Bess of Hardwick, by Mary S Lovell

A woman of substance
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The Independent Culture

Bess survived by cultivating friendships on both sides, especially with Elizabeth Tudor before her accession. Born into the minor gentry in 1527, she acquired large swathes of England through her marriages and built and furnished beautiful houses, including the first Chatsworth. Creative match-making issued in six ducal dynasties, three earldoms and a barony. Her great stone initials set on the battlements of Hardwick Hall against the Derbyshire skyline awe the visitor with magnificent self-assertion.

Any determined Tudor woman could be called a shrew then and an anomaly now. Though, as the Bishop of Coventry wrote to Bess's estranged fourth husband, "If shrewdness or sharpness be a justification for separation between a man and wife, I think few men in England would keep their wives long." Bess got her own way more than most women of any time.

Her formidable later self is better documented, but Mary Lovell emphasises the charismatic young woman. Far from being cold and grasping, as legend has her, Lovell shows her as affectionate and sexy. Letters from husbands away from home attest to missing her desperately, especially in bed. The first three were very happy with her, and though she seems to have moved on fast after each bereavement, she would sign her name wrong or interweave dead men's initials with living ones, suggesting a more troubled internal narrative. Even her fourth husband, the Earl of Shrewsbury, was devoted to her until his personality changed on becoming custodian of Mary, Queen of Scots.

This 16-year job probably induced his early-onset dementia. Leniency might lead to Mary's escape, stringency to retribution if she became Queen. Her manipulative charm attracted passionate supporters including the teenaged Anthony Babington, recruited under the Shrewsburys' noses, and she alienated Shrewsbury from Bess. He wept when he had to give the signal to her executioner, and his quarrel with his wife was never resolved.

As usual in Tudor biographies, the prime virtue is subservience to the crown. Elizabeth I presides over a fairly Merrie England with tight-fisted benevolence. But Bess of Hardwick is impressively researched, especially on the dense kin networks of the 16th-century ruling class.

Lovell writes best when overexposed episodes regain sharpness against her comfortable narrative of Bess's prosperity. Babington's death, or Jane Grey groping for the block murmuring, "What am I to do? Where is it?", can still shock. Lovell has thoroughly absorbed the evidence of the account books, and she is detailed and fascinating on the great estates and huge households that Bess efficiently administered.

Loraine Fletcher teaches English at Reading University

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