'Good Besse': Bess's second husband, Sir William Cavendish, writes to his wife, c.1550s

Letter ID: 013

This letter is the only one we have between Bess and her second husband Sir William Cavendish (1508-57). Written from Chatsworth House on 13 April, some time during the period of their marriage, between 20 August 1547 and Cavendish's death in 1557, it is nothing more than a brief note from Cavendish asking his wife to pay a London man for 'otys' (that is, oats). It reminds us that many letters had a mundane function. While there are those letters to and from Bess in precisely-worded prose which are opinionated, persuasive or expressive, others, like this one, functioned much more simply, to communicate basic instructions. We know that Cavendish wrote other (longer) letters to Bess as he mentions these here: he says that this brief note is an afterthought, something, he adds, 'I had forgotten to wryt in my letters'.

That none of these other letters survive is undeniably frustrating: it leaves us with little to go on from the letters when it comes to Bess's relationship with Cavendish. Other sources give an impression of the vibrancy of their marriage. We know Cavendish was the man with whom Bess purchased Chatsworth and surrounding estates and, in ten years, had all eight of her children, Temperance and Lucretia (who died in childhood) and the six who survived to adulthood: her three sons, Henry, William and Charles, and three daughters Francis, Elizabeth and Mary. From the couple's selection of godparents, who included Princess Elizabeth and Lady Jane Grey, we see their Protestant preferences and position in the upper echelons of Elizabethan society. From their account books we glimpse their pleasurable life: there were regular purchases of fine clothes, trips to London and money for games and gambling. From the commissions for deluxe decorative objects we find the marriage to have been a union that was celebrated and glorified: such as their magnificent Pearl Bed which was carved and gilded with the Cavendish coat of arms; and the book set with portraits of the couple and adorned with gold and jewels.

While this short letter is no doubt frustratingly limited, it does nevertheless offer one point of compelling interest. It provides one of the few examples we have, within her own lifetime, of the name 'Bess' being used: Cavendish superscribes his letter to 'Besse Cavendyssh my wyff' and opens with an address to 'Good Besse'. The only other uses of 'Bess' in the letters are by her third husband Sir William St. Loe who closes one of his letters 'farewell my owne swete besse' ID 060, and by St. Loe's mother (Bess's third mother-in-law, Margaret) who writes regarding rumours of a plot to poison her son and his wife 'besse sayntloo' ID 058.

It is rare, then, to find the name 'Bess' being used in the letters. More typically Bess would find herself addressed according to relationship status, as was the usual convention in Renaissance letters. The relationship might be an actual familial one, so she is addressed as 'good doghtter' (by her mother in c.1565 ID 040), 'my loveng wyff' (by her third husband St Loe in c.1560 ID 061) and 'Good Lady Grandmother' (by her grand-daughter Arbella Stuart in 1587/8 ID 106). Or it might be a familial relationship which is presumed by one of her social superiors to signal proximity (and therefore politeness); for example, the earl of Leicester, with the self-assured ease of an established and powerful courtier, presumes to call Bess 'systar' and refers to himself as her 'ashured lovyng brother' ID 214 (something which Bess reciprocates to in ID 109). Elsewhere in the letters Bess is referred to by the conventional formal terms for a woman of her station: 'your Ladyship', 'your good Ladyship', 'my good lady', 'Madam' and 'good Madam'. Only occasionally do we find more florid terms of address, such as when George Chaworth calls his patron Bess 'my protectress and defender' (ID 014).

The ways in which Bess refers to herself are, likewise, conventional, but nonetheless revealing. In the letters we find Bess casting herself into a variety of roles in order to navigate the hierarchies of power in her social network. In particular, a letter's subscription was an opportunity for self-fashioning. The many forms and variations available to Bess went well beyond today's more limited repertoire of 'Yours sincerely', 'Yours faithfully' and 'Best wishes'. So, to her servant James Crompe, Bess subscribes herself curtly as 'your mystres' ID 100. To her daughter Mary she is always 'Your Louing mother' ID 181. Whereas, to Matthew Parker, archbishop of Canterbury, she is, correctly and respectfully, 'your gracys moust bowden' ID 238, and, at the very top of the social scale, to Elizabeth I, she is, humbly and subserviently, her majesty's 'moust bouden subgett and saruant' ID 120.

In extreme situations, Bess was not above presenting herself as forlorn and disempowered if it would help her own cause. Memorably, when Bess asks Lord Burghley for support during her marriage collapse (in 1584) she emphasises her vulnerability and downcast state by casting herself in the subscription as his 'most dystresed sorrowfull frend' ID 150. Around the same time, when pleading with her estranged husband, and aware of her dangerous and desperate predicament, she puts herself in his hands as 'your faythfull wyffe most sorrowfull' ID 229. Consistently, Bess was able to find appropriate rhetorical formulae for the subscription to match the function of each letter she sent. There is nothing original in these formulae themselves. But they enabled Bess to step into the role that was necessary, whether it be to command, assure, defer, revere, prostrate or plead.

As these examples show, the way Bess is referred to, by others and by herself, fluctuates between letters. The exact form that references to Bess take, in any particular letter, depends upon a mixture of factors: convention, combined with Bess's relationship with her correspondent and the current circumstances in play. Of course, we have not so far considered the most obvious written marker of a person's identity: the signature. We know that Bess's name itself changed with each of her marriages: from Hardwick, to Barlow, to Cavendish, to St Loe and then to Talbot when she was countess of Shrewsbury and dowager countess. The earliest examples we have of her signature are from the 1550s and 1560s and these did not take a fixed form. So, as Lady Cavendish, Bess variously signs as:

Then, as Lady St Loe, she signs as:

Such spelling variations are typical of the time, and are not in any way surprising. Far more remarkable is that, when Bess became countess of Shrewsbury, she developed a stable signature with both a consistent spelling and a fixed graphical form: 'EShrouesbury', where the first two letters (the initials of Elizabeth and Shrewsbury) are linked to form a distinctive 'ES' ligature.

Bess incorporated the 'ES' ligature into her signature or used it on its own as a monogram to authorise written documents, such as the postscript to ID 180. Today Bess's 'ES' monogram is perhaps best known in the context of the visual schemes developed at her properties. From masonry to textiles to plasterwork, the 'ES' monogram is rarely out of sight at New Hardwick Hall and is the leitmotif of Bess's self-aggrandising iconography. Today, whether we approach New Hardwick Hall by car or on foot, along the drive that cuts through the surrounding fields, our eyes are drawn upwards, skyward, to the striking silhouetted stone 'ES' monograms multiplied around the building's turrets. Emblazoned against the sky, Bess's initials continue to express her authority and presence, almost if she had intended the house to be a letter sent into the future.

Bess's 'ES' monogram, then, incorporated into her signature or used alone, became a form of visual branding that followed her, as countess and dowager countess, for over 40 years, from her marriage to Shrewsbury in 1567 until her death in 1608, and beyond. It reminds us of the twin visual and linguistic roles of writing in the construction of agency and authority. Moreover, it reminds us that if we are to more fully appreciate how Bess communicated and operated, we must attend to the visual features of her hand-written letters, and to the material world within which they were written and received.

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References and Further Reading

  • For a detailed account of landholdings see 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), pp. 19-20, who show how Cavendish sold his existing lands in order to purchase estates, that included Chatsworth, in his wife Bess's home county of Derbyshire. Riden and Fowkes are careful to point out there is no actual evidence to explain Cavendish's motivation for developing a Derbyshire base, whereas previous biographers had credited his decision to Bess's influence (or as Riden and Fowkes put it, her 'feminine charms'). Riden and Fowkes's re-reading complies with their wider agenda to downplay Bess's role, but seems somewhat literal-minded given what we know of Bess's agency when it came to the development of Chatsworth and, later, Hardwick and Oldcotes.
  • Comparisons with how other contemporary women signed their names can be found in the discussions by Katherine Mair, 'Anne, Lady Bacon: A Life in Letters' (unpublished PhD thesis, Queen Mary, University of London, 2009), and Jonathan Gibson, 'The Queen's Two Hands', in Representations of Elizabeth I in Early Modern Culture, ed. by Alessandra Petrina and Laura Tosi (New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2011), pp. 47-65.
  • The account books for the period of Bess's marriage to Cavendish are: 'Account book of Sir William and Lady Cavendish of Chatsworth, 1548 Michaelmas-1550', Folger Shakespeare Library, Cavendish-Talbot Papers, MS X.d.428; and 'Account Book of Sir William and Lady Cavendish, 1st November 1551-23rd June 1553', Chatsworth House, Devonshire Collection, Hardwick MS 1.
  • A inventory description of the bedstead carved 'with my Ladies and Sir William Cavendishes Armes' which was the showpiece of the Pearl Bed-chamber at New Hardwick Hall is available in Santina M. Levey and Peter K. Thornton, Of Houshold Stuff: The 1601 Inventories of Bess of Hardwick (The National Trust, 2001), pp. 43-44.
  • Images of the exterior and interior of New Hardwick Hall, which include various examples of Bess's ES monogram, are available via the York Digital Library [external site; University of York].
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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