'I haue bene glade to se my lady sayntloa but now more dyssirous to se my lady shrewsbury' (Elizabeth I, 1567): on Bess's fourth husband, George, sixth earl of Shrewsbury

Letter ID: 096

When St Loe died, probably early in 1565, Bess returned again to Court. As a wealthy widow and one of Elizabeth I's inner circle of women, Bess was a very eligible prospect. Within three years she had married her fourth husband, George Talbot, sixth earl of Shrewsbury (c.1522-90), a man she had known for many years and who inhabited the very highest realms of the Elizabethan social and economic stratosphere.

As well as vast lands, Shrewsbury owned eight main properties (Sheffield Castle and Manor, Pontefract Castle, Rufford Abbey, Welbeck Abbey, Wingfield Manor, Worksop Manor and Buxton Hall), plus two houses in the city of London and a house at Chelsea, as well as Tutbury Castle which he rented from the Crown. Shrewsbury was, as Durant puts it, 'a Prince whose princedom was north of the Trent' (1977: 54). On paper, this was an unbeatable match for Bess, and Shrewsbury's doting letters to his 'dere none' (i.e. 'dear one') in the early years of their marriage attest to a genuine affection.

The couple were married before 27 August 1567, the date of the earliest known letter that Bess signs 'EShrouesbury' ID 114. The next letter we have (and the one which is the subject of this section) is from two months later, 21 October 1567. It is a report from Court from Elizabeth (Leach) Wingfield, Bess's half-sister, to announce that the Queen is looking forward to seeing Bess in her new position as countess of Shrewsbury: 'I haue bene glade to se my lady sayntloa but now more dyssirous to se my lady shrewsbury'.

Elizabeth Wingfield takes particular care to quote the Queen's exact words about Bess: 'I hope sayd she' (the Queen) that 'my lady' (Bess) 'hath knowne my good openon of her'. The letter continues by quoting that the Queen, who has said that, when it comes to Bess, 'there ys no lady y[n] thys land that I beter loue and lyke', and we are left in no doubt as to the bond between the two women, sovereign and subject. So while Bess's marriage to Shrewsbury certainly expanded her social horizons, Elizabeth Wingfield's letter reminds us not to overlook Bess's pre-existing connections, established good regard in the Queen's eyes and knowledge of the intricacies of Elizabethan Court life. Bess may have been a financially well-resourced widow, but she had much more than money to attract the (already amply wealthy) earl of Shrewsbury.

Once married, Bess was often away from Court, at one of her husband's many properties or at Chatsworth. From the distance of Derbyshire, letters allowed Bess to stay in touch with her female friends and relations who kept her up to date with the ever-shifting world of Court fashions, factions and favour. These letter-writing practices were inextricably interwoven with courtly cultures of gift giving, which were vital to the maintenance of social bonds and the definition of relationships. It is within this context, of the culture of exchange and favour, that we should read Elizabeth Wingfield's letter. In fact, we find that the Queen's kind words about Bess (quoted above) are in response to a gift of venison from Bess and Shrewsbury. That is to say, Elizabeth Wingfield's letter functions to report back to Bess on the reception of this gift of venison at Court.

With their vast acreage of deer parks, the Shrewsburys regularly supplied venison to the great and good of Elizabethan society. Presented in the form of pies and pasties or as whole stags baked or unbaked, venison was the lifeblood of the Shrewsburys' social networking. The names of noblemen and noblewomen jotted, by Bess, on the back of Elizabeth Wingfield's letter likely record the many recipients of this particular donation of venison. The long length of the list, combined with the high praise elicited from the Queen, suggests it must have been a breathtakingly extravagant delivery: an impressive expression of aristocratic largess from the earl of Shrewsbury and his new countess.

A few years later we find a second letter from Elizabeth Wingfield in which the Queen's response to a gift is again reported back to Bess. The letter is from 2 January 1576/7 and regards Bess's new year's gift to the Queen of a dress. While a dress was not, of itself, an unusual choice of gift for the Queen, Elizabeth Wingfield's letter describes how this particular dress caused an absolute sensation. As the dress no longer survives we can only imagine, from the reaction reported in the letter, the kind of spectacular garment Bess had masterminded into existence. The letter dutifully reports how, when the Queen saw the dress, she declared she had never liked any garment so much and was especially impressed by its extravagant cost, colour, 'strange triminge' and because it stood for so much love for their sovereign of 'that good nobell copell' (that is, Shrewsbury and his countess, Bess) ID 097. Bess had a talent for working high-status gifts and, as these examples illustrate, letters played a vital part in the cycle of material exchange and in the construction of meaning between gift, giver and recipient.

As a coda to these letters which report on gifts received at Court during the heyday of Shrewsbury and Bess's marriage, we have a third and final letter from Elizabeth Wingfield to Bess, dated 8 December c.1585. Written during the midst of Bess and Shrewsbury's dramatic marital breakdown, here we see how Bess's long-standing female Court contacts could come into their own. Elizabeth Wingfield reassures Bess that Lady Cheke has talked at length with the Queen regarding Bess's predicament and her husband Shrewsbury's unkind treatment ('my Lord's harde dealinge'). In response, reports Elizabeth Wingfield, the Queen, during the conversation, had expressed the ways in which she would be able to help Bess: 'the quene gaue many good wordes what she woulde do for yow honor' ID 098.

Here, for a brief moment, we catch a glimpse of the networks of spoken female communication so often invisible in the historical record. We see how Bess could gain support through unofficial channels to the Queen, via her relationships with female courtiers. Letters and gifts served to maintain, define and lubricate these relationships over many years, and relate directly to Bess's participation in social and political life at the highest levels.

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References and Further Reading

  • The classic ethnographic study of gifts is Natalie Zemon Davis, The Gift in Sixteenth-Century France (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2000).
  • The role of gifts within the political patronage system is discussed by Barbara J. Harris, 'Women and Politics in Early Tudor England', Historical Journal, 33 (1990): 265-67.
  • A detailed account of venison as a 'status food' and the most 'determined' and 'gift-ascribed' food is provided by Felicity Heal, 'Food Gifts, the Household and the Politics of Exchange in Early Modern England', Past and Present, 199 (2008): 41-70.
  • Further discussion of the social function of food, which offers an appropriate comparison to production and consumption at Chatsworth and Hardwick, is provided in Mark Dawson's account of the Willoughby family at Woollaton Hall, Plenti and Grase: Food and Drink in a Sixteenth Century Household (Totnes: Prospect, 2009).
  • The role of women in politics and the overlapping of domestic and political spheres are discussed by Natalie Meres 'Politics in the Elizabethan Privy Chamber: Lady Mary Sidney and Kat Ashley', in Women and Politics in Early Modern England, 1450-1700, ed. by James Daybell (Aldershot and Burlington: Ashgate, 2004), and Amanda Vickery, 'Golden Age to Separate Spheres? A Review of the Categories and Chronology of English Women's History', Historical Journal, 36 (1993): 383-414.
  • Further discussion, which confirms Bess and Shrewsbury were married before 27 August 1567, can be found in David N. Durant, Bess of Hardwick: Portrait of an Elizabethan Dynast (London and Chester Springs: Peter Owen, 1977), p. 55. Durant (p. 118) also provides another example of Elizabeth Wingfield working her Court contacts in order to garner support for Bess during her marriage collapse, in the case of the letter forwarded from Bess's gentlewoman Frances Battell to Lord Burghley.
  • An assessment of Bess's wealth at the time of her marriage to Shrewsbury is provided 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. 23. While Bess was well positioned financially after her third widowhood (with an income of around £2,500 a year, her dower estate at Barlow, her life interest in the Cavendish estate and her outright ownership of the St Loe estates), Shrewsbury was still far above her in his own wealth, as a major peer and landowner with an income of around £10,000 a year in the 1580s.
  • Several of Bess's biographers record that, after St Loe died, Bess returned to Court as one of Elizabeth I's Ladies of the Privy Chamber, however, Riden and Fowkes (2009: 22) dispute the claim she was once 'lady in waiting' to Elizabeth I.
Author(s): Alison Wiggins, April 2013

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