A last letter: Bess's final days at New Hardwick Hall

Letter ID:090

On 30 December, probably 1607, Bess's youngest daughter, Mary, countess of Shrewsbury, wrote to her mother from Sheffield Lodge to send New Year's greetings: 'a hapy new yer and mayny of them'. Her words accompanied a New Year's a gift of 'this quission' (i.e. a cushion, sent with the letter), made to the same pattern of Mary's own daughter's bed, which she requested her mother Bess use 'euery day at your prayer to leane of it which I pray god you may doe with all comfort'. The letter functioned as a covering note for the cushion, which must have been a most appropriate gift for Bess in these final few weeks of her life, for a number of reasons.

For one thing, we know that Bess had trouble with her knees, so her daughter's concern she have something 'to leane of' is partly a practical one: we know that, by the time Mary sent her letter, the octogenarian Bess was walking with a stick, and the plush furnishings of her bedchamber were specifically designed with warmth and comfort in mind against the cold of the Derbyshire winter. Second, we know that Bess appreciated commissioned textiles, especially those that told the story of her life in visual and heraldic form that filled New Hardwick Hall, so the cushion's decorative link to her granddaughter was a fitting one. Third, and perhaps most importantly given this is a prayer cushion, in her final years we know that Bess's mind was focused on spiritual matters. There are regular payments to the poor but, characteristically, Bess's spirituality finds clearest expression in architectural form: she built and endowed almshouses in Derby for twelve elderly people, a project started in 1598 and complete by March 1600.

It is worth recalling that there had been, for many years, a ritual of daily prayer in Bess's household, attested in letters sent from family members throughout her life which end asking Bess for her daily blessing. Bess herself refers to this routine of daily prayer in a letter to Sir Francis Walsingham, 6 May 1582, where she says that, for the queen, 'I dayly with most zealous mynd pray' ID 145. Bess's wording here hints at a degree of zeal in her Protestant agenda, although biographers have always supposed her to have been conservative in her Protestantism and we know that Bess's daughter Mary (who gives the prayer cushion) and her daughter (i.e. Mary's, Bess's granddaughter) Aletheia were themselves devote Roman Catholics.

Something more of the tenor of Bess's piety can be gauged from the books prominently displayed on her dressing table in her bed-chamber in 1601, which set out a weighty programme of Protestant reading. Further indication of a devote Protestantism is signalled by the letters Bess received in her final years from James Montague, dean of that Royal Chapel: he sent news of the persecution of priests, recusants and 'papistes', of parliamentary decisions over compulsory communion and of the Gunpowder Plot ID 048 and ID 049.

It is here in her bed-chamber that we should picture Bess when we imagine her final days. The bed-chamber overlooked her estates for miles around. Bess sat up in her bed or in her rich russet and silver-striped chair, insulated from the cold by numerous Spanish woollen blankets, quilts and fine scarlet coverings. Bess's women Mistresses Digby and Cartwright were ever in attendance to stack up the fire and read to Bess, meditations or recently-received letters. Bess's favourite son William Cavendish was a regular presence, and conferred with his mother over her fears for his future.

Busily employed with the accounts, legalities and business matters was Bess's reliable chief secretary Timothy Pusey (known in the records as just 'Timothy' and identified as Scribe C in this web-edition). His most important task was the purchase of further lands for William, for which he would bring documents and letters to his mistress Bess for her authorisation. The ever dutiful Scribe A (who, by this point, had been with Bess for at least two decades) was still on the scene and penned a short note from Bess to her daughter Mary on 30 November 1607, signed by Bess in a very decrepit hand. The note asks after Mary's family's health and Bess's four-month-old great-grandson 'Lettell sweete Lorde mautrauars' ID 179 (James Maltravers, the first son of Bess's granddaughter Aletheia Talbot Howard). Thus, surrounded by her trusted circle of intimates, Bess received letters to enquire after her own health and send news of various sorts, from her children, grandchildren, friends at Court, kin and neighbours.

It is here in her bed-chamber that Bess died on 13 February 1608, and her funeral took place in great state on 4 May. She was buried at All Saints' parish church (now Cathedral) in Derby beneath a monument designed by Robert Smythson. At this point in time, in 1608, the letters Bess had sent to numerous correspondents during the course of her life lay scattered in various locations around the country. Some have resided at these locations ever since; for example, her letters to Sir John Thynne, Sir George Manners and Sir Robert Cecil can still be seen today at Longleat House in Wiltshire, Belvoir Castle in Rutland and Hatfield House in Hertfordshire. Other have had more eventful journeys through time; such as those Bess sent to the Shrewsburys (her husband the sixth earl, and her son-in-law Gilbert and daughter Mary, seventh earl and countess) which were 'rescued' from the 'mice, ratts, and wett' at Sheffield Manor by Nathaniel Johnston in 1671 and are now held at Lambeth Palace Library.

On the other hand, Bess Papers (which contained the letters she received) were stored together in the purpose-built Muniments Room at New Hardwick Hall. Her Papers passed through the hands of various private owners, and were thoroughly picked over, from the seventeenth until the twentieth century. It was only in 1961 that the largest part of her extant Papers, as we have them, were purchased and became publically available at their current location at the Folger Shakespeare Library, Washington DC. Located on Capitol Hill, within walking distance of the Senate and the White House, amid a cityscape of supreme architectural grandeur, it somehow seems a fitting final home for Bess's letters, one which she may well have fully approved.

It is difficult to know exactly how many of Bess's letters have been destroyed, lost or otherwise gone astray. Certainly, Bess's account books, which record payments for delivery of letters, indicate that what we have is only a fraction of their original number and remind us that the extant letters are not the complete story. Nevertheless, we should remember that the mobile nature of letters means that even Bess herself never had access, all at the same time and in the same place, to all the letters she ever sent and received. This web-edition, therefore, by assembling together transcripts, images and commentaries, allows access to Bess's letters in a new way. It creates an opportunity for us to explore her life, and re-imagine Bess of Hardwick herself, through the narratives woven into her correspondence.

Links on this Site

References and Further Reading

  • The reference to Bess walking with a stick but being well for her years appears in a letter from John Harper to Gilbert Talbot, 31 July 1606 (Lambeth Palace Library, Talbot Papers,Vol. M, fol. 349).
  • The detailed inventory made of Bess's bed-chamber in 1601 is included in Santina M. Levey and Peter K. Thornton (eds), Of Houshold Stuff: The 1601 Inventories of Bess of Hardwick (The National Trust, 2001), pp. 53-54. The books layed out on Bess's dressing table included Calvin upon Job and a commentary on Proverbs. Next to Bess's mirror and brushes is listed 'a payre of pullies lyned with black taffetie'; these customised 'pullies' seem to be knee-armour, apparently more evidence of Bess's need for support for the knees.
  • A range of discussions of material culture and the everyday in the Renaissance are presented by Tara Hamling and Catherine Richardson (eds), Everyday Objects: Medieval and Early Modern Material Culture and its Meanings (Aldershot: Ashgate, 2010).
  • The Roman Catholicism of Bess's daughter Mary and grand-daughter Aletheia is described in the Oxford Dictionary of National Biography entries for Gilbert Talbot, seveth earl of Shrewsbury (1552-1616) and Aletheia Howard [née Talbot] (d.1654) [external site, subscription required].
  • The quotation from Nathaniel Johnston is cited by Edmund Lodge, Illustrations of British History, Biography and Manners in the Reigns of Henry VIII, Edward VI, Mary, Elizabeth and James I (London: G. Nicol, 1791), p. viii.
  • The Folger Shakespeare Library Finding Aid for the Papers of the Cavendish Talbot Family [external site] provides further details regarding the provenance of the current collection and afterlife of Bess's papers via the Phillipps' collection.
  • The relationship between memory and digital technology is reflected upon in Joanne Garde-Hansen, Andrew Hoskins and Anna Reading (eds), Save As... Digital Memories (Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan, 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 Humanities Research Institute at The University of Sheffield
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