The Letters of Bess of Hardwick

Funded by the AHRC 

Project web

Project details: AHRC Research Grant Scheme, 2008-12. Project Reference: AH/F017308/1. Funded Value: £260,472

Project team:

Principal Investigator (100%; University of Glasgow): Dr Alison Wiggins

AHRC Research Associates:

  • Dr Graham Williams (Research Associate – University of Glasgow; Jan. 2010 – April 2012)
  • Dr Anke Timmermann (Research Associate – University of Glasgow; Jan. 2010 – June 2011)
  • Dr Daniel Starza Smith (Research Associate - University of Glasgow; Oct. 2011 - Feb. 2012)
  • Dr Alan Bryson (Research Associate - University of Glasgow; Oct. 2008 - Sep. 2009)

Web development: Katherine Rogers (Digital Humanities Developer – Humanities Research Institute, University of Sheffield)

AHRC PhD student: Imogen Marcus

SSHRC PhD student: Felicity Maxwell

Consultancy provided by:

Humanities Research Institute (HRI), University of Sheffield

Centre for Editing Lives and Letters (CELL), University College London

VARIENG Research Unit, University of Helsinki 

Who was Bess of Hardwick?

Elizabeth, countess of Shrewsbury (c.1522-1608), known as ‘Bess of Hardwick’, is one of Elizabethan England most famous figures. She is renowned for her reputation as an indomitable matriarch and dynast and perhaps best known as the builder of great stately homes like the magnificent Hardwick Hall and Chatsworth House. The story of her life as told to date typically emphasises her modest birth, her rise through the ranks of society, her four husbands, each of greater wealth than the last, and her ambitious aggrandisement of her family. Yet this biographical portrayal, which has been repeatedly told since the 17th century, takes little account of her more than 230 letters – most of which have not been considered by, or even accessible to, historians mapping out her illustrious life. The AHRC Letters of Bess of Hardwick Project team will break new ground by making accessible this important corpus of Renaissance letters in the form of an online edition. Research undertaken by the team will, for the first time, consider the letters in their entirety and complexity, and will capture impressions and themes emerging from the editing process in publications, conference papers and podcasts. Through the letters, the Project team will uncover just who Bess of Hardwick was.

Bess of Hardwick's letters - the script to her life

There are in the region of 250 letters extant to and from Bess of Hardwick, scattered across 19 different archival repositories in the UK and US. They span a period of almost 60 years, from the 1550s to 1608. The 80 or so written from her provide fascinating insights into the language, literacy and use of scribes by a woman of considerable wealth but relatively modest birth and upbringing. The 150 or so letters written to her are of enormous interest for their breadth of social contacts: they are from over 60 different correspondents, who range widely in terms of social level and literate ability. The letters thus present an unparalleled historical resource: one which is remarkable amongst women’s letters of this period for its size, scope, range of activities related, variety of epistolary styles employed and diversity of palaeographic features, scripts and hands. In letters, Bess asks and learns about births, deaths and marriages; investigates potential tutors for her sons; tires to keep her gambling son in check; arranges and re-arranges sometimes difficult relations with her husbands and friends; and acts as a lender of goods and sender of gifts and money. There are instructions to servants and orders to builders; expressions of affection between husband and wife, as well as bitter marital disputes; gossip from court; news and intelligence; entreaties to the queen and her councillors; legal petitions and interventions; advice to her children and strategic marriage negotiations. They richly illustrate the many functions letters could perform, and the many the forms they could take.

Research questions

The analyses of Bess's letters focus on three main themes and include consideration of the following research questions:

Life: If the biographical tradition typically represents Bess in one-dimensional, larger-than-life terms, in what ways can close analysis of her complete letters allow us to restore her as a complex woman of her times? To what extent do the letters offer us an insight into Bess's literacy and participation in textual culture? What can the letters tell us about Bess's abilities at writing and written articulation? What can they tell us about her access to channels of information and manifestations of news, such as would  be vital to understanding the current events in her world?

Language: In what ways does Bess's language vary across her letters? To what extent do orthography, morphology and syntax, or aspects of epistolary style and tone, vary across the corpus as a whole according to social or gender hierarchies, or according to scribe or situation? In what ways and to what extent does the language of the letters correlate with broader linguistic developments observable more generally across the Tudor period - such as the growth of standard English or the rise of an increasingly relaxed and familiar style of letter writing?

Letters: To what extent and in what ways are material and visual features (choice of paper, ink, seals, layout, palaeography, use of secretaries) important to the communication of meaning in the letters and to gauging tone and temper? How can these be systematically codified and recorded so as to be accessible within an online edition? How were bearers (those who delivered letters) and enclosures (object and items sent with letters) used by Bess to get her message across?

Exhibition with The National Trust and The National Archives: Unsealed - The Letters of Bess of Hardwick

Download the podcasts, postcard and bookmark

Dukes and spies, queens and servants, friends and lovers - all of the Elizabethan world populates the letters of Bess of Hardwick. Bess herself wrote hundreds of letters throughout her life: they were her lifeline to her travelling children and husbands, to the court at London, and to news from the world at large.

Unsealed lets Bess and her correspondents tell their stories in their own words. Discover the world of Bess of Hardwick's letters in the exhibition and listen to our podcasts online:

Unsealed was created by Dr Anke Timmermann (Research Associate), with advice from Dr Alison Wiggins and Dr Nigel Wright (National Trust Property Manager, Hardwick Hall). It was funded by the AHRC, the National Trust and the University of Glasgow. It was on display at National Trust Property Hardwick Hall from April 2011 - October 2012 and then went on loan to The National Archives, Kew, London (lead curator: Dr Katy Mair) from November 2012 - Febraury 2013.


UK Arts and Humanities Research Council (AHRC):

AHRC Research Grants Scheme Award (2008, £351,669; this figure includes fec and a PhD studentship; the figure before these is £260,475). Full project title: A Corpus of Renaissance Correspondence: The Letters of Elizabeth Talbot, c.1527-1608, known as 'Bess of Hardwick'. Principal Investigator: Alison Wiggins (100% ownership). Institution: Department of English Language, University of Glasgow.

Additional funding awards 2008-13:

Subsequent awards, bursaries and scholarships associated with the project research have been awarded every year since its inception in 2008, from: the Folger Shakespeare Library, the SSHRC, the National Trust, The National Archives and, for travel expenses to enable Alison Wiggins to accept invitations to present project research, by The Mellon Foundation, New York, The National Archives, London, The Univeristy of Rouen, France, The University of Helsinki, Finland, The Huntington Library, Los Angeles, and the University of Southern California, USA, and, within the UK, the Universities of Cambridge, Edinburgh, Kent, London, Newcastle, Oxford, Queen's Belfast and Sheffield (further details are on the project About page).

Web resource and impact since 2013:

Web resource:

http://www.bessofhardwickorg - project resource produced for Bess of Hardwick's Letters: The Complete Correspondence, c.1550-1608, Alison Wiggins (AHRC PI), Alan Bryson, Daniel Starza Smith, Anke Timmermann and Graham Williams (AHRC PDRAs), University of Glasgow, web development by Katherine Rogers, University of Sheffield Humanities Research Institute (University of Glasgow, April 2013) 

Web resource analytics 4 years post-launch: GoogleAnalytics for since launch (i.e. recorded for the period April 2013 - July 2017): 

  • 243,000 page views
  • 50,200 sessions
  • 10,800 users

WEMLO/EMLO launch, December 2016: Catalogue data from was integrated into the Early Modern Letters Online Project (EMLO: Bodleian Library, Oxford; Mellon Foundation) in collaboration with the Women's Early Modern Letters Online Project (WEMLO: BA; Leverhulm; Bodleian; Mellon) with its own landing page launched in December 2016 at W/EMLO The Correspondence of Bess of Hardwick.

Oxford English Dictionary collaboration: In April 2017 Bess of Hardwick's letters was selected and assigned to the Oxford English Dictionary Historical Reading Progeramme, to be combed for quotation evidence and, ultimately, to be added to dictionary entries. The project was selected as its materials offer unusual Early Modern evidence and a rare female voice from that time, which will contribute to gender balancing.

Publications, exhibitions, doctoral theses and presentations, 2007-2016:


Alison Wiggins, Bess of Hardwick's Letters: Language, Materiality and Early Modern Epistolary Culture, Material Readings in Early Modern Culture (Oxford; New York: Routledge, 2016)


Felicity Maxwell, 'Enacting Mistress and Steward Roles in a Letter of Household Management: Bess of Hardwick to Francis Whitfield, 14 November 1552', Lives & Letters: A Journal for Early Modern Archival Research , vol. 4, no. 1 (Autumn 2012)

Graham Williams, '"My evil favoured writing": Uglyography, Disease and the Epistolary Networks of George Talbot, Sixth Earl of Shrewsbury', Huntington Library Quarterly, vol. 79, no. 3 (Autumn 2016): 387-409 [DOI:]

Exhibitions, podcasts, knowledge exchange and media dissemination

April 2011 - October 2012, Unsealed: The Letters of Bess of Hardwick, at National Trust Property Hardwick Hall, Derbyshire (lead curator: Anke Timmermann), download the podcasts, the exhibition postcard and bookmark at: and through the University of Glasgow iTunes Unsealed: the letters of Bess of Hardwick

November 2012 - February 2013, Unsealed: The Letters of Bess of Hardwickon loan to The National Archives (lead TNA curator: Katy Mair; original curator: Anke Timmermann)

6 September 2011, workshop for 52 National Trust volunteers in the High Great Chamber, Hardwick Hall, Derbyshire (Alison Wiggins, Graham Williams and Felicity Maxwell). The workshop ran from 10am-1.30pm. National Trust volunteers contributed to decipherment and discussion of Bess's manuscript letters; afterwards, in the spirit of exchange and dialogue, volunteers invited the project team to join a Living History Tudor dance lesson. In feedback forms, volunteers indicated how they might use project materials to enhance and enrich the visitor experience at Hardwick Hall

Newspaper articles after web-site launch include:

  • The Metro, News section, 29 April 2013, page 4, circulation: 1381102
  • The Sunday Herald, News section, 28 April 2013, page 9, circulation: 26187. Full page coverage with photographs: Revealed: how new letters show Mary Queen of Scots' jailer in new light: Findings change misogynistic spin on life of 16th-century Bess of Hardwick, by Rachel Loxton
  • The Herald, Opinion section, 29 April 2013, page 15, circulation 44445. Headline: Shining a new light on tragic Mary by Rosemary Goring
  • The Herald, News section, 29 April 2013, page 9, circulation 44445. Headline: Bess of Hardwick's letters shed light on Tudor society
  • The Scotsman, News section, 29 April 2013, page 14, circulation 34127. Headline: 16th century letters to go on display

PhD theses

Imogen Marcus, 'An Investigation Into The Language and Letters of Bess of Hardwick (c.1522-1608)', University of Glasgow (2013)

Felicity Maxwell, 'Household Words: Textualising Social Relations in the Correspondence of Bess of Hardwick's Servants, c.1550-1590', University of Glasgow (2014)


14 August 2014, Alison Wiggins, 'Editing early modern women's letters: problems and prospects', New Directions in Early Modern Women's Letters: Women's Early Modern Letters Online (WEMLO) Colloquium and Workshop (funded by The Leverhulme Trust and the British Academy), Faculty of History, University of Oxford

15 February 2014, Alison Wiggins, 'Bess of Hardwick's Letters and the opportunities and implications of editing women's letters online', Huntington Library / University of Southern California Early Modern British History Seminar, Huntington Library, California 

15 November 2013, Alison Wiggins, 'Bess of Hardwick's Letters: From Script to Screen', keynote talk at From Correspondence to Corpora: A Seminar on Digital Processing of Historical Letter Compilations, University of Helsinki, Finland

29-31 August 2013, Alison Wiggins, contributor: 'Workshop: Women's Early Modern Letters Online', Gender and Political Culture, 1400-1800, a joint conference organised by History and HuMPA at Plymouth University and the Umeå Group for Pre-Modern Studies at Umeå University, Sweden, to be held at Plymouth University

28 May 2013, Alison Wiggins, 'How do we build it so that they will come? Editing Bess of Hardwick’s Letters Online, (Re)presenting the Archive, University of Sheffield

29 November 2012, Alison Wiggins, 'Reading and Writing Bess of Hardwick's Letters', Public Lecture Series, The National Archives, Kew, podcast available at The National Archives web site.

25 October 2012, Alison Wiggins, 'Manuscript Materiality and Digital Editions', plenary speaker, Historical Documents in the Digital Age Workshop, for the EU DocExplore Project, (University of Kent, University of Rouen, Canterbury Cathedral Archives, Bibliothèque Municipale de Rouen), University of Rouen, France

14 July 2012, Alison Wiggins, 'Bess of Hardwick's Letters Online' on the Editing Women panel, Reading Early Modern Studies Conference, University of Reading

21-23 June 2012, Felicity Maxwell co-organiser, co-facilitator and presenter for the Workshop: Early Modern Women's Private and Social Domestic SpacesAttending to Early Modern Women Conference, University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee, USA

26 April 2012, Alison Wiggins, 'Material Witness: Editing Bess of Hardwick's Letters Online', Cultures of Knowledge 3rd Seminar Seriespodcast and summary available on the Cultures of Knowledge events page, University of Oxford

16 April 2011, Felicity Maxwell, 'Enacting Service in the Letters of Bess of Hardwick's Households', Cultures of Correspondence in Early Modern Britain, 1550-1640, University of Plymouth

16 April 2011, Alison Wiggins, 'Bess of Hardwick's Letter Bearers and Enclosures', Cultures of Correspondence in Early Modern Britain, 1550-1640, University of Plymouth

16 April 2011, Graham Williams, 'Theorising Uglyography: The Socio-Cultural Implications of George Talbot's Gouty Hand', Cultures of Correspondence in Early Modern Britain, 1550-1640, University of Plymouth

25 March 2011, Felicity Maxwell, 'In Bess's Service: Language of Service and Letter-writing', Felicity Maxwell, on the panel Bess of Hardwick's Letters,chair/organiser: Alison Wiggins (University of Glasgow), respondent: Prof. Susan Frye, University of Wyoming, Renaissance Society of America Annual Meeting, Montreal, Canada

25 March 2011, Imogen Marcus, 'Bess of Hardwick's Scribes', on the panel Bess of Hardwick's Letters, chair/organiser: Alison Wiggins (University of Glasgow), respondent: Prof. Susan Frye, University of Wyoming, Renaissance Society of America Annual Meeting, Montreal, Canada

25 March 2011, Graham Williams, 'More than Uglyography: The Social and Linguistic Implications of George Talbot's Gouty Hands', on the panel Bess of Hardwick's Letters, chair/organiser: Alison Wiggins (University of Glasgow), respondent: Prof. Susan Frye, University of Wyoming, Renaissance Society of America Annual Meeting, Montreal, Canada

24 March 2011, Alison Wiggins, 'Editing and Unediting Bess of Hardwick's Letters', on the panel Circulating Lives and Texts in Early Modern England,Renaissance Society of America Annual Meeting, Montreal, Canada

3 December 2010, Alison Wiggins, 'The Letters of Bess of Hardwick: Towards an Online Edition', School of English Research Seminar, Queen's University, Belfast

2 December 2010, Imogen Marcus, '"surelye my Lord I wos muche greued": Connectives, Clausal Syntax and Discourse Organisation in Bess of Hardwick's Holograph Letters', English Language Research Seminar, University of Glasgow

26 November 2010, Alison Wiggins, 'Bess of Hardwick's Letters: Material Readings and Editing Online', The Edinburgh Book History Seminar, Centre for the History of the Book, University of Edinburgh

23-27 August 2010, Imogen Marcus, 'Syntactic structure in Elizabeth Talbot's Letters, with reference to the conjunction and', The 16th International Conference on English Historical Linguistics, University of Pécs, Hungary

23-27 August 2010, Graham Williams, '"yr Scribe Can proove no nessecarye Consiquence for you"?: The Linguistic Implications of Using a Scribe in Early English Correspondence', The 16th International Conference on English Historical Linguistics, University of Pécs, Hungary

24 July 2010, Alison Wiggins, '"take payns to wryt out thes": Bess of Hardwick's Scribes and Bearers', Cultures of Correspondence in Early Modern Britain, 1550-1640, Colloquium, University of Aberdeen

24 June 2010, Alison Wiggins, Digitising Medieval Manuscripts, consultancy meeting, Mellon Foundation, New York City, USA

20 April 2010, Alison Wiggins, 'The History of Reading as a Methodology for Editing Bess of Hardwick's Letters', Medieval and Early Modern Studies Group (MEMS), University of Newcastle

8-10 April 2010, Alison Wiggins, 'Bess of Hardwick's Reading', on the panelLetters of the Rich and/or Famous organised by the Society for the History of Authorship, Reading and Publishing (SHARP)Renaissance Society of America Annual Meeting, Venice, Italy

5-7 March 2010, Imogen Marcus, 'What are the Problems Presented to the Historical Linguist by the Evidence of Manuscript Letters?', Isle of Arran Postgraduate Weekend 2010, Departments of English Language and Scottish Literature, University of Glasgow

20-27 August 2009, Imogen Marcus, presentation at the 3rd Summer School in Historical Sociolinguistics, organised by the Historical Sociolinguistics Network (HiSoN) with the support of the Vrije Universiteit Brussel, University of Agder and the University of Bristol, Metochi, Lesbos, Greece

16 July 2009, Alison Wiggins, presentation to the 2009 Mellon Summer Institute in Vernacular Paleography, Folger Shakespeare Library, Washington DC, USA

6 July 2009, Alison Wiggins, presentation at the Sustaining Digital Resources in the Humanities Symposium, organised by the AHRC Project Scriptorium: Medieval and Early Modern Manuscripts Online, Faculty of English, University of Cambridge

25 March 2009, Alison Wiggins, presentation to the Humanities Advanced Technology and Information Institute (HATII) Research Seminar, University of Glasgow

13 November 2008, Alison Wiggins, presentation at The Director's Seminar, Centre for Editing Lives and Letters, Queen Mary, University of London

8-10 August 2007, Alison Wiggins, seminar with the Corpus of Early English Correspondence (CEEC) team at the Research Unit for Variation, Contacts and Change in English (VARIENG), University of Helsinki, Finland