Bess of Hardwick

ImageThe letters of Elizabeth Talbot (c.1521-1608), known historically as “Bess of Hardwick,” have just been made available as a searchable database. This is a treasure trove of domestic history and an insight into the life of probably the most influential non-royal woman of her time. She was the matriarch of a powerful dynasty that produced the first Dukes of Devonshire and Newcastle, and was best known for the huge estates she built and oversaw, including Chatsworth and Hardwick Hall (“more glass than wall” – a mark of extreme luxury at a time when glass windows were both an expensive innovation, and heavily taxed).

A bit of Hardwick-related fun: one of the treasures of the house is the Eglantine Table, a gorgeous piece covered with inlaid images of Renaissance pastimes – board games, music and instruments, including the notation for


a madrigal by Thomas Morley. Recent visitors to the Hall were delighted when some young people inspecting the table suddenly broke into a lovely rendition of the song. Yes, there are Renaissance flashmobs!

She married four times, each husband richer than the last (like Chaucer’s Wife of Bath). Unlike most women – even noble ones – of her time, Bess held many of the magnificent properties she acquired with her third husband in her own name, and made sure that her fortune and the that of her fourth husband, the Earl of Shrewsbury, would be bound together by marrying two of her children to two of the Earl’s.

She and her husband had the unenviable responsibility for keeping the imprisoned Mary Queen of Scots, but her familiarity with that tragic queen and with her family taught Bess early on that the Scottish Stuart dynasty would be the key to England’s future after the childless Queen Elizabeth died. Bess married her eldest daughter to Mary Stuart’s nephew Charles, and their daughter, Arabella, had the nearest claim to the throne after her cousin King James of Scotland. She became her granddaughter’s guardian when the girl was orphaned at the age of seven, but her relationship with Arabella was troubled, mainly by Queen Elizabeth’s reluctance to allow the Stuart girl to marry and produce possible claimants to the throne of England. Arabella suffered from depression and anxiety due to her lack of freedom, and busied herself by secretly encouraging various suitors to help her escape Bess’s custody. Bess had a nearly full-time job placating the Queen every time Arabella’s antics brought the royal wrath upon Hardwick Hall.

It’s easy to stereotype Bess’s power as being, like an Elizabethan Martha Stewart’s, related solely to her domestic acumen. Historians have not been kind to her, characterizing her as social-climbing, money-grubbing, scheming, litigious, and overly controlling of her children and granddaughter. But, as the letters in this database show, her many correspondents at court kept her well-informed of – and sought her advice about – the important events of the day. She lived to be more than 80 years old – an unusual feat for anyone, and particularly for a woman who had borne eight children.


You can still visit Hardwick Hall today, and see her initials – ES – proudly built into the capitals of the house’s six rooftop pavilions.


Happy Birthday to a Reverend Head

ImageMay 2 is the birthday of that great antiquarian, teacher, and scholar, William Camden (1551-1623), the man we can fairly give credit for the mind and career of Ben Jonson. Camden was the usher of The Westminster School when Jonson was a pupil there, and probably sponsored the bright bricklayer’s stepson as a scholarship boy. Camden took on the huge task of surveying all England for his monumental Britannia, which combined history, topography, and description to create a deep understanding of his beloved native land. He was a chronicler of his own time as well as an enthusiastic student of myth and folklore. Jonson remained devoted to Camden for the historian’s entire life, as the myriad exclamation points in his Epigram XIV demonstrate.

CAMDEN!  most reverend head, to whom I owe
All that I am in arts, all that I know;
(How nothing’s that?); to whom my country owes,
The great renown, and name wherewith she goes!
Than thee the age sees not that thing more grave,
More high, more holy, that she more would crave.
What name, what skill, what faith hast thou in things!
What sight in searching the most antique springs!
What weight, and what authority in thy speech!
Men scarce can make that doubt, but thou canst teach.
Pardon free truth, and let thy modesty,
Which conquers all, be once o’ercome by thee.
Many of thine, this better could, than I;
But for their powers, accept my piety.

Happy May Day

Image“GET up, get up for shame, the blooming morn
Upon her wings presents the god unshorn.
See how Aurora throws her fair
Fresh-quilted colours through the air :
Get up, sweet slug-a-bed, and see
The dew bespangling herb and tree.
Each flower has wept and bow’d toward the east
Above an hour since : yet you not dress’d ;
Nay ! not so much as out of bed?
When all the birds have matins said
And sung their thankful hymns, ’tis sin,
Nay, profanation to keep in,
Whereas a thousand virgins on this day
Spring, sooner than the lark, to fetch in May.”

— Corinna’s Going A-Maying

Robert Herrick (1591-1674), though a bachelor and a country parson most of his adult life, was a tremendous fan of rural fertility festivals and all the joys that came along with them. Scholars have long struggled to reconcile his religious profession with his frankly erotic verses (see “The Vine” for a poem that would make any modern teenager blush), but I see no contradiction here. Herrick lived during a time when everyone knew that life was short and pleasures few. The delights of the imagination, he suggests, are innocent, and beautiful, sensual language only honors the gifts of the creator. Herrick wrote his sermons for God but for himself he indulged in playful verse that celebrated life, love, food, and festivity.

Back in Print

“O merchant fortune! Do not run away.”

After a brief hiatus that unfortunately included both the 2012 holidays and Shakespeare’s birthday 2013, William Shakespeare: His Life and Times is back in print in the US! Here’s a sample:

25 February, 1613

My Child,
I am coming home, and to stay this time.
Thou marvell’st at my words! I know. I have spoken of it for nigh ten years now, and you and Mother grow weary of my promises. But I speak true as Troilus, and you will see me before Shrovetide so that we may share our Lenten pancakes together.
‘Now my charms are all o’erthrown.’ Thus begins the end of The Tempest, my last play. My Prospero shall speak these lines (and more, when I finish them!) as he retires from his island, abandons his magical arts, and returns to his life at home. I write this missive to you with the selfsame words ringing in my ears…