Bringing Bess's story to life

We are Bess web banner

'We are Bess' is an exhibition designed to bring Bess of Hardwick’s story to new life and under new scrutiny. It uses the perspectives of modern women to consider how we talk and think about women’s life experiences, women’s power and whether women are believed when they speak. It explores the parallels between the past and present.

A woman that lived

Bess of Hardwick was an extraordinary success. In the late sixteenth century, she became the second richest woman in the country after Elizabeth I. She built four houses, married four times, and overcame all the century’s obstacles to female ownership and achievement. Along the way she experienced great loss and hardship – two children and four husbands died, at times she had massive debts and lawsuits against her, and her last, broken marriage became a national scandal.

Young Bess of Hardwick, the Countess of Shrewsbury
Portrait of Bess of Hardwick
Young Bess of Hardwick, the Countess of Shrewsbury

A skewed history

But the analysis we have of Bess’s character has been largely derived from her estranged fourth husband, George Talbot, Earl of Shrewsbury. He spoke of her ‘insatiable and greedy appetite’, meaning both worldly riches and sex. He said she ‘ruled and overruled him’, ‘scolded like one from the bank’, and said she had a heart filled with ‘deadly malice and hatred’.

Historians over the centuries took this as gospel. Eighteenth century scholar Edmund Lodge described Bess as ‘very ambitious and… overbearing’, the ‘terror of her husband’, and a ‘woman of masculine understanding’. These judgments have been repeated in the nineteenth, twentieth, and even twenty-first centuries. In this exhibition we have decided to re-think the accepted narrative of Bess’s life. We invited a number of diverse and influential modern women to consider the parallels and insights that their own experiences bring to our understanding of Bess.

Portraits of Dame Mary Beard and Bess of Hardwick sit side by side
Portraits of Dame Mary Beard and Bess of Hardwick sit side by side
Portraits of Dame Mary Beard and Bess of Hardwick sit side by side

"I am Bess"

We asked women who would resonate with the themes of the exhibition in some way. Our women – from household names to women from the local Derbyshire community – are from a range of ethnic, social and religious backgrounds, ages, sexual orientations, and abilities. All have been photographed by talented photographer Rachel Adams, and these photographic portraits hang alongside a collection of fine Tudor portraits, including Bess herself, in the Long Gallery at Hardwick Hall.

What can we learn about Bess by bringing our experiences to bear on considering hers, and what can Bess’s life and memory teach us about ourselves? 

Discover for yourself, in person, when the exhibition reopens 16 February 2019. If you can't get to Hardwick you can view the exhibition online here

About Prof. Suzannah Lipscomb, Creative Director of 'We are Bess'

Prof. Suzannah Lipscomb, Creative Director of 'We are Bess' at Hardwick Hall
Prof. Suzannah Lipscomb stands outside Hardwick Hall, Derbyshire
Prof. Suzannah Lipscomb, Creative Director of 'We are Bess' at Hardwick Hall

Prof. Suzannah Lipscomb is an award-winning historian, author, and broadcaster. She is Professor of History at the University of Roehampton and a Fellow of the Royal Historical Society. She received her DPhil in History from Balliol College, Oxford, writes a regular column for History Today, and has presented historical documentaries on the BBC, ITV, Channel Five, and National Geographic Channel. She’s the author of five books about the sixteenth century, including A Visitor’s Companion to Tudor England, The King is Dead: The Last Will and Testament of Henry VIII, Witchcraft, and The Voices of Nîmes.