A clever, ambitious Derbyshire woman in Tudor England, Bess of Hardwick was intent on establishing a dynasty.
Bess was born about 1527. Her father owned a modest estate, but he died when she was little more than a year old. Her mother remarried, and we hear no more of Bess until she herself was married as a young girl to a boy even younger than herself. Sadly, he died little more than a year later. Again, we lose sight of her until she is living in a grand household, probably as a lady-in-waiting to the owner’s wife, the daughter of King Henry VIII’s younger sister.
There, she meets Sir William Cavendish, a wealthy Tudor ‘new man’, an administrator in the king’s court. Though a widower with three daughters and 20 years older than Bess, they marry. The marriage is happy, and six of their children survive infancy. Sir William and Bess, now Lady Cavendish, acquired lands in Derbyshire, including Chatsworth. She was received at court and became close to Princess Elizabeth.
To her great grief, Sir William died in 1557, leaving her a widow for a second time. Princess Elizabeth became queen the following year, and Bess, with six small children and her late husband’s daughters to raise, married Sir William St Loe, an important court functionary. This third marriage was again happy, St Loe doting on his wife, treating her children as his own, but shockingly, by spring 1565, he too was dead. She was now wealthy and welcomed at the Elizabethan court. Much courted, she did not remarry until 1568, when she became the wife of one of the first grandees of England, George Talbot, Earl of Shrewsbury.
Astonishingly, this was a triple marriage, for she had also arranged the marriages of her daughter Mary Cavendish to her new husband’s son and heir, Gilbert, and her eldest son Henry Cavendish to Shrewsbury’s daughter Grace Talbot. Initially, all was well, but soon after these weddings, the Earl and Countess were given the custody of Mary Queen of Scots, an expensive and onerous responsibility that eventually drove the couple apart. It was during this last period that Bess and her husband separated, Bess retreating to her ancestral home at Hardwick to rebuild her father’s old house and to build the palatial, new Hardwick Hall. She died there ‘rich and powerful’ in 1608, her line running deep through English history.
Learn more about the influential Women of Welbeck.
Derek Adlam - Curator Emeritus
Derek Adlam and a colleague were the first craftspeople to take up a Harley Foundation studio at Welbeck in 1982. Trained as a classical pianist, Derek had turned to the restoration, making and playing of clavichords, harpsichords and other early keyboard instruments. Over time he became involved with the administration of the Foundation, the building of the Harley Gallery and new craft studios. Having mounted a number of Gallery displays of the Portland family’s works of art, he was invited to be the curator of that great collection. Now long retired, he continues his research into Welbeck’s rich history.