In February 1608 England’s second wealthiest woman, the grandmother to a claimant to the throne, known for building the most spacious and modern stately home in England, former jailer to Mary Queen of Scots, died and was buried in the Cathedral of Derby. This woman had come far in her long life, rising from being part of the yeoman gentry to entertaining royalty, part of the inner circle of Queen Elizabeth I.
Bess of Hardwick, Countess of Shrewsbury, started off life in a pretty inauspicious way, and nothing about her early life signaled the feats to which she would climb. She was born into a gentleman’s family, but her father died young and her mother remarried. The family’s finances were tight, but they managed to send young Bess to be a Lady in Waiting to a prominent household, the Zouche’s, when she was twelve. This was a common practice; young women would learn how to act in a noble home, and could potentially have the support of a family that may help them rise. There was also the opportunity to find a husband, which is how Bess met her first husband, Robert Barlow. He died only one year into their short marriage, and teenaged Bess had to fight for her widow’s dower, to which she was legally entitled. Once the case settled in her favor, she would receive her first income of 30 pounds/year.
Bess moved on to the Grey home, which was a huge social step up for her. Frances Grey was the niece of Henry VIII, and was distantly in line for the throne. Her daughter, the Lady Jane Grey, was famously Queen for Nine Days after Henry’s son Edward VI died young and went against Henry’s will naming Jane as his heir to ensure that his Protestant reforms would continue on after his death. Sadly for Jane, Edward’s Catholic older sister Mary Tudor would claim her throne and not only would Edward’s reforms be reversed, but Jane would be executed. Bess would have known the Grey sisters, and for the rest of her life she kept a portrait of Jane on her bedside table.
During her time at the Grey household she met her second husband, Sir William Cavendish. He was nearly twenty years older than her, and was already wealthy having benefited as one of the team who had worked on breaking up the monasteries when Henry VIII separated from Rome and ushered in the Protestant Reformation. Bess and Sir William were married for ten years, and it seems to have been a loving marriage as they had eight living children, and she often traveled with him. When he died, he left her a wealthy widow who was still only 30 years old.
She chose to marry again to Sir William St. Loe who was the captain of the yeoman guards, and served in Queen Elizabeth’s household. He died after six years of marriage, under suspicious circumstances. He was quite possibly poisoned by his brother who didn’t realize that Sir William left everything in his will to Bess. This left Bess is in her late 30s, having survived three husbands, and incredibly wealthy.
She could have lived out her life very comfortably on her own, but she chose to marry again, to George Talbot, the Earl of Shrewsbury. He had children her age, and in a joint marriage two of her children married two of his. Then she became his Countess.
Then the drama started. Shrewsbury was chosen as the protector/guard for Mary Queen of Scots, who had to leave the throne in Scotland when there was an uprising against her. She sought the support of her cousin Queen Elizabeth, but given that Mary did little to separate herself from being a figurehead of Catholic rebellion in England, Elizabeth wound up keeping her in a gilded cage.
At first, the appointment as her jailer was prestigious – Elizabeth clearly trusted the Shrewsbury’s. But no one knew that it would last for seventeen years.
The time spent taking care of Mary Queen of Scots would destroy the Shrewsbury’s marriage, and quite possibly the Earl’s sanity. He was almost as much of a prisoner as Mary given the fact that he couldn’t leave her in case she escaped when he was gone, which would not have been good for his career. He spent a fortune of his own money on her household, and there were constantly rumors at court about how well he was, or wasn’t, caring for his prisoner. He couldn’t leave long enough to go defend himself, and Bess wound up spending a considerable amount of time away from home. She attended court, visited her family, and focused on her own building projects.
The Earl died in 1590 when Bess was 63, estranged from his wife. She didn’t marry again, but instead she took all of her great wealth and began her largest building project – Hardwick Hall near her childhood home. It was a home that was built to entertain royalty. Her own granddaughter, Arbella Stuart, had a claim to the throne and for a time had been considered a potential her to Elizabeth. One of the most revolutionary things about the home were its windows, leading nobleman Robert Cecil to remark, “Hardwick Hall, more window than wall.” The glass was manufactured in her own glassworks.
Bess of Hardwick started out life in a pretty nondescript sort of way, but when she died she was the second wealthiest woman in England, coming in only after the Queen herself. She fought for her rights, managed her own finances, and she took the money she inherited through her marriages and invested it wisely. She built homes that we still admire today. She is a great example of a woman who created her own smart luck at a time when women weren’t educated in much beyond running a household, never mind investing money yourself and overseeing your own building projects. Bess was entrepreneurial, and used the resources available to her (marriage) to ensure that she would leave a legacy long after she had died.