An angry letter from the earl of Shrewsbury, 1584: Bess's marriage breakdown

Letter ID: 119

Rumblings of problems between the Shrewsburys are audible as early as c.1577 in a letter from Gilbert Talbot to his mother-in-law and step-mother Bess where he describes how he has tried to defend her against his father's anger ID 084. By 1582 the marriage had severely deteriorated: servants were complaining, saying, of Sheffield Castle, that the 'house is a hell', and by June 1583 Bess had left Sheffield for Chatsworth. The earl of Leicester made repeated attempts to mediate, but Shrewsbury was having none of it. In July 1584, he mustered a force of forty men on horseback, rode over to Chatsworth, armed with a halberd and pistol, and claimed the property as his own. Bess was forced to leave and, soon after, Shrewsbury had her son William Cavendish thrown into the Fleet for his attempts at resistance.

The fever pitch of Shrewsbury's fury is captured in a series of astonishingly vicious and vitriolic letters; for Durant they qualify as 'the most vituperative ever written by a husband to his wife' (1977: 139). In the letter that is the subject of this section, written 4 August 1584, in tones both sarcastic and bitterly contemptuous, Shrewsbury expresses scepticism about Bess's latest, gentle and kind letter (received 3 August, but itself now no longer extant), which he thinks comes too late to sooth him. From a rhetorical point of view, Shrewsbury's letter is extremely well crafted and measured: this is not a letter wildly dashed off in the heat of the moment, but a coldly-calculated and carefully-scripted character assassination. Whilst framed as a private missive to his wife, the mannered rhetoric suggests Shrewsbury was quite prepared for it to be circulated more widely. Indeed, by this point the Shrewsburys' marital problems had become a state security issue as any tensions and ructions in the household had potential implications for the safety of the Scots Queen.

To these accusations from Shrewsbury, Bess prepared a series of counter-narratives in the form of her epistolary responses. In these letters she systematically defends herself and employs various rhetorical strategies to empower her discourse. On the one hand, when writing to her high-powered contacts Lord Burghley and Sir Francis Walsingham for support Bess casts herself as the wronged wife: vulnerable, oppressed, abandoned and in need of protection. For example, when writing to Lord Burghley in 1585, Bess emphasises that 'I and myne haue indured thes extreme wrong', she refers to 'me and my chyldryn, such wronges as ys done to vs' and subscribes herself 'your Lordship's pore frende greatly oppressed' ID 152. When writing to Sir Francis Walsingham in 1584, she recounts her 'strange meserys' (i.e. extreme miseries) and subscribes herself as 'your dystresed dessolat frend' ID 149. Subsequently, when writing to Burghley in 1586, Bess's lamentations of her pitiful state are explicity gendered and she describes herself as 'I vnfortunat woman' whose hope is 'desparate without your Lordship's goodnes and protectyon of me' ID 230.

On the other hand, especially when writing to her husband Shrewsbury, Bess drew on contemporary discourses of the ideal Renaissance wife: patient, obedient, humble, submissive to her husband's will and asking only to be allowed back into his presence. It is worth recalling at this point that Bess had for many years associated herself, through visual art, with the classical figure of Penelope: the faithful wife, abandoned by her husband Odysseus, the epitome of patience and loyalty, waiting for her husband to return. The strength of Bess's affinity with Penelope is attested by the full-length embroidered figure she had had produced within her own workshop at Chatsworth, which is both a depiction of Penelope and a self-portrait of Bess.

While Bess in her letters does not explicitly mention Penelope, she takes a rhetorical stance that draws strength from contemporary discourses of ideal wives and virtuous women. For example, in her letter to Shrewsbury of 14 October c.1585, Bess opens mentioning that she is 'bound in duty of a wyffe' and asserts that no women living 'could be more dutyfull, trew, faythfull, and carefull to a husband, then I haue euar ben to you'. Above all, Bess emphasises her constancy and dutiful desire to be reunited with her husband: 'my constant duty and affectyon contenews so to you ... I shall nevar cease to seke and sue by all good means, that I may lyue with you as I ought' ID 229.

In the same letter Bess goes on to cast herself as a kind of national symbol of suffering wifehood: 'I am the furst Innosent wyffe, that euar was so very extremly vsed in thys realme, god make me the last' (i.e. I am the first innocent wife in this realm to be so maltreated, pray to God I am the last) ID 229. We might choose to read Bess's tone, here, in these lines, as edged with righteous indignation. Equally, we could read these lines in a tone that is flat, exasperated and matter-of-fact. Either way, we must remember that, by this point, the earl of Leicester, William Overton (Bishop of Coventry and Lichfield) and the Queen herself had all been directly involved in attempts to reconcile Shrewsbury with his wife, but to no avail. That is to say, Shrewsbury's decision to separate himself from Bess had brought objections from many quarters and had become national news. All of which make Bess's self-declaration as the realm's 'first innocent wife' seem less of hyperbole and more a realistic warning to other women.

The next letter we have from Bess to Shrewsbury was written some eight months later, on 9 June 1586. Again Bess draws on contemporary stereotypes of the ideal wife. She overtly acknowledges that the ideal wife, according to contemporary doctrine, should patiently subjugate herself to her husband's authority:

I owghte, bothe by the lawes of god nature & men, patiently to beare what correction by wordes or deedes, it shall please your Lordship to laye vppon me ID 176

Yet (and while she acknowledges forbearance of punishment to be prescribed for wives), Bess explains that she is in 'great feare of your Lordship's wrath' and 'the extreme rygoure of wordes' which has, in the past, caused her 'vexation of mynde' and the 'losse of my pore wytts & sences'. That is to say, Bess here invokes the contemporary stereotype of the patient and obedient wife, only as a means to explain and justify her own terrifying predicament. Her letter serves as a reminder to Shrewsbury that the role of the loving and patient wife is one which, in turn, depends upon a kind and patient husband.

To close the letter, Bess pictures herself in a pose of utter humility, as a supplicant, a religious worshipper down on her knees, who prays to her husband, who is her lord, pleads for his blessing and sends prayers to him:

Thus moste humblie on my knees becechinge your Lordship's blessing with my wonted bounden prayers for your Lordship's moste perfyte healthe, honour & longe lyffe, I humblie cease ID 176

Shrewsbury, it seems, was no longer a man to be reasoned with, but only to be mollified. Repeatedly the Privy Council found in Bess's favour and subsequent biographical accounts have speculated as to whether Shrewsbury's obsessive hatred of his wife can be explained as the symptom of a breakdown in his mental health. While we must be wary of retrospective diagnosis, the tolerance and leniency shown towards Shrewsbury by the Queen and her courtiers suggests they knew they were dealing with a very troubled man.

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References and Further Reading

  • The letter from Shrewsbury's gentleman servant Marmyon to Sir Francis Willoughby, 28 October c.1582, where he says the 'house is a hell' and that he is 'sorry with all my heart to see my Lady in such danger' is discussed by David N. Durant, Bess of Hardwick Portrait of an Elizabethan Dynast (London and Chester Springs: Peter Owen, 1977), pp. 117-18; the letter can be found at H.M.C. (Middleton) vol. 1, p. 153.
  • The letter from William Overton to Shrewsbury, 12 October 1590, is College of Arms vol. I, fol. 92; other third party attempts at reconciliation are discussed by Durant (1977), Chapter 8.
  • The full-length textile art Penelope figure has been identified as a self-portrait of Bess by Susan Frye, Pens and Needles: Women's Textualities in Early Modern England (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2010); the portrait is part of the Women of the Ancient World series of hangings at New Hardwick Hall.
  • The classic accounts of construction of the ideal Renaissance wife and discourses of fictions of women include those by Suzanne W. Hull, Chaste, Silent, and Obedient: English Books for Women, 1475-1640 (San Marino: Huntington Library, 1982; reprinted 1988); Lorna Hutson, The Usurer's Daughter: Male Friendship and Fictions of Women in Sixteenth-Century England (London: Routledge, 1994); and Lisa Jardine, Still Harping on Daughters: Women and Drama in the Age of Shakespeare (Sussex, England: Harvester Press; Totowa, N.J.: Barnes & Noble, 1983; second edition, New York: Harvester Wheatsheaf, 1989).
  • Discussions of gendered constructions of voice are available in Danielle Clarke and Elizabeth Clarke (eds), This Double Voice: Gendered Writing in Early Modern England (Basingstoke: Macmillan; New York: St Martin's Press, 2000).
  • The official documents collected concerning the Shrewsburys marriage breakdown are compiled in TNA, State Papers Domestic (Eliz) 1586/7 Shrewsbury Papers No. 207.
Author(s): Alison Wiggins, April 2013

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