'My honest swete chatesworth': Bess's third husband, Sir William St Loe, writes to his wife, c.1560

Letter ID: 061

We do not know how Bess responded when her second husband Cavendish died, suddenly, on 25 October 1557, but we do know that he left her with debts of over £5,000 owing to the Crown. Within two years, by 1559, Bess had married her third husband, wealthy widower Sir William St Loe (c.1520-65?), captain of the guard to the new Queen Elizabeth I. It was a match that improved Bess's financial situation as well as her social capital and as Mistress St Loe she became a gentlewoman of the Queen's Privy Chamber. At the same time, the couple's letters tell a story of genuine marital affection and compatibility.

St Loe's very charming letters to his wife leave us with the impression that he must have been a most attentive, pleasant and good-humoured man to have as a husband, and that he adored Bess. He sent choice gifts, rarities and delicacies, which included lemons, olives, cucumbers, frankincense, virginal wire, canvas and the latest fashion in ladies headwear, a bongrace. This was the stuff of harmonious marital discourse and his presents accompanied the kind words of his letters.

In the letter that is the subject of this section, dated 24 October c.1560, St Loe writes from London to Bess at Chatsworth to ask her to send him hand towels and shirts, and gives instructions regarding the keeping of horses at Chatsworth. He will send, he says, for his own servants, as the Court staff are so costly, and he reports that the Queen is displeased with his absence from Court and has threatened to talk to him about it. He closes by telling Bess that he is suffering from a toothache: 'thvs wyth akeng teeth I end'. But he subscribes the letter saying that it is his heart that aches most of all, and that it aches for her: 'yowr loveng hvsband wyth akeng hartt vntyll we mete'.

Perhaps most memorable among St Loe's good-humoured and affectionate teasing is the pet name he gives his wife Bess here in this letter: 'my honest swete chatesworth'. It is a shared joke that makes reference to Bess's fierce preoccupation with Chatsworth, and is a playful reminder of the dominant status the ongoing building works had in her mind and in her life. In another letter St Loe uses a similar playful pet name for Bess, he wishes farewell to his wife who is 'my owne good sarvantte and cheyff oversear off my worcks' ID 059.

The building of Chatsworth spanned three of Bess's marriages and to some extent defined them all. Purchased with Cavendish in June 1549 along with hundreds of acres of surroundings lands, from the 1550s Bess took a leading role in management of the renovation of the house, which was extensively rebuilt and luxuriously furnished. In 1564 an unidentified correspondent wrote to Bess to report on the good progress with the building works at Chatsworth, which he anticipates will mean a great deal to her: 'I am glad you are in healthe, and I trust the sight of your nere fynyshyd building will contyneue yt' ID 062.

These building activities continued, ever-present for many more years. They re-appear in the letters more than two decades later in comments from Bess's fourth husband, the earl of Shrewsbury, who was far less genial than St Loe on the topic. We find Shrewsbury complaining to Bess in c.1575 that she hinders his own building works as she keeps so many of his men occupied with her own Chatsworth renovations ID 077. By c.1577 Shrewsbury was lamenting 'how often I have curced the buylding at Chatsworthe for want of her [i.e. Bess's] companye' ID 084. Then, by 1584, we find his regretful tone had turned to spitting venom when it came to 'Chatsworth house that dovowringe gulf of myne and other your [i.e. Bess's] husbandes goodes' ID 119.

The extent of the investment involved, both of money and of time, enraged Shrewsbury. So much so that in July 1584 he had Bess evicted from her beloved Chatsworth, through brute force and intimidation, and attempted to claim the property as his own. In response, we find a letter from Bess to Lord Burghley asking for his support, in which she expresses her most extreme distress: 'I was neuer more dystresed then now', says Bess, because 'my Lord now within thys few days sekes to take away chatsworth' ID 150. Bess ends her letter with a postscript that emphatically states she is in fear of her own life and ruin: 'I Leue not without feare of my Lyffe' ID 150. Bereft and at the lowest point of her life, yet Bess somehow managed to turn adversity into opportunity. In retrospect, had Shrewsbury not evicted his wife from Chatsworth in 1584, she may never have gone on to embark on her most magnificent building project of all. As we shall see, while Bess originally intended Chatsworth to be her legacy, it became her blueprint.

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References and Further Reading

  • We do not know the cause of Sir William Cavendish's death; it is possible he was a victim of the 1557 flu epidemic, as suggested 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), p. 22.
  • The account book containing records of gifts and letters sent to Bess from London is Chatsworth House, Devonshire Collection, 'William Cooche's Account Book kept for Sir William St Loe, 8 August - 31 December 1560'.
  • An overview of Bess's building activities that includes Chatsworth is provided by David N. Durant, The Smythson Circle: The Story of Six Great English Houses (London and Chicago: Peter Owen, 2011).
Author(s): Alison Wiggins, April 2013

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