Biographer of the Mitford sisters, Amelia Earhart and Beryl Markham, among others, Lovell offers here a thoroughgoing, readable account of an extraordinary matriarch of Elizabethan times.
Bess Hardwick (1527–1608) started out respectably enough, but would have gotten lost among the numerous progeny of her well-born but improvident family of gentlemen farmers had she not been married off brilliantly at age 15, only to be widowed two years later by her even younger husband. She made a greater match with Sir William Cavendish, treasurer of King Henry VIII, and together the two became opportunistic buyers of land, most notably the manor of Chatsworth in Derbyshire. The Cavendishes were masterly at navigating a place next to successive monarchs, from boy-king Edward, to brief, tragic Jane Grey, to the Catholic Queen Mary, and finally Elizabeth, with whom Bess shared an iron will and intelligence that warranted a lifetime of respect between the two women. With Cavendish’s death, the wily Bess married Sir William St. Loe, an early ally of Elizabeth (as well as a distant relation to the author, apparently); the match seems to be the passionate love of her life. With his mysterious and sudden death in 1564 (perhaps poisoned by his envious brother), Bess was again an eligible widow, with numerous children and stepchildren, attracting her most glorious husband yet, the Earl of Shrewsbury, “arguably the richest man in the country.” The role of the Shrewsburys was most famously as custodians of the troublesome Mary, Queen of Scots, and for the next 15 years she would be virtually imprisoned in one or the other of their estates. Ambitious Bess would try Elizabeth’s patience with the secret marriage of her daughter to Margaret Lennox’s younger son, producing the royal next-in-line Lady Arbella (see Sarah Gristwood’s Arbella, 2005). Lovell has synthesized admirably a staggering amount of information here (in lineage alone), and she presents it with verve.
A fascinating life within an endlessly fascinating era.