Elizabeth Hardwick (Bess) was an important figure in history and in reality outside of Derbyshire she’s probably not as well know as she should be so let me give you an insight into the strong woman.
Bess was born to John Hardwick and his wife Elizabeth Leeke in around 1527 in Hardwick, Derbyshire. She was first married when she was 13 in the early 1540’s to Robert Barlow. They were married for one year before he died aged 14. If Robert had not died Bess may have had a very different life from the one that was to come.
On the 20th August 1547 Bess married the twice widowed Sir William Cavendish who was high up at the court of King Edward VI. Bess and William had 8 children:
Frances Cavendish born 1548, Temperence Cavendish born 1549, Henry Cavendish born 1550 who was god son of the then Princess Elizabeth (later Queen Elizabeth), William Cavendish born 1552 ,Charles Cavendish born 1553 who was god son of Queen Mary, Elizabeth Cavendish born 1555, Mary Cavendish born 1556 and Lucrece Cavendish born 1556.
After William Cavendish died Bess married Sir William St Loe in 1559. Sir William was a very wealthy man and Bess was in financial difficulties so the marriage proved very beneficial especially since Sir William died after only 6 years of marriage. Upon his death he left everything to Bess and she thus became one of the riches women in the country.
Bess’s 4th marriage was most probably a political one to George Talbot the 6th Earl of Shrewsbury. The couple fought regularly and quiet often lived apart. It was during her marriage to the Earl that Bess became the keeper of Mary Queen of Scots. For 15 years the couple kept her at their Derbyshire properties and Bess and Mary spent much time together particularly at the properties of Chatsworth House, Tutbury Castle and Sheffield Manor. While at Chatsworth Bess and Mary spent much time creating tapestries together.
Bess was quite often in trouble with the crown and spent time on 2 occasions as a guest in the Tower of London.
The first stay was in 1561. Bess was a close friend of Frances Grey, nee Brandon who was the mother of Lady Jane Grey the 9 day Queen. Frances second daughter was Lady Catherine Grey. In 1561 and in desperate need of help Catherine informed her mother’s friend that she had secretly married the Earl of Hertford, Edward Seymour (the nephew of Jane Seymour the 3rd wife of King Henry VIII) and that she was pregnant. For a lady such as Catherine who had a claim to the throne through her grandmother Mary Tudor, the sister of King Henry VIII, it was against protocol to marry without the Queen’s consent. When Queen Elizabeth found out she was not best pleased and when she found out one of her ladies of the bedchamber Bess knew she had her imprisoned for 7 months.
Bess spent a second stay in the tower in 1574 (or may have she may have been under house arrest at her manor in Chelsea). While staying at Rufford Abbey in Nottinghamshire (one of her many estates) with Lady Margaret Stuart (the daughter of Margaret Tudor, the sister of King Henry VIII), Bess’ daughter Elizabeth and Margaret’s son Charles met and fell in love. The mother’s decided to let their children marry. Bess hadn’t learnt from her previous visit to the tower and the Queens permission was not asked for. This was needed as Margaret Stuart was of Royal blood and her eldest son Lord Darnley was married to Mary Queen of Scots until his death. The Queen went nuts and had the mother’s imprisoned. Elizabeth and Charles had one daughter Arbella Stuart who Queen Elizabeth was convinced was trying to over throw her.
Some feel Bess thought herself to be above the queen and there is some evidence for this. At the hall she built herself at Hardwick her coat of arms and emblems are everywhere. Even the outside of the building has her initials carved into the roof line that can clearly be seen from the M1 motorway today. This could have been seen as she felt herself at a level or even above the Queen.
Bess owned much land and many manors in Derbyshire. She owned Chatsworth House, Hardwick Hall (she built the new hall which still stands today), Wingfield Manor, Bolsover Castle, Heath Manor, Stainsby Manor and Owlcoates Manor in her own right. She had coal mines in Bolsover, Hardstoft and Tibshelf and owned land in Staffordshire, Derbyshire and Yorkshire. She also through her marriages had the use of Rufford Abbey, Tutbury Castle, Sheffield Manor, Chelsea Manor and many others.
During her life she was Lady Elizabeth Cavendish, Lady Elizabeth St Loe and the Countess of Shrewsbury. Her ancestors went on to become the Earls Manvers, the Earls/Dukes of Rutland, the Earls/Dukes of Devonshire and the Dukes of Newcastle. Bess’ most abiding legacy is through her houses of Hardwick Hall and Chatsworth House. Bess was instrumental in the building of these properties and used her substantial wealth to do it.
Bess died in December 1608 and she was buried in the parish church of Derby, All Saints. The church was later rebuilt and became Derby cathedral but Bess’ memorial can still be seen there.
Bess may have been fortunate through marriage and gaining much wealth but she was a feisty woman who went after what she wanted. She may have gotten herself in to trouble on occasion but in the end she was still the second most powerful woman in the country after the Queen and a Derbyshire woman through and through.
If you’ve read this and what to know more about Bess I recommend the novel about her by Georgina Lee – Bess a Novel. It’s a really good read.
Hello and thank you for taking the time to read my ramblings on genealogy and history in general. I hope you find it informative and hopefully funny!