One of the great characters of the sixteenth century was Elizabeth, Countess of Shrewsbury, familiarly known as "Bess of Hardwicke," where she was born, and who managed to outlive four husbands, thus showing what success is in store for a woman of tact and business talent. She was a penniless bride at fourteen, when she married an opulent gentleman of Derbyshire named Barley, who left her at fifteen a wealthy widow. At the age of thirty she married another rich husband, Sir William Cavendish, the ancestor of the Dukes of Devonshire, who died in 1557, leaving her again a widow, but with large estates, for she had taken good care to look after the proper marriage settlements; and in fact, even in those early days, a pretty good fortune was necessary to provide for the family of eight children Sir William left her. She next married Sir William Loe, who also had large estates and was the captain of the king's guard, the lady's business tact procuring in advance of the wedding the settlement of these estates upon herself and her children—a hard condition, with which, the historian tells us, "the gallant captain, who had a family by a former marriage, felt himself constrained to comply or forego his bride." But in time the captain died, and his estates all went to the thrifty lady, to the exclusion of his own family; and to the blooming widow, thus made for the third time, there came a-courting the Earl of Shrewsbury; the earl had numerous offspring, and therefore could hardly give Bess all his possessions, like her other husbands, but she was clever enough to obtain her object in another way. As a condition precedent to accepting the earl, she made him marry two of his children to two of hers, and after seeing these two weddings solemnized, the earl led her to the altar for the fourth time at the age of fifty; and we are told that all four of these weddings were actual "love-matches." But she did not get on well with the earl, whose correspondence shows she was a little shrewish, though in most quarrels she managed to come off ahead, having by that time acquired experience. When the earl died in 1590, and Bess concluded not again to attempt matrimony, she was immensely rich and was seized with a mania for building, which has left to the present day three memorable houses: Hardwicke Hall, where she lived, Bolsover Castle, and the palace of Chatsworth, which she began, and on which she lavished the enormous sum, for that day, of $400,000. The legend runs that she was told that so long as she kept building her life would be spared—an architect's ruse possibly; and when finally she died it was during a period of hard frost, when the masons could not work.
Hardwicke Hall, near Mansfield, which the renowned Bess has left as one of her monuments, is about three hundred years old, and approached by a noble avenue through a spacious park; it is still among the possessions of the Cavendish family and in the Duke of Devonshire's estates. The old hall where Bess was born almost touches the new one that she built, and which bears the initials of the proud and determined woman in many places outside and in. It was here that Mary Queen of Scots was held in captivity part of the time that she was placed by Queen Elizabeth in the custody of the Earl of Shrewsbury, and her statue stands in the hall. There is an extensive picture-gallery containing many historical portraits, and also fine state-apartments. The mansion is a lofty oblong stone structure, with tall square towers at each corner, the architecture being one of the best specimens of the Elizabethan Period; on the side, as viewed from the park, the hall seems all windows, which accounts for the saying of that neighborhood:
"Hardwicke Hall, more glass than wall."
The ruins of the old hall, almost overgrown with ivy, are picturesque, but from everywhere on the ancient or on the modern hall there peer out the initials "E. S.," with which the prudent Bess was so careful to mark all her possessions.