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Bess of Hardwick: First Lady of Chatsworth - Mary S. Lovell

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5 Reviews

Genre: Biography / Author: Mary S. Lovell / Edition: New Ed / Paperback / 576 Pages / Book is published 2006-08-03 by Abacus

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      19.11.2012 17:20
      Very helpful



      A balanced biography of a fascinating lady

      My dad loves reading books on the subject of history. So when I first saw a new biography about a character I knew he admired - Bess of Hardwick- I thought he would enjoy reading it. Unfortunately he had the same idea, and bought it for himself. So I decided to keep the book to read myself and put it on my bookshelf where it has stayed unread up to now. I am pleased that I re-discovered it, as it proved to be a suprisingly interesting read.


      According to the book, the second most imortant woman in England in the time of Elizabeth the First, bar the Queen herself. I knew only sketchy details of Bess' life before I read the book, and most of that I had forgotten. She is often referenced in books about womens role in past societies, due to the fact she came to wield more influence and wealth that is often considered normal for her day. Part of this came from the fact she married influential men, and later became the grandmother of a possible claimant to Elizabeth's throne - the Lady Arbella Stuart. We also now remember her for building the first Chatsworth house. One of her husbands acted for many years as the jailer of Mary Queen of Scotts, who was kept in another one of Bess' homes, so she was a first hand witness to some of the most important events of her day. It isn't really necessary to know much about that period of time to enjoy the book, as the various events that figure in the life of Bess are clearly explained by the author, and she doesn't presume on any previous knowedge.


      The author, Mary S Lovell, had previously written other biographies with subjects such as the Mitford sisters. I have not read these, but I would be inclined to as I like her clear writing style. In the introduction, the author deals with the question of whether another book about Bess was needed, as she had already been the subject of several biographies. She argues that many of these books carry a one sided view of Bess. It is true that in older history books I have read, any mention of Bess is usually on the unflattering side. She is portrayed as obsessed with wealth, ambitious and scheming. This is probably due to the fact she married five times, always chosing a partner wealthier and better connected than the last. There also seems a tendency to talk about Bess more in relation to her husbands career, than her own achievements. Mary Lovell was given access to many documents/letters writen by and to Bess, some of which were not available to previous biographers. These allow her to present new facts, and correect some mistakes. The author manages to make even extracts of Bess' account books interesting, as she is expert at reading between the lines, without stretching credibility. For example, she notes that when Bess first started to keep accounts for her first husband, he initially checked and "signed off" her figures. Soon she was trusted to keep the books herself, which meant responsibilty for managing large sums of money. Elsewhere the author notes that the so called cold and unfeeling Bess made frequent and generous gifts to the poor, and bought many little personal gifts for her grandchildren or the children of her servants. Overall, I feel this is a balanced biography.

      The second reason for writing the book, was to provide more of a glimpse into the early years of Bess which are usually skipped over. The trouble is that there are few sources that give any idea of what her childhood was like, so the author has to rely on describing a general Tudor childhood for someone of Lady Hardwicke's situation. I think this is unavoidable really, and these chapters are still an interesting part of the book. I have often heard Bess described as someone who came from humble origins, but the book showed that the truth isn't quite that simple. She was actually descended from Edward I, and her family could count upon noble connections, even if they were "gentleman farmers" themselves. The most dramatic events, from poisioning incidents to attempted murders, take place when Bess is older, and therefore take up most of the book.


      There is nothing dry about the author's writing style. It would probaby be difficult to make the subjects life seem dull considering the events that take place, but even so, the author manages to keep things moving along without skipping over the explainations needed too put it all in context. Due to the large number of marriages undertaken by Bess, and a good number of stepchildren she acquired, the cast of "characters" is quite long. There were times when I would have liked a "who's who" to have been included, but flicking back a few pages got me through. I liked the fact that there is a brief final chapter explaining what happened to some of these people after the the death of Bess. There are also a few colour pictures within the book, some of Bess, others of her family. I was struck by the fact that Bess had quite an individual look, somewhat different from the usual slightly styliised portraits of the time. Even without an image, I think Mary Lovell has done a great job of bringing Bess and her world alive.


      I think that anyone interested in the Elizabethan era would be enjoy this. Bess corresponded with many of the major figures of the time, including Queen Elizabeth's ministers Walsingham and Burghley, and some of those lettters are included here. Her role in significant events such as the captivity of Mary Queen of Scots, would be another reason to read the book. I enjoyed reading it myself, and feel I understand much more of those events, despite having read many other titles on the subject. I have also been persuaded to buy a biography of Bess' granddaughter, Arbella, who features heavily in the last part of this biography, as her life was made to sound so dramatic in it's own right. It is by a different author, and Mary Lovell will certainly be a hard act to follow. I recommend her book to any history enthusiast.

      ISBN 0340115893


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        07.09.2012 10:22
        Very helpful



        Great for fans of historical biographies or the Tudors

        I am a big fan of the Tudor period and enjoy reading historical books and biographies from the period to indulge my Tudor 'geekery'. A friend has bought some of these biographies as a Christmas present over the last few years, and knowing I prefer the female perspective chose the biography Bess of Hardwick: First Lady of Chatsworth by Mary S Lovell last Christmas. I had come across Bess before as a peer of Elizabeth I and a friend to Lady Jane Grey and her sisters. The book is vast at some 550 pages and I was initially daunted and procrastinated a bit, but once I got stuck in I really enjoyed it. It is worth noting that the biography is a more modest 479 pages, the back of the book is mainly appendices, notes and an index. Also there are two sections of colour photographs between the pages.

        Due to lack of accurate records, the baby Elizabeth Hardwick was born sometime in late 1527 when Henry VIII and his first wife Catherine of Aragon were on the throne. The Hardwick family were reputable and highly regarded but due to her father's death when she was a baby, they were also very poor. It was customary for young girls of such families to be sent away to wealthier relatives where they would serve as junior Ladies-in-Waiting (not servants as such, but would be expected to run errands, needlework tasks and make themselves useful as well as be good company). Bess, aged 10, was sent to distant cousins the Zouche family. It was here that she met her first husband, a neighbour's son Robert Barlow. They were married when Bess was 15, and he 13. Her husband died some eighteen months later, and it is unlikely the marriage was consummated (this often didn't happen until later in the child marriages). From here Bess moved to the Grey family, which was a very distinguished household to be part of and this is how Bess would have met the Grey sisters. It is also here that she met her second husband Sir William Cavendish, with whom she had eight children, of which six survived into adulthood. From him, no doubt, Bess learnt how to manage accounts and develop her shrewd business and financial skills that served her so well in later life and it was at this time that the work began on the original Chatsworth House. After ten seemingly happy years, Cavendish died after an illness, but with some debts having been accused of embezzlement in his duties to the Queen (Mary I). Bess was a widow again at 30.

        All in all Bess married four times, mainly to rich and successful men, and became a key figure in the royal court of Queen Elizabeth. Bess was involved in the occasional court scandal, battled Parliament regarding laws of inheritance, got to know Mary, Queen of Scots as well as Queen Elizabeth and arranged significant marriages for her children. She was ambitious but kind and generous. Possibly manipulative, but only for the good of her family. She was a canny businesswoman and a loyal friend, subject and family member. However, if you betrayed her trust and loyalty she would not forgive you easily and members of her own family often abused this privilege. Bess also knew a lot of heartbreak in her life, with the death of much loved husbands, children and grand-children. Living to eighty is no mean feat in Tudor England.

        Whilst I was puzzled regarding Bess's financial situation (her second husband left debts, and fourth husband, the Earl of Shrewsbury, denied her money) she didn't seem to go without, and continued to build and extend magnificent homes where she dreamed of entertaining royalty. Quite how this was the case wasn't really clear to me. That aside, I enjoyed this book very much. I felt Lovell described her character very well. Whilst Bess appeared to be no great beauty she obviously had enough charm and charisma to secure her fortunate marriages and her influential friends. The author, Mary S Lovell, was previously unfamiliar to me. She is a former accountant who has written a number of biographies, and during the course of her research for the book, discovered that her husband's family were actually descended from the family of Bess's third husband Sir William St Loe. Her writing style is elegant, but clear. There are plenty of notes and citations, and it appears exceedingly well researched.
        I enjoyed reading about the life of Bess of Hardwick and it was very informative as to the life of a non-Royal (but wealthy) Tudor household. I recommend it highly to fans of this era and historical biographies in general.


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          19.04.2010 16:01
          Very helpful



          The portrait of a real woman, wife and mother who was Bess of Hardwick

          Mary S Lovell has painted a detailed and sympathetic portrait of an incredible woman in her biography of Bess of Hardwick.
          She re-examines some of the evidence used by previous biographers who have portrayed Bess as a hard headed scheming woman and depicts her as a clever, shrewd, business woman whose main ambition in life is to found her own dynasty.
          In informing us of the erratic nature of the spelling in Tudor documents and the practice of using the same Christian name again and again in many prominent families of the time, Mary manages to explain how some earlier biographies may have misinterpreted events in Bess's life and to some degree her character.

          Mary undoubtedly has a more sympathetic view of Bess than we have been shown before, but who can say whether the image that she creates of her subject is any less true than other versions.
          Reconstruction of any historical character is dependent on the quality and extent of the research (painstakingly done by this author), interpretation of the evidence and, maybe, the empathy of the biographer.
          Apparently there is no shortage of documentary material for researchers concerning Bess and Mary was given access to the archives at Chatsworth and Longleat.

          Her image of this remarkable woman is pieced together not only from these sources alongside expected academic research routes but also from household account books (which Bess was meticulous in keeping) and which Mary used to show not only a character of great generosity but a skilful bookkeeper and manager.

          Numerous and diverse examples of accounts entries such as "to a poor man that wrought in the garden at Bradgate; twopence" and "given to my sister Winfield by my husband to buy her a carpet, twenty shillings and sixpence" and "paid for information of the court" are quoted in the book and used, as the author says in her introduction to piece together her biography "as in a jigsaw".

          Bess's personality is complex and unfolds over the chapters of her life as we see the child bride grow into a mature wife and later a shrewd widow.
          The four marriages of Bess are well detailed as are her relationships with her children and we see the ambitious but caring mother clearly portrayed.

          Bess was involved with some of the most influential people of the time and was the epitome of tact and diplomacy where Queen Elizabeth was concerned. She is shown as being capable of displaying a very charming nature and political awareness. Her friendship with Mary Queen of Scots and the way that the Scottish Queen influenced Bess's life is related with insight and honesty.

          Mary's depiction of Tudor England is through the eyes of the aristocracy of the time and the book has many interesting descriptions of domestic life and customs, such as "A Gossiping" (being the assembling of the women of the neighbourhood after a childbirth for a good old natter!)

          It is the author's painstaking research and attention to even the smallest detail that makes this such a fascinating portrayal of a powerful and successful, woman before her time.

          Shrewd, intelligent, ambitious, Mary shows us that Bess was most certainly possessed of all of these qualities but I believe that this book also provides evidence of a ruthlessness demonstrated not least of all by her (possibly misguided?) possessiveness of her granddaughter Arbella and her acquisition of certain lands by legal, though morally questionable, means.

          Bess had her fortune firmly rooted in property and Mary goes into detail about Bess's acquisitions and involvement in the rebuilding of Chatsworth and Hardwick Hall. Her portfolio was extensive and shows her to be one of the great landowners of her time.

          I found the book hugely enjoyable, delightful in its detail and a fascinating insight into one of the richest women in our history.
          I have already been wowed by the grandeur of Chatsworth and now can't wait to see Hardwick, both properties that owe their style and grandeur to Bess.


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            31.08.2008 00:28
            Very helpful
            1 Comment



            An excellent biography of a powerful woman

            This biography of the second most powerful woman in England at the time of Queen Elizabeth the First was published in 2005, and is written by Mary S Lovell.

            The author conducts very thorough research as she herself states in the introduction. I envy her good fortune, as not only was she granted access to the private records of the Duke and Duchess of Devonshire, but discovered a personal connection through her husband's family. Mary Lovell is very helpful in her introduction, explaining how in Tudor times names were often spellt many different ways, and gives examples of the different spellings of the main characters. When a new person emerges she gives the variations, and then states which she will be using. I found this very clear and helpful.

            The biography begins by explaining Bess's "humble" background, although it is pointed out that although they may have had little money the family had a good background and a lot of connections which could be very important in Tudor times.

            The author shows Bess of Hardwick as a woman who fought for her rights in a world dominated by men and won. Bess was unfortunate in some of her family and was often in court over disputes with her brother-in-law, husband and son. These are carefully explained by the author, as are the possible misunderstandings which could have arisen by certain names being common. For example, Sir William St Loe was sometimes confused with his uncle by historians.

            Living not far from Hardwick Hall, Chatsworth and other places mentioned I found this book fascinating. Bess's life is written about in detail and carefully explained for those unfamiliar with Tudor times and the personal histories of those involved.


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              16.10.2007 20:46
              Very helpful



              Biography of a powerful female entrepreneur in Tudor times.

              Bess of Hardwick: First Lady of Chatsworth by Mary S Lovell

              *** The Author ***

              Mary S Lovell was an accountant for many years before writing her first book at the age of 40. Biographies she has written include Straight on Till Morning about the aviatrix Beryl Markham, Cast No Shadow about the World War II spy Betty Pack, and the sisters who are The Mitford Girls.

              This biography, Bess of Hardwick: First Lady of Chatsworth, is her latest published work. Her next book is due to be a family biography called The Churchills.

              She lives in the New Forest area of Hampshire and is interested in horses, aviation and sailing. She also likes travelling and is a member of The Royal Geographical Society.

              *** Peak District Connections ***

              I love relaxing in the Peak District, and as a result of spending many happy times in this part of the country I have heard a lot about Bess of Hardwick, through visiting property once owned by her, and wanted to find out more.

              This book tells in academic detail her rise to become the second wealthiest women in Elizabeth I's England, having acquired much property in the Midlands including the Chatsworth Estate and Harwick Halls (both new and old versions).

              The author appears to want to accept no previous research into this lady at face value. (Inaccurate "facts" have previously been passed down from one historical researcher to another, until someone has taken the trouble to re-investigate.) Instead she goes back to many original Tudor documents. Some of these had been used by other historians, but she also had extensive archives put at her disposal by The Duke and Duchess of Devonshire at Chatsworth, and the Marquess of Bath at Longleat. The author was surprised at how many documents, including letters, diaries, court reports, account books and inventories, had survived the hundreds of years.

              *** Photos ***

              Sixteen pages of photographs of paintings, buildings and other items of Tudor times, add to the appeal of the hardback version to me. Some of these bring back happy memories of seeing them for real at current visitor attractions.

              *** Royal Family Connections ***

              Family trees in the book help to illustrate Bess's connections with famous people of her time, including royalty.

              As Bess was married (and widowed) four times the list of relations by blood and by marriage is long and also distinguished. After Henry VIII had worked his way through 6 wives, once you became related to him, even if only by a relative's marriage like Bess, for better or worse, you had a huge family!

              It was not uncommon to have multiple marriage partners in these times due to many deaths occurring at an early age, often by the Plague and other infections or battle. The author sets out to find why she got four very eligible husbands from a relatively lowly start in life. Her husbands were a son of a Derbyshire neighbour, a senior auditor involved with the dissolution of the monasteries, a senior army officer, and lastly, the Earl of Shrewsbury, who was responsible for keeping Mary Queen of Scots "safe" for many years.

              Even readers with a limited knowledge of Tudor history may recognise some of these family names connected to Bess.

              Stuart - family would produce James VI of Scotland, who also became James I of England.

              Grey - family included Lady Jane who was nominally Queen for just 9 days after Mary Tudor.

              Howard - family included Henry VIII's fifth wife and Elizabeth I's stepfather.

              Seymour - family included Henry VIII's third wife.

              Family trees at the beginning and appendices help the reader to understand the relationships better.

              Bess's daughter Elizabeth married Charles Stuart, Earl of Lennox, who was a descendent of Henry VIII's older sister. They produced a possible heir to Elizabeth Tudor's throne. This offspring then married a descendant of Henry VIII's younger sister, without asking the Queen's permission first, knowing that a match of two people both high in the line of succession would not have been approved off. The book tells of the outcome of this.

              *** Writing Style ***

              I was intrigued by this book, and believe it is a great book for an academic interested in Bess of Hardwick. I would imagine that this sort of person would give it the full five stars.

              It had a bit too much academic detail for my tastes, but despite this I'm still glad I read it. If I ever re-read it, I would skip the transcripts of the original documents, and just read that conclusions that the author drew.

              The main body of the book covers the years 1520 to 1608, plus there are around 60 pages of appendices and notes for those wanting supplementary information. Footnotes direct readers who want to know more detail at appropriate places.

              My hope is that in the future one of the great authors of historically accurate fiction, such as Philippa Gregory, produces a novel of this lady who represents the Tudor version of "Girl Power".

              *** Synopsis and Recommendation ***

              I would expect this book to be appreciated most by those who already have some knowledge of Tudor history, especially the Elizabethan period.

              It would be of interest to anyone who would like to know how the daughter of an impoverished Derbyshire nobleman became an extremely wealthy entrepreneur. As her business success continued long after her last husband died, she proved that even in those chauvinistic Tudor times, it was possible for a determined and clever women to succeed in a male dominated world.

              Woven around Bess's story, readers will also learn about aspects of Tudor life as diverse as the reaction to senile dementia, to how the rich ensured fresh meat when staying away from home. I was especially surprised at the establishment's lack of resources to properly investigate a suspicious death, especially as the deceased was wealthy and not just a "commoner". It makes our current police force funding look generous.

              As Queen Elizabeth regarded Bess as a friend, there is a lot about court life, as well as rural Derbyshire living.

              I believe this to be the most well researched and comprehensive book about Bess of Harwick currently available.

              While I enjoyed this book, I would have preferred a less academic writing style, with more of the detailed content of the book put into appendices.


              Paperback: 576 pages
              Publisher: Abacus; New Ed edition (3 Aug 2006)
              ISBN-10: 0349115893
              ISBN-13: 978-0349115894
              RRP: £10.99

              The paperback version seems to be the most widely available, but there was an earlier hardback edition.

              Hardcover: 555 pages
              Publisher: Little, Brown (25 Aug 2005)
              ISBN-10: 0316724823
              ISBN-13: 978-0316724821
              RRP: £20.00


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