Bess of Hardwick Countess of Shrewsbury
(1527-1608)

 

Family Links

Spouses/Children:
1. Sir William Cavendish

2. Robert Barlow
3. Sir William St. Loe (or Sentloe or St. Lowe)

Bess of Hardwick Countess of Shrewsbury

  • Born: 1527
  • Marriage (1): Sir William Cavendish on 20 Aug 1547
  • Marriage (2): Robert Barlow in 1541
  • Marriage (3): Sir William St. Loe (or Sentloe or St. Lowe) in 1559
  • Died: 1608 at age 81

  General Notes:

Elizabeth Hardwick, or Hardwicke, Countess of Shrewsbury, known as Bess of Hardwick, (1527-1608) was the 3rd surviving daughter of John Hardwick of Hardwicke in Derbyshire.

At the age of fourteen she was married, the first of four marriages, to 12 year old Robert Barlow, heir to a neighbouring estate. However they were too young, and he too sick, to consummate their marriage before he died. As Robert's widow she was entitled to one-third of the revenues of the Barlow estate.

She remained single until the August 20, 1547, when she married the twice-widowed Sir William Cavendish (who had two daughters and was more than twice her age). Probably acting on her advice, Sir William sold his lands in the south of England and purchased the Chatsworth estates in Derbyshire. Eight children were born of the marriage, two of whom died in infancy. Of the six who survived were three sons and three daughters. One of the sons was the founder of the ducal family of Devonshire, and another of the ducal family of Newcastle upon Tyne.

Sir William Cavendish having died on the October 25, 1557, she married in 1559 her third husband, Sir William St. Loe (or Sentloe or St. Lowe), captain of the guard to Queen Elizabeth, Chief Butler of England, and owner of large West country estates at Tormarton in Gloucestershire and Chew Magna in Somerset. When Sir William died without issue in 1564/5, in suspicious circumstances (probably poisoned by his younger brother), he left everything to Bess, to the detriment of his daughters and brother. In addition to her own six children, Bess was now responsible for the two daughters of Sir William Cavendish from his first marriage, but Sir William St Loe's two daughters were grown up and already well provided for.

Sir William St Loe's death left Bess, Lady St Loe, one of the most eligible women in England. Not only was she a Lady of the Bedchamber with daily access and the favour of the Queen, but her income was calculated to amount to £60,000, which had the buying power of millions today. She still retained her looks and good health, and a number of important men began courting her.

With the approval of Queen Elizabeth, who was not by habit a matchmaker, Bess was married in 1568 for the fourth time to George Talbot, 6th Earl of Shrewsbury, one of the premier aristocrats of the realm, with seven children from his first marriage; two of his children married two of hers in a double ceremony in February 1568. Bess's daughter, Mary Cavendish (aged 12), married Gilbert Talbot (aged 16), Shrewsbury's eldest son, and Bess's son, Henry Cavendish (aged 18), married Shrewsbury's daughter, Grace Talbot (aged 8).

The famous pearls worn by Bess in her portraits were bought by Bess, one pearl at a time, as her early account books show. An assertion that these were 'the Talbot pearls' is incorrect and seems to have originated speciously in a novel.

In 1574 Bess, the Countess of Shrewsbury took advantage of a visit of the Countess of Lennox to marry her daughter Elizabeth to Charles Stuart, the younger son of the Lennoxes and brother of Lord Darnley, the second husband of the Mary Queen of Scots. The marriage ceremony took place without the knowledge of Shrewsbury, who - though he was well aware of the suggested match some time prior to this event - declined to accept any responsibility. As the Lennox family had a claim to the throne, the marriage was considered potentially treasonable as no Royal Assent had been obtained. The Countess of Lennox, mother of the bridegroom, went to the Tower for several months, and Bess was ordered to London to face an official enquiry, but she ignored the summons, and remained in Sheffield until the row died down. The child of the marriage was Arbella Stuart, who had a claim to the thrones of Scotland and England. Her grandmother worshipped her but wilful and spoilt Arbella would prove to be the source of great pain and distress to Bess in her last years.

For many years (1569-1584), the Earl and Countess of Shrewsbury acted as 'guardians' to Mary I of Scotland when the Scottish Queen was imprisoned on one or another of their estates, but it was not until Mary was removed to another jailer, Sir Amias Paulet, that she got into the trouble that cost her life. Around the same time Mary was removed from his custody, the Earl and Bess separated for good - they had been apart off-and-on since about 1580, and even Queen Elizabeth had tried to get them to reconcile. Mary seems to have aggravated, if not created, their problems by playing them off against each other. The Countess believed he had been in a relationship with Mary, a charge which has never been proved or disproved, but seems unlikely given the Earl's disposition and increasingly poor health.

A BBC documentary claimed that Bess very much desired Arbella to become Queen, but it is fact that Bess was forced by order of the Queen to keep the girl away from Court and closely supervised in rural Derbyshire. Arbella blamed her grandmother for this, and the two fell out irrevocably when Arbella attempted to run away and marry a man who also had claim to the throne. Bess cut Arbella from her will and begged the Queen to take her granddaughter off her hands. Arbella's royal claim was never recognised but Bess eventually ended up with a descendant on the throne: Queen Elizabeth II.

Bess became famous for her building projects, especially two of them: Chatsworth, now the seat of the Dukes of Devonshire (whose family name is still "Cavendish," because they are descended from her children from her second marriage), and Hardwick Hall, of which it has been said for more than 400 years now: "Hardwick Hall, more glass than wall," because of the number and size of its windows. She was interred in a vault in Derby Cathedral, where there is a memorial to her. All three sites are popular with visitors, as is Old Hardwick Hall, Bess's birthplace.

Bess is the subject of several biographies, the latest of which are Bess of Hardwick - First Lady of Chatsworth by Mary S Lovell 2005, and Bess of Hardwick - Portrait of an Elizabethan Dynast by David Durant 1977. A work of fiction, Jan Westcott's novel The Tower and the Dream was published in (1974).

Bess married Sir William Cavendish on 20 Aug 1547. (Sir William Cavendish was born in 1505 and died on 25 Oct 1557.)

Bess next married Robert Barlow in 1541. (Robert Barlow was born in 1529 and died in 1542.)

Bess next married Sir William St. Loe (or Sentloe or St. Lowe) in 1559. (Sir William St. Loe (or Sentloe or St. Lowe) was born about 1525 and died in 1564-1565.)



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