A letter following the death of the earl in November 1590: Bess as dowager countess of Shrewsbury

Letter ID: 231

Shrewsbury died at 7am on 18 November 1591 and one month later, on 19 December, Bess wrote from Sheffield to William Cecil, Lord Burghley, Elizabeth I's chief adviser, to express her hope that all quarrel in her family had died with him: 'I hope my good Lord that all disagrement (in this famely) died with him' ID 231. Shrewsbury's death marked a new era for Bess and with widowhood came greater independence and financial freedom. Bess was now staggeringly wealthy in her own right: a widow for the fourth and final time, she commanded an enormous annual income of up to £10,000.

At this point in her life, aged around 70, we may have expected a lesser woman to step back and allow one of her sons to take over the reins of the estates and businesses. Indeed, as Bess herself reflects, in her letter to Burghley that is the subject of this section, her main desire now is for a quiet and peaceful life: 'quiett ys my prencipall desire; and I shall rather suffer then enter into controuersy' ID 231. Perhaps peace and quiet was, as Bess says here, her ultimate aim. But first, however, she had legal matters to settle, and business to take care of. One of Bess's earliest undertakings as dowager countess was to arrange what was to be her final trip to London, where she spent eight months accompanied by all the key members of her upper household, who included her granddaughter Arbella and her sons William and Charles. With her trademark competency, the purpose of the visit was threefold.

First, determined to consolidate her children's inheritances, while in London Bess had her solicitors and secretaries carefully close all legal loopholes to Shrewsbury's heir Gilbert, who had disputed the terms of her marriage settlement in Shrewsbury's will (the issued first raised by Bess in ID 159). Second, she re-connected with her social network, made contact with old friends, wined and dined her most influential and powerful acquaintances and discussed Arbella's marriage prospects with the Queen. Third, Bess went shopping. Her extravagant purchases included huge investments in gold and silver plate, fine clothes and jewels for herself and Arbella, swathes of black velvet lace and taffeta, yards of brightly-coloured satins, luxurious gold fringes and trimmings for her new litter, bulk purchases of tapestries and wall-hangings and multiple quires of fine imported paper. Bess was gearing up for a new reign and a new household.

In fact, it was not just a new household that Bess was equipping, but a new house. By the time she had left for London in November 1591, work on the new house was already well underway. It is worth backtracking for a moment to recall how her building projects had reached this point. On 2 June 1584, having been ousted from Chatsworth by Shrewsbury, Bess purchased outright (in her son William's name - Bess was married at this point and therefore, as a woman, unable to hold property in her own name) the family manor house at Hardwick from her brother James for £9,500. Leaking, squalid and barely habitable, the manor house at Hardwick nevertheless provided a roof for herself and her son William and his family. Once the legal battle with her husband Shrewsbury was settled in Bess's favour in 1587, the income enabled her to dramatically expand and renovate the modest manor house at Hardwick into the impressive property known today as Hardwick Old Hall.

By 1591, when the development of Hardwick Old Hall was complete, and her income had substantially increased following the death of Shrewsbury, Bess's vision for her building works had further expanded in her mind. As a result, two final building projects were commissioned with famous architect Robert Smythson. The first was New Hardwick Hall, begun in 1590, located next to Hardwick Old Hall and designed for Bess to live in herself. The second was Oldcotes, begun in 1593, located a few miles from Hardwick and intended as a home for her son William and his family. No trace of Oldcotes survives today and it never fulfilled its intended function of providing William with a home during his life. The year it was completed, in 1598, William's wife Anne died and William and his young children never left his mother's home at New Hardwick Hall, into which Bess had moved on 4 October 1597 and which came to combine their two household.

As a cumulative result of Bess's activities she had become an extraordinary builder, perhaps, as Steen would have it, 'the greatest woman builder ever known' (1994: 12). Bess's activities as a builder permeate her letters as they define and pervade her life. Her letters are shot through with glimpses of these ongoing activities and her commitment to a vision that was at times was all consuming. We have already seen (in Bess of Hardwick's Life in 12 Letters > The earliest letter from Bess: to her servant Francis Whitfield, 1552 and Bess of Hardwick's Life in 12 Letters > 'my honest swete chatesworth': Bess's third husband, Sir William St Loe, writes to his wife, c.1560) some of the ways in which Chatsworth features in Bess's letters, but there are numerous other small insights into her building activities.

For example, Bess writes to give orders for payment for weather-vanes for Chatsworth and to send herb, flower and mallow seeds for the garden accompanied by instructions 'yn euery pynt' (i.e. in all points and details) ID 100; to borrow a plasterer from John Thynne of Longleat House ID 113; to tell her husband to send a plumber ID 178 and iron ID 075; to donate black stone to William Cobham ID 016 and to send lead to Lord Burghley ID 188. The letters written to Bess include those which report on the progress of the garden paving at Chatsworth ID 017; the getting of timber and marl and plants for the orchard ID 047; and to respond to her requests for iron ID 075. Whatever needed to be done, Bess ensured it was done; or, in her own words to her servant James Crompe: 'yn any other thyngs that well be a helpe to my byldeynge Let yt be done' ID 100.

When Burghley wrote to Bess again a couple of years later, on 9 August 1593, his comments are indicative of the reputation Bess had developed. He expresses his concern that she has left London to isolate herself in what seems like (from his perspective at Court) the wilds of Derbyshire, a solitary figure at Chatsworth amid the hills, rocks and stones:

I wishe to your Ladyship to take more Comfort by stirringe abroade to visit your frendes and children, and not to lyue so solitary as yt semeth yow doe there in Chattesworthe amongest hills and Rockes of Stones ID 108

Burghley's portrayal of Bess here acknowledges that she had taken a step back from public life. However, the image of her as windswept and isolated relates very little to the realities of life at Chatsworth and Hardwick in the 1590s; certainly, Bess's account books tell a story of a rather plush and convivial household. Far more, Burghley's comments tell us about how Bess had, in her own lifetime, become synonymously associated with the great houses she created, first Chatsworth and, later, Hardwick and Oldcotes.

For Bess, the activity of building was woven into the fabric of her world. Each building is the material realisation, the nexus point, of networks of trade, industry, social contact, reported fashions, cultural aspiration and dynastic ambition. In 1603 she supervised one final design project with Robert Smythson, her own marble tomb effigy, where she is famously memorialised as the 'aedificatrix' of Chatsworth, Hardwick and Oldcotes.

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References and Further Reading

  • Analysis of Bess's wealth as dowager countess 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. 2 and pp. 28-29. Bess's annual income after Shrewsbury's death from her widow's dower was around £3,000, which she claimed from his son and heir Gilbert Talbot, seventh earl of Shrewsbury. To which sum can be added her income from her estates, which gave her a total income of at least £7,000 a year and, some years, closer to £10,000.
  • Accounts of Bess as an architectural patron who broke down barriers of convention, both with regard to architectural style and her transgression of contemporary gender categories, are provided by Sarah French, 'A Widow Building in Elizabethan England: Bess of Hardwick at Hardwick Hall', in Widowhood and Visual Culture in Early Modern Europe, ed. by A. Levy (Aldershot: Ashgate, 2003), pp. 161-76; and Alice T. Friedman, 'Architecture, Authority, and the Female Gaze: Planning and Representation in the Early Modern Country House', Assemblage, 18 (1992): 40-61, and 'Hardwick Hall', in History Today, 45.1 (1995): 27-32.
  • A masculinist re-writing of the history of Old and New Hardwick Halls, which plays down Bess's role in favour of her son William Cavendish and emphasises the contributions of Bess's brother James Hardwick and second husband Sir William Cavendish, is proposed by Riden and Fowkes (2009), especially p. 39. However, their conclusion is overly deterministic, being based primarily on landholdings (whereas married women were not able to own property or land) and does not take full account of the evidence of the letters.
  • An overview of early modern widowhood, the status of widows and their legal and property rights is provided by Sandra Cavallo and Lyndan Warner (eds), Widowhood in Medieval and Early Modern Europe (London: Longman, 1999), especially the 'Introduction', and Amy Erickson, Women and Property in Early Modern England (London: Routledge, 1993).
  • The financial accounts for Bess's eight-month trip to London are Chatsworth House, Devonshire Collection, Hardwick MS 7.
  • We know from two letters that Bess was at the manor house at Hardwick in August 1584 (ID 150 and ID 119).
  • The quotation is from Sara Jayne Steen (ed.), The Letters of Lady Arbella Stuart, Women Writers in English 1350-1850 (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1994), p. 12.
  • The definitive architectural studies of Hardwick are by Mark Girouard, Elizabethan Architecture: Its Rise and Fall, 1540-1640 (New Haven and London: Yale University Press, 2009); Hardwick Hall (The National Trust, 2006); and Robert Smythson and the Elizabethan Country House (New Haven and London: Yale University Press, 1983).
  • On the building of Oldcotes see Pamela Kettle, Oldcotes: The Last Mansion Built by Bess of Hardwick (Frome: Merton Priory Press, 2000).
  • The accounts and wage lists for the building of Hardwick and Oldcoats have been edited by David N. Durant and Philip Riden, The Building of Hardwick Hall, Vol. 1: The Old Hall, 1587-91, Vol. 2: The New Hall, 1591-98, Derbyshire Record Society 4 and 9 (1980 and 1984).
  • Visitor information for Chatsworth House, New Hardwick Hall and Hardwick Old Hall is available via Chatsworth, The National Trust and English Heritage [external sites].
Author(s): Alison Wiggins, April 2013

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