not but think this is only compassed for him to that end that Daubigny in France being his [James’]next male heir should succeed him...” Bess was correct in her suspicions, the bishop died and Esme Stuart, Lord d’Aubigny came from France to take the inheritance.

Bess continued to pay for Arbella’s servant and tutors but resented the cost, despite her wealth. She wrote to Lord Burghley reminding him that the Queen retained the income from the Contess Lennox’s English estates which should be Arbella’s: “It pleased the Queen’s Majesty, my most gracious sovereign, upon my humble suit, to grant unto my late daughter, Lennox four hundred pounds, and to her . . . only daughter, two hundred pounds yearly, for her better maintenance assigned out of a parcel of land for her inheritance. Whereof the four hundred is now at her Majesty’s disposition ... I am now my good lord to be a humble suitor... that it may please her to confirm that grant of the whole six hundred pounds yearly, for the education of my dearest jewel Arbella.” To Walsingham she wrote:” She is of very great towardness to learn anything and I am very careful of her good education, as if she were my own and only child and a great deal more for the consanguinity she is of to her Majesty”. She also approached again the matter of money, to which end Elizabeth cancelled the £400 Lennox contribution, considering that £200 was adequate for an eight year old.

In 1583 Bess bought the Hardwick estate from her brother James for £9500 on behalf of her son William and started to rebuild the magnificent Hardwick Old Hall.

Bess now arranged the betrothal of Arbella to Lord Denbigh, the two year old son of the Earl of Leicester and Lettice Knollys. Leicester liked the idea of being so close to the throne and potentially the new Queen’s father-in-law. Predictably, Queen Elizabeth was outraged. She is said to have boxed Leicester’s ears and sent him from court. She demanded an explanation from Bess but no record of the conversation exists – it must have been interesting to hear these two old powerful women in verbal battle. In the event, Lord Denbigh died the following year.

In 1584 Mary Queen of Scots was finally removed from the care of Shrewsbury and placed with Sir Amias Paulet and this resulted in the sequence of events that eventually cost Mary her life. George wrote to the Queen thanking her for her graciousness in relieving him at last of “the two devils” who had made his life intolerable – Mary and Bess. He had described Bess as “that bitter shrew.”

In 1590, George Talbot, Earl of Shrewsbury died.

Bess started work on the New Hall at Hardwick.

The relationship between Arbella and Bess deteriorated rapidly. Bess’ strictness made Arbella feel like a prisoner. In 1592, Bess tried to arrange a marriage for Arbella to Raunutio Farnese, son of the Duke of Parma, but the Duke’s death put an end to these plans. In 1602 Arbella began her own plot to marry Edward Seymour. She sent a servant Dodderage on a horse provided by Henry Cavendish, with a message regarding her marriage to Seymour. Dodderage was held in the gatehouse jail at Westminster for being involved in a plot against Queen Elizabeth. A few days later, Sir Henry Bronker arrived at Hardwick with a letter for Bess and spoke in private to Arbella, who was forced to write a confession. It was so poor, that Bronker then wrote another and Arbella signed it. She begged pardon from the Queen.

Bess wrote to the Queen asking that Arbella be placed somewhere else or bestowed in marriage. Elizabeth preferred to keep Arbella out of the way at Hardwick. Bess replied she could not guarantee Arbella’s good conduct. Arbella meantime was writing numerous incoherent letters to Bronker. Bess was asked to stop these letters. The relationship between Bess and Arbella became violent. It has been suggested that Arbella suffered from porphyria, the genetically transmitted disease that affected George III. It has been supposed that the disease entered the Royal family through the Stuart line. That may account for her behaviour.On March 10th 1603, Henry Cavendish and Henry Stapleton, a Catholic, planned to get Arbella away from Hardwick. However, it was well known on the night that a large group of men were waiting in Hucknall for Henry and Arbella and Bess’ servants refused to allow Arbella to leave. When the Queen heard of this, she sent Arbella to West Park, Bedfordshire, house of the Earl of Kent. By the end of the year Elizabeth was dead and James VI of Scotland had taken the throne as James I of England.

Eventually, Arbella married William Seymour, grandson of Lady Catherine Grey, in 1610. For marrying without permission, James I imprisoned Arbella in Sir Thomas Perry’s house in Lambeth and Seymour in the Tower. Both escaped and were to meet in France, but Arbella was taken by James’ men just as she reached Calais and she was returned to the Tower where she died in 1615.

Bess continued her building projects and arranged the marriages of her grandchildren. She died on 13th February 1608 and was buried with great pomp in All Saints Church, Derby.

Bess was not well remembered by her descendants. In 1790 she was described as “a woman of masculine understanding and conduct, proud, furious, selfish and unfeeling”. In 1845, she was said to be “hideous, dry, parched, narrow-minded... prudent, amassing and calculating...”