Bess of Hardwick

On our recent trip to Hay-on-Wye, I picked up a copy of Mary S. Lovell’s book, Bess of Hardwick, First Lady of Chatsworth. Although I’ve known bits and pieces about Bess for a long time, this is the first time I’ve read a whole biography of this remarkable woman.

Bess was no beautiful princess like her contemporary Queen Elizabeth I, no tragic heroine like Mary Queen of Scots, but she knew both of these women very well indeed and lived a life every bit as moving.

But what I find most endearing, is that this Tudor lady was in many respects a working mother, on a scale that today’s high power executives would have trouble matching.

I won’t attempt to detail everything about her life here. If you’re interested, then there are plenty of sources. Suffice to say that Bess came from fairly humble beginnings (at least by Tudor standards) but through a series of advantageous marriages, and by extremely good management of her resources, climbed to the top of Elizabethan society, being regarded as the second most wealthy woman in England after the queen.

Bess of Hardwick (later Elizabeth Countess of ...
Image via Wikipedia

The reason why I so admire Bess, is that she really was responsible for making the very best of her lot in life, things could have turned out very differently for her on numerous occasions, but she learned how to play the system and make it work for her – and she did all this, whilst placing her commitment to the advancement of her family, firmly centre stage.

Throughout her life, she suffered periods of stress and acute worry. Deaths of loved ones, malicious gossip, spiteful lawsuits, court intrigue and plotting and more, but she survived it all, and through what must have been indredible strength of character, she triumphed.

In an age when patronage was essential to advancement, and when many ambitious nobles bankrupted themselves in their pursuit of favour with the monarch, Bess managed to build magnificent new houses, (the original building at Chatsworth and the existing Hardwick Hall are both her creations) without becoming insolvent – what could she teach us today about financial management! Apparently she was meticulous with her accounts – a true hands-on manager.

She was a adept business manager, and a fantastic networker. Over the long years of her life, she was sure to make friends with the right people at the right time – not a question of luck – she set out to do it. But she also seems to have made true and lasting friendships, which implies that she was an authentic person, appreciated for her own worth and recognised for her personal integrity.

Hardwick Hall, the house Bess built in her later years.

What I particularly love about Bess is her energy and enthusiasm for life. Fifty was pretty old in Elizabethan times, but at this age, when others were slowing down and succumbing to illness and death, Bess was as driven and sprightly as ever. She was in her sixties when she started the building at Hardwick – moving into her new house on or around her seventieth birthday. No slowing down for her.

Throughout her life, she seems to have valued and enjoyed the company of children and young people, perhaps this partly explains her joie de vivre. And at her death, Bess had left strict instructions as to the manner of her funeral – not to be too lavish – in fact she had prepared her estate better than most of us would attempt today, to provide the basis for her children’s inheritance.

She ended her life it seems, having achieved so much and still having maintained her sense of humility and integrity – what an inheritance.

I believe that Bess still has a lot to teach us, especially our daughters, about what can be achieved and what are the essential values to hold on to throughout life.

  • Chatsworth is still owned by Bess’s descendants, the Dukes of Devonshire, and is a wonderful place to visit, although vastly altered since Bess’s time.

  • Hardwick Hall remains very much as Bess left it and is one of the most stunning great houses of England – it is managed today by the National Trust. If you visit, make sure to see Bess’s needlework – what a woman. Hardwick Old Hall, just a step away from the new Hall is also open to the public and although ruined, is still a poignant link to Bess.
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