We are Bess

Portait of Bess of Hardwick in older age

History remembers Bess of Hardwick as a dynast, a domineering 'shrew', a woman that married and outlived four husbands. Through the voices of modern women in a new exhibition, We are Bess, we aim to change this and show how her story resonates with many women today.

A skewed history

Elizabeth Talbot, Countess of Shrewsbury, aka Bess of Hardwick, was one of Tudor England’s most remarkable women.

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.

But history has viewed and misjudged her, largely from the disparaging comments of her estranged fourth husband, George Talbot, Earl of Shrewsbury.

History repeating

Bess' life has much to say to us today about operating as a woman in a man’s world, the way many experiences of women transcend time, and about how we talk and think about women. And while there has been much progress in many ways, attitudes to women and their experiences are not so very different as they were in her lifetime.

Working with Dr Suzannah Lipscomb, historian  from the University of Roehampton, author and broadcaster, and Dr Emma Turnbull, research fellow at the University of Oxford, We are Bess will retell her story to try to overturn this perpetuated misogynistic narrative, a deeply unfair legacy and misrepresentation of her character. 

An age-old story revealed through the voices of modern women

We are Bess will invite visitors to think about how women are talked about, whether women are believed when they speak, and women’s power and life experiences.

We’ve asked a number of modern, influential women to respond to Bess’s story and consider the parallels and insights that their own experiences bring to their understanding of Bess.

As well as their responses, these women have been photographed by Rachel Adams and their portraits will hang in Hardwick’s Long Gallery as part of the exhibition which you can see 3 October – 4 November 2018, and re-opens 16 February – 2 June 2019. For the first time, the exhibition will also be available online.