42 Cunning Facts About Bess of Hardwick, The Royal Confidante

Christine Tran

Elizabeth “Bess” Hardwick is best remembered as the wealthiest woman in Tudor England. As close friend (most of the time) to Queen Elizabeth I, her life testifies to the heights a lady could achieve with the help of a little elbow grease…and about four rich, dead husbands. Hardwick also enjoyed a lucrative career as a confidante to women at the top of English society. Naturally, she used that royal information to her advantage. Bow down to these 42 scandalous facts about Bess of Hardwick, the career BFF to the Tudors.

Facts About Bess of Hardwick

1. Where Did You Come From?

Compared to her prolific adulthood, the finer details of Hardwick’s early life are a mystery. We don’t know her birthday or birthplace exactly. However, historians tend to guestimate she was born “Elizabeth Hardwick” in about 1527. In any case, she left home at about 12 years old, as big girls get to do.

2. It’s Good to Be Humble

Hardwick was born well-connected but poor, at least by “noble” standards. While the family had landed in Derbyshire lands from Sussex in the 13th century, they were still only “gentleman-yeoman stock” by the 15th century. With “just” a few hundred acres of land to their name, it was hardly the stock portfolio one expected from a Queen’s friend.

3. Little Orphan Bessie

Hardwick’s father, John, passed away at the age of 40. He left behind a wife, a son, and four daughters, including Bess. She and her brother James would not have control of their humble estate for a long time. They were instead subject to the Court of Wards until James made it to legal age.

4. Royal Connection

In her early teens, Hardwick possibly got her first noble maid “gig” in the household of Queen Anne Boleyn’s own former maid-of-honor, Anne Gainsford, Lady Zouche. It was likely that Lady Zouche shared Boleyn’s penchant for religious reform, which likewise influenced Hardwick’s own Protestant inclinations—despite her family’s conservative Catholic reputation.

5. Young Enough to Grow Up

In what she described as her “tender years” (i.e. when she was less than 16 years old), Hardwick made the first of her four marriages. Details about first match are scant. We aren’t sure when or where the nuptials took place…or even the groom’s last name! He was either Robert Barlow or Robert Barley, depending on your source. What’s more certain is that he was barely 13.

6. Paging Florence Nightingale?

Bess of Hardwick’s early life presents big gaps that people have filled with romantic legend. According to lore, she struck up her mysterious relationship to first husband Robert Barlow (or Barley) after Robert fell sick and she nursed him to health.

7. Show Me the Money

Sadly, Hardwick’s first husband Robert died before either of them reached the age of majority, so she spent eight years fighting for her first widow’s inheritance. In normal circumstances, Hardwick would have been entitled to one-third of his estate as widow…or, at least, she would have gotten paid right away, if not for her brother-in-law’s refusal to fork it over.

8. Finally In With the Cool Kids

Thanks to homelessness, Bess of Hardwick’s career as BFF to the highborn really took off. Left without income as a widow, the young Hardwick entered service again in the manor of Lady Frances Grey, Marchioness of Dorset. The Marchioness happened to be niece to Henry VIII…and mother to the doomed “Nine Days’ Queen” Lady Jane Grey.

9. I Prefer Paychecks, But This is Nice

Service under France Grey brought Bess Hardwick into elite Tudor circles. She was a favorite of the royal niece, who gifted Hardwick with a ring of agate that she would treasure for the rest of her life.

10. A Royal (Adjacent) Wedding

Unlike her first marriage, Bess’s second match to Sir William Cavendish was a highly recorded event. Taking place on August 20, 1547, at 2 pm, the wedding was officiated in the house of Hardwick’s royal patrons, the Dorsets. Her groom, Sir William, was also connected: he was a former protégé of Henry VIII’s executed advisor, Thomas Cromwell.

11. Double Down

While Hardwick’s first husband had been barely a teen, her second husband was twice her age and already a father to two older girls.

12. Your Loss Is My Gain

Hardwick’s second husband built his fortune from the dissolution of the monasteries. After Henry VIII broke with Rome in the 1530s, Catholic monasteries and nunneries had their wealth seized and distributed among the choice nobles. As such changes of faith worked to her benefit, we’re not surprised that Hardwick was a staunch Protestant.

13. Homecoming on His Dime

Bess of Hardwick appears to exert a degree of political influence over her second husband, the wealthy Sir William Cavendish. He sold precious lands in southern England in exchange for the Chatsworth estates based in her less sexy home region of Derbyshire—perhaps at his wife’s bequest.

Bess of HardwickShutterstock

14. The More You Breed, The More It Costs

Hardwick’s second marriage lasted produced eight kids—six of whom survived infancy—and lasted 10 years. In 1557, Sir William Cavendish left his mortal coil, and also his wife—in extreme debt.

15. Drapes to Last a Five Lifetimes

The Hardwick Hall Textiles are a notorious 400-year-old collection of 16th and 17th-century fabrics. Including slips embroidered by Hardwick’s future captive Mary, Queen of Scots herself, the textiles are a testimony to the material details of Tudor life. Thanks to Bess’s obsessive inventory-taking, the collection has been studied and well-preserved for centuries.

16. New Faith, New Rules

As a lady in the court of Edward IV, Hardwick ran with in-favor Protestant elites like William Cecil, John Dudley, Duke of Northumberland, and even Lady Elizabeth Tudor. Naturally, when the Catholic Mary I—AKA Bloody Mary—rose the throne, Hardwick and her husband were almost suspected of treason.

17. Take My Son, Please

To save face in the Catholic regime, Hardwick offered to name Queen Mary I as godmother to her youngest son, Charles.

18. Skim Off the Top?

Right before she was widowed for the second time, Hardwick’s husband was suspected of embezzling funds from the Crown. Thankfully for Bess, he died before the charges could officially be resolved.

19. The Power of Networking

Hardwick had a talent for staying friendly with the right royals, and it paid off. When her longtime pal Elizabeth Tudor ascended to the throne as Elizabeth I of England in 1558, Hardwick found gainful employment as the Virgin Queen’s first Lady of the Bedchamber.

20. When eHarmony Becomes LinkedIn

As an indebted widow and single mom of six kids, Bess of Hardwick wasn’t exactly a “catch” in herself. Nevertheless, she managed to leverage her royal friendship to Elizabeth I and marry a third time to another influential court figure, Sir William St Loe, in 1559. Soon after the marriage, Elizabeth appointed her friend’s third hubby as royal Captain of the Guard.

21. A Little Help from My Friends

Thanks to her queenly good friend—and her wealthy third husband—Hardwick was finally cleared of her second husband’s debts. Elizabeth I of England reduced the huge amount that Hardwick owed to the Crown, and her generous hubby #3 paid the rest of balance on his wife’s behalf. Gee, where is the Queen for everyone else with huge loans?

22. Brother-in-Outlaw?

As previously established, Bess’s third husband Sir William St Loe was very wealthy and generous—but he had a rough relationship with his brother. When he died under suspicious circumstances in 1565, it was rumored he was poisoned. In any case, Hardwick was rich and single again.

23. Between a Rock and a Rich Place

Due to her proximity to Queen Elizabeth, Hardwick’s is named in several royal family scandals. In 1561, the Queen’s cousin, Katherine Grey, became pregnant after secretly eloping. As an old family friend, Bess became a confidante to the defiant royal cousin. It’s been mythologized that Bess was sent to the Tower—alongside Katherine—for not telling the Queen right away about the pregnancy.

However, there’s no firm record that Hardwick was ever arrested. Most biographers think Hardwick had nothing to do with the scandal at all. After all, I think more people would’ve taken notice if the Queen sent one of her best pals to prison.

24. Three Strikes, You’re Rich

Upon the death of her third husband, Beth became one of the wealthiest women in all of England. The late Sir William St Loe bequeathed her £60,000, which is about £18,000,000 in 2018 money! At this point, Hardwick was still pretty too. With this injection of capital, the late-30-something Bess of Hardwick became even more attractive on the marriage market.

25. Fourth Time is the Charm

Bess of Hardwick kept leveling up in the marriage game. Her fourth, final, and most fiscally attractive match was with George Talbot, 6th Earl of Shrewsbury. He was about her age and one of the most prominent men in the English aristocracy.

26. A Good Marriage Is Built on Boundaries

Bess of Hardwick refused to let her fourth husband’s wealth intimidate her. Before tying the knot, she made Shrewsbury guarantee that her family estate in Chatsworth—and most of her lands, in fact—would remain under her control and not sublimated into her husband’s possessions, as so many Elizabethan ladies had to deal with in marriage.

27. If You Marry Me, You Marry Us All!

Hardwick’s fourth marriage was a triple-marriage alliance of pseudo-incestuous proportions. In addition to marrying Shrewsbury herself, Hardwick wed her oldest son, Henry Cavendish, to his new stepsister, Grace Talbot. Additionally, her daughter, Mary Cavendish, was wed to Shrewsburys’ son, Gilbert Talbot. In other words, Hardwick and Shrewsbury married their step-kids to each other.

28. I Love You, None

Despite their financially-focused marriage, Hardwick and Shrewsbury appeared to be in love (at first). Letters to each other often lamented any missed nights together. Shrewsbury even had a pet name for Hardwick: “None” (an old-timey contraction for “my own”).

29. The Price of Friendship

Mary, Queen of Scots put a strain on Hardwick’s fourth marriage. In 1568, Queen Elizabeth gave Shrewsbury and Hardwick the “honor” of being custodians to the exiled Scottish queen/captive. In practice, jailing a Queen in your house—even a disgraced one—is expensive. Shuffling Queen Mary from estate to estate put a drain on the couple’s finances and good will.

30. Friends in Weird Places

Playing jailer to Mary, Queen of Scots wasn’t all bad, at first. Hardwick and Queen Mary initially got along. Together, the two spent hours sewing beautiful needlework that would make its way into the legendary Hardwick Hall textiles.

31. Those Who Live in Glass Houses…

Our lovely lady’s legendary home at Hardwick Hall inspired the rhyme, “Hardwick Hall, more glass than wall.” This was in reference to the huge windows, which seems to outnumber the brick—a big sign of luxury in those precarious times.

32. Royal Staycation

In total, Mary, Queen of Scots was detained in Hardwick’s custody for 15 years. (For perspective, Mary was executed just two years after she left the Shrewsburys’ holdings.)

33. Matchmaker’s Surprise

Come 1574, Bess of Hardwick finally managed to push Queen Elizabeth’s goodwill too far. The Countess was caught conspiring with Mary, Queen of Scots’ mother-in-law, Lady Lennox. The two agreed to wed Hardwick’s her own daughter, Elizabeth Cavendish, to Lennox’s son, Lord Charles Stuart. Marrying oneself to a candidate for the English and Scottish throne—as well as the Queen’s frenemies—was a big no-no. Needless to say, Queen Elizabeth of furious at her so-called bestie.

34. Scandal Skips a Generation

In the end, Queen Elizabeth forgave Hardwick for sneaking behind her back. Hardwick’s daughter was allowed to marry Charles Stuart, resulting in the birth of Lady Arbella Stuart.

35. Trouble in Paradise

The almost-fallout with Queen Elizabeth blew over for Hardwick, but it enraged her fourth husband. That, plus Hardwick’s expensive renovation projects at Chatsworth put even more stress on a marriage. Add a royal hostage Scottish Queen to the mix, and we’ve got trouble…

36. My Land or My Love?

By the 1580s, the Shrewsburys’ marital estrangement was a national scandal. It culminated with Shrewsbury accusing Hardwick of stealing from him. For her credit, Hardwick was aghast and tried to repair the relationship. Her son was also on his mother’s side, calling her “ill-used” by his stepfather.

37. Three Is a Crowd, Even If No One Is Getting Any

What role did Mary, Queen of Scots play in the fallout between Bess of Hardwick and the Earl of Shrewsbury? The Scottish queen alleged Hardwick spread rumors about a love affair between Mary and Shrewsbury. It’s been speculated Mary had political incentive to disrupt the marriage. With the Shrewsbury family having a public breakdown, the Queen might move Mary to a less vigilant set of jailers.

38. A Queen Isn’t Cupid

Queen Elizabeth herself stepped in to help Hardwick and Shrewsbury patch up their marriage. Royal magic, however, only somewhat repaired the rift. While Hardwick was re-admitted into her husband’s presence, the two never forgave each other emotionally. For the rest of their lives, the couple rarely lived in the same residence.

39. Nothing Like Money to Inject Youth in Your Step

At 63 years old, Bess of Hardwick became a widow for the fourth and final time. She was officially the richest widow in all of England, although she was rumored to have the energy of someone much younger and less beleaguered by life’s trials.

40. Grandma Looks Out for #1

Bess of Hardwick didn’t let old age stop her from finding scandal. For a time, Hardwick’s granddaughter Arbella Stuart was considered a probable successor to Elizabeth I. After a lifelong career of social climbing, Hardwick greatly wished to see a grandchild on the throne. Of course, Elizabeth was less enthusiastic about having a pretty, young replacement at her court.

She made her old-time friend keep Arbella at home. Arbella then went into the family business of scandalous marriage, and tried to elope with another throne claimant. This moved earned her a one-way ticket to the Tower—but Hardwick did not come to her granddaughter’s aid. Instead, she disinherited Arbella and begged her royal bestie to rid her of this rebellious grandkid.

41. Leave Them Cold

Aged about 81 years old, Hardwick died on February 13, 1608. After a lifetime of social climbing and achievement, even she couldn’t survive a particularly rough English winter.

42. Old Blood, New Elizabeth

Only in death did Bess of Hardwick get her lineage on the throne. While the industrious woman is still an ancestor to the current Dukes of Devonshire and Norfolk, as well as the Earls of Lincoln, she is also—most grandly—a 10-times great-grandmother to the current Queen Elizabeth II of England.

Sources: 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6

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