1911 Encyclopædia Britannica/Shrewsbury, Elizabeth Talbot, Countess of
SHREWSBURY, ELIZABETH TALBOT, Countess of (1518–1608), better known by her nickname “Bess of Hardwick,” was the daughter and co-heiress of John Hardwicke of Hardwicke in Derbyshire. At the age of fourteen she was married to a John Barlow, the owner of a large estate, who did not long survive the marriage, and as his estates had been settled on her and her heirs, she became a wealthy widow. She remained single till the 20th of August 1549, when she married Sir William Cavendish, who, to please her, sold his lands in the south of England and purchased the Chatsworth estates in Derbyshire. Six children were born of the marriage, three sons and three daughters. One of the sons was the founder of the ducal family of Devonshire, and another of the ducal family of Newcastle. Sir William Cavendish having died on the 25th of October 1 557, her third husband was Sir William St Lo (or St Loe or St Lowe), captain of the guard to Queen Elizabeth and owner of an estate at Tormarton in Gloucestershire. She insisted that his lands should be settled on her and her heirs, and when Sir William died without issue, she made good her claim to all his property to the detriment of his sister and cousins. Bess of Hardwick was now the wealthiest subject in England. Her income was calculated to amount to, £60,000, which was relatively a far more important sum then than it is to-day. She still retained much of her good looks; her charms and her wealth outweighed her reputation for rapacity, and she was much sought in marriage. With the approval of Queen Elizabeth, who was not by habit a matchmaker, she was married in 1568 for the fourth time to George Talbot, 6th earl of Shrewsbury. Bess made her usual good bargain as to settlements, and also insisted on arranging marriages between two of her children by Sir William Cavendish and two of the earl's by a former marriage. In 1574 the countess took advantage of a visit of the countess of Lennox to marry her daughter Elizabeth to Charles Stuart, the younger son of the Lennoxes and brother of Lord Darnley, the second husband of the queen of Scots. She acted without the knowledge 'of her husband, who declined to accept any responsibility. As the Lennox family had a claim to the throne this match was considered as a proof of the ambition of the countess of Shrewsbury, and she was sent to the Tower by the queen, but was soon released. The child of the marriage was Arabella Stuart, whom her grandmother treated at first with favour but later on with cruelty and neglect.,
By this time the earl of Shrewsbury and his wife were on very bad terms with one another, and the former tried to obtain a divorce. The countess revenged herself by accusing him of a love intrigue with the queen of Scots, a charge which she was forced to letract before the council. In the meantime she had told some filthy scandal about Queen Elizabeth to Queen Mary, who made use of it in the extraordinary letter she wrote some time in 1584. In 1583 the countess of Shrewsbury went to live apart from her husband, with whom she was afterwards reconciled formally by the queen. After his death in 1590 she lived mostly at Hardwicke, where she built the noble mansion which still stands. She was indeed one of the greatest builders of her time at Hardwicke, Chatsworth and Oldcoates. It is said that she believed she would not die so long as she was building. Her death came on the 13th of February 1608 during a frost which put a stop to her building operations. She was buried in All Saints’ Church, Derby, under a fine monument with a laudatory inscription which she took care to put up in her lifetime. Two portraits of her exist at Hardwicke, one taken in her youth, while the second, by Cornelius Ianssen, engraved by Vertue, represents her as an old woman. She had no children except by her second husband, and to them she left the vast estates she accumulated by her successive marriages.
See White Kennett, Memoirs of the Cavendish Family (London, 1708); and Mrs Murray Smith (Miss E. T. Bradley), Life of Arabella Stuart (London, 1889); Mrs Stepney Rawson, Bess of Hardwicke 1910.