Bess of Hardwick–Merry Widow?

As I mentioned recently, I’ve been thinking about widows in the context of writing about women warriors. As a result, I took a little side trip through the concept of the merry widow*–which brought me to someone I haven’t thought about in a long time, Bess of Hardwick, the Countess of Shrewsbury. (Or more formally, Elizabeth Talbot, Countess of Shrewsbury)

Bess of Hardwick

Bess of Hardwick at the time of her third marriage

Bess of Hardwick ends up in academic discussions of merry widows because of a scurrilous little verse penned in the eighteenth century by Horace Walpole:**

Four times the nuptial bed she warmed,
And every time so well performed,
That when death spoiled each husband’s billing
He left the widow every shilling.

Like all the best pieces of character assassination, Walpole’s verse is true in its essentials.

Bess of Hardwick was one of the most successful social climbers of the Tudor period. She was born Elizabeth Hardwick, the third daughter of five surviving children in a family of respectable but impoverished gentry. She rose to become the Countess of Shrewsbury and the most powerful and wealthiest woman in England next to Queen Elizabeth, though a series of four marriages.  She married her way up–each husband richer and more important than the last, ending with the powerful Earl of Shrewsbury.*** While they may not have left her every shilling, she certainly became a little wealthier as each husband died. Unlike many widows of the time, she fought for the right to control her inheritance(s). She managed her own finances. She invested wisely. (Basically, she believed that real estate, not diamonds, is a girl’s best friend.)

She also became embroiled in the convoluted power politics of the Tudor court. While married to her third husband, she ended up in the Tower for seven months for the crime of being a friend of Lady Catherine Grey–and not spilling the beans to Elizabeth about Catherine’s secret marriage of Edward Seymour. As the wife of the Earl of Shrewsbury, she served for fifteen years as the companion and jailer of Mary Stuart, Queen of Scotland, with whom she gossiped and practiced new embroidery techniques.**** (She also spied on her for Queen Elizabeth and Elizabeth’s chief advisor, Lord Cecil. ) During this period, Bess ended up in the Tower again for a brief period because she allowed (or encouraged) her daughter to marry Charles Lennox–a member of the Stuart family in line to succession to the throne–without Queen Elizabeth’s permission. (The Queen was not amused)

Eventually, the stress of guarding Mary destroyed the Shrewsbury marriage. Bess and her husband were estranged at the time of his death. Now 63, she chose not to marry a fifth time. Instead she flung herself into her true passion: building and renovating houses. The most famous of these was Hardwick New Hall–described at the time as being more “more glass than wall.” Mies Van der Rohe would have approved.

CC BY-SA 3.0,

*A fascinating social trope that ultimately played no role in the chapter, though it did inhabit a footnote for a few drafts. This is how I end up with chapters that are 30% too long. Luckily My Own True Love is merciless at pointing out when I’ve gone off on an historical toot.

**Exactly the kind of man who would try to whittle down powerful women. Not that I’m opinionated on the subject.

***Just to complicate matters, Bess and the Earl arranged for two of Bess’s children from her third marriage married two of the Earl’s children from his first marriage. Talk about a blended family!

****In addition to being intelligent and ambitious, Bess was also one heck of a needlewoman.***** In fact, she first caught my attention many years ago thanks to my lifelong interest in embroidery. (Even history buffs need other hobbies.) She is best known in needleworking circles as the creator of five embroidered hangings titled Noblewomen of the Ancient World, among whom are included two of the women warriors in my widows chapter, Artemisia II and Zenobia. How’s that for bringing things round full circle?

*****So was Mary, for that matter.  Perhaps she would have been better off if she stuck to her knitting?




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