Book Review: “Bess of Hardwick ~Empire Builder” by Mary S. Lovell

Bess of Hardwick cover

The Freelance History Writer is scheduled to go to the United Kingdom later this year on a tour following in the footsteps of Mary Queen of Scots. Needless to say, I am thrilled! So, in preparation, I’m trying to do some reading by some of the authors who will lecture on the tour and about some of the personalities related to Mary Queen of Scots. Mary was held captive by Queen Elizabeth I in England for nearly twenty years. For the first fifteen years, her jailer was George Talbot, 6th Earl of Shrewsbury and his formidable wife, Elizabeth Shrewsbury, otherwise known as Bess of Hardwick. One of our lecturers on the tour will be Mary S. Lovell who has written this biography of Bess.

This volume has been on my to-read shelf for quite some time so I was happy to give it a look. What a huge and very pleasant surprise. As Lovell tells us in the introduction, Bess is best known as the builder of some great houses in England such as Hardwick Hall and Chatsworth which we will visit. Bess and her children are the founders of the Dukedoms of Devonshire, Portland and Newcastle as well as the barony of Waterpark. Lovell is not the first biographer of Bess but she feels Bess hasn’t been presented properly by these prior authors. Previously she has been interpreted as being a shrew and as having a stormy relationship with Queen Elizabeth. Lovell spent many years pouring over volumes of letters, financial accounts and manuscripts by and about Bess and found no evidence for these portrayals. What she found was a strong, intelligent and entrepreneurial woman who got along well with Queen Elizabeth. In fact, she was a valued friend of the Queen.

Bess was married four times and had numerous children and step-children. Lovell gives us not just the details of Bess’ life but a full accounting of the lives, marriages and careers of her four husbands. This really enhances the biography as all the men are quite interesting. There are many twists and turns to this story, especially within all the family dynamics and dysfunctions. One of Bess’ husbands may have even been killed with poison by one of his brothers. Lovell tells us about Bess’ adroitness at handling her housekeeping duties, how she fed her family and servants, how much money she spent, how she entertained noble guests, her building projects and how she furnished her homes.

The years of the captivity of Mary Queen of Scots in the Shrewsbury household really bring to light the personality of Mary. I love the descriptions of how Bess and Mary sat together and labored at their embroidery. There are tapestries in Bess’ great homes still in existence that were worked on by Mary herself which I hope to see on the tour. Mary comes across as a conspirator who used her infamous charms and various methods to try to escape her jailer, even working to split up the marriage of Bess and her husband George. While this isn’t the only reason for their break up, Mary’s connivance certainly didn’t help the marriage.

This book isn’t just a biography of Bess and her husbands and family. It’s full of great details on the social history of the Tudor era. Born during the reign of King Henry VIII, the many changes in the monarchy during her eighty-one years affected her and her family in so many different ways. I especially enjoyed the insights into the operations of the reign of Queen Elizabeth I and her ministers. Lovell explains how Bess and her husbands negotiated their service at court with the management of their estates. Bess, through marriage and adept handling of her finances became a wealthy woman in her own right. This book is an easy and intriguing read and I highly recommend it.