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.
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.
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”.
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