Extraordinary Women of the Medieval and Renaissance World: A Biographical Dictionary

By Carole Levin; Debra Barrett-Graves et al. | Go to book overview

ELIZABETH HARDWICK
(Bess of Hardwick)
(ca. 1527-1608)

Britain
Builder and Matriarch

Elizabeth Hardwick, better known as Bess of Hardwick, grew up in a family with grave financial difficulties, but through her singleminded dedication, Bess became one of the wealthiest women of her age and was known for her building: both of a family dynasty and some of the finest manor houses of Elizabethan England. Hardwick Hall is still standing today. She survived four husbands and saw her children married to people of high rank and influence. Although she failed at her goal to have a grandchild become monarch of England, by taking risks and making choices, she was able to attain her major aim of securing wealth and status for herself and her children. From humble beginnings, she rose to become Countess of Shrewsbury.

Bess grew up in a small country home, Hardwick Hall, in Derbyshire. She had three sisters and a brother. Her father died in 1528, and the family lost much of their land. Although Bess learned to read and write, she had a fairly limited education: no foreign languages or musical training. Bess was not an intellectual, nor was she more than conventionally religious. Literature and theology meant little to her; wealth and power a great deal.

When she was in her early teens, Bess went to live with a distant relative, Lady Zouche, to act as companion to the children. While in this household she became further acquainted with Robert Barley, who was a year or two younger than she. The two young people married early in 1543. Robert died, however, in 1544, leaving Bess a widow at sixteen.

It seems that at this time she was able to secure a place as a ladyin-waiting to Frances Grey, the niece of Henry VIII. There Bess met Sir William Cavendish, a man more than twice her age and already twice widowed who had had a long career in service to the Crown.

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