She was born Elizabeth Hardwick in about 1527, to a Derbyshire yeoman family.
A year later her father died, leaving her mother an impoverished widow with five children. Her mother remarried to Ralph Leche and raised a second family. Young Bess entered the household of the Zouches, wealthy relatives, with whom she learned social graces and hoped to find a husband. In about 1543, at the age of 15, she was successful in securing a match with young Robert Barley, a sickly youth who died the following year.
At the age of 20 she was married to Sir William Cavendish, who was over twice her age at 42 and already twice married. This was, however, by far the happiest of Bess’s four marriages. Sir William had gained considerable wealth and property as a Commissioner for the Dissolution of the monasteries under Hy. VIII. They had eight children, six of whom survived, who became the focus for her ambitions.
Their godparents were Princess Elizabeth, to Henry, the eldest, and Queen Mary to Charles. In 1549 Bess persuaded her husband to purchase Chatsworth and subsequent purchases of lands built up the Chatsworth estates as we know them. Unfortunately Sir William’s drastic financial mismanagement left Bess incurring severe debts when he died in 1557.
Now in her thirties Bess attended the court of the new queen, Elizabeth, and soon attracted the eye of one of the courtiers, a wealthy nobleman called Sir William St. Loe. He comes across as a delightfully gentle and affectionate person, entirely devoted to his wife, calling her ‘my own sweete Chatsworth’. He repaid all of Bess’s debts and on his death, only 8 years later, left her all his estates in Derbyshire and Somerset, much to the fury of his family.
Bess was now an independently wealthy woman in her forties, again looking to make an advantageous match. It was at this time that she met and married George Talbot, 6th Earl of Shresbury, a 46 year old widower with 6 children. George’s wealth and property matched that of his new wife and their business interests matched. In many ways the match can be seen as a merger of two companies, and not a happy one in the long run, though the stresses on the marriage from the pressures and worries of acting for fourteen years as custodians to the most dangerous political prisoner of the age would probably have proved too much for most couples. They became estranged from about 1576, Bess spending longer and longer periods at Chatsworth and then later at Hardwick, though it was only after her husband’s death in 1590 that Bess moved into Hardwick having purchased it from her brother’s estate, and set about remodelling and extending the old manor house.
Whilst this work was still in progress she undertook the building of an entirely new house, one more obviously displaying her dynastic ambitions, only yards away.
Designed by Robert Smythson the great building displays the initials E.S. surmounted by a coronet all round the crenulations to catch the eye from every direction. Building work was also going on at Worksop Manor, and her last new house was another Smythson house at Oldcotes. Bess ran the household at Hardwick like a little court, personally supervising and overseeing every detail. She died at Hardwick on 13th February 1608 aged about 80. She wished her funeral to be ‘not over sumptuous’ but left £2000 to cover the cost. There was much drunkenness in the Derby streets that day. Her splendid tomb in Derby Cathedral was again designed by Smythson