Thursday, June 30, 2016

Biography Bess of Hardwick - Elizabeth Talbot, Countess of Shrewsbury 1518-1608 after 4 marriages, England's richest female subject -

Elizabeth Talbot, Countess of Shrewsbury, (1518-1608), usually called "Bess of Hardwick," was the daughter of John Hardwicke of Hardwicke in Derbyshire.  She became a handmaiden to Queen Elizabeth I, & she remained one of the Queen’s best friends. However, she was sent to the Tower twice by the Queen for her attempts to promote her own wealth & influence.

At the age of 12, she became a maid in the household of a wealthy Derbyshire family, Sir John & Lady Zouche of Codnor Castle. Her job began in London, where Bess met co-worker Robert Barlow, who was ill. Bess nursed Robert. He fell in love with her, & they married. Bess was 13, & Robert was not much older. Robert died soon, & Bess gained a customary widow's jointure, which was a 1/3 of Robert's income plus his lands.

Sir William Cavendish 1505–1557 c 1547

Bess did not marry again until 1547, when she married wealthy widower Sir William Cavendish 1505–1557. Cavendish was a Royal Commissioner employed in the business of disolving monasteries. He was granted church land for his services & was able to buy other land cheaply. Bess, 22 years his junior, was his 3rd wife. To please his new, young bride, Cavendish sold his lands in the south of England & purchased land in Derbyshire. He purchased the Chatsworth estate in 1549, & the couple began to build Chatsworth House in 1552.

Elizabeth Talbot, Countess of Shrewsbury, (1518-1608), usually called Bess of Hardwick

Eight children were born of the marriage, two of whom died in infancy. Of the six who survived, three were sons (Henry, 1550-1616; William, 1551-1626; & Charles, 1553-1617) and three daughters (Frances, b.1548; Elizabeth, 1555-1582; & Mary, 1556-1632).  Elizabeth I was godmother to their 1st son, Henry; & Queen Mary I of England was godmother to their 3rd son, Charles. Bess learned her accounting & estate management from Sir William, lessons that prepared her to acquire future wealth.

Sir William St. Loe 1518–1565

Upon Sir William's death, Bess was appointed lady-in-waiting to the Queen of England. In 1559, Bess married Sir William St. Loe 1518–1565, another wealthy widower. She insisted that his lands should be settled on her & her heirs; & when he died, all his wealth passed to Bess.

Bess of Hardwick (later Elizabeth Countess of Shrewsbury) when Mistress St Lo, 1550s

Bess of Hardwick was now the wealthiest subject in England. She chose her next husband with an eye toward keeping that status. With the approval of Queen Elizabeth, she was married in 1568, for the 4th time to George Talbot, 6th earl of Shrewsbury, a widower with 6 children. He was regarded as the richest nobleman in England. Bess made her usual demands for future estate settlements.

George Talbot, 6th Earl of Shrewsbury 1528-1590

To keep all the money in the famiy, Bess also insisted on arranging marriages between 2 of her children by Sir William Cavendish & 2 of the earl's by a former marriage. Mary Cavendish (12 years old) was married to Gilbert Talbot, & Henry Cavendish (18 years old) was married to Grace Talbot (8 years old). Always interested in increasing her wealth & political power, in 1574, the countess took advantage of a visit of the countess of Lennox to marry her daughter Elizabeth to Charles Stuart, the younger son of the Lennoxes & brother of Lord Darnley, the 2nd husband of the queen of Scots. She acted without the knowledge of her husband, who declined to accept any responsibility. As the Lennox family had a claim to the throne, this match was considered as a proof of the royal ambitions of the countess of Shrewsbury; & she was sent to the Tower by the queen, but was soon released. Elizabeth & Charles were in line for succession to the throne & had a daughter Arabella Stuart.  Arabella's parents died, when she was young; & Bess took care of her granddaughter.

Bess of Hardwick, Countess of Shrewsbury, by Rowland Lockey, 1592

By this time the Earl of Shrewsbury was fed up with his wife's vaulting ambition & tried to obtain a divorce. For many years the Shrewsburys were responsible for the guardianship of the lonely & unhappy Queen Mary Queen of Scots. The angry countess overextended herself by accusing her husband of a love intrigue with the queen of Scots, a charge which she was forced to retract before the council. In the meantime, she had told some gossip about Queen Elizabeth to Queen Mary, who made use of it in an 1584 letter.

Hardwick the "New" Hall

By 1584, the countess of Shrewsbury, who was certainly financially secure, was living apart from her husband, with whom she was later formally reconciled by the queen.  In 1584, Bess moved from their home at Chatsworth, to the "Old" Hall at Hardwick & largely rebuilt it as a place for herself to live. However, when the Earl died in 1590, her finances became even more secure, & she immediately began the construction of the "New" Hall. "Old Hall" was abandoned & gradually became a ruin.

Elizabeth Talbot, Countess of Shrewsbury, (1518-1608), usually called Bess of Hardwick

She obviously enjoyed building, as Hardwick, Chatsworth, & Oldcoates flourished under her hand. It is said that she believed she would not die, so long as she was building. Her death came in February 1608, during a frost which had temporarily put a stop to her building operations. Unfortunately, the temporary weather problems put a permanent stop to Bess.