THE life story of the powerful Elizabethan woman who guarded Mary Queen of Scots is being rewritten after new findings emerged.

More than 240 intimate letters to and from Bess of Hardwick – who climbed from obscurity to become the second richest woman in the land behind Queen Elizabeth in the 16th century – have been uncovered by academics at Glasgow University.

The team will tomorrow launch an online resource that will provide a permanent and publicly accessible record of the letters, which show Bess in a new light.

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The new archive – developed with the help of a team at Sheffield University and funded by the Arts and Humanities Research Council – also features annotations and analysis from academic experts.

It is the first time the letters, which are currently held in 19 separate locations around the world, have been collected, transcribed, digitised and uploaded for the public to see.

Glasgow-based Dr Alison Wiggins, principal investigator on the project, said: "Previous biographers manipulated historical sources to show her in a misogynist way.

"The image that was derived from 18th-century biographers, and what is still used today, is of her being proud, furious, selfish and unfeeling. She was said to be manipulative, the worst wife a husband could ever have, a nag and not dutiful.

"But from the findings, which include letters to and from her granddaughter, her husbands, Queen Elizabeth and Mary Queen of Scots, show she was not one-sided.

"She was actually a very intelligent, very diplomatic and maternal woman."

Wiggins compared the four-year project on Bess Hardwick to the work done on Richard III, whose ruthless reputation was salvaged after historians recovered his remains in a Leicester car park.

"There has been a lot of interest recently in reclaiming historical figures," she said.

"The rediscovery of Richard III's bones raised again the question of whether his reputation had been fairly gained or not.

"And the recent [National Theatre of Scotland] play Dunsinane, the sequel to Macbeth, challenged Shakespeare's version and reclaimed Macbeth and Lady Macbeth from a Scottish perspective.

"This work has now opened the door to look at the way Bess is portrayed."

Wiggins said one of the most challenging parts of the project was deciphering often illegible handwriting.

The Earl of Shrewsbury, Bess's fourth husband, was dubbed by the team to have "the worst handwriting of the 16th century".

"Her letters include instructions to servants and orders to builders, expressions of affection between husband and wife, as well as bitter marital disputes," said Wiggins. "They also have gossip from court, entreaties to the queen and her councillors, legal petitions and interventions, advice to her children and strategic marriage negotiations.

"They allow us to reposition Bess as a complex woman of her times, immersed in the literacy and textual practices of everyday life as she weaves a complex web of correspondence."

Through her lifetime, Bess became famous for building great stately homes, including Hardwick Hall and Chatsworth House.

As well as being friends with Queen Elizabeth, Bess and her fourth husband were the keepers to the captive Scots queen when she was in England between 1568 and 1584.

"Bess and the Scots queen became close because they lived together and they had no other choice," said Wiggins. "One letter shows the queen warning Bess that people are plotting against her.

"It's fascinating to see so many different sides to one person."

l The archive can be viewed at www.bessofhardwick.org