A pair of letters from Padua, 1570s: Bess's geographical networks

Gilbert Talbot's letter from Padua (ID 171)

Henry Cavendish's letter from Padua (ID 226)

The pair of letters that are the subject of his section were written on the same day, 4 November 1570, from Padua, Italy. Each is jointly address to Shrewsbury and Bess and, together, they present a curious kind of double symmetry: we can recall that Henry Cavendish was both Bess's son and Shrewsbury's son-in-law (through his marriage to Shrewsbury's daughter Grace Talbot), and that Gilbert Talbot was both Shrewsbury's son and heir and Bess's son-in-law (through his marriage to Bess's daughter Mary Cavendish); the double wedding had been concocted by Bess to secure the future of the Cavendish line. Henry and Gilbert both promise to send more detailed travel reports, written in books, with their next letters. It is likely theirs was no casual trip or leisured Grand Tour but that Henry and Gilbert were assessing trade options; the same may be true of Henry's expedition some years later to Constantinople ID 008.

We know that Shrewsbury and Gilbert were extensively engaged in the shipping of lead and minerals and in the import-export of a variety of goods, either with Shrewsbury's own ship The Talbott or through contact with merchants. That Bess tapped into these networks, and benefitted materially from her husband's international trade and transport ventures, is evident from the spectacular domestic interiors she created. Bess acquired (or had her husband acquire) exotic and luxurious items, some of which are still at New Hardwick Hall today and include European and Chinese silks, Persian and Anatolian carpets and a Gujarati embroidered bed-cover. Later Bess was involved in import-export herself when, as dowager countess, she kept up the family interests in lead, coal and glass-works. Bess's marriage to Shrewsbury, then, not only expanded her web of social contacts but the scope of her geographical networks.

It is not clear from this pair of letters exactly how they made their way from Padua to England, or the length of time the journey took. Bess herself used a range of letter-delivery methods during her life and the method chosen largely depended upon the nature of the letter. We know that once Bess became countess of Shrewsbury she could afford to pay for any number of personal servants to deliver her letters and messages between houses in Derbyshire (on legal, estate, family and social matters), or into Yorkshire, Nottinghamshire, Leicestershire and London (for example, ID 020 in which Bess's son William mentions he received Bess's recent letter sent 'by watson').

But there were certain kinds of letter that required special methods of delivery. For a letter sent with large or bulky items, the network of official carriers would be suitable (for example, ID 073 in which Bess's husband Shrewsbury mentions he has sent oranges and lemons 'by your caryare'). Whereas for a sensitive letter to Court, where issues of timing and presentation needed to be judged with care, only a bearer who was a diplomatic courtier would do (for example, ID 083, ID 128 and ID 139 in which Gilbert Talbot, Sir Henry Bronker and William Cavendish each feature as bearer-negotiators). In other cases, such as business dealings, a legally-savvy upper male servant would be in order to represent Bess's case (e.g. ID 159 in which Burghley's man Bradshaw, Gilbert Talbot's man Markham and Bess's solicitor Whalley are each used as emissaries during Bess's legal dispute with Gilbert over her widow's entitlement).

As these examples show, in this period, successful epistolary communication depended in large part upon one's ability to access and negotiate delivery networks and operate through trusted bearers. Bess, it seems, had the financial resources, social connections and personnel skills needed to navigate her way around and across her world through letters, by use of messengers, bearers and carriers. That Renaissance letter-bearing was a highly personalised process is further attested by the rather brief and vague manner in which letters are addressed. Even from the distance of Padua, Henry simply addresses his letter 'To my Lorde and my Lady', and Gilbert uses an almost identical formula. Typically, as here, letters are sent to a person rather than a place and it was down to the skill of the bearer to know how to locate the individual wherever he or she might be found.

A final point worth mentioning is that letters were often addressed jointly to a husband and wife (as are Henry and Gilbert's letters from Padua). While it might be assumed that the husband would be the primary recipient in this period, what we find is that a number of jointly addressed letters ultimately ended up in the hands of Bess rather than Shrewsbury. Such is the case with Henry's letter from Padua (now held at Arundel Castle with other letters from Bess's own Papers); that is, even if Shrewsbury received Henry's letter from Padua first, it seems to have subsequently passed to his wife Bess and been kept by her. So we can see how a letter could move between individuals and locations in ways now not always immediately explicit from the inscription written on the address leaf.

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References and Further Reading

  • The personalised nature of Renaissance letter-bearing and its implications are discussed by Alan Stewart, Shakespeare's Letters (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2008).
  • An account of transportation in early modern Derbyshire is provided by David Hey, Packmen, Carriers and Packhorse Roads: Trade and Communications in North Derbyshire and South Yorkshire (Trowbridge and Esher: Leicester University Press, 1980).
  • Scholarship that tracks the development of the official postal network and the growth of transport routes includes Philip Beale, England's Mail: Two Millennia of Letter Writing (Stroud: Tempus, 2005); Mark Brayshay, 'Royal Post-Horse Routes in England and Wales: The Evolution of the Network in the Late-Sixteenth and Early Seventeenth Century', Journal of Historical Geography, 17, 4 (1991): 373-89; and Mark Brayshay, Philip Harrison and Brian Chalkley, 'Knowledge, Nationhood and Governance: the Speed of the Royal Post in Early-Modern England', Journal of Historical Geography, 24, 3 (1998): 265-88.
  • Illustrated accounts of the imported textiles at Hardwick Hall are provided by Santina M. Levey, An Elizabethan Inheritance: The Hardwick Hall Textiles (The National Trust, 1998), pp. 26-29, and The Embroideries at Hardwick Hall: A Catalogue (The National Trust, 2007), pp. 29-30, and in this volume, Rosemary Crill, 'Appendix One: The Hardwick Hall Bengali Quilt', pp. 389-90.
  • Analysis of the delivery methods used by Bess, which includes a review of the account-book evidence, is provided by Alison Wiggins, Bess of Hardwick: Reading and Writing Renaissance Letters, Material Readings of Early Modern Culture (Ashgate, forthcoming 2014).
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 Humanities Research Institute at The University of Sheffield
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