Bess of Hardwick wasn’t born to privilege. The daughter of a relatively small landlord, she rose to high status slowly and purposefully. Placed in high status houses, she married four men and outlived all of them. She also outlived three monarchs and built a number of houses, the most prestigious of which is Hardwick Hall in Derbyshire. She became one of the richest and most powerful women in Elizabethan and early Stuart England, a time when women were still chattel, and died wealthy, in a house that she herself had constructed, after a long and productive life.
My first encounter with Bess of Hardwick was in the novel A Woman of Passion by Virginia Henley. I was still in my initial romance novel stage of reading, and much of that particular novel is romantic, but it really led me to be curious about the woman behind the fiction, the actual Bess of Hardwick. It also ends when she marries Shrewsbury, or so I recall, which leaves plenty of interesting years completely without mention. Then just recently I visited Hardwick Hall myself and was reminded of why I was so interested in her. The house itself is ridiculously impressive, with its huge windows, imposing winding staircases, and immense visiting halls. I wanted to know more, and so when I saw this book in the library, I decided it was time.
On first impression, I was actually amazed at how easy this was to read. I love history, but it does take longer to read and naturally provokes more thought than an average fiction novel, at least for me. This, though, was so interesting and enjoyable that I actually found myself going well beyond my daily page targets because I just was so curious about what happened next. Bess’s childhood is mostly skimmed over, of necessity really since very little information is available about her specifically. Instead, the author regales us with all sorts of interesting information about Tudor childhoods in general and Bess’s family in particular. I knew some of it, but not all of it, and I was completely fascinated, as I was with most of the book.
Lovell then goes on to talk about Bess’s various marriages, her children, and her gradual rise to power and prominence. She quotes from plenty of letters, although mostly from others to Bess, and keeps everything in a neat and tidy timeline so that it’s easy to trace Bess’s life from start to finish. There are plenty of details and documentation, and she does argue with the generally accepted historical record sometimes – including denouncing some of my favorites, those pesky historical “facts” which seem to have no basis in actual documentation. These are generally started by a historian somewhere along the way (usually in the 19th century) who of course did not name his sources and probably just made up that particular fact. There is no way of actually knowing if it’s true or not, so it’s best to stick with what we actually do know. So the book was not just an entertaining biography, but intellectually stimulating as well.
Bess of Hardwick brought home to me how much I miss history with its fascinating portrait of a woman who proved her worth over and over again. Undoubtedly Bess would have been the CEO of some humongous corporation these days, but in her own time she was a clever, enchanting woman who made her money work for her, loved her husbands and children, and generally proves everyone who denounces Tudor women wrong. I would enthusiastically recommend this book to anyone who enjoys history, especially Tudor history.
I am an Amazon Associate. I borrowed this book from my local library.