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Bess of Hardwick, c.1590: Shrewd rather than shrewish


There once was a Tudor woman with flaming red hair. Her name was Elizabeth, but she wasn’t the queen. She was better known as Bess. Her reputation preceded her — Bess of Hardwick.

She built Chatsworth House and Hardwick Hall. She was married four times — lastly to George Talbot, sixth Earl of Shrewsbury. She died in 1608, aged 81 — old, for the time. Yet her name has been besmirched. At Hardwick Hall, now run by the National Trust, they hope to put this right. A forthcoming exhibition (We Are Bess, February 16 to June 2, 2019), directed by Dr Suzannah Lipscomb, aims to present Bess in a new light — a feminist light, one might say. Next to portraits of Bess and her Tudor pals will hang photographs of women in the public eye who have collaborated with Dr Lipscomb — including Mary Beard, Bishop Libby Lane, and teenage period poverty campaigner Amika George

Born into a lower gentry family in Derbyshire, the third of five daughters, Bess became England’s second-richest woman after the queen herself. Her marriages began when she was about 18 (and he, a Derbyshire local Robert Barlow, 13). She went on to marry Sir William Cavendish, with whom she had six surviving children and built Chatsworth, before marrying courtier Sir William St Loe, and then Lord Shrewsbury. Following these marriages, she accumulated notable wealth — enough to build Hardwick Hall after Shrewsbury’s death, a monument of her riches. She purloined tapestries for Hardwick from the sale of Sir Christopher Hatton’s estate, and got a deal on them.

She was, ostensibly, mightily successful. One would be impressed by anyone in the 21st century that could build a handful of stately homes, marry quince, and live into a ninth decade. Yet Bess lived 400 years ago, when women couldn’t own property, let alone build it in their own right. She was Superwoman, the Tudor variety. Yet she was denigrated by her in-laws, and described as having a “wicked tongue” by Shrewsbury. As Mary S. Lovell puts it in her 2005 biography, “There have been many charges levelled at Bess . . . chiefly that she was a hard-hearted shrew, out for what she could get. The terms ‘termagant and harridan’ have even been applied to her by respected historians.” But “there is far more evidence that she was an affectionate and caring woman, rather than the reverse, and that she was shrewd rather than shrewish.”

There are parallels today. Women are “slut-shamed” and “trash-talked”. We may own property, but not, apparently, our ambition, which is still understood to be second-class. Think of the loathing of Margaret Thatcher.

At Hardwick Hall, Bess’s portrait hangs on the wall. Like her flame-haired friend Elizabeth, she makes an impression. She did what no other women did back then. She was Bess. Be more Bess.
 
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