The 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.