Bess of Hardwick + Margaret Douglas

Bess of Hardwick

Dr Fiona Clapperton examines two portraits in the Museum and explores the stories of their powerful sitters. Take a closer look at Bess of Hardwick in the style of Rowland Lockey, from around 1587, and a portrait said to be of Margaret Douglas, Countess of Lennox (1515–1578), artist unknown, 1575.

These two matriarchs lived in the Tudor and Stuart periods. Both struggled against traditions and conventions in order to shape their own lives. They lived through a dangerous period of history which saw many of their acquaintances imprisoned and executed, and yet they managed to die safely in their beds – having shaped not only their own lives, but also having created great dynasties.

Bess of Hardwick

Bess of Hardwick

Bess of Hardwick in the style of Rowland Lockey, around 1587. © Harley Foundation, The Portland Collection


This is one of the most famous images depicting Bess of Hardwick.[1]  In his memoirs, ‘Men, Women and Things’, the 6th Duke of Portland referenced this exact portrait and wrote that:

‘I once showed it to two American ladies and told them, ‘That is Bess of Hardwick’. ‘Oh, indeed?’  they replied, probably never having heard of her. ‘Yes’, I said, ‘and she had four husbands.’ ‘Well’, remarked one of the ladies… ‘she didn’t do so badly… four Ropes of Pearls – one for each husband I suppose!’[2]

Whilst the American ladies may not have known her name, Bess is often considered one of the most famous women of the Elizabethan period. She has special significance for Welbeck as the owners of the estate are descended from her, via her third son, Charles. When she died, she was the second richest lady in the country. Only the Queen’s wealth surpassed her own. She saw the reigns of 5 monarchs, from Henry VIII to James I. And, as the quote from the 6th Duke of Portland shows, she is famous for marrying 4 times, with each husband being richer than the last.

Rising through the ranks

Yet, Bess came from relatively humble beginnings. She was born into a family of respectable but impoverished Derbyshire landowners. When she was only a baby, her father passed away and the family’s finances fell into disarray. Funds were tight and she was one of five children. Bess left home at the age of 12, to serve in the household of a distant relative named Lady Zouche.

Bess wasn’t employed as a servant. She served Lady Zouche as a junior lady in waiting. This kind of service was common for the children of Tudor gentry and nobility. Families would seek places for their daughters and sons as pages and ladies in waiting to families above them in the social hierarchy.[3] Here, their bed and board be provided for. They would also learn important skills relating to running a household, and make important social connections.

Bess’s first marriage

In the Zouche’s household, Bess met Robert Barlow. He was a year or two younger than her, and the heir to a gentry family whose estate was close to her family home of Hardwick. The Hardwick and Barlow families could see strategic benefits to a match between the two teenagers. And so the couple were married when Bess was around 15 and Robert was only 13.

Because of their youth, the new couple didn’t live together. Instead, they remained in service with the Zouche’s for the time being. Bess’s father-in-law passed away a couple of months into the marriage, and the estate passed to Robert. However, Bess never became mistress of Barlow because her husband did not survive his father for long. He died shortly after he gained his inheritance.

The teenaged Bess was now a widow. The terms of her marriage promised her a widow’s jointure for life. However, the new heir to the Barlow estates didn’t want to provide for the upkeep of a woman who had only briefly been married to his predecessor. And in addition, she could potentially live for many more years. The terms of the will were contested and over the next few years, Bess had to appeal to the courts in order to secure her widow’s payments.

Frances Grey

Given her family circumstances, she was very much in need of this money. In the meantime, she moved on from Lady Zouche’s service to become a lady-in-waiting to Frances Grey. She was a niece of Henry VIII and the mother of Lady Jane Grey. This helped Bess to start mixing with the top tier of Tudor society – particularly those members of the protestant faction at court.

While serving the Grey family, she met and married the twice-widowed Sir William Cavendish, a respected courtier. The match was mutually beneficial. Although Bess was poor, her family were from respectable gentry stock and she had now forged some connections with the nobility. Twenty years older than Bess, William came from a more humble family and was a younger son. However, he had amassed a fortune due to his work for Cromwell on the dissolution of the monasteries and he had made good contacts at court. Together, the couple compensated for each other’s shortcomings.[4]


On Bess’s advice, the couple bought the Chatsworth estate in Derbyshire. They retreated here during the conflict between Mary Tudor and the Grey family when Frances’ daughter Jane was pronounced Queen. Bess and William kept a low profile during this time and managed to survive when many of their friends from the protestant faction were executed or imprisoned by the triumphant Mary Tudor.

Their marriage was happy and resulted in six surviving children. But in 1557 Bess, still only 30, was widowed again. Faced with large debts which Cavendish had accumulated, Bess was once more required to represent herself at the courts. She also chose to remarry.

‘Sweet love’

Her third husband was William St Loe. St. Loe was almost ten years older than Bess and came from an old, wealthy and respected noble family famed for their military service. After fighting in Ireland in his youth, William then worked in the service of Princess Elizabeth as head of her guard for many years. He had even spent some time under arrest in the Tower of London when Queen Mary had suspected her half-sister of treason. Bess and St. Loe married weeks before Elizabeth inherited the crown and St. Loe returned to the Tower triumphantly as the captain of the new Queen’s guard.

It seems that he and Bess had a very close relationship. They exchanged romantic letters to each other throughout their marriage, with St. Loe referring to Bess as his ‘sweet love’.[5] He died eight years later, leaving most of his estate to Bess. By now Bess was wealthy enough to live independently, but she was still relatively young at 38. She decided to marry again when she was approached by George Talbot, 6th Earl of Shrewsbury, one of the richest and most powerful men in the country.

Natural charm

Consider how far Bess had come from her humble beginnings. This new match was the equivalent of a farmer’s daughter from the midlands marrying the Prince William of his day. It begs the question, how did Bess manage this in an age when social mobility was extremely limited? Although this portrait depicts her at the mature age of 58, we know from contemporary reports that she wasn’t considered particularly beautiful in her youth.  Writing a century after her death, Horace Walpole joked about Bess that:

Four Times the nuptial bed she warmed,
And every time so well performed,
That when death spoiled each husband’s billing
He left the widow every shilling.[6]

In reality, historians believe that Bess was a clever, witty and personable woman. She had a natural charm which her letters show helped her to flatter people and make them feel like they were special and important. She was also outgoing and very capable. Historians believe that it was these personal qualities which made Bess an attractive match. Her two later marriages were love matches which was extremely rare amongst the aristocracy at this time.

So, whilst Bess’s fourth marriage is now famous for being acrimonious, at the start of the union, relations between husband and wife appeared to be very loving. Bess and Shrewsbury even cemented the union by arranging marriages between two sets of their children from their previous marriages. Yet, Bess, who as we have seen, had risen from humble beginnings, ensured that Chatsworth and some of her other estates would remain under her direct control by getting Shrewsbury to sign a kind of pre-nup.

Mary, Queen of Scots

Troubles in the marriage began when Queen Elizabeth made Shrewsbury the custodian of Mary, Queen of Scots. Although this role seemed prestigious, it was actually onerous and very expensive. Over the course of 15 years, Mary was shuttled between Shrewsbury’s many houses. Shrewsbury couldn’t leave his prisoner, so he and Bess increasingly spent time apart.

As Shrewsbury’s finances were drained by the cost of housing Queen Mary, he became suspicious and paranoid about Bess maintaining control of her own estates and the time and money she devoted to remodelling Chatsworth on a grand scale. Historians have drawn attention to evidence that Shrewsbury may have suffered from a stroke or else from a health condition like dementia which led to personality changes and paranoia.[7]

Shrewsbury became even more angry when Bess damaged relations with Queen Elizabeth by secretly engineering a marriage between one of her daughters, Elizabeth, and Charles Stuart who had a claim to the English throne.

Retreat to Hardwick

In 1584 the marriage broke down completely, culminating in Bess being forced to flee from Chatsworth under threat of attack from her husband and forty armed men. She retreated to Hardwick, her old family home which she now owned outright. Here she concentrated on renovating and furnishing her home.

Six years later, Shrewsbury died, leaving Bess with an even larger income than she’d had already. A widow for the fourth and last time, Bess was now in her early sixties and was extremely rich. She spent her remaining years renovating the Hardwick estate, even building an entirely new house which became known as New Hall. She died in 1608, five years into the reign of King James I and aged over 80. She left her second son William most of her great estates, including the two Hardwicks. Her third son, Charles, inherited a great fortune and used it to buy Welbeck Abbey from his Shrewsbury stepbrother, Gilbert.


Margaret Douglas

Said to be Margaret Douglas, Countess of Lennox, Artist unknown, 1575. © Harley Foundation, The Portland Collection

Said to be Margaret Douglas, Countess of Lennox, Artist unknown, 1575. © Harley Foundation, The Portland Collection


Lady Margaret Douglas lived an exciting life. She tried to elope, was imprisoned in the Tower of London on multiple occasions, lived through the assassination of her husband and the murder of her son in the most notorious crime of the 16th century. Yet she is often forgotten when we talk about the Tudors, and you possibly wouldn’t think much of her by looking at this portrait, in which she is shown as an elderly woman.

Margaret’s mother was Margaret Tudor, the elder sister of Henry VIII and Dowager Queen of Scots. Her father was the Earl of Angus, and the marriage of her parents so soon after the death of her mother’s first husband, the King, had caused a scandal at the Scottish court. Margaret was born in England after her parents were forced to flee across the border to seek safety.

Her parent’s relationship quickly turned sour. The Earl had been hoping to secure riches and power through this marriage.[8] When it became clear that he would be unable to influence his stepson, the new King of Scots, the Earl became disappointed. The marriage was annulled, which caused an even bigger scandal.[9]

Henry VIII

The Dowager Queen Margaret seems to have been keen to forget this tempestuous period of her life, and she returned to Scotland, abandoning her young daughter.[10] After a brief period with her father, Lady Margaret went to live with her uncle, Henry VIII. The king was very fond of his niece and treated her kindly as a member of the family. She received gifts of clothes and money and was given prestigious positions at court as lady-in-waiting to his daughter, Mary, and then to his second wife, Anne Boleyn.

As a teenager, Margaret became part of a circle of courtiers who spent their time gambling, dancing, singing and flirting. During this period, Margaret fell in love with a young nobleman and became secretly engaged. When the Queen was suddenly arrested and executed, the story of Margaret’s betrothal came out. The king was horrified.

By this time, Henry had declared both his daughters illegitimate and he didn’t yet have a son. This placed his niece, Margaret, very close to the throne. Henry was furious. He had wanted to arrange a politically useful marriage for Margaret that would benefit the crown. He was also paranoid that the young nobleman wanted to use Margaret to make himself King of England, just as Margaret’s father had hoped to control the crown of Scotland. His other fear was that the couple wanted to create a rival branch to the royal family.

The Tower of London

The two teenagers were arrested and held in the Tower of London, where Margaret’s fiancé died of ill health one year later. The King also passed a new law, forbidding members of the royal family from marrying without the monarch’s permission. This law would shape Margaret’s life.

Margaret was eventually forgiven and went on to serve Henry’s three later queens, Anne of Cleves, Catherine Howard and Katherine Parr, appearing at court occasions, and being treated almost as a princess. It was not until she was nearly 29, that Henry decided on a husband for Margaret. He chose the Earl of Lennox, a Scot who had recently joined a pro-English faction. In a deal to safeguard his loyalty to England, Margaret was offered as his bride. They were married in the presence of the King and Queen and to sweeten the deal further, her uncle settled a huge parcel of land in northern England on the couple.

Margaret and Lennox were the same age and grew to have a loving relationship. For the next few years, life was good for Margaret. She had two sons and when her much-loved cousin, Mary, became Queen. Margaret became her chief lady-in-waiting. Her fortunes during this period are a contrast to Bess’s experiences. You might remember that Bess was living in a kind of self-imposed exile at Chatsworth at this time, trying to keep a low profile.

Mary favoured her cousin Margaret so much that she was often given precedence over the queen’s half-sister, Princess Elizabeth. Mary even considered making Margaret her heir, but abandoned this plan when it became apparent that it would not be politically acceptable. This did not endear Margaret to Princess Elizabeth, and, when the latter became queen, it was made clear that Margaret would not be welcome at court.

Plotting for power

Perhaps now that she was out of favour, Margaret felt like she had nothing to lose. She soon began plotting to achieve power and prestige for her family, and as it seemed this couldn’t be achieved in England, she turned her attention to her ancestral home of Scotland.

Margaret sent messengers carrying letters to Mary Queen of Scots – her niece. The Spanish ambassador caught wind of her plans and wrote ‘Margaret Lennox is trying to marry her son…to the queen of Scotland, and I understand she is not without hope of succeeding.’[11] Somehow, Margaret managed to convince Elizabeth to let her son travel to Scotland. There, within a few weeks, he had charmed the Queen of Scots and married her.

Like her father, Elizabeth was concerned about a rival branch of the royal family which would seek to inherit her crown. In this marriage, both the bride and groom were descended from the Tudors. Mary Queen of Scots had already made it clear that she considered herself the lawful heir to the throne of England. This wedding had only strengthened her claim and that of any children she may have.

Return to the Tower

This was too much for Elizabeth and she flew into a terrible rage, imprisoning Margaret in the Tower of London once more. Margaret was only released from the tower when her son died unexpectedly in a scandalous murder two years later. Even Elizabeth must have felt sorry for Margaret. The palace he had been staying in was blown up with gunpowder, and in a suspicious turn of events, his body was found to have been strangled. The likely culprit was the Earl of Bothwell.

Even more suspiciously, Bothwell married the newly widowed Queen of Scots shortly after these events. The Scottish court revolted against them, and Mary fled Scotland just as Margaret Tudor had done all those years before. As we already know, Mary became Shrewsbury’s prisoner and her infant son was declared King in her stead. The mourning ring Margaret wears in this portrait may relate to the murder of her son.

King James VI

Following these tumultuous events, Elizabeth permitted Margaret’s husband to take up the regency of his baby grandson, the young King James VI. However, for good reasons, Elizabeth didn’t fully trust her cousin who had only just returned from the tower, so Margaret and her younger son stayed in England as hostages. Within months Margaret’s beloved husband was assassinated in a skirmish outside Stirling. Fearing for Margaret’s health with the loss of her husband so soon after the death of her son, Elizabeth told her personally. Margaret was overcome with grief.

Bess of Hardwick

Yet, despite being in mourning, Margaret continued to plot to achieve her dynastic ambitions. In 1573, Margaret and her friend, Bess of Hardwick planned a marriage between her younger son, Lord Charles Stuart and Bess’s daughter, Elizabeth Cavendish. Both women had a lot to gain from this match. For Bess, it would forge a link between her family and the Tudors. For Margaret, the temptation was probably the generous dowry Bess had promised for her daughter. The two women came up with a plan.

Margaret and her son travelled to stay with Bess at Rufford Abbey. She came down with an illness which forced her to her bed for five days. Bess ‘tended’ to her friend and the young people were left alone. Apparently, in this time, Charles and Elizabeth fell deeply in love.

Some historians have suggested that Margaret feigned her illness in order to try to avoid angering Elizabeth I.[12] If this is true, her efforts were unsuccessful. After the death of his brother, Charles had become Queen Elizabeth’s nearest English-born male relative. The queen could hardly believe these events when she heard about them and was furious.

Lady Arbella Stuart

Academics have questioned whether Margaret was naive or if she was just so ambitious that she didn’t care about angering the Queen.[13] Once more, Margaret was returned to the Tower having broken the law relating to unauthorised royal marriages. Charles and his wife were parted, although not before she had conceived. In 1575, Margaret’s second grandchild, Lady Arbella Stuart, was born. Sadly, Lord Charles died in 1577, aged only 21. In the wake of this latest loss, Margaret was released from the tower for the final time. Until her death, she and Bess shared custardy of their granddaughter.

Female ambition

Bess’s life gives us an extraordinary example of a woman rising from the brink of financial ruin, to the upper tier of society in an age where social mobility, particularly for women, was extremely limited. Margaret’s story tells us about the paranoia of the Tudor monarchs, and a woman’s determination to make her own decisions regardless of external pressures.

Together, they give us an insight into female ambition during the Tudor period. Both women used all the tools at their disposal to shape their own lives and to found great dynasties. Perhaps it shouldn’t surprise us that they became friends and allies.

And after all, maybe Elizabeth was right to be concerned about their ambitions. Margaret’s grandson – the only child of Mary Queen of Scots, did eventually succeed to the throne as James I of England. The current King is one of her descendants. Meanwhile, Bess’s descendants became the Dukes of Devonshire, Newcastle and Portland.



[1] 6th Duke of Portland, ‘Men, Women and Things’, p.87.

[2] 6th Duke of Portland, ‘Men, Women and Things’, p.87.

[3] Mary Lovell, Bess of Hardwick, p.19.

[4] Mary Lovell, Bess of Hardwick, p.47.

[5] Mary Lovell, Bess of Hardwick, p.143.

[6] Mary Lovell, Bess of Hardwick, p. XIV.

[7] Mary Lovell, Bess of Hardwick, pp. 256-257.

[8] Alison Weir, The Lost Tudor Princess, pp.14-15.

[9] Alison Weir, The Lost Tudor Princess, pp.24-25.

[10] Alison Weir, The Lost Tudor Princess, p.27.

[11] ‘This Woman and her Son’: Margaret Douglas and Henry, Lord Darnley – History Scotland

[12] Mary Lovell, Bess of Hardwick, p.245.

[13] Mary Lovell, Bess of Hardwick, p.244.



Fiona Clapperton – Education

Dr Fiona Clapperton

Fiona is a historian and educator. She has a PhD the social history of Country Estates, and her experience includes working at Chatsworth, English Heritage, and the Wallace Collection.

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