History can often seem intimidating because it seems like only the stories of dead white men. And there’s a reason for that. The white men were the ones who kept most of the records, being the ones who were educated and literate, and so they are the ones about whom we know. I am profoundly grateful to have been born at the period in time in which I was, and I will forever be an ardent feminist simply because, thanks to the women’s movement, I have a choice in how much I reproduce, and how much of my life is spent cleaning up after children. The sad truth is that men wrote all the books and music, painted all the paintings, and ran the countries because the women were knee deep in housekeeping, and diapers. Spending all day taking care of a house and negotiating with toddlers wouldn’t leave much mental space in which to do creative work, even if women had been educated. So finding stories of kickass women during the period about which I am most passionate – the English Renaissance – is always heartening and thrills me a teeny bit.
One of those women was Bess of Hardwick. She is often remembered now as a woman who plotted and intrigued her way into becoming one of the highest ranking noblewomen, from a very humble birth. Of course she would be remembered that way. Male chroniclers didn’t like badass women. I’ve been reading a biography of her – Bess of Hardwick: Empire Builder by Mary S. Lovell – and the picture being painted of this woman is one of wit, intelligence, compassion and loyalty. She did, however, manage to marry 4 different men, each one a higher rank than the last, and being incredibly fertile she married her children off into prosperous families, and so became the matriarch of a huge network of nobles who would claim descent from her. Along the way she also showed wise business acumen, making building improvements to her homes, and building Hardwick Hall, about which Robert Cecil commented, “Hardwick Hall? More window than wall!”.
She was born into a gentleman’s family, but her father died when she was very young, and her mother remarried. The family struggled financially along the way, but when she was 12 Bess was sent to be a Lady in Waiting to the Zouche household. It was a common practice to send daughter’s off this way – they would learn how to act in a noble household, could meet people who could help them rise in the world, and also potentially find a husband. That’s what happened to Bess, and when she was still in her mid teens she married another gentleman in their household, Robert Barlow. Poor Robert died the next year, and from her widow’s dower (which she had to fight to make sure she received) she would see her first independent income of 30 pounds a year.
Her next stop was in the service of the Grey home. This was a huge step up for her. Frances Grey was the niece of Henry VIII, and so was in line for the throne. Her daughter, Lady Jane Grey, would be Queen for Nine Days after the teenaged Edward VI died, and wanted to ensure the Protestant Reformation would continue, fearing that his Catholic older sister, Mary, would turn back all of his reforms (which she duly did after she became Queen – poor Lady Jane’s claim was so tenuous compared to Mary’s that there was no way anyone would fight for her, and she was, sadly, executed). Bess would have known all the Grey girls, and for the rest of her life she would keep a portrait of Lady Jane Grey at her bedside table.
During this time she met her second husband, Sir William Cavendish, who was nearly 20 years older than she was, and quite wealthy – he had navigated the court politics as one of Thomas Cromwell’s men who worked on the Dissolution of the Monasteries. They were married for ten years, she had eight living children, and then he died leaving her a very wealthy widow who was still only 30.
Drama, Widow, Master Builder
She chose to marry again to Sir William St. Loe, who was a captain of the yeoman guards, and served in Queen Elizabeth’s household. He died after only six years of marriage, but left everything he had to her in his will. She was now in her mid 30’s, and incredibly wealthy. She could have lived very comfortably, but she chose to marry again, to George Talbot, the Earl of Shrewsbury. He had children the age of hers, and she arranged for two of her children to marry two of his, and then became a Countess herself.
Then things got dramatic for Bess. Shrewsbury was chosen as the protector/guard/jailer of Mary Queen of Scots. While this could have been seen as a position of honor, no one knew it would stretch on for 17 years, and would mean that he was almost as much of a prisoner as she was, seeing as how he couldn’t leave her. The time guarding Mary pretty much ruined the marriage of the Shrewsbury’s, and it also made poor George Talbot go nearly insane. He spent considerable amounts of his own money keeping up her household, was constantly worried about every potential threat to release her, and if there were ever rumors of an escape plot suddenly everyone at Court was telling the Queen how much he clearly sympathized with Mary and what a bad job he was doing.
He died in 1590 and she was 63. She then embarked on her biggest building plan ever – building Hardwick Hall near her childhood home. It was a home that was designed to entertain royalty (her own granddaughter Arbella Stuart had a claim to the throne) and one of the most revolutionary features was the amount of windows in the home which were manufactured in her own glassworks.
Bess of Hardwick is an amazing example of a woman who created her own luck. There was love and affection in all her marriages (except the very first one when she was barely a teenager, and the end of her last one which had been so totally destroyed by the Mary Queen of Scots situation). But she was smart with the men she chose to love, and when she inherited money she used it wisely. She was an astute business woman who handled her affairs herself, and she is a wonderful example of a woman who made her story her own rather than just accepting what life had given her.