Bess of Hardwick by Mary S. Lovell

It’s inevitable when you travel around visiting different places that your list of books to read gets ever longer as you want to find out more about the locations and the characters of those who peopled them originally. A visit to Chatsworth had me re-reading Mitford books and finding new ones to get stuck into. You can read my Chatsworth related posts here.

So a visit to Hardwick Hall in the summer led me to want to find out more about Bess. Look no further if you have the same inclination because this book is everything which you could want. It not only gives amazing details of Bess’s life but adds in fascinating details of Tudor life.

The author discovered that her husband’s family had descended from one of Bess’s husbands, but it was at the suggestion of Deborah Devonshire that she took on the task of writing a new Bess biography. It seems that previous biographers had been a bit slap-dash and lackadaisical and just plain wrong about details. The trouble was that there is so much archive material to look through that it was difficult to decide what should be written about and what kept out. Bess was so organised about money that she seems to have recorded every penny which ever came into her possession. It’s not that she was mean – she was actually amazingly generous and the sums of money she was distributing to people were enormous, but she obviously liked to be in control of her money and the doling out of it. I learned that an Angel was a gold coin which is apparently why some pubs are called The Angel. Bess often gave them to children.

I hadn’t realised before that there was what was the equivalent of an internship system in operation for well off families. Youngsters would be sent off to live with a family higher up the social scale from them, the idea being that they would learn how to get on with new people and experiences which would benefit all concerned, it was a sort of finishing school for them.

I was outraged to discover that The Office of Wards, a sort of Tudor version of the Inland Revenue, took over the running and profits of an estate if the landowner died leaving an heir who had not yet reached his 21st birthday. All the income and profits went to the Crown meaning that the widow of the landowner and his children were left in dire straits financially.

Best of all though, I discovered that Bess had been maligned by historians over the years, probably because she dared to be a successful woman in what was very much a man’s world. I really liked her and I’m glad she had a passion for building and tapestries which can still be seen. She was a great housekeeper as well as a great businesswoman and she was obviously keen on the company of the wee ones of the household. It must have been heartbreaking that the children died so frequently and suddenly, I suspect that it was all for the want of a spoonful of Calpol or some such medication to bring down a fever. If you’re a parent, just think of all the times you’ve given your children something like that for teething or an ear infection, in Tudor times they just died.

It’s impossible to know exactly what her personality would have been like but I think that as she wasn’t exactly a beauty but she was still very popular with men, then she must have had a good sense of humour and been smiley and light-hearted. That always attracts men, but it usually goes along with a fiery and feisty temperament which confuses them. I did feel sorry for Bess’s last husband, the Earl of Shrewsbury, as he was stuck in between two such women, who just happen to have been redheads – and then there was Mary, Queen of Scots who was foisted on him for 14 years or so. Shrewsbury should have been proud of himself though as he managed to stop Mary from escaping, no mean feat as she had managed to escape from so many places before, including Dumbarton Castle, on the top left of my header – and an island in the middle of Loch Leven. Mary wrecked the Shrewsbury marriage though, I know I’m rambling but – I had always been told that Mary Stuart was also a redhead but according to this book she had dark hair but sometimes wore a red wig.

Anyway, if you’re at all interested in this era in history I recommmend you read Bess of Hardwick. It’s very readable history.

So ignorant was I of all this that I didn’t even realise there was an Old Hardwick Hall before I got there. Walking along the path to the ‘new’ hall, we were waylaid by the old one. We just had to visit it too so here are some photos of it.

Hardwick Hall from the old hall.

old and new Hardwick Hall

A view from one of Old Hardwick Hall’s windows.

interior old Hardwick Hall 2

Derbyshire from the Old Hall.

old Hardwick Hall, view

The decorative plasterwork above a fireplace of Old Hardwick Hall.

interior old Hardwick Hall 1

Old Hardwick Hall from the garden.

old Hardwick Hall from garden

Old Hardwick Hall.

old Hardwick Hall

It was a lovely day out, sadly I couldn’t capture a photo of the many birds which were darting around us, I think they were swifts, and they were nesting all over the old hall. It was quite a magical experience. If you’re anywhere near Derbyshire make time to visit Hardwick and Chatsworth.

17 thoughts on “Bess of Hardwick by Mary S. Lovell

  1. Your travels and reading about them also make my list grow longer!!

    This looks an interesting book and all I know about Bess was her astuteness when it came to housekeeping.

    The pictures look great and I can’t believe the plasterwork, it looks brand new.

    • Jo,
      I found it to be a very interesting book anyway. I was amazed by that plasterwork too because it’s open to the elements and just has a ledge of stone above it which can’t be much of a protection.

      • Hope you wont mind me mentioning that this plasterwork was renovated by English Heritage a few years ago before that you only got a faint idea of what it looked like. They did a great job I thought – it really does convey what those rooms must have looked like.

        • Mary,
          Thanks for explaining the plasterwork. We didn’t have time to see the exhibition at the Old Hall, which probably explained things. We had to rush to get to the ‘new’ hall when we realised that it was nearly 4 o’clock, we were the last people to get in that day!

  2. Thank you for a nice thoughtful review of my biography of Bess of Hardwick. I was tremendously interested to read your reasoning of Bess’s life having read the book, and I wholly agree with your assessment of her personality. I also thought your photographs were terrific. Best wishes, Mary

    • Mary S.Lovell,
      Thanks so much for writing such a fascinating book. Bess has had such a bad press over the centuries, from male historians I suppose, so it was great to discover that she had a lot of good points about her personality. Sadly I couldn’t find my photo of the ‘hunting tower’ at Chatsworth, it’s in my computer somewhere so I’ll add it to this post eventually as I believe you said it was one of the few buildings which was in existence when Bess was there. I will be looking out for your other books and hope you are still writing.


      • Funny you should say that, Katrina. This time last year I was two-thirds through another book about Bess (a novel about her relatioship with Sir William St Loe and his probable murder) then I went away to do some research on another book and since then have been very ill. I’m better now, thank goodness, but no further work has been done. I am hoping to get back to writing any day now!

        • Mary,
          I’m glad you’re feeling better now and I’ll look forward to your novel being published, eventually. It certainly sounds like it was murder, I had been wondering if you had any idea what they put on cloth which could poison the wearer, maybe it’s a mystery now. I’m intrigued as to what the other research was, I hope you manage to finish both books!

          • There was a lot of this poisoning of gloves and under-garments going on in Italy and France at the time. Or I should say it was believed that this was so. It could be any noxious substance, ground into powder from dried fungus, for example, or sap from common toxic plants, I suppose. Cecil took it very seriously, anyhow, and was on to the danger to Qu. Elizabeth in a flash, and certainly Bess’s mother-in-law says in her letter that she believed Bess would have died (when it was thought that Edward poisoned her)had she not had ‘a remedy’ to hand. Possibly this was an emetic? There was a lot of accidental poisoning as well as deliberate attacks which is why the rich always had ‘tasters’ around and it would have been sensible to have emetics in the medicine chest. The matter of poisons at that time is a big subject and would require a lot of research to deal with in detail – it is part of my novel however (if I can tie up the loose ends and finish it!!).

          • Mary,
            When I think about it there are plenty of poisonous plants around in my own garden which could have been used, such as aquilegia/columbine, for adding to food anyway. Maybe if clothes were washed in poisonous plants it would be dangerous for the wearer. I’ve heard that laurel leaves give off toxic fumes as they wither. Good luck with tying up those loose ends!

          • Yes Katrina, Laburnham, Monkshood,Foxglove, poppies, corn cockle, deadly nightshade, Cuckoo Pint – the list is long even among common or garden plants, in fact. And in the 16th century these natural plant poisons were pretty well untraceable by autopsy. Some are so poisonous that just getting the sap on your hands can make you very ill.

          • Mary,
            Yes, I’ve been getting my gloves on to cut back my euphorbias as the sap gives you a nasty sort of burn.
            I meant to say before that I think you were very kind about James VI (I) in Bess of Hardwick as he must have been a bit of a shock to the English people. I’m sure you know that he was very uncouth, certainly in his younger days, and it was even difficult for a lot of Scots to understand him as he had such a broad accent!

  3. I loved that rhyne about the journey south to take the throne, of James and his motley court, didn’t you, ‘Hark, Hark, the dogs do bark…’. I have known it from childhood but never realised the significance until I did the Bess research. With the possible exception of Charles II, I have always found the the Stuarts to be an anti- climax after the Tudors.

    • Mary,
      I knew the rhyme but I don’t think I knew it as a child, I don’t think it would be used by Scottish parents! Anti-climax is one way of describing the Stuarts, as I was brought up Scots Presbyterian I’ve never known whose side to be on, especially about Mary Stuart as she was such a determined Catholic and was more French than Scottish. James VI would have been such a different person though if he had been brought up by his mother and he would never have got the English throne if he had been RC. The Stuarts all seem a bit ‘cracked’ to me, didn’t James VI start off all that nonsense about witches? I’ll be keeping an eye on your website as I presume that you’ll publicise your next book on it, I’ve enjoyed your comments but please feel free to e-mail me anytime.
      I also meant to say that I really appreciated the interesting footnotes in ‘Bess’

      • Thanks K. I have been working on the novel all day. Bess sometimes seems very real to me. I am now aiming to complete it before beginning of December – eleven weeks away. That would make publication late 2013.
        Best wishes, Mary

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