I have always been drawn to strong women in history, mostly because to have a mention they must have been pretty special. Previous IWD posts have been Joan of Arc, Mary Queen of Scots, but this year I though I would look at an extraordinary woman of the past who married well, rose up the social ladder, was an astute business woman and who became as wealthy as the monarch. Her name was Bess of Hardwick
The exact date of Bess’ birth is not recorded but educated guesses gleaned from other records suggest that she was born in the later half of 1527. Her father died when she was young and her mother remarried a second son of a local family Leach who were from Chatsworth in Derbyshire.
Little else is known of her childhood but we can assume that her marriage to her first husband, Robert Barley was arranged in the 1530s and the very young couple were married it is thought around May 1543. Sadly the marriage was very short lived as her young teenage husband died 18 months on in December 1544. Bess in her mid teens was a young widow.
However three years later Bess remarried a twice widowed courtier Sir William Cavendish who was twice her age. An interesting man who had made his fortune on the back of the dissolution of the monasteries at the Court of Augmentations, the department that redistributed the wealth of the holy church in England and pensioned the former Monks, Friars and Nuns. Also upon marrying Cavendish she became step mother to his two daughters from his previous marriages. During her 10 year marriage to Cavendish she bore him 8 children 6 of who survived infancy. Cavendish died in October 1557, leaving Bess and the children in debt to the crown.
Two years later Bess lands husband number three one Sir William St Loe. He was the Captain of the guard to Queen Elizabeth I as well as holding the court title of chief Butler of England. The marriage lasted 6 years and there was no issue from the union. St Loe died in unusual circumstances and it is thought he may have been poisoned by a younger brother. If this was the case his brother gained nothing from his death as Sir William had left all his wealth to his wife Bess. Upon his untimely death Bess became on of the wealthiest people in Tudor England. He owned property and estates in the west country and Gloucester. She would go on and take a place in the Queens service as lady of the bedchamber and became one of Elizabeth’s favourites.
Three times a widow in her thirties and with the ear of the queen, Bess was highly desired by the single and mingling men of Elizabeth’s court. When she did remarry in 1568 it was to George Talbot, 6th Earl of Shrewsbury. She had risen to the title of Countess through shrewd marriages.
Her marriage to Talbot would give her access to one the most interesting episodes in Elizabethan history, the imprisonment of Mary Stuart, Queen of Scots. After fleeing Scotland and abdicating her throne to her infant son James, Mary Stuart came to England to seek help and assistance from her cousin Elizabeth. The political rivalry for the heir to Elizabeth’s throne with the added complexities of religious differences meant that 2 queens could not remain at peace on one isle. The Shrewsbury’s would be come Marys Goalers from February 1569 for 15 years. After she was moved from the Shewsbury’s Mary started plotting and was caught and her actions would eventually lead to her until her execution in 1586 at Fotheringay Castle.
The financial burden of housing a queen and Bess’ jealousy of her husbands affections towards Mary were to take their toll on Bess’s marriage. Although Mary was a rift in the marriage Bess would become Mary’s friend and the two women would embroider together. An example of their work are the Oxbough Hangings.
After Mary was moved to her last goalers the Shrewsbury’s separated. William died in 1590 and Bess became a widow for the forth time.
Over the years Bess had managed not only multiple house hold accounts including Chatsworth and Harwick but she also arranged excellent marriages for her children and more importantly business in coal and wool industries. In a time when a female monarch was controversial a female business woman would have been just as difficult and demanding.
Bess lived on to the ripe old age of 81. she died on Saturday 13th of February 1608 out living Elizabeth I by 5 years. She is laid to rest at Derby Cathedral.
What an eventful life she lead; I think it is fair to say that Bess of Hardwick was firstly a surviver, she bore 8 chidren and lost 2, just because it was sadly more common then, than now, to loose a child, it would not make it any less painful; she lost 4 husbands and lived through extraordinary historic times, in short Bess of Hardwick is most definitely worthy of a shout out this International Womens Day.