Bess of Hardwick has usually been viewed as a hard-hearted schemer, an unscrupulous woman who triumphed in male-dominated Tudor England by never allowing emotion to impede her ambition. Allegedly driven by acquisitiveness and a lust for power, she married four times, always moving on to a husband richer than the last. Having gained a sizeable fortune, she sought immortality by founding a dynasty and building great houses, and this, too, has been seen as evidence of her predatory nature and instinct for self-aggrandisement. While no one can deny the beauty of her most famous creation, Hardwick Hall, few have doubted that the woman who erected it was deeply unpleasant. Now, however, in this impressive biography, Mary S. Lovell portrays Bess in a more sympathetic light.
The daughter of a gentleman farmer from Derbyshire, Bess was first widowed at the age of 17. Her second husband was Sir William Cavendish, a canny bureaucrat 20 years her senior, who had made substantial sums from the dissolution of the monasteries. During the tense last years of Henry VIII and the reigns of Edward VI and Mary, the couple contrived the difficult feat of remaining members of England’s political elite without being destroyed by the upheavals that claimed the lives of many of their associates.
Cavendish died in 1557, leaving Bess with six young children. Three years later she married again, this time to Sir William St Loe, Captain of Queen Elizabeth’s royal bodyguard. St Loe clearly adored Bess, and proved an indulgent husband. He paid for work to be continued on Chatsworth, the house in Derbyshire that Bess had begun building while married to Cavendish. When St Loe died unexpectedly in 1565, he left Bess his entire fortune, prompting claims that other members of his family had been ‘cruelly robbed’.
In 1568, Bess, now aged 40, married the Earl of Shrewsbury, one of England’s greatest landowners. Although initially the marriage was very happy, by 1577 relations soured, and within a few years Shrewsbury would declare, ‘I do detest her.’ Years of bitter wrangling followed, in which both sides appealed to senior courtiers and the Queen to adjudicate on their grievances. Shrewsbury blamed Bess’s ‘wicked tongue’ and ‘devilish disposition’ for their estrangement, but Lovell concludes, as others did at the time, that the fault lay with him, and that Bess ‘received hard dealing’ at his hands.
A major cause of marital strain had been Shrewsbury’s appointment in 1568 as custodian of the captive Mary Stuart. This proved a grievous financial burden, for Queen Elizabeth insisted that Mary should be confined in regal splendour, but declined to underwrite the full cost. Suffering an appalling drain on his purse, Shrewsbury begrudged the sums Bess still expected him to spend on Chatsworth, and this resulted in tension.
Elizabeth occasionally expressed concern that Shrewsbury was ‘too much at the devotion’ of Mary, leading to lapses in security, and Bess, too, appears to have felt he had grown alarmingly close to his prisoner. Mary subsequently claimed that Bess took revenge by spreading ‘scandalous stories’ suggesting that Shrewsbury had fathered a child by her, although an official investigation exonerated Bess of this.
After Shrewsbury’s death in 1590, Bess threw herself into further building projects, moving into Hardwick in 1597. Unfortunately, family problems continued to plague her. She had married her younger daughter to a cousin of Queen Elizabeth, and Bess cherished hopes that Arbella Stuart, the only offspring of this union, would eventually become the Queen’s successor. Bess doted on the child she envisaged would one day rule England, but on reaching womanhood Arbella grew frustrated and resentful, deciding that ‘her grandmother was the greatest enemy she has’. The council put a stop to an irresponsible marriage plan hatched by Arbella without Bess’s knowledge, but even after this Arbella continued to torment her grandmother with her vagaries, until the old woman lamented, ‘I am wearied of my life.’
Although comparatively few letters survive to reveal the qualities that captivated Bess’s husbands and prompted Queen Elizabeth to declare that ‘there is no lady in this land that I better love and like’, Lovell overcomes this by teasing illuminating details from the account books that Bess maintained throughout her life. Bess was obviously a tough businesswoman (those who borrowed from her did well to scan the small print carefully), but Lovell describes her subject as ‘shrewd rather than shrewish’ and argues convincingly that she was a woman of considerable charm who was more generous and affectionate than is usually allowed.