Lady Arbella Stuart

Portrait of Lady Arbella Stuart by Robert Peake the Elder
Portrait of Lady Arbella Stuart by Robert Peake the Elder

Since I’ve been studying Tudor history, I’ve never come across another historical figure with as remarkable a story as Arbella Stuart. She was a great granddaughter of Margaret Tudor through her paternal grandmother and therefore a cousin of Queen Elizabeth I of England and King James VI of Scotland. Because of her dynastic significance, she was never allowed to marry by Queen Elizabeth or King James. Her two ill-fated attempts to marry without the monarch’s permission were possibly a gamble for the throne of England, getting her into trouble with both monarchs. An intellectual and political neophyte, her expectations in life would result in a tragic ending.

Arbella’s birth was the result of a marriage which came about due to a conspiracy between her two grandmothers, Margaret Douglas, Countess of Lennox and the formidable Bess of Hardwick. Margaret was the daughter of Margaret Tudor as well as the mother of Henry, Lord Darnley, second husband of Mary Queen of Scots. These two women planned a meeting late in 1574 to which Margaret brought her son Charles Stuart, Earl of Lennox and Bess brought her daughter Elizabeth Cavendish. Margaret feigned sickness and Bess nursed her, leaving the two children supposedly alone. The two were married without Queen Elizabeth’s permission and Margaret and Bess pretended to be ignorant as to how the marriage came about saying the two children fell in love and were married before they could be stopped.

Arbella was born late in 1575, most likely at Lennox House, in Hackney. Her father died of consumption in April of 1576 and his earldom went to another male relative. When her grandmother died, all her English properties went to Queen Elizabeth I, leaving Arbella with no title or income. All her life, Arbella and her relatives, including her aunt, Mary Queen of Scots, tried to restore her Lennox title to her to no avail. Because Arbella was related to Queen Elizabeth and due to her lack of direct heirs, Arbella was considered by some to be a contender to the throne of England. She would always be the subject of possible kidnapping attempts as well as potential marriage alliances.

Margaret Douglas, Countess of Lennox
Margaret Douglas, Countess of Lennox

Arbella’s mother died in January of 1582 and she went to live with her maternal grandmother Bess of Hardwick where she was kept under close watch. Bess devoted her life to Arbella’s upbringing, instilling in her a sense of entitlement because of her royal blood and always seeking royal favor for her. Arbella received a stellar education, learning the classics and several languages. Throughout her life she would always find solace in reading and studying. Arbella would become close to Mary Queen of Scots who was in the custody of Bess of Hardwick’s husband, George Talbot, Earl of Shrewsbury.

As royalty, Arbella was a highly desirable bride. Around 1583, Bess arranged a marriage between Arbella and Robert, Lord Denbigh, the three year old son of Robert Dudley, Earl of Leicester and premier favorite of Queen Elizabeth. The unfortunate boy died in 1584 and a marriage was discussed between Arbella and King James himself. This never materialized nor did another proposed marriage with the Duke of Parma’s son. Other marriage proposals were debated but it soon became obvious the Queen would never agree to any marriage for Arbella. She didn’t want to see Arbella have children who might become rivals for her throne.

In 1588, Arbella became a lady-in-waiting to Queen Elizabeth and lived at court. While there she developed a friendship with the Queen’s current favorite, Robert Devereux, 2nd Earl of Essex. She was seen chatting with him in public, infuriating the Queen. It is unclear if Arbella was actually in love with Essex but she was sent home to Bess in disgrace. This unfortunate incident led to a decade long exile from court. Arbella continued her studies but she increasingly resented the restrictions she was forced to live under with her grandmother. Arbella recruited her uncle, Bess’ son Henry Cavendish in an ill-fated attempt to extricate herself from Hardwick Hall. This incensed Bess. There were increasingly bitter confrontations between the two women and in 1602, Arbella had enough and started to plan her ultimate getaway.

Bess of Harwick, Countess of Shrewsbury
Bess of Harwick, Countess of Shrewsbury

During the Christmas season, she persuaded a servant to deliver a message to Edward Seymour, the 1st Earl of Hertford. The message was an acknowledgement that her friends had convinced her to accept his proposal of a marriage between herself and his grandson Edward Seymour, Lord Beauchamp. Now the Seymours had a claim to the English throne themselves, being descendants of Mary Tudor, younger sister of King Henry VIII. Either Arbella was displaying a colossal amount of bad judgment or she was deliberately trying to provoke Queen Elizabeth. It may have been her intention to make a play for the throne as Queen Elizabeth was ill and dying. The Earl of Hertford was appalled at the suggestion of an alliance with anyone of his house and promptly reported Arbella’s blunder to court, denying any involvement in the whole affair.

Elizabeth’s ministers dispatched Sir Henry Brouncker to Hardwick Hall to question Arbella. After spending many hours interrogating her, he determined Arbella was merely trying to draw attention to her miserable home life. She was not to be punished but after this official court visit, Arbella was under severe stress. She wrote many tearful, frantic and irrational letters to many officials declaring she had a secret lover. She refused to eat and drink. Brouncker questioned her again about her mysterious paramour. She declared it was King James of Scotland who happened to already be married to Anne of Denmark. Robert Cecil, Elizabeth’s chief minister, wrote on the back of one of her letters “I think that she hath some vapours on her brain”.

Hardwick Hall (image by the author)
Hardwick Hall (image by the author)

After this traumatic incident, there was a permanent breakdown in the relationship between Arbella and her grandmother. Bess was eager to have her out of the household as quickly as possible as she felt she could no longer trust or control Arbella. Queen Elizabeth died in March of 1603 and there was a peaceful transition as King James VI of Scotland came south to claim the English throne with the aid and support of many of Elizabeth’s important councilors. King James was supportive and understanding of Arbella’s situation and she went to live at court.

Shortly after this a plot was uncovered which was put forth by Henry Brooke, Lord Cobham. His plan was to murder King James and Robert Cecil, marry Arbella to Thomas Grey, fifteenth Baron of Wilton and put her on the throne. Cobham sent a letter to Arbella with this absurd scheme. Arbella laughed at the letter and promptly handed it over to the king. Cobham was put on trial for his treason and Cecil spoke in favor of Arbella, saying she had no knowledge of the plot. Again she escaped punishment and the king gave her an increased pension and an official position in the court of Queen Anne.

Arbella considered the court pastimes juvenile and a waste of time and observed court politics with cynicism. But she was pleased with her increased revenue and new found independence. She remained very diligent and serious in her studies while at court. Arbella was named godmother to the king and queen’s daughter Mary in 1605. Also in that year, she managed to escape any involvement in the Gunpowder Plot to assassinate King James and replace him with his daughter Elizabeth.

In 1608, Bess of Hardwick died. Arbella would visit Hardwick Hall and eventually bought herself a home and refuge from the court at the Blackfriars. She suffered with smallpox that Christmas and then went on a progress of sorts, taking advantage of the waters at Buxton and visiting friends and family. She managed to spend a lot of money on this trip and began to hope the king would allow her to marry. She was now thirty-four and time was passing quickly. But King James, like Queen Elizabeth, had no intention of letting her marry and produce further heirs to the throne.

By now Arbella had met William Seymour at court. He was the twenty-two year old brother of the Edward Seymour she attempted to marry in 1602. Once again her bad judgment was demonstrated in trying to ally with the Seymours. If her intention was to provoke the king, it worked. Early in the morning in her apartments at Greenwich Palace, on June 22, 1610, she married William. He was looking to make a living for himself and find a place at court and was grateful for the attention he received from Arbella. Both Arbella and William had disregarded warnings from the king and within seventeen days the reality of their marriage was discovered. William was sent to the Tower of London and Arbella was put under house arrest at Sir Thomas Parry’s house in Lambeth.

Arbella and William secretly managed to visit each other and have conjugal visits. When the king learned this, he ordered Arbella be sent to Durham. On the way, Arbella became seriously ill. Whether it was real or not is a matter of debate. She was allowed to rest for a while and two days before she was to depart, she dressed herself as a man and succeeded in making a daring escape, managing to make her way to the coast and onto a ship bound for France. William was supposed to meet up with her at Blackwall. He did manage to escape from the Tower after changing clothes with his barber but was delayed or left too late. Arbella made it out into the Channel but insisted on waiting for William. This was a fatal mistake as news of her escape had reached the court and an English naval vessel was sent to capture her. Meanwhile, William had boarded another ship and reached Ostend.

Arbella was sent to the Tower of London where she spent the next five years. She sent many pleas for help to numerous people, known and unknown. She questioned what her crime was, why she was imprisoned and why she never received due process in the form of a trial. King James never forgave her for marrying without his permission and was adamant she never be released. Arbella would become seriously and chronically ill in the Tower. She made her own condition worse by refusing to eat. She would finally die on September 25, 1615, an emaciated shell of her former self. She was buried in Westminster Abbey in the tomb of her aunt, Mary Queen of Scots.

In an interesting twist of fate, William Seymour managed to survive. He lived on the continent for several years, letting the excitement die down. He would eventually ask for and receive permission to return to England where he would remarry, have a family and become a valued member of court. He died in 1660.

Further reading: “Arbella: England’s Lost Queen” by Sarah Gristwood, “Arbella Stuart: A Biography” by Blanche C. Hardy, entry on Arbella in the Oxford Dictionary of National Biography written by Rosalind K. Marshall, “Bess of Hardwick: Empire Builder” by Mary S. Lovell

24 thoughts on “Lady Arbella Stuart

  1. […] In 1436, it was obvious Catherine was very ill. She withdrew to the Abbey of Bermondsey during the late stages of her last known pregnancy to be nursed by the women there. William de la Pole was made guardian of her children by Tudor and the King was given updates on her health. On January 1, 1437, Catherine knew she was dying and made her will. In the will she says she had suffered a “long and grievous malady”. The truth is we don’t know what her illness was. It could have been cancer. The Valois were known to suffer from consumption (tuberculosis) and from mental illness. There is also the possibility she suffered from the metabolic disorder called porphyria which is a disease other English monarchs may have had such as George III and possibly Mary Queen of Scots and her niece Arbella Stuart. […]


  2. I live just down the road from Hardwick Hall and have always been fascinated by the history of the place. The story of Bess and Arbella is such a interesting tale, so sad for a young lady to be brought up this way. No wonder she was so desperate to escape to France!


  3. What an amazing life story, Susan! I had heard of Arbella but I couldn’t have told you much about her, so I’ve learned a lot. It makes me wonder whether she really did have appalling judgement or whether she faked it in order to get attention. She must have been extremely troubled in many ways, knowing she could never marry. But also so brave! I wonder what would have happened had she made it to Ostend with William. Would they have been happy? Poor woman. Using women as pawns in marriage is one thing, but condemning her never to marry at all? She must have felt such awful despair.


    • Yes on all points Jo. I think she was not versed in politics and had no power base, she had bad judgment, and she faked it in order to get attention. Gristwood puts forth the theory Arbella may have suffered from porphyria, the scourge of English/Scottish royalty which may have clouded her decisions. She must have been in despair to starve herself to death. I find her life so intriguing!


      • It’s so ironic that the granddaughter of two such powerful ladies should be so confined and restricted in this way, to the point that she probably felt she didn’t exist at all!


      • Bess of Hardwick was a bit of a control freak! That being said, because Arbella was considered a contender for Elizabeth’s throne, she was the focus of kidnap and marriage plots. It just wasn’t easy being so close to the throne, especially a woman.

        Liked by 1 person

  4. I’ve written several books on Mary Barrett Dyer, who was hanged in 1660 for committing civil disobedience in regards to religious liberty. Because of a pitifully stupid legend created in 1890 and distributed by lazy authors and amateur genealogy sites since then, I’ve had to prove that Arbella and Seymour were not the parents of a secret child spirited out of the Tower and raised to become Mary Dyer. People have written irate responses and emails to me because I took away their genealogical connection to Henry VII. Lord, have mercy!


  5. As always an informative and entertaining blog. I love Arbella – I used to live near Hardwick Hall so first heard of her from there. She turns up at court in the reign of James I and thought that the goings-on there were nothing like the real world …she had a point. I can quite see why she wasn’t allowed to marry but I think I’d have had ‘vapours on the brain’ if I’d had her kind of existence. You have to admire her for trying to run away from it all. She’s definitely a contender for a really good piece of historical fiction.

    Liked by 1 person

  6. A turbulent life! I’d never heard of Arbella before; she seems quite frozen out of popular knowledge. Obviously Elizabeth was harsh towards Arbella, not allowing her to marry, but I can completely understand Elizabeth’s motivation and think it was probably the right thing for her to do under the circumstances.

    Oh, and I love Cecil’s remark, “I think that she hath some vapours on her brain”!

    Liked by 1 person

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