A very different Bess

Portait of Bess of Hardwick in older age

Underpinning ‘We are Bess’ is innovative historical research by Dr Emma Turnbull from the University of Oxford. What she discovered was a very different Bess to the woman history tells us she was.

Seeking to challenge a widespread perception that Bess of Hardwick was a proud and ambitious shrew, the National Trust asked Dr Turnbull to delve a bit deeper to better understand Bess's character. 

A complex character

It was scouring Bess’s large collection of surviving letters that Dr Turnbull found a complex character that leapt off the page and made her determined to allow Bess's voice to be heard. Dr Turnbull describes the Bess she encountered as 'shrewd and resolute...kind, inquisitive, perceptive and resourceful'. 

It was the letters documenting the breakdown of Bess’s marriage to her fourth husband, George Talbot, Earl of Shrewsbury that gripped Dr Turnbull.

In these letters he bad-mouthed Bess to the queen and important figures at the royal court. The version of Bess found here - from letters composed during a period of great mental, physical and financial strain for George - had cast a long shadow, affecting how many generations of popular and even some scholarly history books have described Bess. 

Contested legacy

An ambitious dynast, a builder of grand country houses, or a woman who married and outlived four husbands - this is how Bess is typically remembered, even recently by respected historians.  

But, thankfully, Bess has been subject to more sympathetic portrayals, such as by Alison Wiggins, who has shown, through close analysis of Bess’s surviving letters, that Bess actively developed a social network of female friends, often women with positions at Court. These women were called upon to give aid and advice in difficult moments, and to put in a good word for Bess with Elizabeth I. In her letters, Bess constructed an identity for herself as a good, loving mother and wife and a loyal, dutiful servant of Queen Elizabeth, and used her female friends to reiterate this. 

A key aim of the ‘We are Bess’ exhibition is to interrogate and contextualise her contested identities rather than accepting any one version of Bess at face value.

Contested identity

As well as contesting a one-sided and misleading legacy that characterises Bess as a proud, ambitious shrew, this research argues that an important reason why this legacy emerged is due to the dramatic and public breakdown of Bess’s marriage to George Talbot, Earl of Shrewsbury. On 4 August 1584, George wrote to Bess angrily accusing her of acting against his honour and dignity. His accusations were vague, but they cohered around the view that Bess was acting independently of him – particularly by spending vast sums on acquiring lands for her younger sons – and was therefore a disloyal wife.

Shrewsbury’s accusations and attacks on his wife’s honour have contributed to a view of Bess as a scheming shrew who emasculated her husband. 'We are Bess' challenges existing narratives. 

Bess as dynast

Across several decades and in many surviving letters, we can see that Bess was an astute negotiator, particularly when it came to securing advantageous marriages for her children, stepchildren and grandchildren. In these negotiations, Bess was often brokering deals with men, and her judgement was deeply respected. Bess used the ‘domestic’ interest that women were perceived to have for their own children, to help promote and secure the futures of her children, stepchildren and grandchildren. These activities show Bess to be an adept social operator, but they should not be interpreted as peculiarly ‘masculine’ because Bess’s behaviour was not dissimilar to the ambitions of other women of the period, including Margaret Stuart, dowager countess of Lennox.

Social network

Bess had a caring relationship with several of her female relatives, especially her daughters Frances and Mary, with whom she corresponded regularly. Her relationship with Mary sharply deteriorated after the earl of Shrewsbury’s death, and it was through sharing joyful family news – the birth of Mary’s grandson – and the exchanging of gifts and tokens of affection that Bess and Mary rebuilt their relationship. 

Bess also sent several New Year gifts to Queen Elizabeth, often at moments when her relationship to the queen was strained. Gift-giving served social and political functions, expressing affection as well as reinforcing bonds of loyalty and trust - not simply a frivolous feminine activity.