Political Intrigue and the Domestic Goddess: Formidable Women in Early Modern England

“Nature doth paint them further to be weak, frail, impatient, feeble and foolish; and experience hath declared them to be unconstant, variable, cruel, and lacking the spirit of counsel.”

This is the brainchild of Protestant reformer John Knox in his outburst against the Catholic Queens of England, The First Blast of the Trumpet Against the Monstrous Regiment of Women (1558). Here, Knox accurately describes the perceived political reality for noblewomen in Tudor England. We have a habit, most probably due to a large amount of preexisting early modern political history, of seeing politics as Elton suggests ‘the policy-making and public affairs institutions of the privy council, parliament, judicial courts, and the financial departments of the crown, rather than the court’ (Mears, 2003).

Whilst these institutions did wield political power in Tudor England, this definition fails to take into account the true extent of the political landscape of the period. Loades in Politics and Nation (1999) described the nature of politics as ‘Good Lordship’, the patronage relationship between the monarch and members of the aristocracy that came from the centralization of political power after the War of the Roses. Yet, men did not make up all of the aristocracy. In fact, surprisingly, women were also a large part this elite social class.

Marriage, client-patronage and the aristocratic residence were all parts of a broader concept of domesticity, the arena of women for much of history. Yet, in a context where ‘good lordship’, blood and marriage were channels of political power, how could those involved in domestic life not be considered politically engaged individuals? It was the aim of this project to outline the ways in which Tudor noblewomen functioned politically through their domestic roles, with specific reference to Elizabeth of Hardwick.

‘Bess’ of Hardwick

Elizabeth of Hardwick, unknown author (1590), National Portrait Gallery, London

Elizabeth of Hardwick, unknown author (1590), National Portrait Gallery, London


Elizabeth of Hardwick, Countess of Shrewsbury, through her four marriages, eight children, estate worth over £15 million, architectural schemes and her stunning array of connections at court stands as the epitome of the Tudor noblewomen. As an avid dynast, she perfectly illustrated the connection between ones domestic duties, and how they impact upon the political landscape, usually for the advantage of furthering family interests. All two hundred and thirty four of her letters have been digitalized by a team at the University of Glasgow and provide insight into her role as a marriage broker, client and patron, architectural visionary – or if you prefer one title, ‘domestic goddess’.

Client-Patronage or ‘Glorified Bribery’

In the classical definition of client-patronage, the patron provided political influence or money, while the client offered goods and services in returns for representation. As Harris in English Aristocratic Women (2002) puts it, client-patronage was maintained with the intent of upholding patronage networks that would create channels of political influence for a noblewoman. A letter addressed to Elizabeth on the 11 August 1570 from Arthur Curzon shows her engagement in this. Curzon is requesting that Elizabeth intervene on legal matters concerning a dormant warrant (with Curzon’s name on it). At the end of the letter, he details that he is ‘yours to command’. Not only does it show Elizabeth deeply involved in the interpersonal affairs of her husband, but it also shows that women were actively involved in judicial matters, even on such a small, country level.

Suffolk: ‘Marriage is a matter of more worth than to be dealt in by attorneyship’

Marriage on the other hand proved to be an effective means of transferring, attaining and manipulating power. Elizabeth was a formidable broker, and managed to marry most of her children into affluent aristocratic families. In a letter dated to January 1580, Elizabeth detailed the negotiations for a marriage between her son, Charles Cavendish and a Margaret Kitston. The letter reveals that one thousand pounds of money or land would be the dowry. Later letters such as that to Lord Thomas Paget in June 1581, reaffirm this with a plea to him to intervene legally to retrieve Margaret’s dowry. The most notable of her brokering exploits was her daughter Elizabeth Cavendish’s marriage to Charles Stuart, earl of Lennox. Because of the Stuart connection to English royalty, the product of the union would have a potential claim to the English throne. Such relationship without royal approval was considered to be treason, as experienced by others such as Lady Catherine Grey. Elizabeth avoided punishment (another testament to her political influence, she refused the Court of the Star Chamber order), and she became grandmother to a potential heir to the throne of England, Arbella Stuart.

 Keeping Up Appearances

The upkeep and design of the stately home was also a major component of domestic duties and Elizabeth of Hardwick’s Chatsworth House and Hardwick Hall are both testament to her fantastic taste and her wealth. Both of these factors are suggested by Friedman in “Hardwick Hall” (1995) to be a pivotal part of political exchange of the court. This sentiment is also echoed across Europe during the Renaissance with the Medici family also using architecture as the ultimate statement of political power. Elizabeth was deeply involved in the construction of Hardwick Hall and Chatsworth House, with her letters detailing instructions on construction and hiring tradesmen.

Chatsworth House, Derbyshire in Pride and Prejudice (2005)

Chatsworth House, Derbyshire in Pride and Prejudice (2005)

Hardwick Hall, Derbyshire - Photo by the National Trust

Hardwick Hall, Derbyshire – Photo by the National Trust
(Take note of the balustrade and the distinctive “ES” for Elizabeth Shrewsbury)

Hamlet: ‘Frailty, thy name is woman!’

It is evident through the letters of Elizabeth of Hardwick that noblewomen managed to engage in the political landscape of Tudor England through a variety of domestic roles. Elizabeth was not alone in this endeavour, many of her contemporaries, among the likes of Honor Plantagenet, Viscountess Lisle and Margaret Beaufort, Countess of Richmond and Derby and mother to Henry VII also engaged in this activity. They fulfilled not only positions as politically involved noblewomen, but also as domestic goddesses.

Further Reading:

Primary Source Material

Knox, John. The First Blast of the Trumpet Against the Monstrous Regiment of Women. Early English Books Online,1558.

Bess of Hardwick’s Letters: The Complete Correspondence c. 1550–1608. http://www.bessofhardwick.org/home.jsp, accessed 20 October 2013.’Bess of Hardwick’s Letters’ was developed by The University of Glasgow with technical development provided by The Humanities Research Institute at The University of Sheffield.

Note: Elizabethan English makes Shakespeare look like a walk in the park – You do get the hang of it eventually! The website has a useful filter so that you can search by specific areas, say ‘marriage’ or ‘gift exchange’!

Also, the project website: Wiggins, Alison. “Who Was Bess of Hardwick?” The University of Glasgow: http://www.gla.ac.uk/schools/critical/research/fundedresearchprojects/bessofhardwick/

Secondary Source Material 

Roger J. Crum. “Roberto Martelli, the Council of Florence, and the Medici Palace Chapel.” Zeitschrift fur Kunstgeschichte 59 (1996): pp. 403-417

Daybell, James. “Introduction: Rethinking Women and Politics in Early Modern England.” in Women and Politics in Early Modern England, 1450-1700. ed. James Daybell. Hampshire: Ashgate, 2004, pp. 1-20

Friedman, Alice. “Hardwick Hall.” History Today 45 (1995): pp. 27-33

Goldring, Elizabeth. “Talbot, Elizabeth [Bess of Hardwick], countess of Shrewsbury (1527?-1608)”, Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, Oxford University Press, 2004  [http://www.oxforddnb.com/index/26/101026925/, accessed 17 October 2013]

Harris, Barbara J. English Aristocratic Women 1450-1550: Marriage and Family, Property and Careers. New York: Oxford University Press, 2002 (anything, ever, by Barbara Harris is amazing for this subject.)

Heal, Felicity, “Food Gift, the Household and the Politics of Exchange in Early Modern England”, Past and Present 199 (2008): pp. 41-70

Loades, David M. Politics and Nation. Oxford: Blackwell Publishers Ltd, 1999

Mears, Natalie. “Court, Courtiers, and Culture in Tudor England.” The Historical Journal 46 (2003): pp. 703-722

Seward, Desmond. The Wars of the Roses: Through the Lives of Five Men and Women of the Fifteenth Century. USA: Viking, 1995 Wiesner-Hanks,

Merry. “Gender Theory and the Study of Early-Modern Europe.” in Practices of Gender in Late Medieval and Early Modern Europe. ed. Megan Cassidy-Welch and Peter Sherlock. Belgium: Brepols Publishers, 2008, pp. 7-24


One comment on “Political Intrigue and the Domestic Goddess: Formidable Women in Early Modern England

  1. persephx says:

    Hi! I found your post really interesting, particularly as I usually find this early-modern period in history to be quite bland – but you’ve proven it isn’t!

    I really find that client-patronage relationship so intriguing, particularly as it was a way in which women could achieve more, basically being manipulative and getting their way. How things haven’t changed! Ha ha.

    Thanks for an interesting read!

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