Besides Elizabeth I, another “strong-willed, fearless” redhead achieved power and wealth.
The wily and determined Bess of Hardwick (c. 1527-1608) was an influential figure in Elizabethan England, ascending the social ladder through four marriages, the last to George Talbot, Earl of Shrewsbury, which conferred upon Bess the rank of countess. In a sprightly recounting of her life, times, and penchant for building and remodeling vast estates, Hubbard (Serving Victoria: Life in the Royal Household, 2013, etc.) vividly portrays a tense, roiling world in which Queen Elizabeth ruled with an unforgiving hand, all the while fearing to be betrayed and usurped. Foremost among claimants to her throne was the Catholic Mary Stuart, Queen of Scots, who was closest in blood to Elizabeth. When Mary fled from Scotland after a disastrous scandal, her arrival in England posed a dire problem for Elizabeth. Someone needed to take charge of Mary, keeping her virtually under house arrest; that person, Elizabeth decided, was the Earl of Shrewsbury, whose assets included many properties where Mary could be sequestered. For Shrewsbury, the responsibility was both an honor and an onerous burden. Required to be “in permanent attendance,” he had to ask Elizabeth’s permission whenever he wanted to move Mary, conduct his own business, or even spend time with his family; he also found himself vulnerable to Elizabeth’s growing paranoia. “Plots and intrigues rumbled on,” Hubbard notes, as she reports unending schemes among courtiers to gain and consolidate power. Initially, Bess was sympathetic to Mary, bonding with her over their love of needlework and gossip. But during Mary’s incarceration—she finally was beheaded in 1587—Bess’ “stocks of sympathy” became exhausted, and she escaped to one or another of her many properties, inherited from her former husbands, where she was involved in hiring architects, carpenters, and masons; overseeing construction and renovation; and redecorating. On one shopping spree, Bess returned with 10 wagons filled with “splendid furnishings.” Moneylending and astute land purchases augmented her vast wealth.
A brisk, perceptive portrait of a formidable Elizabethan woman.