It was common for well-born girls and boys to be “put out” in this way and live in the households of people higher up the social scale, frequently relatives. These young people were not servants as we think of them. The girls served as ladies in waiting, and performed such duties as helping their mistress dress, mending clothes, writing letters, or helping amuse the children. Boys began as pages, carrying messages and running errands, and rose to become gentlemen ushers, who helped serve during the enormously ceremonial meals, or performed other non-menial tasks.
The purpose of this kind of service was to learn how to behave in good society, to develop relationships with people who could help the young people rise in the world, and to meet potential mates. Acquaintance with and the ability to call on the support of more powerful people meant everything when extended networks of family connections and personal relationships were even more important than now.
Bess of Hardwick met her first husband, Robert Barlow, another distant relative, because he was also serving the Zouches. She met her wealthy and well-placed second husband, Sir William Cavendish, through Frances Brandon Grey, the Marchioness of Dorset, who she attended after leaving Lady Zouche. Sir William’s older brother George had served in the household of Cardinal Wolsey and then that of Thomas Cromwell, and it’s likely that William followed him into Wolsey’s service before joining Cromwell’s household.
Under Cromwell, William Cavendish was very much involved in Henry VIII’s dissolution of the monasteries, visiting, auditing, and accepting the assets of many religious houses. The job made him a wealthy man. By the time he married Bess, he was the treasurer of the King’s Chamber and the Court of General Surveyors, a member of Henry VIII’s privy council, had recently been knighted, and was the auditor to Edward Seymour, the Earl of Hertford.
Seymour, the brother of the late Queen Jane Seymour, was a powerful patron. He became Lord Protector of the young Edward VI after Henry VIII died, and essentially ruled England—that is, until he was ousted and executed in one of the many deadly shifts of power that occurred during the reigns of the Tudor monarchs.
This kind of patronage extended in layers all the way to the top of the social ladder. Bess was distantly related to Sir George Zouche and his wife, whom she served. Lady Zouche had been a lady in waiting to Anne Boleyn as early as 1528, and later served Jane Seymour. Sir George was an equerry in Anne Boleyn’s household (and may well have met his wife there), and in about 1540 he attained the prestigious position of Gentleman Pensioner to Henry VIII.
Bess of Hardwick is an outstanding example of how successful service in noble households could be. With each marriage, she rose higher in society and became acquainted with more influential people. With each widowhood, she became more wealthy. After her fourth husband died, she was the richest and most powerful woman in England after Queen Elizabeth. Her position enabled successive generations to rise even higher. Her daughter Elizabeth Cavendish married Charles Stuart, the Earl of Lennox, brother of Henry Stuart, Lord Darnley, who married Mary Queen of Scots. Bess’s granddaughter from this match, Arbella Stuart, was a potential successor to the throne, though ultimately she lost that chance to her cousin James, the Scottish queen’s son. Still, it was a spectacular rise for the Hardwick family from the genteel poverty into which Bess had been born.