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Bess of Hardwicke

British Isles Genealogy | Chapters From the Family Chest

     If prosperity and success in life are to be regarded as the measure and standard of happiness few individuals can be said to have been morworthy to be styled happy than Elizabeth Countess of Shrewsbury, a lady better known t history as 'Bess of Hardwicke.,*  It is not give to every woman, however nobly born and well mated, to marry, as she did, four husbands in succession, and on each occasion that she went to the altar to rise higher and higher both inwealth and in social position.
     It was her lot also to have children by one of her husbands only, and to see these children all married to the highest and the noblest in the land; and, finally, it was given to her to erect three at least of the most magnificent private mansions in this island-the princely Chatsworth, the stately Hardwicke Hall, and Oldcotes, all magnificent mansions in the county of Derby.
     This lady was born the second daughter and eventually heiress of John Hardwick, or Hardwicke, of Hardwicke, Derbyshire, whose estates in that county she inherited on the death of her brother. She first saw the light of day in or about the year of grace 1516. Not much is known of her early education and training; but from the very first she would seem to have shown a spirit of independence and an indomitable courage which must have marked her out as no ordinary person. At the early age of fourteen she became the wife of Robert Barley, Esquire, of Barley, in Derbyshire, whose large estates she inherited under a deed of settlement. In the course of a few months she was left a widow, and in that state she remained for a period of twelve years, when she was married, as his third wife, to Sir William Cavendish, father of the first Earl of Devonshire, and the possessor of vast estates in different parts of the kingdom, a large portion of which had been acquired as grants of forfeited church lands in the reign of Edward VI. To Sir William Cavendish this remarkable lady brought not only Hardwick and the other possessions of her own family, buy also those of the Barleys, which she had acquires under her first marriage. So great was the affection of Sir William for her that, at he sold his estates in the southern parts of England, in order to purchase lands in Derbyshire, where her own friends and kindred lived.  Also, on her further persuasion, he began the erection of the noble mansion of Chatsworth which he did not live to finish, as he died in the fourth year of the reign of Queen Mary, hawing had by his late wife a large family.
     After a few brief years of widowhood 'Bess of IIardwicke' married, as her third husband, Sir William St. Lo, Captain of the Guard to Queen Elizabeth. By this marriage her already extensive possessions were augmentedd by the whole of the estates of her husband which were settled upon her and her heirs. On the death of Sir William, she was a third time left a widow; but soon after she married, as his second wife, George, sixth Earl of Shrewsbury, whom she survived. With this last marriage there was a stipulation that the earl's eldest daughter, the Lady Grace Talbot, should wed her eldest son (by her second marriage) Sir Henry Cavendish, and that his second son, Gilbert Talbot (who eventually succeeded to the Earldom of Shrewsbury), should marry her youngest daughter, Mary Cavendish. This amicable family arrangement was duly carried out at Sheffield in the month of February, 1587-8, the younger of the two couples being at the time only about fifteen and twelve years of age respectively. The Earl of Shrewsbury died in 1590, leaving his countess in the full enjoyment of all her worldly possessions, of which she would appear to have made good use, if that expression can be applied to her love of grandeur and propensity for building. According to Walpole's 'Anecdotes of Painting,' there is a tradition in the family of Cavendish that a fortune-teller had once told this imperious lady that 'she would never die while she was building:' and that, 'accordingly, she bestowed a great deal of the wealth she had obtained from three of her four husbands in erecting largo seats at Hardwicke, Chatsworth, Bolsover, and Oldcotes, and, I think, at Worksop; and died in a hard frost, when the workmen could not labor.'
     The character of 'Bees of Hardwicke' is thus set forth by Lodge in his 'Portraits of Illustrious Persons': ` She was a woman of masculine understanding and conduct; proud, furious, selfish, and unfeeling. She was a builder, a buyer and seller of estates, a money-lender, a farmer, and a merchant of lead, coals, and timber. She lived to a great old age, and died in 1607 immensely rich, and without a friend.'Old Fuller writes of her as 'a woman of undaunted spirit'; while upon her monument she is described as 'beautiful and discreet: She had, as already stated, children by only two of her four husbands, namely, Sir William Cavendish, who thus became the founder of the famous family of Cavendish.
     The estate of Hardwicke is situated about six miles from Chesterfield, and the house stands on high ground in a noble deer-park, full of trees which were not young in the days of the Tudors, perhaps even in those of the Plantagenets. At the time of the Conquest it formed part of the manor of Steynesby, which was granted to Roger of Poicton. By King John it was transferred to Andrew de Beauchamp, and in the middle of the thirteenth century it passed to William de Steynesby, whose grandson, John, died possessed of it in 1330. Shortly afterwards it passed to the family of Hardwick, or De Hardwicke, who gave to it their name, and in whose possession it remained for six generations, their pedigree closing with Elizabeth Hardwicke, the wife of Sir William Cavendish, and the subject of this chapter. Hardwicke, with its princely domains, has continued in the possession of her lineal descendants, through the family of Cavendish, to their representative, His Grace the Duke of Devonshire and Baron Cavendish of Hardwicke, the present noble owner.
    'Hardwicke,' writes Mr. S. C. Hall, in his 'Baronial Halls,' 'has for a very long period derived romantic interest from the popular belief that it was one of the prisons of the lovely and persecuted Queen of Scots. It is, however, certain that, although for a time in the custody of the Earl of Shrewsbury, she never was immured at Hardwicke, her prison having been one of the earl's 'strong castles at Sheffield," where she passed twelve weary years in "melancholy and grief;' in "sickness and despair," the victim of unceasing suspicion, "in the hopeless monotony of sedentary employment, with an impaired constitution and a restless mind," and treated with so much severity by the countess as to extort from the more humane earl, in one of his petitions to the Queen, a complaint against his "wyked and malysious wyfe."'
     Hardwicke, according to the authority here quoted, appears to have been built subsequently to the death of Mary; 'but,' adds the writer, 'there is little doubt that the room called "The Queen's Room," in memory of the unhappy lady, was furnished with the bed and other furniture removed hither from Chatsworth, where she was for some time a prisoner.' According to Lysons, the house 'exhibits a most complete specimen of the domestic architecture which prevailed among the higher ranks during the reign of Queen Elizabeth;' and it remains in its original state, 'with little or no alteration.'
     The poet Gray, adopting the popular error, pictures it as so primitive in character that  'one might think that the Scottish Mary was but just walked down into the park;' and Mrs. Radcliffe, who gives a lengthy description of the mansion in her 'Tours of the Lakes' (published in 1795), notes the 'proud, yet gentle and melancholy look of the queen as she slowly passed up the hall,' and contrasts it with the somewhat obsequious, yet jealous and vigilant air' of my Lord Keeper Shrewsbury.
     There is no necessity to describe Hardwicke Hall at length, as it is better known to English tourists than almost any other great show-house in the Midland district. It is a magnificent structure in the Elizabethan style, massive and firm in construction, whilst solemn grandeur is the great characteristic of the stately pile. Its general form is square, with a high square tower at each corner, and with large medallioned windows; indeed the windows are so extensive as to have given risen to a local adage--

'Like Hardwicke Hall,
More windows than wall.'

Round the top is a parapet of open work in which frequently appear the initials of the founder' E.S,'., silent 'memorials of the proud dame's vanity.'
     The older Hardwicke Hall, which 'Bess of Hardwickes' mansion superseded, still stands only a few hundred yards off, a deserted ruin; but it certainly must have been a more comfortable dwelling-house than that by which it was superseded. In the walls high up may still be seen marble mantelpieces carved with stags' heads, the heraldic bearings of the Cavendishes, but they look as if they would fall with the next winter's storms.
     It is only necessary to add that the tomb of Bess of Hardwicke is to be seen in the southern aisle of All Saints' Church, Derby. It is a large and magnificent structure of its kind, which would be perhaps best described as Jacobean, made of marble and alabaster, and rich in carving and heraldic bearings. It was designed by herself some years before her death, and she would frequently visit the church to watch its progress towards completion. 

* See above, pp. 67

Chapters From the Family Chests, 1887

Chapters From the Family Chest

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