Bess of Hardwick: Life Story

Chapter 12 : Vicious Rumour

The reason for Mary’s change of heart towards Bess may have been resentment over the birth of Arbella. Mary told the French Ambassador that nothing had alienated her from Bess more than the Countess’ plan to have Arbella crowned. Mary was still hoping that she would inherit Elizabeth’s throne, as she was some nine years younger than the English Queen – or even grasp it through an uprising. If Elizabeth chose to nominate Arbella as her heir, then both Mary and her son would be cut out of the succession.

Bess was already looking for possible husbands for her grand-daughter in the early 1580s. Leicester’s son was one possibility, but there was doubt as to whether Elizabeth would permit it, and the idea was not broached with her. Mary wrote about this plan to the French ambassador, hoping he would cause trouble for Bess by repeating it to Elizabeth. Whether the match would have been allowed is moot as the prospective bridegroom died in 1584.

In his response to Shrewsbury’s letter of condolence for his son’s loss, Leicester urged his friend to make up his quarrel with Gilbert – he should treasure his son, not quarrel with him. In particular, he advised Shrewsbury not to try to persuade Gilbert to separate from his wife.

Queen Mary was, by now, extremely bitter against Bess. She wrote a long letter revealing (or inventing) unpleasant and defamatory remarks that she alleged Bess had made about Elizabeth – that she and Leicester were lovers, that the French envoy Simier, had enjoyed the Queen’s favours, that even two men were not enough to satisfy the Queen’s lust and so on. David Durant does not believe this letter was ever sent. If it had been, Elizabeth, although she might not have believed all of the allegations, would probably have assumed that Bess had, at the least, passed some derogatory remarks about her and been less supportive of her over the next few years. 

Whether or not Elizabeth saw the letter, she certainly received Mary’s and Shrewsbury’s separate requests for an enquiry into the allegation that they were lovers. A hearing was convened for the summer of 1584.

Shrewsbury arranged for an interim gaoler (Sir Ralph Sadler), transported Mary to Wingfield Manor, and departed for the capital. Bess had already arrived in London by August. She wrote again to her husband, asking him to explain what she had done to wrong him, and entreating him to take her back into his favour. Shrewsbury arrived in London in September, by which time he found Bess had been well-received by the Queen and Council – an indication that Elizabeth had never been sent Mary’s letter referred to above.

Bess and her sons came before the Council, and on bended knees denied either inventing or spreading the rumour about Mary and Shrewsbury. They also affirmed that, to their knowledge, Mary had not born a child since being in England.

Shrewsbury asked to be relieved of the burden of being Mary’s gaoler, and Elizabeth and the Council could probably see the toll on his health, his finance, and his marriage when he was in front of them. He was permitted to handover responsibility to Sadler, who was then replaced by Sir Amyas Paulet. The final decision may have been precipitated by Shrewsbury allowing his brother-in-law, the Catholic Earl of Rutland, to visit Mary. Whilst Shrewsbury was above suspicion, his judgement was obviously declining.

Bess probably rejoiced at this news, perhaps believing that without Mary stirring trouble, she and her husband might be reconciled, but Shrewsbury had different ideas and sought a separation.

 Elizabeth (Bess) Hardwick

Elizabeth (Bess) Hardwick

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