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Talbot, Elizabeth (DNB00)


TALBOT, ELIZABETH, Countess of Shrewsbury (1518–1608), known as ‘Bess of Hardwick,’ born in 1518, was the fourth daughter and coheiress of John Hardwick (d. 24 Jan. 1527) of Hardwick, Derbyshire, the sixth squire of the name who possessed the estate. Her mother was Elizabeth, daughter of Thomas Leake of Hasland in the same county.

The ‘beautiful and discreet’ Elizabeth was married at fourteen years of age to Robert Barlow of Barlow, near Dronfield, son and heir of Arthur Barlow by a sister of Sir John Chaworth of Wyverton. The name is often given as Barley of Barley, by which it is probable that the pronunciation is indicated. The bridegroom also was very young, and died soon after the marriage, on 2 Feb. 1533, but his large estate was settled upon his widow and her heirs. She remained a widow until 1549, when on 20 Aug. at Bradgate in Leicestershire, a seat of the Marquis of Dorset, she became the third wife of Sir William Cavendish (1505?–1557) [q. v.] According to a manuscript memorandum in Cavendish's own hand (Harl. MS. 1154, f. 28) the marriage was celebrated ‘at 2 of the clock after midnight.’ Sir William had so great an affection for his third wife that ‘on her desire he sold his estate in the southern parts of England to purchase lands in Derbyshire where her kindred lived.’ From some of her relatives he purchased the estate of Chatsworth, and began there the noble manor-house which, upon his death (25 Oct. 1557), he left his widow to finish. By her second husband alone had Bess of Hardwick any issue; of these, six arrived at maturity, three sons and three daughters, and two of the sons afford a noteworthy example of two brothers founding two several dukedoms, those of Devonshire and Newcastle (for the details respecting her issue, see Cavendish, Sir William; and cf. Collins, Hist. Collections of the Noble Families of Cavendish, 1752).

Lady Cavendish took to her third husband Sir William St. Loe (variously spelt St. Lo and St. Lowe) of Tormarton, Gloucestershire, a gentleman of an ancient knightly family in Somerset, who was captain of the guard to Queen Elizabeth. He was the possessor of ‘divers fair lordships in Gloucestershire, which in articles of marriage she took care should be settled on her and her own heirs, in default of issue by him.’ When not in attendance at court, St. Loe resided at Chatsworth. His wife obtained unbounded influence over him, and his family charged her, not without reason, with making an improper use of her influence. It is certain that upon his death ‘she lived to enjoy his whole estate, excluding his former daughters and brothers.’

In this third widowhood, says Bishop White Kennett, ‘she had not survived her charms of wit and beauty, by which she captivated the then greatest subject of the realm, George [Talbot, sixth] Earl of Shrewsbury [q. v.], whom she brought to terms of the greatest honour and advantage to herself and children; for he not only yielded to a considerable jointure, but to an union of families, by taking Mary [Cavendish], her youngest daughter, to wife of Gilbert [Talbot], his [second] son, and afterwards his heir; and giving the Lady Grace [Talbot], his youngest daughter, to Henry [Cavendish], her eldest son.’ The double nuptials for which she thus stipulated before she would give her hand to Shrewsbury were solemnised at Sheffield on 9 Feb. 1567–8, and it is probable that her own marriage took place shortly afterwards. The queen heartily approved the match, and it was in the following December (1568) that she decided to confide to Shrewsbury the custody of Mary Queen of Scots. The countess assisted her husband in the reception of Mary at Tutbury on 2 Feb. 1569. Five years later, in October 1574, while Margaret, countess of Lennox, and her son Charles (the younger brother of Darnley) were on their way from London to Scotland, the Countess of Shrewsbury entertained them at Rufford. During their five days' sojourn a match was rapidly arranged by the wily hostess between young Charles and her daughter, Elizabeth Cavendish, and the pair were actually married next month, much to the indignation of the queen. Shrewsbury, in an exculpatory letter to Burghley, with more truth than gallantry, threw the blame exclusively upon his countess. ‘There are few noblemans sons in England,’ he wrote, ‘that she hath not praid me to dele forre at one tyme or other; so I did for my lord Rutland, with my lord Sussex, for my lord Wharton, and sundry others; and now this comes unlooked for without thankes to me’ (cf. Howard, Collection of Letters, 1753, pp. 235–7; Cotton MS. Caligula, C. iv. f. 252). In order to cool this ambition, Elizabeth sent the countess to the Tower after Christmas, but she was allowed to join her husband three months later. In 1575 her daughter became mother of Arabella, afterwards well known as Arabella Stuart [see Arabella]. Early in 1582, upon the death of her daughter, Elizabeth Stuart, the countess wrote several letters on behalf of her orphaned granddaughter Arabella to Burghley and Walsingham, being specially anxious to get her maintenance raised from 200l. to 600l. a year. She was at first genuinely attached to her grandchild, but she had completely alienated her by her tyranny before March 1603, when Arabella was removed from Hardwick to the care of Henry Grey, sixth earl of Kent, and was disinherited by a codicil to her grandmother's will. Shrewsbury was relieved of his charge of the Scottish queen in 1584, not before he had been taunted by his wife with making love to his captive. Fuller records that at court upon one occasion, when the queen demanded how the Queen of Scots did, the countess said, ‘Madam, she cannot do ill while she is with my husband, and I begin to grow jealous, they are so great together.’ It is most probable that the countess simulated a jealousy which she did not feel in order to prejudice the queen against her husband (for the animosity thus displayed between 1580 and 1586, see Talbot, George, sixth Earl of Shrewsbury). A more genuine cause for conjugal discord was the injurious ascendency which the earl allowed a female domestic, named Eleanor Britton, to obtain over him during his later years (cf. Harl. MS. 6853). But the countess allowed no vexations of this sort to interfere with the vigorous administration of her vast estates, estimated as worth 60,000l. a year (in modern currency). Her extraordinary zeal as a builder was attributed, says Walpole, to a prediction that she should not die as long as she was building. In addition to the fine Elizabethan mansion at Chatsworth (replaced by the well-known Palladian structure of the late seventeenth century), she built the seats of Oldcotes, Worksop, and Bolsover, and, after the Earl of Shrewsbury's death in 1590, she set to work upon a new Hardwick Hall, within a few hundred yards of the ancient seat of her family, which remained standing. Over the chimneypiece in the dining-room are still to be seen her arms and initials dated 1597 (the year of the completion of the work); while the letters ‘E.S.’ appear in most of the rooms with the triple badge of Shrewsbury, Cavendish, and Hardwick (cf. Antiquary, 10 May 1873).

At Hardwick she spent the days of her fourth widowhood in abundant wealth and splendour, feared by many, and courted by a numerous train of children, grandchildren, and great-grandchildren. She was very ill in April 1605, when her granddaughter Arabella ventured down to Hardwick to see her, armed with a letter from the king, on the strength of which ‘Bess grudgingly bestowed a gold cup and three hundred guineas’ upon her former favourite (Miss Cooper, Life of Arabella, ii. 48). ‘A woman of masculine understanding and conduct,’ concludes Lodge; ‘proud, furious, selfish, and unfeeling, she was a builder, a buyer and seller of estates, a moneylender, a farmer, and a merchant of lead, coals, and timber; when disengaged from these employments she intrigued alternately with Elizabeth and Mary, always to the prejudice and terror of her husband.’ She lived to a great age, immensely rich, continually flattered but seldom deceived, and died (‘in a hard frost while her builders could not work’) on 13 Feb. 1607–1608 at her seat of Hardwick. She was buried in the Cavendish mausoleum in the south aisle of All Hallows (All Saints) Church, Derby, where is a splendid mural monument to her memory. This ‘she took good care to erect in her own lifetime.’ In a recess in the lower part is the figure of the countess, with her head reclined on a cushion and her hands uplifted in the attitude of prayer (Simpson, Hist. of Derby, i. 340). The long Latin inscription to the effect that she ‘circa annum ætatis suæ lxxxvii. finivit,’ would appear to be an understatement by at least two years. Her funeral sermon was preached by Tobie Matthew [q. v.], archbishop of York, who applied to her Solomon's description of a virtuous woman. Among her later panegyrists were the dramatist William Sampson [q. v.] in his ‘Virtus post Funera’ (1636) and Bishop White Kennett. Horace Walpole, in a verse epitaph written in his own hand upon the wide margin of the copy of Collins's ‘Historical Collections of the Noble Families of Cavendish’ in the British Museum Library (1327, l. 5, p. 14), mentions how she was four times a widow and received from each husband ‘every shilling’ he possessed, and erected ‘five stately mansions.’ The epitaph concludes:

    When Hardwicke's tow'rs shall bow yr head,
    Nor masse be more in Worksop said,
    When Bolsover's fair frame shall tend
    Like Oldcoates to its destined end,
    When Chatsworth knows no Candish bounties,
    Let Fame forget this costly countess.

By her will, dated 27 April 1601 (it is given in full in Collins's Historical Account of the Cavendish Family, pp. 15–18), the dowager countess transmitted her three mansions in Derbyshire—Chatsworth, Oldcotes, and Hardwick—to her second and favourite son, William Cavendish, who upon his elder brother's early death inherited nearly all his fortune. Welbeck Abbey she bequeathed with other estates to her third son, Charles. The probate was dated 15 March 1607–8, and administration was granted to William, lord Cavendish, her sole executor.

She endowed a hospital or almshouse at Derby, in Full Street, for eight poor men and four poor women; but another act of munificence which has been attributed to the old countess, the erection of the second court of St. John's College, Cambridge, really belongs to her daughter Mary, the wife of Gilbert Talbot, seventh earl of Shrewsbury [q. v.]

At Hardwick Hall are two paintings of the countess. One represents her in early life in a close-fitting black dress, with rich brown hair. The other (of which a copy is in the National Portrait Gallery) was painted by Cornelius Janssen [q. v.] when she was well stricken in years, but still retained traces of beauty; the expression of countenance is clearly indicative of shrewdness, energy, and strength of purpose. The second portrait was engraved by George Vertue.

[G. E. C[okayne]'s Complete Peerage, s.v. ‘Shrewsbury;’ Collins's Peerage, ed. Brydges, i. 310; White Kennett's Memoirs of the Cavendish Family, 1737; Ellis's Letters, 2nd ser. iii. 60 sq.; Lansdowne MS. 34 passim (containing several of the countess's letters); Hunter's Hallamshire, ed. Gatty, pp. 83 sq.; Lodge's Illustrations of British History, 1838, vol. i. pp. xxix et passim; Mrs. Murray Smith's Life of Arabella Stuart, 1889, passim (vol. ii. contains several letters of 1603 from the countess to Cecil); Strickland's Queens of England, iv. 522–4; Simpson's Hist. of Derby, 1826; Jewitt and Hall's Stately Homes of England, 1874, pp. 116 sq. (containing a detailed account of Hardwick Hall and its foundress); Sanford and Townsend's Governing Families of England, 1865, i. 141 sq.; Labanoff's Letters of Mary Stuart, ed. Turnbull, London, 1845.]

T. S.