Suzannah Lipscomb

Tudor England’s other Bess

She built some of the most magnificent houses of the age, and became a byword for wit, ambition and extravagance

Tudor England’s other Bess
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Devices and Desires: Bess of Hardwick and the Building of Elizabethan England

Kate Hubbard

Chatto, pp. 354, £

Bess of Hardwick — who died Elizabeth Talbot, Countess of Shrewsbury — was a remarkable and fascinating woman. The wife of four men, builder of four houses, and by her death the second richest woman in the country, the exceptional Bess has attracted many biographers.

Kate Hubbard’s new book differs from these by examining Bess’s life as a ‘builder within the context of the Elizabethan building world’. It is, consequently, part biography and part building history, considering along the way the erection of Elizabethan prodigy houses, such as Longleat, Theobalds, Wollaton (‘a monstrous building, heavy and hectic, overcrowded with ornament, overwhelmed with glass’), and, above all, Bess’s Hardwick New Hall. It is in here that we can still see Bess’s wit, ambition, creativity and vast wealth.

She was born into minor gentry. Another recent biographer, Mary S. Lovell, calculated the year of her birth to be 1527, but Hubbard guesses that she was ‘probably born in 1521, or early 1522’, though offers no evidence in support. After the early death of her first husband Robert Barlow, Bess married Sir William Cavendish. It was a love match and she had eight children over ten years with him. Hubbard notes in passing that two daughters died as infants. Their deaths were followed by Cavendish’s own in 1557, and Bess recorded in a notebook her ‘great misery’ at the loss of ‘Sir William Cavendish Knight, my most dear and well beloved husband’.

Her pain was exacerbated by being left in severe debt — a situation only resolved by her marriage in 1559 to Sir William St Loe, who seems to have adored her. Meticulous use of Bess’s expenditure accounts allows Hubbard to revel in the material details of the Cavendishes’ previous extravagant shopping and gambling habits — as much as £2 an evening was ‘lost at play’, at a time when the rent for their London house was £3 16s 8d a year — and in the generosity of St Loe’s gifts: Spanish gloves, Spanish leather shoes, velvet shoes, and ‘a bone grace [headdress] of the new fashion’.

St Loe’s death in 1565 left Bess in a new scrape: her in-laws believed that she had diddled them out of their inheritance. Later, her fourth and last husband, George Talbot, Earl of Shrewsbury, was to claim that he had rescued her reputation. His character is well-sketched by Hubbard: his letters have ‘a persistent undertow of complaint… “toiling” is a much-used verb’. In the early years of their marriage, his letters were also full of affection: he called Bess ‘my only joy’, said her absence ‘drove me in dumps’, and wished her ‘anights with me’.

But their happiness was ruined by Shrewsbury’s appointment as custodian of the imprisoned Mary, Queen of Scots. Hubbard vividly evokes the crippling financial burden of housing the Scottish queen and her sea of retainers for 15 years: the annual costs ran to several thousand pounds more than the meagre, intermittent expenses granted by Elizabeth I. The time her husband spent apart from Bess and with the beguiling Mary also took its toll emotionally. By 1577, a servant described their marital home as ‘a hell’. Shrewsbury blamed his scolding, ‘wicked and malicious wife’, and Bess retaliated by blaming the influence of ‘those about you who hate me’. Eventually she left the family home and Shrewsbury stopped paying her an annual allowance. The rumbling quarrel between them became a matter of national concern. Even the Queen intervened: ‘We do not suffer two persons of your degree and quality to live in such a kind of discord,’ she pronounced.

Hubbard does note that there was ‘something unbalanced about Shrewsbury’s behaviour’, and that it was ‘highly unreasonable at best’. When he arrived at Chatsworth with 40 armed men, demanding furnishings from Bess, she claimed not to know what caused his hatred and indignation. But in Hubbard’s reading, Bess, was no innocent: her ‘endless demands were beginning to grate’; her tone was ‘distinctly high-handed’, and when she told William Cecil, Lord Burghley that she was ‘not without fear’ of her life, she was ‘laying it on thick’.

In fact Hubbard seems at times decidedly unsympathetic to Bess. She notes, rightly, that she has been ‘demonised, mostly by male historians, who seem to have taken their cue from the Earl of Shrewsbury’. Yet, when Shrewsbury complained of being ‘ruled and overrun by my wife’ so that he became ‘the wife and her the husband’, Hubbard concludes that Cavendish and St Loe must have ‘willingly submitted to Bess’s rule’, which may have been ‘rule by stealth’; but ‘with Shrewsbury she had overstepped the mark’ with her ‘unwomanly behaviour’. Bess, it seems, cannot have been a strong, capable woman in mutual partnerships, but a devious manipulator and emasculator of men.

This in effect, is Shrewsbury’s judgment reproduced; and even the book’s title condemns Bess from Shrewsbury’s own mouth: he accused her of mixing ‘fair words’ with ‘hidden poison’ and added: ‘I have seen thoroughly into your devices and desires; your insatiable greedy appetite did betray you’.

Kate Hubbard has written a work of considerable scholarship, but it lacks an empathetic heart for its subject.