Bess of Hardwick: Life Story

Chapter 11 : Marital Disputes

By the end of 1579, it was common knowledge that the Shrewsburys were on bad terms. The Queen became concerned about the security of Mary, in a household that was riven with strife. There was some rapprochement, perhaps in response to a hint dropped by Leicester about Elizabeth’s displeasure, and in 1580 the Earl was again addressing Bess as ‘My own Sweetheart’.

But the harmony did not last. What exactly was at the bottom of their quarrels is impossible to state with certainty – marital quarrels are not always about their apparent subject!  Money was probably at the heart of it – Shrewsbury was in dire financial straits whilst Bess was prospering and still demanding he fulfil his monetary commitments to her and her children.

The stress of keeping Mary captive was probably close to unbearable – if she had escaped to raise an army, Shrewsbury would have been ruined, and all his family with him. It is also possible, looking at the whole pattern of Shrewsbury’s behaviour, that he had some illness that affected his mental capacity – perhaps stroke or dementia.

One of Bess’ gentlewomen, Frances Buttrell, assigned the cause of the couple’s unhappiness to the Queen of Scots. ‘The cause of her Lord’s hard dealing with her is that the Scottish Queen cannot abide her.’  How or why Bess and Mary came to fall out is unrecorded but, given the stresses and strains of being cooped up together, very human.

Shrewsbury was now very short of money – pleas to Elizabeth fell on deaf ears, and even Walsingham was unable to move the Queen, although he hinted that if Shrewsbury had insufficient funds he might not be able to guard Mary properly. In the regime of economy the Earl imposed, he stopped paying Bess all of her allowance.

In February 1583 Bess and Shrewsbury were still on good enough terms for them to write, separately, to Burghley and Elizabeth, requesting forgiveness for having arranged the marriage of Bess’ nephew, John Wingfield, to Katherine Suffolk’s widowed daughter, Susan, Countess of Kent. As neither individual was a member of the royal family, it is difficult to understand why Elizabeth should be angry about it.

In the summer of that year, Bess left Sheffield Castle for a trip to Chatsworth. She parted on good terms with her husband, who assured he would send for her within a few days. But he did not. It seems that although Bess had enormous freedom as a wife, she could not return to her husband’s home without permission – although this may have been because of the presence of Mary. Perhaps Shrewsbury needed to give written consent to everyone who came to her place of imprisonment. At any rate, he never again gave permission for Bess to return, and ceased paying her annual allowance.

The family was divided – Gilbert supported his stepmother (also his mother-in-law), whilst Henry Cavendish supported Shrewsbury. The Earl’s younger sons, Henry and Edward Talbot, received instructions to stay away from Bess on their return from education in France, but they also bore a letter from Leicester, telling Shrewsbury to resolve his marital differences.

Shrewsbury had declared that the land agreement made with Bess was no longer valid. Under it, she was not entitled to sell land, but he claimed that she had done so. He therefore considered it void and attempted to take back control of all the lands that she had brought to the marriage. The tenants of the St Loe and Cavendish lands were told to pay their rents to the Earl, not the Countess, and systematic aggression was employed – including an attack on Chatsworth, resulting in smashed windows, and on Charles Cavendish’s manor, where the fences were torn down.

Shrewsbury himself, leading some forty mounted men, attacked Chatsworth. William Cavendish sought to hold him off with weapons, including a pistol, but Bess was forced to leave. She retreated to Hardwick, taking some of the furnishings of Chatsworth with her.

The Earl made a formal complaint to the Privy Council, accusing Bess and her sons of robbery and armed resistance to authority. Orders came from the Council to the local Justices who sentenced William to imprisonment in the Fleet gaol.

There is no evidence of Bess stirring up trouble against her husband. Her letters suggest she wished to return to the marital home and resolve their differences, but Shrewsbury seems to have been suffering such mental stress as to become completely irrational.

Leicester, making another trip to the spa at Buxton, called to see Bess to hear her side of the story. She told him that Shrewsbury was making accusations against her of wrong-doing, but would not tell her exactly what she had done to offend him. As to the report Leicester had received that Bess had told Shrewsbury that she could harm him, if she wanted to, she denied it utterly. Leicester wrote to Shrewsbury, explaining that Bess wanted to return to him, and hinting that the Earl had been unreasonable in forbidding Gilbert to visit his wife, Mary, who was with her mother, having just had another child.

Shrewsbury was clearly ill – he had strange swellings, agonising gout and had sudden outbursts of temper. Stress was killing him. It became even worse when rumours started to spread that he and Mary had had an affair, and that she had born at least one child by him. Who started the rumours is impossible to say. Queen Mary blamed William and Charles Cavendish (although not Bess). The English government certainly benefited from the rumours as they undermined Mary’s latest plan to marry Philip of Spain. Shrewsbury accused Bess of manufacturing the tale.

The Earl was completely unreasonable on the subject of his wife – accusing her of hatred and malice, of slandering him and using ‘sinister practices’ to dishonour him. He did not give any specifics, and the reaction of others suggests that they were astonished by his outbursts and treatment of the wife he had once loved.

 Elizabeth (Bess) Hardwick

Elizabeth (Bess) Hardwick

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