Elizabeth Talbot, Countess of Shrewsbury by Unknown Artist, probably 17th century based on a work c.1590, oil on canvas (on display Montacute House, NPG 203)
Elizabeth Talbot, or, as she is more commonly known, Bess of Hardwick, was born into a Derbyshire gentry family that became increasingly impoverished and subjected her childhood to hardships, but died one of the richest people in England and had enjoyed status young Bess could have only dreamt of. She was a tour de force in Tudor England, but is often written off as just a woman who happened to marry well four times. This did happen, but I don’t think she just happened to marry well: I think her story demonstrates strategy and intelligence on her part, showing her to be a woman who really seemed to understand what it took to succeed in Tudor England. I think Hardwick Hall – more glass than wall – bears testimony to this! You only have to look to the top of the new hall to see her initials, E. S., for Elizabeth Shrewsbury, to realise this: it was her house, her creation and the result of her hard work to gain power and status.
Born in 1527 (six years before Elizabeth I), Bess was married off by the age of 15 to Robert Barlow. This was a short-lived marriage, as Robert died on Christmas Eve the following year. She received a small inheritance from this. In 1547, Bess married for the second time, this time to William Cavendish. The year before their marriage, he had been appointed Treasurer of the King’s Chamber. The decade they spent together seemed to be a really happy marriage for a couple who were both keen to advance socially and support each other’s interests: for instance, all of the properties they bought in Derbyshire (which included Chatsworth in June 1549, amongst other parcels of land and estates) were held jointly in their names. They also had eight children, six of whom survived to adulthood. Bess became incredibly involved in arranging her children’s marriages as life moved on, not only using her own ability to marry to secure or lead to more property and power, but also that of her children too. This became most apparent during her fourth marriage.
Her third marriage was to Sir William St. Loe, who had an ancient and noble lineage Bess’ second husband had lacked. He was also very rich. Bess and William married sometime between the death of her second husband and the accession of Elizabeth I in 1558. This union resulted in an increased position of power at court for Bess. Whilst she and her second husband had taken care to name prominent Protestant powers at court as godparents to their children, it was in 1559 that Bess was appointed a Gentlewoman of the Queen’s Privy Chamber, whilst her new husband became Captain of the Guard. When he died in 1565, the couple had had no children, and in fact, Bess had spent most of her time apart from him, with William at court and she at Chatsworth. However, he left her the bulk of his estates, which Bess took forward with her to make one final marriage.
On November 1st 1567, at forty years of age, Bess married one of the wealthiest and most powerful men in the north of England, George Talbot, the 6th Earl of Shrewsbury. It was here that her dynastic ambition was unleashed in full force: as part of their marriage agreement, Bess married two of her children to two of George’s children. In 1568 her husband was designated the keeper of Mary, Queen of Scots, which was in principle a highly prestigious role, but in reality, an expensive and stressful position to be in. Mary moved through several of the couple’s properties during the fifteen years she spent in their custody. It was during this time that Bess saw an opportunity to make perhaps her most ambitious marriage arrangement yet: between her daughter, Elizabeth Cavendish, and Charles Stuart, Earl of Lennox, younger brother of Lord Darnley, Mary’s second husband. This angered both Bess’ husband George and Elizabeth I, but resulted in the birth of Lady Arbella Stuart, who was often spoken of as a potential heir to Elizabeth I, the Virgin Queen. Arbella lived a tragic life and in 1582, she became an orphan and was received into her grandmother’s care. Bess’ ambition knew no bounds here: she knew her granddaughter had a claim to the throne.
Despite the success of her marriage arrangements, Bess’ own marriage was suffering greatly. She and George separated in 1584 and thus began a legal battle over Chatsworth. Even though Bess had upset the queen on several occasions, Elizabeth even intervened on her behalf with George during their marriage troubles. But it was also during this period that Bess began to take control of the place where she is best remembered: Hardwick.
Perhaps because she was worried about the future of Chatsworth, Bess decided to buy her old family manor at Hardwick from her brother, who was struggling financially. By 1587, building had begun at what is now known as Hardwick Old Hall. By having her own home here, and one associated with her own family, I see this as Bess taking control and creating her own statement. Around the same time of the Old Hall’s completion, George died and left Bess richer than ever. And what did Bess decide to do, now she had transformed her old family home and saw herself as completely financially independent? Build a second hall, of course!
Hardwick Hall was designed by Robert Smythson, and was meant to complement the Old Hall. If you visit, it is quite astonishing to see the ruins of the old hall side by side with the beautiful Italianate new hall, so famous for all of its windows – a distinctive mark of the expense of the project and thus the wealth of its owner. Bess took up residence at her new hall in 1597 and it was completed two years later. The remaining nine years of her life were spent furnishing and decorating the inside of her palatial home – and her contribution cannot be forgotten. Everywhere you look, starting with the outside of the building, the initials ‘E. S.’ are present, alongside her various family crests. These stand alongside tapestries, furniture, silverware, paintings and beautiful embroideries, making the Hardwick collection a wonderful one that can’t be forgotten once visited!