Bess of Hardwick
Elizabeth, countess of Shrewsbury (c1522-1608), known as ‘Bess of Hardwick’, is one of Elizabethan England’s most famous figures. She is renowned as a matriarch and dynast and perhaps best known as the builder of Hardwick Hall and Chatsworth House. The story of her life as told to date typically emphasises: her rise through the ranks of society; her four husbands, each wealthier than the last; and her ambitious agrandisement of her family. Yet this biographical portrayal, which has been told repeatedly since the 17th century, takes little account of her more than 230 letters – most of which have not been considered by, or even accessible to, historians.
Dr Alison Wiggins repositions Bess as a complex woman of her times, immersed in the literary and textual practices of everyday life as she weaves a web of correspondence that stretches from friends and family, to Queens and officers of states.
Dr Alison Wiggins is Senior Lecturer in English Language at the University of Glasgow, with interests in medieval and Renaissance language and literature. Since 2008 she has been directing the AHRC Letters of Bess of Hardwick Project, which will provide a freely accessible online edition of Bess’s correspondence. Her book Bess of Hardwick: Reading and Writing Renaissance Letters was published by Ashgate in 2013. Her recent publications include The Romance of the Middle Ages (2012 Bodleian Library), co-authored with Nicholas Perkins.
So thanks very much, it’s great to be here, but thanks in particular to Katie Mayor for inviting me here today and for her efforts in bringing the exhibit about Bess of Hardwick’s letters here to The National Archives. So this is an exhibit that has been at [the] National Trust property, Hardwick Hall, for two seasons. It’s exciting to have the opportunity to bring the display here and set it side by side with some of the original letters themselves. So we’ve got a selection of letters in the room, which is great to see and I’m going to be talking about those a little bit.
I should perhaps say how I came to be interested in Bess of Hardwick. I realised a few years ago that despite the extraordinary life of Bess of Hardwick led, despite her remarkably wide-ranging correspondence, despite these, there was no complete edition of her letters in existence or a full study of her language and letters. So I’ve been leading a project since 2009, funded by the AHRC, to produce an online edition of the letters. So this is a collaborative venture and this will be freely available in the New Year. Do get in touch with me or leave me your name if you’d like to be on the mailing list and I’ll let you know when it’s actually up and you can actually look it.
So here is Bess of Hardwick. Here are a couple of portraits of Bess of Hardwick. Aspects of Bess’ life are very well known. Perhaps she’s best known for her remarkable social rise. She was born into moderately well-off, parish-level gentry in a corner of North-east Derbyshire. Her father died when she was young, leaving debts, leaving her in fairly financial dire straits. But by the end of her life and after four marriages to increasingly wealthy husbands, she had become staggeringly wealthy in her own right. And this story of her life and of her social rise has been told repeatedly. There are several biographies and her story has captured the imagination of novelists, dramatists [and] creative writers in recent years.
So I’m showing you two portraits here. The one of the left is of her in her younger years, in the 1550s, when she was probably about 30. As you can see, she was a conspicuously well-dressed courtier. The overall effect of her dress is immaculate and rather striking there.
The second portrait is from rather later in her life; she lived well into her 80s. Here, she’s wearing a rich, black velvet dress. Around her neck are five ropes of pearls, stretching down to her waist. This is a fabulously costly outfit and she’s every inch the grand Dowager Countess of Salisbury here. She radiates authority, wealth and dignity. You might think that she looks rather stern. David Durant, her biographer, said that he thinks he can see a smile in the corner of her lips there. So you’ll have to decide for yourselves if you can also see that, or what she might be smiling about.
Certainly, we might think that by this stage in her life, Bess did have reasons to smile. Through her carefully arranged marriages of her six children and of her grandchildren and through her savvy financial and legal decision making, Bess had built the foundations of a great dynasty. She’d also realised her architectural ambitions in the form of several great stately homes that she’s famous for. So famously, Chatsworth House and Hardwick Hall in Derbyshire.
So here’s Chatsworth House [shows image]. Unlike Chatsworth House is Hardwick Hall. Hardwick built in the 1590s, now managed by the National Trust, is still very close to the form in which Bess built it. It still has many of its original interiors. In addition to the houses themselves, there’s a wealth of information about Bess’ life, which means that events and circumstances can be narrated in some detail. So we have account books, inventories, numerous textile artworks and objects and domestic interior, versions of her will, receipts and other records. So there’s a richness of historical evidence and a wealth of contextual information, which we can bring to exploring her life and her letters.
With regard to that, so this is question I want to think about today and the question I’m interested in is that of what the letters in particular add to her life, what we can gain and learn particularly from her letters. In what ways do the letters allow us to describe, more accurately, her life, and the terms and conditions of the culture in which she lived?
On the hand, to tell a broad view of Bess’ correspondence allows for various insights, in terms of the place of letters in Bess’ life in a broader sense. So I just want to take a moment at the start here to give you a bit of an overview of her letter writing. Then I’ll move on to some specific points about individual letters. So we have 234 letters extant to and from Bess and that’s a remarkable number to have from an English woman born before 1550 and even more so for a woman born into the lesser gentry. This is no doubt a really small proportion of the number that she actually read and wrote. There were only a few number of non-royal women for whom we have this many letters from such an early date. And, in fact, with a notable exception of Elizabeth I, for an early Tudor woman, Bess’ correspondence is unrivalled for its extensive scope and range.
So Bess’ letters range over the span of her lifetime. There is no doubt that letter-writing was present at all stages of her life. Her letters are written across six decades, from the time of her second marriage to William Cavendish in the 1550s, to subsequent marriages to William St Loe and then to George Talbot, 6th Earl of Shrewsbury, to her widowhood in 1590 when she became Dowager Countess of Shrewsbury, right up to her death in 1608. This means we’re able to compare her letter-writing practices across the different stages of her life. Her letters also reflect the varied chapters that made up her long and complex life and the diverse activities she was involved in at different stages.
We see her navigating and negotiating her way through activities that range from keeping a queen, to disputing the legalities of a petition, to taking to task a dishonest workman. The letters breathe life into and provide a very direct and sometimes vivid insight into Bess’ exact role in these activities. I’d maybe particularly mention here Bess’ role in building chapels at Chatsworth House and Hardwick Hall. One recent academic article has proposed that when it comes to the development of Chatsworth and Hardwick, perhaps we should give more credit than has been done so to the role of Bess’ male relatives, her brother, husbands and sons. This proposal I think would be a step backwards from the work of revisionist biographers, which has shown Bess to be a very effective business woman and a leader with quite formidable managerial skills and abilities. And the letters are very helpful here when we look at this kind of question because they not only support the latter portrayal, but we are left with no doubt that Bess was the driving force behind Chatsworth and Hardwick. Repeatedly, we find Bess giving very extensive instructions and exhaustively attending to each and every detail of her building activities. The letters have a very wide time span and relate to different activities.
In addition to these, is the broad social range of her letters. As the letters chart Bess’ extraordinary social rise, each of Bess’ four marriages bought her into a new social realm and each bought new challenges and responsibilities. Famously, the custodianship of Mary Queen of Scots and, later, the guardianship of her granddaughter, Arabella Stuart.
The letters reflect the range of her social contacts and include 88 of her correspondences from across the social scale. So these range from her servants, her mother and brother in Derbyshire, to the most rich and powerful in the land. In addition to their chronological and social range, Bess’ letters are diverse in terms of their type and topics. As James Daybell has put it, Bess’ letters are ‘emblematic of and illustrate in microcosm the wide variety of forms that Renaissance women’s letters could take and the many functions they could perform in this period’.
Bess’ correspondence extends into many different areas and her letters enabled her to conduct business, participate in politics, petition for entitlement, gather information about trade and legislation, extend her geographical networks, maintain relationships at court and fashion her own identity. So especially important is that Bess’ letters illustrates to us the value of letters for Tudor women in business and politics.
So that’s a very brief, potted overview of the letters, so I hope gives you some sense of their historical value and also a sense of why I was initially attracted to them and interested in them as materials for analysis and study.
So what I want to do for the remainder of the time I have is to say a few things about the six letters that Katie and her colleagues have kindly set out for us to day to see and which will all be included here in the exhibition at The National Archives, which will be in the Keeper’s Gallery when this opens. So far, we’ve identified a total of 20 letters to or from Bess at The National Archives, but I think the six here are especially compelling and certainly among my favourites. So I’m very pleased to say a few things about them.
So I’ve basically got four points I want to make, four examples I want to give you. One of the things I particularly want to do today is to point out to you some of the features of these letters, which would not be apparent if you read them in a modernised typescript edition. These are features which are immediate and which are fundamental to the nature of these letters and to their meanings being communicated, but which are often effaced by the processes of transcription. Some of the features I’m going to mention are not even visible from high-quality colour digital images. You can only really see them in the original document itself. So I really want to make the most of having these letters out today.
So the first letter: this is a letter from Bess written to Mary Queen of Scots. Mary had fled from Scotland in 1568, hoping to find sanctuary in England. However, as a Catholic queen, she represented a threat to Queen Elizabeth as a Protestant monarch. And the Scots queen was kept in custody, to all intents imprisoned, although she was provided with many of the trappings of a royal captive. And the task of guarding the Scots queen went to Bess’ fourth husband, George 6th Earl of Shrewsbury…His wife, his Countess Bess. So the letter that we have here up on the screen is quite a rare example from this period, the mid-1570s, when Bess had an active part to play in the Scots queen’s custodianship. Bess provided companionship to the isolated Mary. We know they spent many hours embroidering together and that their households became closely intertwined. At the same time, Bess was Mary’s keeper and was required to keep a close eye on her charge. It was a precarious kind of situation for Bess, who had to remain scrupulously and demonstrably loyal to Queen Elizabeth, while at the same time needing to stay on good terms with Mary, who may of course have become the next monarch.
So here we have this letter from Bess to Mary and the content of this short letter is rather cryptic. In it, Bess refers to the traffic of letters that passed between the two women, captive and custodian. Bess mentions four letters she had sent to the Scots queen- I haven’t identified these yet. Lots of little bits and pieces still to be followed up-maybe someone will find these. The letter also mentions the possible deployment of one of Mary’s household in Bess’ household. You can see… that it’s unsigned, which is unusual. So we’re looking here at an image on the screen of this letter, but in certain ways, this image we have here is deceptive. As I said, I encourage you to have a look at the facsimile of this one at the back. Up on the screen here, what’s not obvious from what that you see, because I’ve made the image fill the screen, is that the letter is written on a small, rectangular slip of paper. And letters are usually written on a much larger size of paper, something more like A4 size letters, like most of Bess’ letters and like other early modern letters generally. Whereas this slip of paper is more like the size of a postcard or a large smartphone, it’s that kind of size.
What’s also difficult to see from this image are the marks. So I’ve now turned this over and just put up the back of this letter up on the screen. What I hope you can see from this image, what I hope you can make out from the back of the letter, are the multiple fold lines of the letter. These correlate with a repeated pattern of small holes along the letter, sort of squares of holes. It seems clear from these lines and the pattern of needle-sized holes is that this letter was folded up very small indeed. It was folded up small and then stitched up. We can work out from looking at the fold lines and the holes that it must have been folded small enough to fit into the palm of a hand, that kind of size when it was fully folded up.
So what should we make of this rather cryptic, short little letter, unsigned, written on a slip of paper and folded into a tiny unmarked packet. There was no address on this. Perhaps Bess was writing in a hurry, so she simply forgot to add her signature and used whatever materials were on hand. An available scrap of paper casually sewn up with needle and thread in the absence of sealing wax. Possibly that’s the situation here. However, these strange features of content and form do make this letter seem somewhat suspicious, especially given the context of the Scots queen’s relentless plotting and endless schemes to escape. It makes us wonder if it had to be transmitted secretly and inconspicuously. So here the physical form of the letter raises questions about its status and the kind of security measures that were involved in its transmission.
We also, just to add to this, we also have this, [which] appears in the same volume next to the letter, which is a covering note for the letter. This covering note was written by Bess to Gilbert Curle, the Scots queen’s secretary and attendant. Bess tells Curle to deliver the letter and we’re reminded that personalised bearers were an important aspect in the letter-writing process. If you wanted to ensure that a letter reached the right person, you needed to have the right kind of contacts and connections. A skilled and trusted bearer could ensure [that] a letter reached the correspondent quickly and securely.
And we know from her letters throughout her life that Bess was adept at managing and collaborating with bearers in order to get her message across. It was a key aspect of the communicative function of early modern letters and one that Bess seems to have been skilled at managing.
So that’s my first example. So that’s the other side of the covering note [shows image]. That’s the outside: ‘to my good friend, Gilbert Curle’. And that’s the note: ‘my good friend, I pray you deliver this letter and procure answer with that speed you may and so being always bold of you, I ever with my hearty commendations, your assured loving friend, E. Shrewsbury’.
So this is my second example and my second point that I want to make. I’ve put another letter up on the screen [shows image] and what we’re looking at here is a two-page letter. It’s a draft letter, written in 1577, in the hand of Elizabeth I. So you’ll notice that the handwriting is quite bad, it’s very difficult to read; this is advanced level palaeography. So this is a draft letter written to Bess, who was Countess of Shrewsbury by this point, 1577. It was written to Bess and jointly to her husband, the Earl of Shrewsbury; it’s written to the couple. The final, sent version of this letter also survives and it’s now in Lambeth Palace library, which means that we can compare the draft and the sent versions. Provided at the back is a transcription of the sent version as well as the draft, so you can read them in full yourself. In the final version, the sent version…Queen Elizabeth thanks Bess, who she calls ‘a cousin, the Countess’, for recently entertaining her, the Queen’s favourite, Robert Dudley, Earl of Leicester at Chatsworth. [She] then thanks Shrewsbury and Bess for Leicester’s reception at Buxton and their very rare present to him.
Playing on the terms, ‘debtor’, ‘creditor’ and ‘account’, the Queen says she regards herself ‘personally indebted’ to the couple for their kind and generous hospitality. The ‘debt’ she owes them, says the Queen, is to be added to those debts already due in recompense for their ‘loyal and most careful looking to the charge committed to you both’, by which she means their custodianship of the Scots queen. To receive such a personal letter from the Queen was an event in itself. That the letter was received with great appreciation and afterwards treasured as a most precious object is attested by the note added on the outside of the letter packet, written in Shrewsbury’s own hand, which says, ‘the Queen Majesty’s letter of 25 June 1577 to be kept as the dearest jewel’. In the economics of favour, the Queen it seems had chosen just the right words to reassure Shrewsbury and Bess that their loyal efforts had been noticed and would be rewarded.
The importance of choosing just exactly the right words was not lost on Queen Elizabeth. In fact, the pains the monarch went to achieve just the right tone are visible in the draft we have of the letter here at The National Archives. The draft shows that the Queen had made in her own hand drastic revisions to the letter before sending. As I’ve just described, the version of the letter that Shrewsbury and Bess actually received is rather a sober, straightforward and prosaic expression of gratitude from sovereign to subject. By contrast, the draft is far more playful and lively and in it the Queen makes joking reference to Shrewsbury’s repeated requests for the Scots queen’s diet money. This was a really sore topic for Shrewsbury.
In the draft here, the Queen gives a spoof account of her own proscriptions for Leicester’s diet and she teasingly declares that if his diet is not restrained, she will be bankrupt and unable to repay her debts to Shrewsbury and Bess. She must therefore, she says, be strict with Leicester and allow him no more than, for his meat, two ounces of flesh, although on festival days, she adds, he may additionally be given a shoulder of a wren and for his supper, the leg of the same.
The tone is irreverent and light-hearted. Yet the Queen decided that, on reflection, such facetiousness might not be well received. That the Queen removed these quips before sending the letter is likely to have been a wise decision in the circumstances, as they could well have been perceived as deeply insensitive or even mocking.
As far as Shrewsbury and Bess were concerned, the enormous financial burden of the Scots queen was no joke, nor was Queen Elizabeth’s meagre contribution to the costs. But the Queen would take so much trouble over revising the tone of her own letter and was writing a draft in her own hand gives an insight into the high priority she placed on the management of her relationship with Bess and Shrewsbury. It speaks of the strain and magnitude of being the Scots queen’s keepers. We can sympathise with Bess and Shrewsbury in this situation, I think.
So again, we’re reminded of the importance of the visual and the physical form of the document and its materiality, including things like draft versions when it comes to our interpretation of these letters. If I had a little bit more time, I would show you some examples of letters from Bess to Elizabeth I, so in the other direction. Several of these used visual and material strategies to register Bess’ deference, gratitude and humility. For example, we find Bess writing to Queen Elizabeth and using white space on the page to register her deference. And in one case, we find Bess using an extra large piece of paper to register respect and gratitude. Neither of which are things Bess does very often, I should add. These examples of letters using white space and layout or using extra large pieces of paper are visual features of a letter that can have rhetorical impact is the point there.
These kinds of features indicate to us that Bess was alert to the communicative function of these material features and would use them if appropriate. As I’ve said already, these are the kind of features that are effaced wholly or partly in typed script or visual images, but these are most often the most obvious things when you actually go to the archive and look at the letter. So when you go to the archive and you open up a letter or open up one of these books, before you’ve even read anything from the letter, what’s immediately obvious is that this is larger paper or that it’s laid out in a certain way. So without even reading a word of the letter, you’ll know it’s an expression of that kind to do with deference, gratitude, humility.
My third point that I want to make is a letter from a few years later, from January 1582. So here it is. It’s a letter from Bess to Sir Francis Walsingham, Principal Secretary to Elizabeth I, following the death of Bess’ daughter, Elizabeth Cavendish. It was a sudden death [of] her young daughter in her twenties. In the letter, Bess asks the Queen to consider providing financial support to her orphaned granddaughter, the seven-year-old Arabella Stuart, who Bess refers to as ‘my jewel, Arabella’. Just a bit of background to this: Bess had stage-managed the marriage of Arbela’s parents, so that is the marriage of her own daughter, Elizabeth Cavendish, to Charles Stuart, the 1st Earl of Lennox. It was a union that seems to reflect Bess’ own dynastic ambitions, as it brought her own family into the line of royal descent.
As a potential claimant to the throne, in this letter of petition, Bess argues that the child Arabella must be well provided for. Ultimately, Bess didn’t succeed in this petition, in this request for funding for Arabella. But Bess did ensure that through her own funding, her own sources, that her granddaughter was given an upbringing and a level of education to rival any European princess. Arabella was precociously well educated.
So even though Bess’ letter didn’t ultimately succeed in its aim, it is nevertheless revealing in what it tells us of her strategies and modes of petitioning. So on the day of Bess’ daughter’s death, 21 January 1582, it was Bess’ husband, the Earl of Shrewsbury, who wrote to Walsingham. And Shrewsbury’s letter breaks the news of the bereavement. He then sets out the petition that he’s making and then he finally explains that his wife, Bess, is too overwrought with grief at the death of her daughter to write herself. He says that Bess takes the death so grievously that she ‘neither doeth nor can think of anything but of lamenting and weeping’. So that’s Shrewsbury’s letter to Walsingham on the day of his daughter-in-law’s death [who] reports this and that letter’s now in the British Library.
Bess’ own letter of petition, so this one here on the screen, [shows image] was written one week after her husband’s, on 28 January . But it contains no hint of the outpourings of emotion and grief described by her husband. Instead, this is a brief, matter-of-fact and rather business-like sounding letter, which simply sets out the terms of her petition in a succinct and entirely formulaic manner. It is then instructive for us to compare Bess’ stiff, formulaic letter of petition with her husband’s report of her extreme emotional pain and her excessive weeping over the death of her daughter. It reminds us that it was often not the purpose or function of early modern letters to capture emotional states, although this does not mean that emotions were absent or unexpressed, [they were] just not in letters.
Nevertheless, it seems that when her petition failed to generate a response, Bess decided that a more emotional and more expressive type of letter might be in order. So after three months had gone by, on 6 May 1582, Bess wrote a second, longer letter of petition, making the same request but this time written much more in the mode of a grieving mother. The letter emphasises her devastation at her daughter’s death and she says that she is still ‘overcharged with griefs’, as she puts it. Bess then goes on in this second letter to paint a picture of her daughter’s death bed scene, in which the tragic young woman’s dying wish is that the Queen will look kindly on her poor, tender, innocent, young infant child, Arabella.
We know that female petitioners regularly presented themselves as vulnerable or as victimised and they regularly drew on feminine tropes of vulnerability. However, Bess was not a woman who regularly or readily cast herself into these kinds of roles. That she does so here seems to be something of a last resort and she’s doing so on behalf of her daughter and granddaughter. Whether or not you see that or the extent to which you see that as reflecting her own dynastic ambition is another question.
In this way, then, we can see how Bess was aware of and was adept at casting herself into different roles in the letters she wrote. We can also observe here that these two letters of petition from Bess are penned by two different scribes. The first, business-like letter, written in late January, is in the assured secretary script hand of a professional scribe or secretary. The second, more emotionally expressive letter is in the italic script-hand of Bess’ attendant, known as ‘Scribe A’. This is an individual who was at Bess’ elbow or on hand for at least two decades and this individual crops up writing letters for her at a number of times. Scribe A must have been a trusted individual; he or she was called on for a number of Bess’ most sensitive and high-security letters. I would love to know who this person is! This is something that I’m trying to find out and maybe we’ll find out… this italic script means that it could be a man, or it could be a woman. It doesn’t narrow it down either way, but there are wage lists. If we think it’s someone who’s around Bess, particularly through the 1580s, 1590s, it kind of has to be someone on her wage list. So there’s a list of possible people whom I think it could be, but this would be great to know. This is a figure who’s really important in Bess Hardwick’s life, who is currently invisible to us, which would be great to know more about.
Back to these two letters. The use of different scribes here reminds us that many of Bess’ letters were collaboratively produced with scribes or bearers or other family or other household members involved in a complex variety of ways. In some cases, such as letters where there were high security implications, Bess would only use her favourite son, William Cavendish, as a scribe.
The language and tone of Bess’ letters differs substantially depending on the scribe she uses. The way that these two letters of petition differ in language, script and tone is highly suggestive of the importance of choice of scribe when it comes to producing a letter. So we can see that handwriting and identification of scribes is a key factor in the composition of letters and then also in our interpretation of them.
So my final example comes from a few years further on again, [it] comes from 1584, during the period of the spectacularly dramatic marriage breakdown of Bess and her fourth husband, the Earl of Shrewsbury. The pressure of guarding the Scots queen had taken a huge toll on the couple. The financial drain, the constant moving between different houses, the relentless vigilance and suspicion- these were all immensely demanding, both physically and psychologically. By 1582, and remember they’ve had the Scots queen since 1568, it’s a long time. By 1582, the marriage had severely deteriorated and the situation erupted. In July 1584, Shrewsbury mustered a force of 40 men on horseback, rode over to Chatsworth armed with a halberd and pistol, ousted Bess from her beloved property and he attempted to claim Chatsworth as his own.
The fever pitch of Shrewsbury’s fury is captured in a series of astonishingly vicious and vitriolic letters and for Durant, Bess’ biographer, these letters qualify as ‘the most vituperative ever written by a husband to his wife’. To Shrewsbury’s accusations, Bess prepared a series of counter-narratives in the form of her epistolary responses. In these letters, she systematically defends herself and employs various rhetorical strategies to empower her discourse. So, for example, in these two letters that we have on display here and that I’m going to show you on the screen, she’s writing to her high-powered contacts, Lord Burghley and Sir Francis Walsingham, asking for support. In both of these letters, Bess casts herself as the wronged wife, vulnerable, oppressed, abandoned and in need of protection. Repeatedly, the Privy Council found in Bess’ favour and subsequent biographical accounts have speculated as to whether Shrewsbury’s supposed hatred of his wife can be explained as a symptom of a breakdown in his mental health. It’s obviously difficult to attempt any kind of retrospective diagnoses for this kind of thing, but it would certainly account for the leniency of the Privy Council towards Shrewsbury as well.
Given the Privy Council’s assessment of the situation and their support for Bess, it seems ironic that it’s the vicious and vitriolic letters from Shrewsbury that have become so well-known over the centuries. Several of Shrewsbury’s enraged letters were printed by Edmund Lodge in 1791 and they underpin Lodge’s misogynistic biographical sketch of Bess as a money-grabbing shrew. Famously, in a phrase that’s echoed down the centuries, Lodge described Bess as ‘proud, furious and selfish and unfeeling’. So this stuff from Lodge is very much underpinned by Shrewsbury’s letters to his wife during this period. Lodge’s diatribe continues on in this way and he gives no account of Bess’ side of the story and doesn’t include any of her letters in his publication.
While Lodge’s view from back in 1791 might seem out-dated to us today, we must recall that Lodge is still very much with us as a source for understanding Bess. To take just one example, John Guy, in his 2004 biography of Mary Queen of Scots, a brilliant biography, nevertheless John Guy cites this exact quotation about Bess as being ‘proud, furious, selfish and unfeeling’ in order to describe her. So it seems we still need to critique Lodge as a source.
So a few years after these letters from 1584, Shrewsbury died in 1591. At this point, Bess came into an astonishing level of wealth in her own right and from this point onwards, when she became Dowager Countess, she went on to build New Hardwick Hall, the property which most clearly expresses her own self-aggrandising iconography in its architectural form and its lavish scheme of interiors.
We can observe that two of Bess’ favoured symbols at New Hardwick Hall were also ones that she used in many years in her letters; they’re features of her letters which are also visual, which are effaced in typed transcriptions. One symbol is Bess’ stamped seals, which she stamped with her own Hardwick cross. And the Hardwick cross also appears throughout Hardwick Hall in needlework, heraldry, plasterwork and carvings. I don’t have a good picture of one of those, unfortunately.
The other symbol that she uses is her initials. When Bess had become Countess of Shrewsbury in 1567, from that point onwards, she had developed a very stable signature, with a consistent spelling in a fixed iconographical form, ‘E Shrewsbury’, so you can see that up here [shows image]. As you can see, those two letters, ‘E’ and ‘S’ are linked to form a distinctive ‘E S’ ligature.
Today, Bess’s ‘E S’ monogram is best known in the context of the visual schemes developed at her properties. From masonry to textiles to plasterwork, the ‘E S’ monogram is rarely out of sight at New Hardwick Hall and is the personal motif of her personal iconographical schemes. So there’s an example of when she uses it in another letter; she uses just ‘E S’ to sign off. So she usually signs of ‘E Shrewsbury’; sometimes she just uses that distinctive ‘E S’ there after a postscript. Here it is in the middle of a cushion; this is a late sixteenth-century piece of embroidery from Bess’ own workshop that’s at Hardwick Hall today. And here it is, if you cast your eye up to the top if the building! This is a woman who’s very confident of her own identity! So [it’s] around every tower, if you haven’t been to Hardwick Hall, you must go, it’s a fabulous building. Round at the top of every tower, ‘E S’, ‘E S’.
Today, when we approach New Hardwick Hall by car or on foot along the drive that cuts through the surrounding fields, our eyes are drawn upwards towards the sky and the striking silhouetted stone, ‘E. S’ monograms multiplied against the turrets. Emblazoned against the sky, Bess’ initials continue to express her authority and presence, almost as if she intended the house to be a letter sent into the future.
Bess’s ‘E S’ monogram, then, so this is my final point now, incorporated into her signature or used alone because a form of visual branding that followed her as Countess and Dowager Countess for over forty years, from her marriage to Shrewsbury in 1567, until her death in 1608 and beyond. It reminds us of the twin visual and linguistic roles of writing in the construction of agency and authority. And it reminds us that if we’re ever to more fully appreciate how Bess communicated and operated, we must attend to the visual features in her written letters and to the material world in which they were written and received.
Thank you very much.
Transcribed by Claire Oxlade as part of a volunteer project, May 2015