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New perspectives
Editor: Lisa Hopkins

Bess of Hardwick was one of the most extraordinary figures of Elizabethan England. She was born the daughter of a country squire. By the end of her long life (which a recent redating of her birth suggests was even longer than previously thought) she was the richest woman in England outside the royal family, had risen to the rank of countess and seen two of her daughters do the same, and had built one of the major ‘prodigy houses’ of the period. While married to her fourth husband, the earl of Shrewsbury, she had been gaoler to Mary, Queen of Scots, and her granddaughter by her second marriage, Lady Arbella Stuart, was of royal blood and might have been succeeded to the throne of England. This wide-ranging collection, which draws on the recent edition of her correspondence, brings out the full range of her activities and impact. It contains a biography, analysis of her language use, consideration of the roles of her servants and the management and nature of her households (including the complex and allegorical decorative scheme of Hardwick and its famous embroideries), and a new appraisal of the relationship between Bess and her granddaughter Arbella.

Alan Bryson

This chapter draws fully on the range of surviving sources and responds critically to the growing scholarship on the Tudor nobility and gentry to contextualise Bess within her time. Traces her four marriages (including the financial difficulties that beset the first two and the breakdown of the fourth), her role in guarding Mary, Queen of Scots, and her building activity. What marks Bess out is her extraordinary social mobility, rising from minor gentlewoman of limited prospects to immensely wealthy and powerful countess, that and the fact we know more about her than almost any other woman of her time. Her marriages, her buildings, her possessions and her letter-writing are all fascinating, but must be read within the context of other Tudor nobles and gentry (men as well as women), otherwise Bess will continue to be regarded as something of an exception – something of an aberration, even – and that would diminish her remarkable achievements.

in Bess of Hardwick
Susan Frye

This chapter focuses on Bess’s textile production, starting with the textile hangings she produced for Chatsworth, which constitute the most ambitious known artwork produced by an Englishwoman in the early modern period. Although these textiles are in many ways distinct from the emblematic embroideries that Bess produced working alongside Mary, Queen of Scots, her royal prisoner during this period of time, there are also areas of overlap in style and subject matter. These areas of connection between Bess’s textile work and Mary Stuart’s support the assertion that Mary was a catalyst in Bess’s transformation from able embroiderer to what today we would call a textile artist. The chapter pieces together the story of her workshop at Chatsworth, located in the guarderobe there and in its attached room.

in Bess of Hardwick
Imogen Julia Marcus

This chapter discusses Bess’s use of language. It is based on seventy-eight letters, both scribal and holograph, that Bess wrote to various correspondents throughout her life. With a particular focus upon her spelling and grammar, it places Bess’s use of English within the context of what we already know about how women were using the language in Tudor and Stuart England, and the changes taking place in the language over the early modern period, defined here as 1500–1750.

in Bess of Hardwick
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Lisa Hopkins

Considers Bess’s achievement overall and rounds off the book.

in Bess of Hardwick
The countess of Shrewsbury and the Lady Arbella Stuart
Sara Jayne Steen

Of Bess’s complex family relationships, none was more troubled than that with her granddaughter, Lady Arbella Stuart. Their interactions necessarily encompassed both the personal and the political and were of great interest to the crown, especially as Queen Elizabeth grew older and the succession was unclear. As a result, substantial correspondence written to and about each has survived from which to examine their difficult and volatile alliance. This chapter traces how through their letters Bess and Arbella shaped oppositional narratives. Their letters offer fascinating perspectives on their roles in the confused events that divided them.

in Bess of Hardwick
Jessica L. Malay

Throughout her life Bess engaged in a number of strategies to secure authority through her use of objects. In particular, her will exposes the relationships through which her communities formed, and her attempt to secure a continued authoritative presence in these beyond the grave. Death, as Bill Brown notes, provides objects with a hyper-presence that can reveal the social and psychological dynamics between human beings. This chapter draws upon Brown’s work on the dynamics inherent in the relationship between human beings and objects, as well as Bruno Latour’s theories of objects as actors in the formation of networks through which communities are created and sustained. The primary sources for this analysis are rich in both textual and material form and the chapter draws from Elizabeth Hardwick’s letters, her will and the wills of her circle, as well as the many objects associated with her that remain in existence today.

in Bess of Hardwick
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Building a woman’s house
Sara L. French

This chapter analyses the significance of the innovations at Hardwick in terms of Bess’s gender as well as the way Elizabethan gender roles were crucially important to the map of domestic space in the late sixteenth century. Powerful female figures such as Elizabeth I and Mary Stuart had a profound impact on the politics and art of the late sixteenth century. Bess of Hardwick’s impact on the Elizabethan country house remains a visible example of the complex interweaving of courtiership, patronage and design with women’s domestic and political roles.

in Bess of Hardwick
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Lisa Hopkins

This chapter reads Bess’s life and achievements in the light of a poem written about her by her great-granddaughter, the playwright Lady Jane Cavendish. It offers an account of her significance and of the areas in which she is of interest. It concludes with a brief glance at what the essays in the collection contain.

in Bess of Hardwick
Telling stories from the Cavendish financial accounts
Alison Wiggins

This chapter focuses on a book of financial accounts from the mid-sixteenth century and looks outwards from the static lists of payments to the surrounding lively and animate web of social and interpersonal relations. It asks what might be revealed to us about the objects and persons named in its monetarised lists and what gendered power dynamics might arise. Early modern financial accounts have often been underestimated as sources – mined as quarries of facts within the biographical tradition – but this chapter is concerned with the ways in which they can reward analyses of their language, materiality and archival afterlife. It is concerned with how these conventional texts could be customised to serve the agendas of individuals or to accommodate the requirements of particular communities. It asks how and why a person might draw up a set of financial accounts, but also considers the implications of choices made over scribes, handwriting, presentation, personal spelling system and linguistic scripts. Financial accounts had communicative functions related to their moment of production, but could also carry meanings across time and between generations.

in Bess of Hardwick