The Correspondence of Bess of Hardwick

Primary Contributors:

Bess of Hardwick’s Letters: The Complete Correspondence, c.1550–1608, ed. Alison Wiggins (PI, University of Glasgow), Alan Bryson, Daniel Starza Smith, Anke Timmermann, and Graham Williams (PDRAs, University of Glasgow), web development by Katherine Rogers (University of Sheffield Humanities Research Institute) (Glasgow: University of Glasgow, April 2013)

Elizabeth Talbot, Countess of Shrewsbury, by an unknown artist. c. 1590? Oil on canvas, 98.8 by 78.7 cm. (© National Portrait Gallery, London, NPG 203)

Bess of Hardwick (c. 1521/2 or 1527–1608)

Born c. 1521/2 or 1527 as Elizabeth Hardwick, the woman known to posterity as Bess of Hardwick married four times during her life, as a result of which her name changed from Hardwick to Barlow (or Barley), to Cavendish, to St Loe, and finally (when she was countess of Shrewsbury and then dowager countess) to Talbot. As one of the five children of John Hardwick (1495–1528) of Hardwick, Derbyshire, and his first wife, Elizabeth (née Leake), Bess had three sisters (Mary, Jane, and Alice) and one brother (James). The Hardwicks were established Derbyshire gentry who had inherited a modest manor house and c. 400 acres in and around Hardwick. But when John died in 1528, and their lands were seized by the crown, Bess faced hardship. Bess’s mother quickly remarried but her new husband, Ralph Leche of Chatsworth, Derbyshire, brought little land or money to the marriage, and three more daughters were born (Bess’s half-sisters Elizabeth, Jane, and Margaret).

Little else is known of Bess’s childhood but, while still young, she was married for the first time to Robert Barlow (or Barley) of Barlow, Derbyshire, sometime in or before 1543. Barlow died in 1544 and Bess (Elizabeth Barlow) received a small inheritance. In 1547 she married the twice-widowed Sir William Cavendish, treasurer of the king’s chamber. Bess (Lady Cavendish) and Sir William Cavendish had eight children, six of whom survived: Frances (b. 1548), Henry (b. 1550), William (b. 1551, from whom the dukes of Devonshire are descended), Charles (b. 1553, from whom the dukes of Newcastle and Portland are descended), Elizabeth (b. 1554), and Mary (b. 1556). Probably due to a mixture of affection and shared social ambition, Bess’s second marriage was happy and fortuitous: she was moving in courtly circles and experiencing (for the first time) considerable wealth. In 1549 Cavendish and Bess (Lady Cavendish) bought the estate of Chatsworth, which was held jointly in both their names and which he and then Bess, following her husband’s death in 1557, ambitiously rebuilt.

Soon after her second husband’s death, and sometime before Elizabeth I’s accession in 1558, Bess married Sir William St Loe, a wealthy widower of ancient noble pedigree. St Loe was captain of the guard to the young queen and, in addition to improving further Bess’s finances, he brought her into the queen’s inner circle and she served briefly as a gentlewoman of the queen’s privy chamber in 1559. The marriage seems to have not been without affection; however, the two would have spent most of it apart, with St Loe serving the queen in London and Bess (Lady St Loe) residing mostly at Chatsworth. Upon St Loe’s death (probably in 1565), Bess inherited most of the estate. In 1567 she married for a final time, to George Talbot, sixth earl of Shrewsbury, one of the richest and most powerful men in England. To consolidate the union of their fortunes, as countess of Shrewsbury, Bess’s eldest son, Henry, married Shrewsbury’s daughter (from his previous marriage), and Shrewsbury’s eldest son, Gilbert (later the seventh earl), married Bess’s daughter, Mary. Around this time, Shrewsbury was appointed to be the keeper of Mary Queen of Scots (from 1568–84). At first, relations between Bess (countess of Shrewsbury) and the Catholic Scottish queen seem to have been amicable; however, relations deteriorated as the earl and countess’s marriage broke down in the 1580s. An infamously nasty and highly public legal battle over estates ensued and finally the courts resolved that Shrewsbury the earl should provide his wife Bess (countess of Shrewsbury) with a sizeable income from 1587 onwards. Shrewsbury died in 1590.

From 1582, Bess (countess of Shrewsbury) took charge of the upbringing of her orphaned granddaughter, Arbella Stuart (1575–1615), claimant to the English and Scottish crowns. In 1587, Bess undertook her remarkable building works at Hardwick: the house now known as Hardwick Old Hall was complete by 1591; next to it, the extraordinary building now known as Hardwick New Hall was complete by 1599 and is one of the greatest architectural ventures of Elizabethan England. It was at Hardwick that Bess (dowager countess of Shrewsbury) spent most of the remainder of her life, much of it devoted to caring for and managing Arbella, who came to loathe her existence in Derbyshire and devised several bizarre plans to escape (to her grandmother, the dowager countess’s, great distress). Bess quarrelled also with her eldest son, Henry, and in her Will disinherited both Henry and Arbella (although Arbella was later reinstated). She left most of her estate to her beloved and faithful son, William Cavendish, who, following her death on 13 February 1608, continued her great dynasty into the seventeenth century.

Partners and Additional Contributors

Metadata for this correspondence were contributed to EMLO from Bess of Hardwick’s Letters: The Complete Correspondence, c.1550–1608, ed. Alison Wiggins (PI, University of Glasgow), Alan Bryson, Daniel Starza Smith, Anke Timmermann, and Graham Williams (PDRAs, University of Glasgow). Web development for the Bess of Hardwick project was conducted by Katherine Rogers of the University of Sheffield Humanities Research Institute and thanks are due to the project’s PhD Students, Imogen Marcus (AHRC) and Felicity Maxwell (SSHRC). The project was funded by an AHRC Research Grants Scheme award held at the University of Glasgow. The Cultures of Knowledge project would like to thank EMLO Digital Fellows Charlotte Marique, Isabel McLennan, Katharine Morris, and Callum Seddon. Thanks are extended to Alison Wiggins for crafting this introductory text, as well as to James Daybell and Kim McLean-Fiander of WEMLO.


Key Bibliographic Source(s)

Bess of Hardwick’s Letters: The Complete Correspondence, c.1550–1608, ed. Alison Wiggins, Alan Bryson, Daniel Starza Smith, Anke Timmermann, and Graham Williams, University of Glasgow, with web development by Katherine Rogers, University of Sheffield Humanities Research Institute (Glasgow: University of Glasgow, April 2013).


Bess of Hardwick is one of Elizabethan England’s most famous figures. She is renowned for her reputation as a dynast and an indomitable matriarch and is perhaps best known as the builder of great stately homes such as the magnificent Hardwick Hall and Chatsworth House. The story of her life emphasises her modest birth, her rise through the ranks of society, her four husbands, each of greater wealth than the last, and her ambitious aggrandisement of her family. Bess of Hardwick’s letters, which number almost 250 items of correspondence, bring to life her extraordinary story and allow us to eavesdrop on her world. Her letters allow us to reposition Bess as a complex woman of her times, immersed in the literacy and textual practices of everyday life as her correspondence stretches from servants, friends, and family, to queens and officers of state. Scattered across nineteen repositories around the world, her remarkable correspondence spans the period from the early 1550s up until her death in 1608 and reflects her wide-ranging social network. The letters have been edited and published (with full transcripts, images of most letters and detailed commentaries) by the AHRC-funded project Bess of Hardwick’s Letters: The Complete Correspondence (University of Glasgow, PI Alison Wiggins, released April 2013).

Further resources


Daybell, James, Women Letter-Writers in Tudor England (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2006).

— , ‘“Suche newes as on the Quenes hye wayes we have met”: The News and Intelligence Networks of Elizabeth Talbot, countess of Shrewsbury (c.1527–1608)’, in James Daybell, ed., Women and Politics in Early Modern England, 1450–1700 (Aldershot: Ashgate, 2004), pp. 114–31.

Durant, David N., Bess of Hardwick: Portrait of an Elizabethan Dynast (London and Chester Springs: Peter Owen, 1977).

French, Sara, ‘A Widow Building in Elizabethan England: Bess of Hardwick at Hardwick Hall’, in Alison Levy, ed., Widowhood and Visual Culture in Early Modern Europe (Aldershot and Burlington: Ashgate, 2003), pp. 161–76.

Frye, Susan, Pens and Needles: Women’s Textualities in Early Modern England (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2010).

Goldring, Elizabeth, ‘Talbot , Elizabeth [Bess of Hardwick], countess of Shrewsbury (1527?–1608)’, Oxford Dictionary of National Biography (Oxford University Press, 2004).

Levey, Santina M., and Peter K. Thornton, Of Houshold Stuff: The 1601 Inventories of Bess of Hardwick (The National Trust, 2001).

Marcus, Imogen, ‘An Investigation into the Language and Letters of Bess of Hardwick (c.1522–1608)’ (University of Glasgow unpublished PhD thesis, 2013).

Maxwell, Felicity, ‘Household Words: Textualising Social Relations in the Correspondence of Bess of Hardwick’s Servants, c. 1550–1608’ (University of Glasgow unpublished PhD thesis, 2014).

— , ‘Enacting Mistress and Steward Roles in a Letters of Household Management: Bess of Hardwick to Francis Whitfield, 14 November 1552’, Lives and Letters: A Journal for Early Modern Archival Research, 14, no. 1 (Autumn 2012).

Wiggins, Alison, Bess of Hardwick’s Letters: Language, Materiality and Early Modern Epistolary Culture, Material Readings in Early Modern Culture (London and New York: Routledge, 2016).


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