Published: 1 January 2005
Bess Hardwick, the fifth daughter of an impoverished Derbyshire nobleman, did not have an auspicious start in life. Widowed at sixteen, she nonetheless outlived four monarchs, married three more times, built the great house at Chatsworth, and died one of the wealthiest and most powerful women in English history.
In 1527 England was in the throes of violent political upheaval as Henry VIII severed all links with Rome. His daughter, Queen Mary, was even more capricious and bloody, only to be followed by the indomitable and ruthless Gloriana, Elizabeth I. It could not have been more hazardous a period for an ambitious woman; by the time Bess's first child was six, three of her illustrious godparents had been beheaded.
Using journals, letters, inventories, and account books, Mary S. Lovell tells the passionate, colorful story of an astonishingly accomplished woman, among whose descendants are counted the dukes of Devonshire, Rutland, and Portland, and, on the American side, Katharine Hepburn.
Bess of Hardwick rose to become one of the wealthiest women during the reign of Queen Elizabeth I thanks to her astute business acumen and her connections at court. In an era where women were supposed to be subservient to their husbands, Bess proved she was a match for any man when it came to making sound investments and running a household. Bess married four times but it was her second husband, William Cavendish, who had the most influence on her and she learned a great deal from him before his death left her a widow once more.
Bess, born during the reign of Henry VIII, was savvy enough to weather the political storms caused by the succession of his three children, and managed to remain in favour in vastly different courts. It was under the reign of Elizabeth I that Bess’s family rose to particular prominence but the favour of the queen came with strings attached and Bess’s fourth husband, George Talbot, 6th Earl of Shrewsbury, was given the dubious honour of hosting the captive Mary, Queen of Scots. The stresses of caring for the Scottish Queen would tear Bess and her family apart and put them on the verge of bankruptcy.
Before I read this book, I was only familiar with Bess of Hardwick through her time spent with the captive Mary, Queen of Scots, so I was intrigued to learn more about her. Women were often ignored in historical records, however Bess is a remarkable exception to that rule and much of her life after her second marriage is well documented to a certain point. When times are quieter, Bess’s own household accounts are used to fill in the gaps but as fascinating as her expenditure is initially, it becomes increasingly repetitive and tedious. There can be no doubt Bess had great business sense and she really blossoms under the tutelage of her second husband, William Cavendish, who was happy to indulge her but constant reiterations of her abilities start to feel like unnecessary padding after a while.
Bess’s other great ability, probably learned by watching Cavendish, was reading the situation at court and knowing who was worthy of her allegiance. Bess’s family survives the difficult transitions between Henry VIII’s children remarkably unscathed and Bess is eventually made part of Elizabeth I’s inner circle through the marriage to her third husband, Sir William St Loe, who was Captain of the Guard and Chief Butler of England. Bess is ambitious and knows how to play the game at court, so she manages to keep Elizabeth’s favour throughout her reign despite the odd transgression. However, Bess and her fourth husband, the Earl of Shrewsbury, were soon to learn being one of Elizabeth’s favourites could come with a hefty price. Bess and Shrewsbury are initially ecstatic at being chosen to guard the captive Queen of Scots but when they realise much of her keep will be coming out of their own purse, the privilege soon begins to feel like a chore. Shrewsbury was to be Mary’s jailer for more than fifteen years but by the end of it, he would be little more than a broken man estranged from his wife and children.
The political climate during Bess’s life was particularly turbulent and it is reasonable to expect Lovell to devote a significant portion of the book to describing what is going on at court and elsewhere. The political machinations colour many of Bess’s choices and goals for her children’s future so it is important for the reader to understand why she chooses to do some of things she does, however there were times where I felt we lost sight of Bess the person. There is a lot of focus on Mary, Queen of Scots, yet Bess only had contact with the Scottish Queen during the early parts of her imprisonment until she chose to distance herself, yet much of Mary’s story is detailed anyway in Bess’s absence. Obviously, Mary’s captivity had a detrimental effect on Bess’s marriage and Lovell wants to show exactly what led to the breakdown but it becomes very repetitive.
After Shrewsbury’s death in 1590, Bess’s remaining years were devoted to increasing her vast fortune and ensuring her grandchildren made good marriages. At the forefront of Bess’s ambitions is her granddaughter, Arbella Stuart, who had a legitimate claim on the throne of England through her great grandmother, Margaret Tudor, a sister of Henry VIII. Bess risked the wrath of Elizabeth I by scheming with Margaret Douglas, Countess of Lennox, for a marriage between Margaret’s son, Charles Stuart, and her daughter, Elizabeth Cavendish. Any child born of such a union was likely to have a strong claim on the throne and since the marriage had taken place without royal consent, Margaret Douglas soon found herself in the Tower. Bess managed to escape censure by ignoring a summons to court but the row settled down when a daughter was born of the union and Charles died soon after.
After the death of Elizabeth Cavendish a few years later, Arbella was raised by her grandmother but it was a lonely childhood as Bess was overprotective to the point of suffocation. As Arbella grew older, she naturally began to rebel against her grandmother’s strict regimen and caused a scandal when she tried to arrange an unsuitable marriage for herself. The relationship between Bess and Arbella broke down to the extent Bess pleaded with Elizabeth to take the girl away, however fate decreed otherwise as unknown to Bess, Elizabeth was dying. After Elizabeth’s death, too much attention is taken away from Bess in order to focus on Arbella’s life at the court of James I, so much so I was starting to wonder if this was Arbella’s book. By the time we catch up with Bess, she is busy disinheriting the children and grandchildren she believes to be a disappointment and preparing for her death.
So, do I feel like I know Bess of Hardwick better after reading this book? Unfortunately not. There’s no doubt Bess was a woman ahead of her time and you could easily imagine her as the CEO of a successful family business in the modern era, but as a wife and mother she still remains somewhat of a mystery because Bess gets somewhat lost amongst the politics. Lovell makes a lot of suppositions about parts of Bess’s life, and while most of them are historically sound and plausible, they are still nothing more than a leap of faith. The repetition was, however, the worst part for me as the same ground was often covered from different angles and could’ve been easily dropped.
I also found it curious Lovell seemed particularly anxious about dispelling many of the myths surrounding Bess’s personality, such as her perceived shrewishness, yet she portrays many of the other female characters stereotypically. Particularly disappointing is her condemnation of Frances Grey who has been vilified throughout history for her abusive treatment of her daughters, yet modern biographers now agree the accusations are unfounded and this is never mentioned. In the same light, Mary, Queen of Scots, is dismissed as a manipulative marriage wrecker who seems to have an almost preternatural effect on men, but my views here may be biased since the Scottish Queen is one of my favourite historical figures.
Having said that, I did like the way Lovell brought her characters to life and it’s obvious she did a tremendous amount of research, but Bess still remains a little too elusive for me.