In a time rife with powerful women, Elizabeth Talbot or Bess of Hardwick as she was known is often overlooked. She rose through advantageous marriages and careful planning from gentile poverty to a woman whose wealth rivaled Elizabeth I. Her home, Hardwick Hall, became a byword for wealth. Robert Cecil notably quipped, “Hardwick Hall? More window than wall.” That probably pleased Bess to no end.
However, Hardwick was not always the sumptuous palace she created. When Elizabeth Hardwick was born in 1527 to John Hardwick and his wife, the family was quite poor. Not much is known about the early years, except that her father died young leaving her a small dowry. Nevertheless, Bess was married young to Robert Barlow. Barlow died not long after they were married leaving Bess a wealthy widow.
A young pretty widow with a tidy income did not stay single for long, and Bess married William Cavendish in 1540. At her request, he bought Chatsworth Estates, which she improved and is still used by her descendants, the Dukes of Devonshire. Bess and William had three sons and three daughters. One son is the founder of the aforementioned Dukes of Devonshire and another is the ancestors of the ducal family of Newcastle. William died in 1557, leaving Bess in the marriage market again. This time she married Sir William St. Lo, and added his lands to her fortune when he died without issue, much to the chagrin of St. Lo’s other relatives.
Bess was now the most wealthy subject of the crown. Her income totalled 60,000 pounds or 13 million pounds in today’s money. That coupled with her still good looks made her much sought after as a wife. Her final marriage was the coup. In 1568, she married George Talbot, the 6th Earl of Shrewsbury. In the marriage settlement, she had two of her Cavendish children marry two of the Earl’s from a previous marriage. Bess must have thought she was made. Then came the request from Elizabeth I.
In 1568, Mary, Queen of Scots, fled captivity in Scotland and came to England for safety. Elizabeth had no idea what to do with her wayward cousin, who held a claim to the English throne in opposition to Elizabeth’s. Elizabeth asked the Earl and his wife to house Mary until they could figure out what to do with her. Seventeen long years later, the imprisonment practically bankrupted Bess and drove a wedge in her marriage. Bess and the Earl were mostly separated with rumors flying that the Earl was involved romantically with Mary, Queen of Scots. This was never proven, but the rumors must have taken their toll along with the constant stress of trying to keep Mary out of conspiracy. Bess did repeat her charge of romantic involvement, but was forced to recant before council.
Their royal prisoner did give Bess one opportunity. In 1574, she used the visit of the Countess of Lennox to marry her daughter to Charles Darnley l, the brother of Mary’s former husband. In the tangle of royal relations, Charles was a grandson of Margaret Tudor and had a claim to the throne. Elizabeth I was not pleased, and sent the Countess of Lennox to the tower for a time. She demanded Bess face a formal inquiry, but Bess ignored her until the fuss died down. One child was born of this forbidden marriage, Arabella Stewart, who lived with her Grandmother Bess for a time at Hardwick Hall. It was a tempestuous relationship at best, but that is a story for another time.
Bess lived apart from her husband, the Earl, beginning in 1583, although the two did not formally divorce. Upon the Earl’s death in 1600, she reconciled with Elizabeth and passed the remainder of her days within her beautiful creation of Hardwick Hall.
When Bess died in 1608, she had outlived Elizabeth I and saw James I take the throne. She is buried in Derby Cathedral. Although her granddaughter Arabella never became queen, her descendants sit on the throne as she is an ancestor of Elizabeth II. Not bad for a poor girl with a meager dowry.