Book Review: Hardwick Musing

Those who love a mystery and those interested in Derbyshire history will find that the two come together in Terry Kilburn’s Hardwick Musing. In fact, Kilburn is doing himself a disservice – a professional history teacher and later a volunteer guide at Hardwick Hall—he has sat down with the rolls, records and annals from record offices and archives and laid out the puzzles of the life of Bess of Hardwick, though even now the story is not complete. She ended her four score years having been friend of Queen Elizabeth, founder of a dynasty, owner of great houses, and chatelaine of superb tapestries and furniture, but she did not begin that way.

The daughter of minor nobility Bess was orphaned early and soon found herself the subject of legal battles over who would become her guardian. This was not because she possessed a fortune but because she was marriage material. In fact, when she was less than sixteen she was married to the thirteen year old Robert Barley, son of a neighbouring estate owner. Whether this was a true marriage in the eyes of the church, as the marriage was unconsummated when Robert died two years later, remains open to question. What happened to Bess then is unclear, but probably she was sent to join the household of the Grey family at Bradgate Park in Leicestershire, as a sort of lady in waiting in training. The significance of this was two fold – Bess first saw how a well run household was organised, and secondly, the Greys were a Royal house. For nine days Lady Jane Grey had succeeded Edward VI, one protestant monarch after another.

In 1547 Bess made the match that has changed Derbyshire history, marrying Sir William Cavendish. He was considerably older than her but by the time he died ten years later he and Bess had had eight children – six of whom survived to adulthood. It is the chapter on Cavendish and his move to Derbyshire that mystery fans will like: his estates were much closer to London, where he served the Queen. Why should be base himself elsewhere? The answer lies partly in his being disliked down south, and partly in the religious politics of the Elizabethan age. Derbyshire had too many families sympathetic to Catholicism (the Babingtons who became infamous after the Gunpower Treason being the best known). The Privy Council, Queen Elizabeth’s advisors, were encouraging good protestants to plant themselves in the problem areas. It was probably the Grey family who match-made between Bess and William.

We know what became of Bess’s estates at Hardwick and Chatsworth under her descendants, but life must have been harder for her. William Cavendish died deep in debt. Fortunately, while still in her thirties, she married the wealthy William St Loe, who made her his heir before dying unhappily early, possibly murdered by another member of his family. Finally, Bess married the Earl of Shrewsbury, adopting the title by which she was known for the rest of her life, Countess of Shrewsbury.

About the time of her last marriage Bess was made jailer of Mary, Queen of Scots, who wittingly or unwittingly was stirring up trouble in England. More interesting for Terry Kilburn, though, was Bess’s other responsibility, her grand-daughter and heir to the throne of England, Lady Arbella Stuart. First under Queen Elizabeth and then under King James when he took the throne without her claim being considered, Arbella was treated badly, out of society, and isolated. She died aged less than forty, her mother died at 26: Bess of Hardwick, mother and grandmother, died at the age of 81.

Illustrations and photographs in both colour and monocrome expand this book. Domestic historians will enjoy the chapter co-written with Dr Helen Wyld on the Sabine Tapestries of Hardwick Hall, which were little appreciated before the two began their researches, while the following chapter on the ‘Eglantine Table’ examines the engraved patterns which commemorate the simultaneous marriages of two of Bess’s daughters.

In the background to all this one also sees the first hints of a changing county: how rents paid by peasant farmers, millers and the like became less important and how royalties from coal mines and smithies began to appear, for example. Then there are the names – Willoughbys of Wollaton Hall; Bradgate Park still stands, even if the Grey family are of less importance; but what, say, of the Zouche family of Codnor? Their castle is now little more than a doorway in a field, subject only good for Tony Robinson’s Time Team to visit. And finally, there is or was the law. A lot of Kilburn’s evidence comes from court cases, and this reveals a few things. Even then going to law was expensive, Bess usually came out of cases with something though not everything she deserved, but more oddly, given its reputation, was the importance of the Star Chamber. When there were no police forces, and one lot of family retainers might be set to invade another property (Hardwick Musing has examples) the malefactors might be held back by worry of their case reaching the Star Chamber. Cases tried at the local assizes might be fixed by fear and influence, but that was never true of the highest court. School taught me something very different.

In his conclusion Kilburn writes ‘My Bess is a woman of her time, in many ways unexceptional. She certainly should not be lauded as a proto feminist’. A year or two ago Terry Kilburn visited Scarthin Books. Just after he left a colleague turned to me and said, ‘Mr Kilburn was my history teacher. He was never afraid to turn the supposed subject of a lesson to something more important.’ I suspect that from what he taught her she will understand why one of Terry Kilburn’s definitions of Bess of Hardwick was not who she was, but what she was not. Two appreciations of a career well spent.

by Les Hurst of Scarthin Books

Hardwick Musing, Articles, Essays and Notes, by Terry Kilburn(Jetprint,  £19.99, ISBN-13: 9780956614759)