BESS OF HARDWICK

(c. 1527-1608)
A loyal friend and servant to Queen Elizabeth I,* Bess of Hardwick became one of the wealthiest women of Elizabethan England. She was a grand matriarch committed to securing position and affluence for her family.
Born at Hardwick Hall in Derbyshire, Hardwick was daughter to John Hard-wick and Elizabeth Leake. She was married in 1543 to Robert Barley. This was the first and shortest of her four marriages. Barley died in 1544. In the years following his death Hardwick served as lady-in-waiting to Lady Dorset. In 1547 Hardwick married William Cavendish, treasurer of the Chamber. Together the couple had six children. Both Hardwick and Cavendish were ambitious and began acquiring lands and estates. Hardwick was also acquiring a keen financial intellect. Cavendish had a profitable career until he was accused of pilfering funds in 1557. Cavendish died later that year, leaving Hardwick with a sub­stantial debt to the throne.
When Elizabeth I took the throne in 1558, Hardwick was appointed lady-in-waiting. While at court, Hardwick married Sir William St. Loe, captain of the guard and later chief butler of England. St. Loe was very generous to Hardwick and to her children. With St. Loe, Hardwick built up an impressive estate at Chatsworth. His death in 1565 left her a very wealthy widow.
Hardwick entered her fourth and final marriage in 1567, this time to George Talbot, earl of Shrewsbury. Shrewsbury was a widower with seven children, reputed to be the richest nobleman in England. Indeed, the arrangement focused on finance; in order to allow both Hardwick and Shrewsbury's children to benefit from the amalgamation of wealth, Hardwick arranged for the marriage of two of her children to two of Shrewsbury's children. This way, the union would profit future generations on both sides of the family. All three marriages seemed congenial until duty to the queen put a strain on Shrewsbury. He accused Hard-wick of manipulating him and stealing his possessions. The couple separated for two years, and only at the insistence of the queen did they reconcile in 1587.
During this separation Hardwick began developing Hardwick Hall into the grand estate that bears her name. Widowed again in 1590, Hardwick returned there with an assortment of family, including her granddaughter, Lady Arabella Stuart. Hardwick died a very old woman in 1608. She left her children well endowed, and Hardwick Hall still stands as a tribute to its mistress.
Bibliography
D. N. Durant, Bess of Hardwick: Portrait of an Elizabethan Dynast, 1978.
E. C. Williams, Bess of Hardwick, 1959.
Michele Osherow

Renaissance and Reformation 1500-1620: A Biographical Dictionary. . 2001.

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