Bess of Hardwick: Life Story

Chapter 13 : Royal Commission

Queen Elizabeth, although not married herself, took a strict view of marital duty and harmony. She would have no truck with Shrewsbury’s plans, but instituted a further inquiry into the state of the Earl and Countess’ marriage. It took place in December 1584, presided over by Lord Chancellor Bromley and two Chief Justices. Each side was to put forward a case in writing and appoint Counsel.

Shrewsbury claimed, first, that the 1572 settlement was a forgery, then that he had misunderstood it, thinking it for Bess only, not for her sons, and added that Bess had badgered him into giving her money when he was ill. He thought that all the lands she had bought in truth belonged to him, as he had financed them.

Bess counter-claimed that the deed was valid, and had allowed Shrewsbury to avoid paying out large cash sums to the Cavendish brothers that her original marriage settlement had required. She further stated that all the new lands had been bought by the brothers themselves, financed by borrowing. Whilst the investigation took place, Shrewsbury stayed at his manor in Chelsea, whilst Bess retired to Derbyshire.

The verdict of the Commission completely vindicated Bess. The 1572 document was accepted as genuine, all the Cavendish brothers’ lands were confirmed to them, Shrewsbury had to return the rents he had wrongly gathered, and welcome his wife back to his home. Bess was to pay Shrewsbury £500 per annum.

Shrewsbury had no option but to accept the verdict, although he told Leicester he thought it poor recompense for his years of service to the Queen. Within weeks, however, he had changed his mind and refused to implement any of the Commission’s instructions. He continued to harass the Cavendish tenants, refused to welcome Bess home, and would not pay over the missing rents. He wrote abusive letters to Bess, and a missive to the Queen that lacked proper respect. Her Majesty and the Council concluded that he was mentally ill and treated him gently.

Nevertheless, Shrewsbury was left to continue a policy of repression against Bess’ tenants and after one flagrant miscarriage of justice, the Queen ordered a second Commission. This one took place at Wollaton and was presided over by Shrewsbury’s brother-in-law, Sir John Manners, and Sir Frederick Willoughby, an old friend of Bess’. The same evidence was reviewed, and a similar result reached, although William Cavendish had to pay Shrewsbury for plate and furniture taken from Chatsworth.

Shrewsbury implemented some of the orders against him, but again refused a request from Bess to allow her back to his home. He accused her of influencing Burghley and Walsingham against him, and even suggested that the Queen was prejudiced in Bess’ favour. He vowed that he would not receive Bess into his house again.

Such flagrant abuse of royal authority could not be permitted. Shrewsbury was bound over in the eye-watering sum of £40,000 to take his wife back, and to perform the articles agreed by the first and second Commissions. By now, Bess was losing patience. When faced with the list of items taken by William but now demanded by Shrewsbury, she disputed every one of them. Whilst some were ridiculous – Shrewsbury claimed sheets from seventeen years before – she found an objection to each item. Clearly, she was no longer open to a true reconciliation either.

Within a few days of living in the same house, following Elizabeth’s express command, the two were quarrelling again. Shrewsbury again accused Bess of some unspecified malice, to which she responded that she did not understand what she had done wrong.

Elizabeth and her Council were at their wits’ end – it was not truly practicable to punish Shrewsbury by demanding the £40,000 bond, and he was also needed elsewhere. Mary, Queen of Scots had finally fallen into one of the traps laid for her and acquiesced at the assassination of Elizabeth. Shrewsbury, as Earl Marshal, was required to preside at her trial and execution. He had the terrible duty of signalling to the headsman to do his work.

It must have been a dreadful moment – the guarding of Mary had destroyed his peace, health and marriage, but to see her die at his command when he had known her for nearly twenty years was shocking and it was recorded that tears streamed down his face.

In the spring of 1587, Elizabeth forced another reconciliation between the couple. Shrewsbury complied at last, and he and Bess first took up married life again at Chelsea, and then at Wingfield. But it could not last. Shrewsbury left her at Wingfield and seldom returned, nor would he pay her expenses, as required by the Queen.

Shrewsbury found himself a new companion – Mrs Eleanor Britton. Probably Bess was relieved by this – and perhaps also hoped that Mrs Britton would give her troubled husband some peace, although she still petitioned to return to him herself, or at least to be allowed to visit him. Whilst the Earl avoided his wife, he stopped harassing her tenants, so matters improved. Bess herself spent most of her time at Wingfield or at Hardwick.

During the years following the Armada of 1588, Arbella visited Elizabeth at court and was very well treated, but her position seems to have gone to her head a little (not surprising for a girl of thirteen or fourteen) and Elizabeth sent her back to Bess.

Bess herself was busy with new construction works at Hardwick. It was being transformed from a comfortable mediaeval manor to a renaissance palace.

Whilst Bess’ health continued to be excellent, Shrewsbury’s deteriorated. In a brief moment of return to his former self, he sent a kind letter to his daughter-in-law Mary, after years of abuse, and also proved prescient when he predicted that the Lady Arbella would bring trouble on his house.

Shrewsbury died in November 1590 and was buried with all the honours of an Earl Marshal in the Church of St Peter and St Paul, Sheffield. Some 20,000 spectators watched the procession and around 8,000 received the funeral dole. His epitaph, designed by himself, makes no mention of his second wife.

 Elizabeth (Bess) Hardwick

Elizabeth (Bess) Hardwick

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