Bess of Hardwick – the third player in the struggle between Elizabeth and Mary

The upcoming feature Mary, Queen of Scots chronicles the rivalry between two women battling for the throne of England. During the Tudor era, Elizabeth and Mary lived in one of the most brutal times of British history, some say the most.

Image credit: English Heritage UK
Portrait of Bess of Hardwick

While not the focus, there is a third woman in this story who was just as shrewd and able to fight her corner during this difficult time: Bess of Hardwick. Bess, played by Gemma Chan in the film, was at the time, one of Queen Elizabeth I’s ladies in waiting.

While to be in the circle of the royal court was an elevated position, Bess in her own right, was one of the countries most wealthiest, and a shrewd business woman.

In the years portrayed in the film, Bess would have been in her third marriage to Sir William St Loe, Captain of Queen Elizabeth’s guard. Her previous two husbands had passed and left Bess with sizeable land holdings – one considered the jewel in the crown, the Chatsworth Estate.

Chatsworth Estate, Derbyshire, UK. Still the ancestral home to the Cavendish’s.

In the first half of her life, Bess married four times, but sadly, she outlived all of them, acquiring considerable wealth.

Life of Bess of Hardwick | Infographic

While some of this was attributed to a widow’s dower from two of the late husbands, Bess in her later years went on to buy and manage a number of enterprises, becoming a highly successful businesswoman – the second richest woman in the country.

Mary S Lovell, author of Bess of Hardwick: The First Lady of Chatsworth gives an entertaining lecture on Bess and her life. Listen to the entire talk as Ms Lovell explains the imposition Queen Elizabeth I placed upon Bess and her fourth husband involving Mary, Queen of Scots. It makes for a fascinating film in itself – a period glossed over in the soon-to-be-released version.

Further reading on Bess of Harwick

Bess of Hardwick | English Heritage

Online libary of Bess of Hardwick’s correspondence

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