The earliest letter from Bess: to her servant Francis Whitfield, 1552

Letter ID: 099

The earliest letter we have from Bess of Hardwick is likely to be this one, written whilst in London, 14 November [1552], to her servant Francis Whitfield at Chatsworth House in Derbyshire. Here we find Bess in full flow sending instructions for the running of the Chatsworth estate, and we are left in no doubt as to the force and drive of her personality. She instructs Whitfield to have broken windows mended, floors made even with 'plaster claye or lyme', beer brewed and charcoal and wood supplies stocked up. She specifies which wooden boards or wedges Whitfield is to take - not those needed for ongoing building works at Chatsworth. She details payments to be made to her midwife, her boy and her sister's nurse. To close the letter, she charges Whitfield with overseeing the household until the arrival of her aunt Marcella Linaker (Bess's mother's sister), and urges him not to fail to get everything done according to her exact specifications.

Bess's authoritative tone of voice here is typical of contemporary letters from mistresses to servants, and gives us a sense of how she saw her role as mistress of Chatsworth. Repeatedly we find Bess giving extensive instructions and exhaustively attending to each and every detail. We see how Bess used letters - when away from Chatsworth - to direct personnel and to bring her personality to bear towards the completion of tasks. Her letters therefore give us insights into how Bess enacted her role as mistress and her quite formidable abilities as a manager, a talent we see demonstrated throughout her life. Moreover, such precise and direct instructions provide proof that it was Bess herself who was the driving force behind the building of Chatsworth (and, later, as we will see, other great houses).

But it is worth backtracking for a moment in order to recall how Bess had reached this point in her life. Bess was aged between 25 and 30 years old when she wrote this letter to Whitfield (the year of her birth is often given as 1527, although 1521 or 1522 is probably more likely). Born Bess Hardwick, she was one of four daughters and a son of John Hardwick of Hardwick and his wife Elizabeth (Leake). The Hardwicks could be described as of modest social standing, parish rather than county gentry. There was nothing auspicious about Bess's start in life as the daughter of a minor landowner whose social horizons were limited almost entirely to north-east Derbyshire. Moreover, when her father John Hardwick died leaving debts in 1528, the young Bess experienced considerable hardship and a very uncertain future.

Little more is known of Bess's upbringing and early years. By the time she wrote this letter to Whitfield, Bess had already been married to Robert Barlow (or Barley), of Barlow, Derbyshire, a young man of social equivalence to Bess herself. The wedding took place on or before 28 May 1543 and the short marriage (Barlow died on 24 December 1544), said to be unconsummated, left Bess with a small inheritance (of around £24 per year).

What happened next has been called 'the greatest unexplained mystery of her life' (Riden and Fowkes, 2009: 19). Nobody really knows how Bess met her second husband, twice-widowed Sir William Cavendish (1508-57), treasurer of the king's chamber, who was some 15 years older than Bess. Biographers have speculated that Bess may somehow have secured a position as lady-in-waiting to Frances Grey, marchioness of Dorset, which would explain why, on 20 August 1547, her wedding to Cavendish took place in the Grey family chapel. Whatever the explanation, marriage to Cavendish was, for Bess, a prodigious step up the social and economic ladder and the point at which the course of her life changed. To use David N. Durant's words, Bess's marriage to Cavendish was 'the foundation stone of a remarkable and fantastic future'(1977: 1).

It is, then, as Lady Cavendish that we first encounter Bess as a letter-writer. Penned in her own hand, this letter to Whitfield is one of the earliest samples of the distinctive handwriting and spelling system that Bess was to use throughout her life. At this time, as well as writing letters, Bess was adding entries, alongside those of her husband, into the household account book. Such practical literate skills were among those expected of a gentlewoman and, while there is no indication Bess had received higher-level training, it is clear she was very proficient in these aspects of literacy. Indeed, the accounts, read alongside the letters, further attest to Bess's exhaustive attention to minutiae and show how she applied her intelligence to keeping tight control over the finances (a practice she was to continue throughout her life).

While Bess's handwriting and authoritative tone are unmistakable, there are further aspects of this first letter that makes it such an uncannily distinctive snapshot of Bess. In the letter Bess berates Whitfield for the poor treatment of her half-sister Jane Leach (one of three daughters that resulted from her mother's second marriage, to Ralph Leach; Jane later married Thomas Kniveton). Jane had her own room at Chatsworth, and was to remain a life-long companion to Bess and always to retain a high status in her half-sister's household. Some 50 years after this letter was sent, Jane still had her own prestigiously appointed bedchamber, located just below Bess's own, at New Hardwick Hall, richly furnished with a bedstead canopy of cloth-of-gold and mulberry velvet.

The letter to Whitfield, then, reminds us that Bess's close female relatives, such as Jane and Aunt Linaker, were part of the managerial structure at Chatsworth, and that Jane's career in Bess's household was one that spanned several decades and houses. Furthermore, the principles that Bess voices here - her defence of and close relationships with women - re-appear throughout her life and letters and are mirrored in the iconographies of female power and virtue so famously depicted in her textile art.

It is easy to understand why this letter has been a perennial favourite among Bess's biographers. There are several reasons for its intrinsic appeal for modern readers: its early date, the fact it is penned by Bess herself (rather than by a scribe) and the vivid snapshot it offers of Bess as both a hands-on household manager and a defender of women. At the same time, this letter has caused certain biographers concern over Bess's language. So much so that two of Bess's twentieth-century revisionist biographers, Maud Stepney Rawson and Ethel Carlton Williams, printed this letter in bowdlerised form. That is to say, they removed from their transcriptions Bess's strongest outburst in relation to the incident with Jane:

I wolde be lothe to haue any stranger so yoused yn my howse

Apparently embarrassed at Bess's straight talking at this point, Rawson and Williams removed the outburst in an attempt to give Bess's voice more of a tone of genteel civility, or, at least to remove some of its severity. Such airbrushing was no doubt well-intended, but the effect is to deny Bess her emotion and diminish her authority. It is just one example of the selective editing of Bess's letters over many years that has contributed to aspects of her historical representation. It reminds us of the importance of allowing Bess to speak in her own words and of attending to her letters in full, if we are to gain a more complete, accurate and realistic sense of the women.

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References and Further Reading

  • Further detailed discussion of this letter from Bess to Whitfield, and its use by biographers, is provided by Felicity Maxwell, 'Enacting Mistress and Steward Roles in a Letter of Household Management: Bess of Hardwick to Francis Whitfield, 14 November 1552', Lives & Letters: A Journal for Early Modern Archival Research [external site], vol. 4, no. 1 (Autumn, 2012).
  • The seminal account of women's letter-writing in the Renaissance, which reviews the range of functions letters could perform, is by James Daybell, Women Letter-Writers in Tudor England (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2006).
  • The standard biographical accounts of Bess's life are by David N. Durant, Bess of Hardwick: Portrait of an Elizabethan Dynast (London and Chester Springs: Peter Owen, 1977), and Elizabeth Goldring, 'Talbot , Elizabeth [Bess of Hardwick], countess of Shrewsbury (1527?-1608)', Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, Oxford University Press, 2004 [ external site, subscription required; accessed: 10 April 2012]. Another recent account, which offers a lively and readable narrative of Bess's life and times, is by Mary S. Lovell, Bess of Hardwick, First Lady of Chatsworth (London: Little Brown, 2005). There are several portraits of Bess, such as the one at the National Portrait Gallery, London [external site].
  • The most authoritative discussion of the evidence for Bess's date of birth (that concludes she was born in 1521 or the early months or 1522, rather than 1527) is provided by Philip Riden, 'Bess of Hardwick and the St Loe Inheritance', in Essays in Derbyshire History Presented to Gladwyn Turbutt, ed. by Philip Riden and David Edwards (Derbyshire Record Society, 2006), and by Philip Riden and Dudley Fowkes, Hardwick: A Great House and its Estate (Chichester: Phillimore in association with the Institute of Historical Research at the University of London, 2009).
  • Bess's achievements as a builder and 'the driving force behind Hardwick' (p. 168) are reviewed by Sara French, 'A Widow Building in Elizabethan England: Bess of Hardwick at Hardwick Hall', in Widowhood and Visual Culture in Early Modern Europe, ed. by Alison Levy (Aldershot and Burlington: Ashgate, 2003), pp. 161-76.
  • Discourses of early modern service and representations of servant-master relations are discussed by Mark Thornton Burnett, Masters and Servants in English Renaissance Drama and Culture: Authority and Obedience, Early Modern Literature in History (Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan, 1997).
  • The two earlier twentieth-century biographies mentioned are by Maud Stepney Rawson, Bess of Hardwick and Her Circle (John Lane Co., 1910), and Ethel Carleton Williams, Bess of Hardwick (Longmans, Green, 1959).
  • The contents of Jane (Leach) Kniveton's various bedchambers at Chatsworth House, Hardwick Old Hall and New Hardwick Hall are listed in Santina M. Levey and Peter K. Thornton (eds), Of Houshold Stuff: The 1601 Inventories of Bess of Hardwick (The National Trust, 2001), p. 27, p. 39 and p. 56.
  • Female iconography in the textile artworks at New Hardwick Hall is discussed by Susan Frye, Pens and Needles: Women's Textualities in Early Modern England (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2010); and Santina M. Levey, An Elizabethan Inheritance: The Hardwick Hall Textiles (The National Trust, 1998) and The Embroideries at Hardwick Hall: A Catalogue (The National Trust, 2007).
Author(s): Alison Wiggins, April 2013

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'Bess of Hardwick's Letters' was developed by The University of Glasgow with technical development provided by The Digital Humanities Institute at The University of Sheffield
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