Bess of Hardwick: Life Story

Chapter 14 : A Trip to London

Neither did Shrewsbury’s will mention Bess. This would probably have been the case even if they had not quarrelled, as her dower would have been set at the time of her marriage. He appointed his younger sons, Henry and Edward, as executors, but they declined to act. Bess was suggested by the supervisors (Burghley) as executrix, however Gilbert, now 6th Earl of Shrewsbury, rejected the idea and took responsibility for the will.

Gilbert had taken Bess’ part in all disputes with her husband, and was a fond husband to Bess’ daughter, but now their relationship changed completely. To his utter astonishment, never having believed his father’s complaints of poverty, Gilbert was saddled with debts – his brother Francis had left debts, Shrewsbury had left debts, and Mrs Britton had stripped Sheffield of plate and jewels.

Initially, Bess tried to come to an accommodation with Gilbert about her dower rights, but, after he failed to observe two agreements, she was disinclined to come to a third. She was persuaded into a final agreement, to be paid on 31st March 1591, but when it was not honoured, felt she had little choice but to pursue the matter in court.

Whilst Bess was asking for less than her due, it was only three months since Shrewsbury’s death, and it is hard to escape the feeling that Bess was putting money above family feeling. She had an excellent income already, and whilst her dower rights amounted to some £3,000 per annum, she could probably have afforded to wait whilst Gilbert sorted the estate out.

Perhaps her mother’s experiences of financial hardship had had a life-long effect on Bess, who prized financial security above almost everything. She managed her estates exceptionally efficiently – each had to pay its way, and she demanded all her legal rights. At the same time, she fulfilled her obligations properly and was a fair landlord to her tenants. She lent money to her neighbours who were less thrifty, but did not hesitate to take up the security if they failed to pay.

An example of this firm grip on finances occurred in 1592. Bess’ friend, Sir Francis Willoughby, had fallen into debt over the construction of Wollaton Hall. Bess lent £3,050 at 10% interest and security of lands to be held by Arbella during the period of the loan. After Sir Francis’ death, the mortgage fell into arrears. A request to redeem it with full payment plus a year’s interest was rejected as outside the strict period of redemption permitted in the agreement. At a stroke, Arbella now owned £15,000 worth of lands.

Bess wanted every penny she was entitled to after Shrewsbury’s death, as she had now embarked on the greatest building project of her life – the new Hardwick Hall.  She had made considerable improvements to the old Hall that she had been born in, but the new building was to be one of the greatest architectural masterpieces of the whole era.

Whilst work was continuing on this sumptuous palace, fit for the grandmother of a girl who might one day be Queen of England, Bess took Arbella to court. The sixteen year old had been the subject of interest from the Duke of Parma as a potential bride for his son.

The trip to London was conducted almost as a royal progress. Bess and Arbella travelled in a coach, followed by William and Charles Cavendish and their wives (Charles had remarried), as well as Bess’ gentlewomen. Some forty servants were necessary to look after them all in a journey that took a week. Reinforcing the image of Arbella as a possible queen, 40 shillings was doled out to the poor in each town they passed through.

The family took up residence at Shrewsbury House in Chelsea, where they stayed until July 1592. Huge sums of money were spent on outfitting Arbella for court, and on Bess’ own wardrobe of sumptuous black gowns. Portraits of Arbella were painted for dispatch to Parma.

Bess was on good terms with the Queen and attended her frequently during the visit. Although it has been claimed that the two quarrelled, other than the period of suspicion following the marriage of Elizabeth Cavendish to Charles Lennox, there is no evidence that Elizabeth ever treated Bess less than kindly and had supported her steadfastly against Shrewsbury’s accusations.

Leicester, Hatton and Walsingham were now dead, and Burghley semi-retired so Bess needed to cultivate friends amongst the new circle surrounding the Queen. She corresponded with Raleigh, Essex and Sir Robert Cecil, amongst others, hoping to build up support for Arbella’s position. She received friends, both old and new, and gave generous hospitality, gifts and tips to high and low. In all, Bess spent over £6,300 during the time in London.

It was not all junketing – Bess was also trying her hardest to make sure that Gilbert could not bring any suit against her in London. If matters were heard in Derbyshire, she could probably influence the outcome.

Plague returned to London in the summer of 1592. The court was broken up as Elizabeth travelled to the West Country, and Bess and Arbella returned to Derbyshire. Nothing had been resolved about the marriage with Parma.

 Elizabeth (Bess) Hardwick

Elizabeth (Bess) Hardwick

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