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Bess of Hardwick and her Circle

Maud Stepney Rawson

213 pages
Library of Alexandria
Among the hills and dales of Derbyshire, that great county of august estates, there came into the world in the year 1520 a certain baby girl. Her father, John Hardwick of Hardwick House, and her mother Elizabeth, daughter of Thomas Leake of Hasland, in the same county, christened the child Elizabeth, naturally enough after her mother. Like the great Queen of England to whom she was senior, and with whom in after years she had so much traffic of a highly dramatic kind, this Elizabeth has come down to posterity under the shorter name of Bess. Derbyshire, always a great county, was specially important in her day. Far from London and Court it seemed like a little England within England. Its great families wove its life step by step, its varied landscape, its heights and dales rendered it an important strategical centre in the event of rebellion, and the roughness and slough of pack-road and cart-road made even local expeditions affairs of moment. The little red-haired baby girl inherited from her native soil, from her race, and from the neighbours about her all that sense of county importance, that desire to found, establish and endow a great family with great estates which her life developed to so remarkable a degree. That consciousness of county importance was inevitable in those days when families gave their names not only to their mansions, but to the hamlets or village which clustered round them. Bess of Hardwick was brought up amongst them all—the Hardwicks of Hardwick, the Barleys of Barley (or Barlow), the Pinchbecks of Pinchbeck, the Blackwalls of Blackwall, the Leakes, and the Leches. Not all of them were so very opulent. The Hardwicks, though not rich, were of honourable standing as county gentry, and the Barleys and Leakes were of the same social rank. John Hardwick could not afford to give his daughters large dowries, and consequently when my Lady Zouche, her aunt, took Bess into her household in London the parents were probably glad enough to embrace such a social chance for her. Up to this time she led naturally the life of the ordinary young gentlewoman of tender years, said her prayers, learnt to sew and embroider, and had seen something of the ordering of a household and the disposal of country produce, while she heard and treasured up such scraps of news as filtered through to her family and neighbours by letters and travellers who came to the houses about her, or such rumours as were bruited in the county town. She was but twelve years old when she made her entry at once into my Lady Zouche’s house and into history. We are told that she had reddish hair and small eyes, but no picture of her remains to give any idea of her appearance at this moment when she left her childhood behind her. Physique she must always have had, and with it tenacity and tact in furthering her own prospects. She was of the type in which the art of “getting on” is innate. London and my Lady Zouche’s excellent social position gave her her first chance.