Magazine article History Today

Bess of Hardwick: In the 400th Anniversary of Her Death, the Prominent Elizabethan Is the Focus of Events in Her Native Derbyshire and Elsewhere

Magazine article History Today

Bess of Hardwick: In the 400th Anniversary of Her Death, the Prominent Elizabethan Is the Focus of Events in Her Native Derbyshire and Elsewhere

Article excerpt

When she breathed her last, between 5pm and 6pm on the evening of February 13th, 1608, Bess, Countess of Shrewsbury, builder of the magnificent Chatsworth and Hardwick Hall in Derbyshire, and prominent player in the machinations of the Elizabethan court, was probably the richest woman in England. 'I especially will and require that my funeral be not over sumptuous, or otherwise performed with too much vain and idle charge' she had written in her will, nevertheless she left the princely sum of 3,000 [pounds sterling] to spend on the occasion, which took place the following May, and her interment in the crypt of Derby Cathedral is marked by an ornate pink and black marble memorial. To mark the anniversary of her death and to launch a year of events honouring her achievements, this February 13th, 2008, at 6pm, a family wreath will be laid in the Cathedral by Bess's descendant, Deborah, Duchess of Devonshire, and her biographer, Mary S. Lovell, will give a special illustrated talk about her.

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Bess is famous for improving her circumstances through her politic marriages and her sharp wits. 'Because of that well known National Trust portrait of her, by Rowland Lockey, we tend to think of Bess of Hardwick as the calm elderly woman who built Hardwick Hall', explains Mary Lovell of what she finds striking about her subject, 'but I went looking for a young Bess and discovered a feisty woman who refused to quit in the face of massive adversity. Widowed at twenty-nine, she was left with six small children, a mountain of debt, a parliamentary bill against all her assets and virtually no legal rights. By sheer tenacity she transformed this position to become, eventually, the richest and most powerful woman in England, while treading confidently through the dangerous Tudor era despite traumas such as a murdered husband, the guardianship of Mary, Queen of Scots, and dangerous brushes with plots of treason. It is impossible not to admire her gutsy approach to life.'

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Raised in a gentry family that had fallen on hard times, Bess's second marriage to the much older Sir William Cavendish took place in August 1547 and began her progress to fortune. She gave Sir William three healthy male heirs and in doing so established the Cavendish dynasty which went on to found the dukedoms of Devonshire and Newcastle. It was during this marriage that she persuaded her husband to sell lands in the south and to buy new ones in Derbyshire, principally Chatsworth, which the two refurbished and filled with lavish furnishings. …

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