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Her father died in 1528 and much of the land he held in the area of Hardwick, Derbyshire was placed under the control of the Office of Wards while his son was a minor. Soon after her father's death, her mother remarried, but her second husband, Ralph Leche, was clearly not well off: he spent some years in prison for debt. So Bess's childhood was spent in relative poverty for someone of her background.
In about 1542 (and no later than 28 May 1543) Bess married Robert Barley or Barlow, who died on 24 December 1544. They had no children. According to Margaret Cavendish, Duchess of Newcastle, who married Bess's grandson William Cavendish, Robert Barley died "before they were bedded together, they both being very young," but that may be wrong as Margaret was 15 at the time of the marriage. Bess had to sue to secure dower rights.
On 20 August 1547 Bess became the third wife of William Cavendish, the marriage taking place at Bradgate, Leicestershire in the chapel of the Grey family. This was a major social advance for Bess: William Cavendish had just been appointed Treasurer of the King's Chamber. They had eight children, for whom they secured powerful godparents including Mary I and Elizabeth I:
Bess and her second husband acquired various estates in Derbyshire, including Chatsworth House, which was substantially rebuilt and expensively furnished, Bess overseeing the final stages of the rebuilding after William Cavendish's death. These properties were put into their joint names as a safeguard against their being taken over by the Office of Wards if William died before his heir was of age.
Bess did not remain long a widow. On about 20 July 1559 she became the second wife of William St Loe. They spent much of their married life apart: St Loe was heavily occupied at the court of Elizabeth I, while Bess resided largely at Chatsworth, occupied with building works. Bess herself was appointed a gentlewoman of Elizabeth I's privy chamber, but was dismissed from this post after allegations that she was involved in the clandestine marriage of Edward Seymour and Katherine Grey in 1560.
On 9 February 1567/8 (1568 in modern reckoning) Bess married for the fourth and last time, her husband being George Talbot, Earl of Shrewsbury. They had no children. Her daughter Mary married Shewsbury's son Gilbert, and her son Henry married his daughter Grace, cementing the union of the two families.
In the year of this marriage, Mary Queen of Scots was entrusted to the custody of Shrewsbury and Bess, and this lasted some sixteen years, until 1584. During this period relations between Bess and Shrewsbury soured. Bess accused him of being unfaithful, including with Mary Queen of Scots. The expense of holding the Scottish Queen was considerable, as was the general responsibility involved, and this added to marital strain. In 1574 Charles Stuart, a great-grandson of Henry VII, and his mother Margaret, Countess of Lennox came to visit Mary Queen of Scots. Without telling her husband or Elizabeth I, Bess secured Charles Stuart's marriage to her daughter Elizabeth, angering both Shrewsbury and the Queen. Charles Stuart and Bess's daughter had a child, Arabella Stuart, who became an orphan in 1582, with Bess assuming responsibility for her upbringing. There were also quarrels about Bess's property transactions and financial dealings.
In 1584 Bess and Shrewsbury separated, and Bess went to reside at Chatsworth. She and Shrewsbury made personal accusations against each other. A legal dispute, in which Elizabeth I intervened personally, ended with arbitration by which Bess was confirmed in possession of Chatsworth and awarded £300 a year from Shrewsbury plus a contribution for housekeeping costs: but Bess complained that Shrewsbury was not abiding by the settlement, and even denied her "sufficient fire" (that is, the wherewithal to keep herself warm). One of the arbitration terms was that Bess and Shrewsbury should regularly spend time together, but, after initial compliance, Shrewsbury refused to see her.
Probably to safeguard herself against an adverse outcome to this legal dispute, in 1584 Bess bought Hardwick Hall, Derbyshire from her brother James. She again threw herself into rebuilding, and the resulting house was famed for the extent of its glass windows, allegedly being referred to as
The Earl of Shrewsbury died on 18 November 1590, and Bess became entitled to a third of his disposable estates.
In 1597 Bess went to live at Hardwick Hall. Her difficult relationship with some of her family is demonstrated by the way she changed the original, 1601, terms of her will to disinherit her son Henry and her granddaughter Arabella Stuart.
Bess died on 13 February 1608 and was buried, alongside her second husband William Cavendish, at All Hallows, Derby (now Derby Cathedral). The inscription on her tomb testifies to her love of major building projects: it refers to her as "aedificatrix" (builder) of Chatsworth, Hardwick, and Oldcotes (Oldcotes being another of the houses she rebuilt). She was an extremely wealthy woman at her death.
There is a tradition that Bess was told that, when she ceased being engaged in building, her death would soon follow. "She therefore continued to build house after house. At length while erecting some almshouse at Derby a severe frost set in. Every means was resorted to enable the men to continue their work. The mortar was dissolved in hot water; and when that failed hot ale was employed. But the frost triumphed, the work ceased, and "Building Bess" died."
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