Bess of Hardwick: Empire Builder

Bess of Hardwick: Empire Builder, by Mary S. Lovell’s

Property values must have tanked after Henry VIII’s iron fisted leadership style brought mayhem to the English countryside. He burned down the monasteries and brutally burned or dismembered those who tried to uphold their Catholic beliefs.

Living in this milieu, was one Bess of Hardwick who knew the value of a penny as well as an acre. She convinced her husband, the Crown Commissioner at the time who was in charge of “closing” the monasteries, to purchase the distressed estate, called Chatsworth, for short money.

Today, Chatsworth is one of the top 10 most visited of all the “great country houses,” in England. It is to Bess’s credit that it is as grand as it is. But if all Bess did was buy a couple of estates and refurbish them, we might not be reading her biography. What is remarkable is that she had no financial prospects as she started out in a world that valued women hardly at all. Yet she still managed to acquire a fortune, becoming the second most powerful woman in England, second only to Queen Elizabeth I.

Born in 1527 in Derbyshire, England to the rather lowly Hardwick manor, Bess later would buy it and build Hardwick Hall. Like Chatsworth, Hardwick Hall is a popular site for tourists today. If Bess did begin life as a poor girl with few prospects, she and her family were descended from King William I, and had living, if distant, royal relatives. That is no small matter in 16th century England, according to Bess’s biographer, Mary S. Lovell. In the 16th century, a streak of royalty could open doors for an ambitious family. Bess Hardwick and her family likely used the fact of their royal blood ties to make social connections and find for Bess and her sisters two things: first, a good position in a well-to-do household; second, a good husband.

Over her lifetime, Bess would land four husbands. The first was a sickly 13-year-old named Robert Barlow who fortunately for Bess died a year later. Despite the loss of her husband, Bess, at 16, gained not a handsome fortune, but a “widow’s dower.” She was entitled to it, but had to fight her brother-in-law in court to make him pay her due. This was no small feat considering Bess lived at a time when “non-royal women had little education, virtually no legal rights and were almost considered chattels of their husbands,” Lovell writes. In this light, Bess was astonishingly successful. That all of her husbands died and made sure that all their property would legally go to Bess in every case helped her build the magnificent fortune that made history.

The wealth of her husbands helped, but Bess was the driving force behind the construction of Chatsworth and Hardwick Hall. She accomplished the restoration of these two magnificent homes while caring for both children and stepchildren, running households, serving at the court of Elizabeth I, and building a dynasty with bloodlines that connect to the current English monarchy.

As the mother of six and stepmother to several, Bess continually kept tabs on family matters and social connections, even as she approached the end of her life, ever mindful of the “important role of marriage in building and securing a family fortune,” writes Lovell. Some biographers have concluded that Bess was a kind of climber who would stop at nothing to serve her own interests. Lovell concludes that “Bess was an intelligent, affectionate, diligent and loyal woman who was also smart enough to look out for herself and her children.”

A conscientious scholar, Lovell seems to take delight in details of 16th century decoration, fashion, and gifting that say more about the life and times of her subject than even the most erudite scholarship. Lovell’s own scholarship is evident in her original research on Bess’s second husband, William St. Loe, adding to the length and breadth of the book. Lovell could have, perhaps made two volumes from this one, but its “overstuffed” quality is one of the things that makes Bess of Hardwick: Empire Builder so eminently readable.