A letter bringing news, 1578/9: Bess's information networks

Letter ID: 166

Many of the letters written to Bess function to supply news, although they range widely in form and content. There are chatty updates from Bess's sons and daughters, who regarded sending news and asking after their mother's health as aspect of their filial duty. There are weighty missives from high-ranking courtiers, such as James Montague, dean of the Chapel Royal, who provided Bess with insider information on King James's court in her final years and reports on the pursuit of 'papistes' ID 048. Or, there are the expansive paragraphed narratives from semi-professional news-letter writers, such as Hugh Fitzwilliam, whose letters include surveys of European politics and international trade disputes.

One of Bess's most prolific supplier of news, with some talent for the task, was her step-son and son-in-law Gilbert Talbot, whose letters were written during the period of the captivity of Mary, Queen of Scots. As the Scots Queen's custodians, Bess and Shrewsbury were, in one sense, at the heart of political events, so much so that they found themselves featured in news-letters. But while this was the case, in another sense they were cut off from the Court and from accurate sources of news, which made reports such as Gilbert's a lifeline for keeping up to date.

On 13 February 1578/9 Gilbert wrote the letter that is the subject of this section (signed also by his wife, Bess's daughter, Mary) from Charing Cross, London, to his father Shrewsbury and to Bess. The ostensible purpose of Gilbert's letter was as a covering note for a second letter (from the earl of Leicester), but he included his own account of current affairs: like other correspondents, Gilbert was aware that news was highly prized and got it into his letters to the earl and countess wherever he could.

As is typical, Gilbert's news ranges widely across topics: from international politics to local land disputes to cultural trends to his wife's health. He covers information directly relevant to Shrewsbury and Bess, such as the planned court proceedings concerning Talbot lands, and accounts of ongoing legal disputes, like the unresolved matter between the earl of Rutland and Master Markham. Alongside of which are more general updates from Court, that include Jean de Simier's contact with the Queen and the queen mother's visit to England. Where details are perceived to be of particular use or interest, Gilbert is sure to add them. For example, there is his precise itemisation of the rich gifts given to Johann Casimir, which includes cost estimates and speculation on their reception, all valuable markers of trends and fashions in the competitive environment of the Court.

Finally, Gilbert throws in a selection of shocking scandals. He reports on the 'counterfeytynge of the Lord chamberlayne And ye secreteryes handes', whereby over a period of seven years, through forged letters, criminals swindled the Queen out of three thousand pounds. Their punishment, he says, is that:

they muste stande of the pyllerye, at Westmester, at the courte gates, & in chepesyde, on certayne dayes appoynted, and then have theyr eares cutte of ID 166

If this were not enough by way of gruesome tittle-tattle, Gilbert goes on to recount the story of the attempted assassination of Lord Rich with a 'dagge' (i.e. a wheel-lock pistol) and, on the same day, the violent assault in the street of Sir John Conway by Lodovyke Grevell. Gilbert ends with a brief apology for these light-weight stories: 'I am forced to troble your honors with thes tryflynge matters, for yat I know no greatter'. We may suspect this apology to be somewhat disingenuous: the inclusion of these stories, in itself, suggests Gilbert was confident of a welcome reception for such tabloid tales.

Gilbert, then, tailored his news-letters for Shrewsbury and Bess: his accounts include, on the one hand, information specific to their own affairs and legal cases, and, on the other, well-rehearsed stories that had already done the rounds of news-letters. From the writer's point of view, a news-letter was an opportunity to forge, consolidate or cultivate a relationship. Likewise, the nature and quality of that relationship can be gauged by the type and level of news presented.

With regard to relationship maintenance, it is worth mentioning one of the most appealing news-letters sent to Bess, from her son Charles - a man of whom we know relatively little but who comes across rather well in this letter, which he carefully customised according to his mother's interests. The letter includes a generous account of the reception at Court of Bess's young granddaughter, Arbella Stuart. Charles repeats compliments overheard during dinner, spoken to Sir Walter Ralegh, as to Arbella's fine educational accomplishments and marriagability, comments sure to delight Bess:

my lord Treasurer ... spake openly and direccted his speech to Sir water Rawley greatly in hir Commendation as that she had the french th' Italion playd of Instrmentes dansed wrough and writt very fayre wished she weare xv years ould and with that rouned Master Rawly in the eayre who answered it would be a happy thinge ID 209 (i.e. my Lord Treasurer spoke openly to Sir Walter Ralegh to highly commend Arbella, saying she has French and Italian, plays musical instruments, dances, sews and writes very well and he wishes she were 15 years old already; and with that Ralegh whispered in his ear that it would indeed be a fortunate thing [if she were of marriageable age])

Charles goes on to recount some remarkable features of building design observed at the Lord Treasurer's house, which he envisages Bess will find pleasing and perhaps useful for her own works. The gallery, he reports, was 'very fayre... I take it to be a hundred and xxvj foot longe, xxj foot brood; a xvj foot hy' - and we might be tempted to suggest that Bess took note of these measurements, given that the Long Gallery she later built at Hardwick outdoes each of these dimensions. He continues with details of the windows, the roof 'lyke the low gallery at Chattesworth', the chichi decorative bird-and-rock themed hidden cupboard and the lights set into the ceiling, which at night appear like stars. Charles, who himself went on to collaborate with Robert Smythson on his own fine building development at Bolsover Castle, evidently shared his mother's enthusiasm for architectural detail and her eye for interior design. It is difficult to imagine a letter Bess would have enjoyed reading more.

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References and Further Reading

  • Further account of Bess's news-letters is provided by James Daybell, '"Suche newes as on the Quenes hye wayes we have mett": The News and Intelligence Networks of Elizabeth Talbot, countess of Shrewsbury (c.1527-1608)', in Women and Politics in Early Modern England, 1450-1700, ed. by James Daybell (Aldershot and Burlington: Ashgate, 2004), pp. 114-31.
  • Broad-ranging discussions of the topic of early modern news are provided by Adam Fox 'Rumour, News and Popular Political Opinion in Elizabethan and Early Stuart England', Historical Journal, 40/3 (1997): 597-620; and Chris R. Kyle and Jason Peacey, Breaking News: Renaissance Journalism and the Birth of the Newspaper (Folger Shakespeare Library, Washington DC, 2008), which is a catalogue of the Folger Library exhibition and includes one of James Montague's letters to Bess (p. 30).
  • The dimensions of the Lord Treasurer's gallery can be compared to the larger size of the Long Gallery at New Hardwick Hall: 38.4 x 6.4 x 4.8 meters compared to Hardwick's 51 x 6.7-12 x 8 meters. The figures for New Hardwick Hall are from Mark Girouard, Hardwick Hall (The National Trust, revised edition, 2006), p. 16.
  • Charles Cavendish's own building activities are reviewed by Philip Riden and Dudley Fowkes, Bolsover: Castle, Town and Colliery (Chichester: Phillimore in association with the Institute of Historical Research at the University of London, 2009).
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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