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Authors: Suzannah Lipscomb

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Next, Bess became a waiting woman in the house of Lord and Lady Dorset, the Grey family. Her attachment to the Grey girls
was considerable: she kept a picture of Lady Jane Grey on her bedside table for the rest of her life. In 1547, Bess married Sir William Cavendish. He was more than twice her age (forty to her nineteen), and had made his fortune as a commissioner during the dissolution of the monasteries. Bess bore him eight children in ten years, six of whom survived infancy.

When Cavendish died in October 1557, he left everything to Bess — an unusual thing to do at the time — with their house and land at Chatsworth entailed on their eldest son only after Bess’s death. He also left her a debt to the tune of £5,000 (equivalent to £850,000 today). A less feisty woman would have sold off the properties to pay the debt, but Bess instead contested it and it was eventually reduced, in 1563, to an amount of only £1,000 (today equivalent to £170,000). The earliest portrait that we have of Bess dates from about this time and hangs at Hardwick. She is red-haired, blue-eyed and desirably pale, but not excessively beautiful.

Following Elizabeth I’s accession, Bess became one of the Queen’s Ladies of the Bedchamber. This was the start of a long friendship between the women: Elizabeth would later say of Bess, ‘There is no Lady in this land that I better love and like.’

Elizabeth’s Master of the Horse at that time, and the captain of her personal guard, was Sir William St Loe. In August 1559, he and Bess married. A recent biography suggests this relationship was the passionate love of Bess’s life, but it did not last long. In February 1565, St Loe died suddenly: foul play by his brother Edward was suspected. Edward didn’t know that St Loe had changed his will to leave everything to Bess and ‘to her heirs forever’. This extraordinary act — even Cavendish had entailed the estate on his son after Bess’s death — tarnished her reputation in some quarters, as detractors held Bess responsible for the impoverishment of the St Loes.

It did not, however, prevent George Talbot, Earl of Shrewsbury’s interest in Bess. Shrewsbury was one of the richest men in
the country, a virtual ‘Prince of the North’. The couple married in February 1568, and sealed their union by simultaneously marrying Bess’s seventeen-year-old son, Henry, to Shrewsbury’s eight-year-old daughter, Grace, and Shrewsbury’s fifteen-year-old son, Gilbert, to Bess’s twelve-year-old daughter Mary! The eglantine table of inlaid marquetry in the High Great Chamber at Hardwick, decorated with the sixteenth-century pursuits of cards, backgammon and music, was probably commissioned to mark this triple marriage.

The marriage made Bess one of the most prominent and important women at court. It started happily enough, with Shrewsbury writing to Bess as ‘My None’ (a contraction of ‘mine own’) and ‘my sweetheart’. But in December 1568, Shrewsbury was put in charge of the imprisonment of Mary, Queen of Scots [see T
UTBURY
C
ASTLE
], and, over the next fifteen years, the draining costs of this guardianship, the wiles of the beautiful Scottish queen (remember, nearly every red-blooded male who met this extraordinarily enthralling Queen ended up falling for her) and Bess’s absences from Shrewsbury’s own place of virtual imprisonment took their toll. By 1580, the marriage was falling apart. Shrewsbury wanted to be rid of Bess, but to hold on to the lands she had brought into their union. He sent men to terrorise Bess’s sons and dependants, and at one point broke into their house at Chatsworth with a force of forty armed men. The situation became so inflamed that the Queen herself ordered a six-month investigation into their marital breakdown, and wrote to Shrewsbury, helpfully, ‘We do not suffer in our realm to persons of your degree and quality to live in such a kind of discord.’

Throughout this difficult period, Bess played her hand expertly. When Shrewsbury died in 1590, he left Bess a very wealthy woman: wealthy enough to build, from scratch, a house to be envied.

In previous years, Bess had invested in Chatsworth and doubled the size of the Old Hall at Hardwick. Now, in her old age, she
wanted to build at Hardwick a state-of-the-art house in which she could entertain the Queen.

She turned to premier master mason Robert Smythson for the design. Smythson had designed a lookout tower in Chatsworth’s park wall — still standing and now known as the Hunting Tower — as well as Bess’s fourth husband’s house at Worksop. Famously, he also designed the great houses of Longleat and Wollaton. But, despite Smythson’s input, Hardwick Hall was very much Bess’s own: the building accounts show her watchful eye on every expense and design decision. The exterior of the house remains exactly as Bess intended it.

The watchword of the design was ‘symmetry’, which was the height of innovative architectural fashion. The house spoke not only of taste, but of wealth and status: glass was still very expensive, and Smythson’s design called for lavish acres of glass, even creating false windows in order to maintain the house’s extravagant symmetry. Robert Cecil quipped that Hardwick Hall was ‘more window than wall’ (which is now remembered in the ditty, ‘Hardwick Hall, more glass than wall’).

What really distinguishes Hardwick, though, are the six towers. These ingenious turrets give a romantic and endlessly varied silhouette, and made Hardwick unusually and impressively high by Tudor standards. Each is surmounted by the giant stone initials, ‘ES’, for Elizabeth Shrouesbury (as Bess signed herself), under her countess’s coronet, thereby proclaiming her name, in a piece of shameless self-aggrandisement, to onlookers for miles around.

Inside, there are forty-six rooms, three of particular note. Firstly, there is the extraordinarily long stone staircase now hung with tapestries galore (with all these stairs, it’s strange to think that Bess probably moved here to celebrate her seventieth birthday). This stately approach leads to the show floor, and the second astonishing room: the High Great Chamber. This enormous room was
designed to be bigger than the Great Chamber at Theobalds (belonging to Lord Burghley and at that time the grandest house in England) and is a riot of colourful decoration, with the large and crudely cut plasterwork frieze of Diana above the ubiquitous tapestries and canopy of estate (a rich fabric canopy mounted above a throne). This is a room intended for royalty. Not only did Bess anticipate that Elizabeth I would visit, but she hoped that her granddaughter, Arbella, daughter of Charles Stuart and Bess’s daughter Elizabeth, would one day succeed to the English throne. Arbella, because of her English birth, was thought by some to be Elizabeth’s obvious successor, instead of the Scottish-born James VI; Elizabeth herself once told the French ambassador’s wife, ‘Look to her well. She will one day be even as I am.’

The third remarkable room is the Long Gallery, which at 167 feet long, 26 feet high and 39 feet wide could practically fit within it a whole street of Victorian terraced houses. The Gideon Tapestries on display here are immensely valuable, and the largest set of tapestries you’ll ever see; Bess bought them from Sir Christopher Hatton’s heir [see K
IRBY
H
ALL
] at a knockdown price in 1592. It is because of these tapestries that these rooms, which would have been flooded with light from the many windows, are now shaded. Sadly, the conservation imperative dictates that the eyes of the house are closed, as if in mourning for its lost patron.

Bess died at Hardwick on the morning of 14 February 1608, a stone’s throw away from the place of her birth. The house has remained, Miss Havisham-style, effectively unchanged since.

Other Tudor treasures not to miss at Hardwick: two portraits of Bess; portraits of Bess’s four husbands; two portraits of Arbella; and two portraits of Elizabeth, one of which is a remarkable full-length portrait from the studio of Nicholas Hilliard, 1599.
Commissioned by Bess when Elizabeth was sixty-six, she shows no signs of age, and her skirt is embroidered with dragons, flowers, sea-serpents, fish and birds. There are also portraits of Lord Burghley; Stephen Gardiner; Edward Seymour; Robert Dudley; Reginald Pole; Robert Cecil; Philip II; James V; and Mary, Queen of Scots, with Lord Darnley. Also look out for the painted cloth wall hangings in the chapel and the embroidery worked by Bess and Mary, Queen of Scots. Finally, don’t forget to visit the Old Hall next door: it was extended by Bess between 1587 and 1596, and partly dismantled in the mid-eighteenth century.

SOCIAL CLIMBING THE TUDOR WAY

Tudor England was characterised by an inherent and profound sense of the importance of social hierarchy and its direct correlation to the maintenance of order in the cosmos. Yet it was possible to achieve a surprising degree of social mobility.

For those seeking social advancement, there were three possible routes: the Church, the law and service. Cardinal Thomas Wolsey became Henry VIII’s closest and most trusted adviser through his position in the Church, though he was the lowly son of a butcher and cattle farmer from Ipswich. Thomas Cranmer, though ‘gentleman-born’, owed his post as Archbishop of Canterbury to the Church, and would later remind Bishop Stephen Gardiner, ‘I pray God that we, being called to the name of lords, have not forgotten our own baser estates, that once we were simple esquires.’

For Sir Thomas More and Sir Christopher Hatton, their training as lawyers helped them rise to favour, while the lives of Sir John Thynne and Bess of Hardwick illustrate the importance of service in noble households as a means of bettering oneself. Sir John Thynne’s role as steward to the Duke of Somerset enabled him to enrich himself to the point of being able to build a great ‘prodigy’ house at Longleat, while Bess’s service in the households of the Zouches and the Greys brought her into marriages that led to her becoming a countess, one of the richest women in England and the builder of Hardwick Hall.

While service could advance you, it was, paradoxically, a great social faux pas to attempt to do this by marriage. When the widowed Frances Brandon, Duchess of Suffolk (and niece to Henry VIII) married her Master of the Horse, Adrian Stokes, in 1555, the match was thought ignominious. Elizabeth I’s response on hearing the news was: ‘Has the woman so far forgotten herself as to marry a common groom?’

Many of the Tudors who were knighted or ennobled were self-made. Thomas Cromwell, Earl of Essex and one of Henry VIII’s right-hand men was, famously, the son of a blacksmith. Sir Francis Drake was born into humble yeoman stock and his father was a lay preacher but, in time, through his intrepid skills as a sailor and his natural talent as a leader, he was knighted and was able to buy Buckland Abbey.

Other families were raised to power by the Tudor dynasty, including the Dudleys, the Cecils and the Sidneys. William Cecil was born to a gentleman and a gentleman’s daughter, but became Elizabeth’s first minister, Lord Burghley, the builder
of the palaces of Theobalds and Burghley House and was able to pass his position to his son, Robert. Penshurst Place had belonged to a duke, but was given to a mere knight, Sir William Sidney, in 1552.

In fact, this was an age of frustration for many of the great nobles: men such as Edward Stafford, Duke of Buckingham or Thomas Howard, Duke of Norfolk who didn’t feel they were receiving the degree of honour and share of power that would have been accorded to their ancestors. Henry Howard, Earl of Surrey was executed by Henry VIII for the crime of adding the royal insignia to his own coat of arms, while it was Robert Devereux, Earl of Essex’s great desire for political power that almost certainly led to his foolish rebellion in 1601. He was declared a traitor and executed as a result. There were right ways and wrong ways to advance oneself in Tudor England.

‘More like a town than a house … the towers and pinnacles like so many distant country churches.’

T
he first thing that strikes you about Burghley House is its extraordinary skyline of cupolas, turrets, chimneys and the one central obelisk. Daniel Defoe said it looked ‘more like a town than a house … the towers and pinnacles like so many distant country churches’. It is certainly an incredible and impressive spectacle: a palatial testament to one of the most accomplished and important men of the Elizabethan age.

BOOK: A Journey Through Tudor England
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