Girl Power in Tudor Times

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Bess of Hardwick: First Lady of Chatsworth, by Mary S LovellBess of Hardwick: First Lady of Chatsworth, by Mary S Lovell, is a biography of a powerful female entrepreneur in Tudor times.


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.

Her next book is due to be a family biography called The Churchills.

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.


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.

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”.


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.


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

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Written by luckyarchers

I am a member of the National Trust, English Heritage and Royal Horticultural Society. Favourite book categories are historical fiction, history and humour.

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