Bess of Hardwick: Life Story

Chapter 4 : Widow & Countess

In August 1561, it is possible that Bess became involved in another scandal. Lady Katherine Grey, second daughter of Bess’ old mistress, Lady Frances, had secretly married the Earl of Hertford. For a member of the royal family (and many believed Lady Katherine to be Elizabeth’s heir) to marry without consent was treason. Hertford was abroad, so Katherine, finding herself to be pregnant, needed to find a friend to plead her cause with the Queen.

Both Durant and Lovell record that Lady Katherine confided her secret to Bess, who, horrified, refused to have anything to do with it. Durant believes that Bess was questioned and committed to the Tower, spending 31 weeks there, being released on 25th March 1562. According to Lovell, Bess was questioned, but not held, and remained on such good terms with the Queen that she received a New Year’s gift. This interpretation tends to be supported by two letters written to Bess, one in November 1561, thanking her for hospitality, addressed to her in London, the other the following May, addressed to her at Chatsworth, although the November letter could refer to an event prior to any imprisonment.

Lady Katherine’s biographer, Leanda de Lisle, identifies the Elizabeth St Loe in whom Lady Katherine confided as the cousin, whom Lovell has in the Tower.  Our interpretation would be that it is far more likely that Lady Katherine would confide in her old friend – she was godmother to one of Bess’ children. The slight flaw in that argument is that the woman is referred to as ‘Mistress’ St Loe, not Lady, but these things were not always consistent. Make of it what you will!

In 1563, the problem of the debt that Bess had inherited from William Cavendish was substantially reduced, when it was pardoned by Elizabeth on payment of a fine of £1,000 by St Loe, on behalf of his wife, and her son, Henry Cavendish.

Bess’ three sons went to Eton, and her eldest daughter, Frances, went into the household of the Pierreponts, before being married to one of the Pierrepont sons. Bess spent much of her time at Chatsworth, whilst St Loe was often required to be at court – Elizabeth did not like to be neglected for the sake of wives. The evidence from their letters is that Bess and her husband were deeply attached to each other. There is no record of their feelings about the lack of children, when both had had children by previous marriages, but presumably, it was a disappointment. In particular, St Loe, who had only daughters, would probably have liked to have a son to inherit.

The couple spent the Christmas of 1564 at court, and Bess remained there until early February when she was called back to Derbyshire to deal with family problems. Her brother, James, was in debt and ill, and wished to borrow money. Bess therefore returned home. Shortly after arriving, she was obliged to immediately go back to London – St Loe was seriously ill.

William died before Bess could see him again. She must have been horrified to learn that Edward St Loe had been with him, but there was no mention of poison, and St Loe was buried in the Church of Great St Helen’s in Bishopsgate.

Within weeks, St Loe’s will was being contested by Margaret Norton, his daughter by his first wife. Unsurprisingly, there was sympathy for St Loe’s daughters, completely excluded from his will and Bess’ reputation suffered.

The matter of Sutton Court was now reopened in a Somerset court. Edward St Loe claiming that, on his deathbed, William had given Margaret St Loe a life interest in Sutton Court (because Edward and William’s father had once promised it to her in jointure).  It was alleged by the St Loes that Bess had malignly influenced her husband in order to wrest away the ancient St Loe inheritance. The upshot was that Margaret was granted Sutton Court for life, with remainder to Bess. Rather hard on William’s daughters!

With this unhappy event behind her, Bess, now more than comfortably off, returned to Chatsworth. Her two youngest daughters will still at home, and she had plenty to do, overseeing more building works.

Bess returned to court during the summer of 1566 and before long there was speculation about remarriage – Sir John Thynne, who had previously helped her, was one possibility mentioned, along with Lords Darcy and Cobham.  But Bess could do better than that.  In late 1567, she made her most splendid match of all. Her fourth husband, recently widowed thirty-nine year old George Talbot, was one of the richest men in the country, and an Earl. Bess was now Countess of Shrewsbury.