The Daring Escape of Arbella Stuart

Lady Arbella Stuart by Marcus Gheerhaerts the Younger
Lady Arbella Stuart by Marcus Gheerhaerts the Younger

On June 22, 1610, in the early hours of the morning in her apartments at Greenwich Palace, thirty-four year old Arbella Stuart married twenty-two year old William Seymour. But this wasn’t just any marriage. Arbella was a cousin of the current English king, James I and a descendant of Margaret Tudor, eldest sister of King Henry VIII. And William was a descendant of Mary Tudor, younger sister of King Henry so any children born of the union would have a claim to the English throne. Their marriage wasn’t a crime in itself. But the couple had been given warnings by the King not to wed and they failed to tell him they were marrying as he most likely would have forbidden them to do so.

The marriage was eventually discovered on July 8th when both Arbella and William were arrested. William was clapped into the Tower of London and Arbella was put under genteel custody at Sir Thomas Parry’s house in Lambeth. Security in the Tower at the time was not very tight and William succeeded in leaving his confinement to visit Arbella. However, the King was quickly informed about William’s outings and in March of 1611, orders were given for Parry to deliver Arbella to the Bishop of Durham, far in the north of England where she would be at a great distance from William and could no longer see him.

Arbella, who was hardly stable in a crisis, was beside herself. The Bishop of Durham arrived at Lambeth on the morning of March 16th to find her in a panic. She was pale and swooning, asking the Bishop to postpone her departure another day. The Bishop being under the king’s orders was unable to delay. He spoke gently to her and managed to calm her down. She finally agreed to start her journey where the first stop would be in Barnet.

But Arbella was high strung and fragile and due to the despair she had been thrown into, became frighteningly ill. She was carried in a litter to Highgate and given chambers in the home of Sir William Bond and his wife around eleven o’clock at night. Along the way she fainted three times and was given restoratives. She was lifted from her litter and taken to bed where she lay unconscious for some time and then finally fell into a deep sleep. The Bishop came to her bedside in the morning and reminded her of her duty to travel. She protested she couldn’t take even one step and her doctor confirmed this. The Bishop wrote to the king’s council for instructions and Arbella was granted a few days rest until the 21st.

There is some evidence William visited Arbella here and may have spent the night. When the 21st arrived, Arbella would not leave. The king had ordered her to be taken by force. The Bishop had her lifted onto her litter while she was in tears and complained of pains in her head. She travelled the short distance to Barnet but was so ill they had to stop many times while her doctor administered cordials. Once in Barnet, Arbella was unable to go any further and the Bishop again wrote to the council for more instructions. Arbella sent her own letter saying if she was forced to travel further it would be the death of her.

Under pressure from all sides, the council gave her a month’s rest beginning on March 25th. The Bishop was allowed to return to Durham and she was put into the custody of Sir James Croft. Croft believed Arbella was feigning her illness and ordered an outside doctor to examine her. The doctor reported to the council he found her feeble with a dull pulse, her countenance heavy, pale and wan and she was in a dreadful, melancholy state. Suitable lodgings were found for her and by April 3 she was installed in a cottage in East Barnet.

Croft reported to the council that Arbella was immobile, unable to even walk the length of her room. On April 28th she was still ill and was granted more time to rest. In the meantime she had communicated with William and her aunt Mary Talbot, Countess of Shrewsbury that it was her intention to escape. She had until June 11th to come up with a plan. Mary Talbot would work tirelessly for Arbella. And even though Arbella’s servants had been dismissed, she was still allowed to see her administrator Compton and her maid Anne Bradshaw. Arbella gained her health and strength but managed to keep the doctors believing she remained ill.

Mary Talbot managed to amass £1400 for Arbella which she gave to Compton along with a package of men’s clothing. Compton also gathered another £1400 and Arbella had some jewels she added to the money. At the end of May, Arbella proclaimed herself sufficiently recovered and set June 5th as the day for her departure. On June 4th, she told her maid she wanted to visit her husband who was hiding nearby and bid him farewell. The maid helped her into her disguise and promised to let no one enter her chamber until she returned. Arbella wore a pair of French-fashioned hose over her petticoats, put on a man’s doublet, a man-like peruke with long locks over her hair, a black hat, a black cloak, russet boots with red tops and a rapier by her side. She put her money and jewels in a pouch and walked quietly out of the house in the broad light of day along with her servant Markham.

Arbella and Markham headed toward Blackwall where Compton was waiting with saddle horses. Arbella had little exercise during her illness and struggled to make her way, leaning on Markham’s arm. It was only a mile and a half but by the time they arrived, Arbella was so sick and faint the ostler, who held the stirrups while she climbed onto the horse, remarked how that “gentleman” would never make it to London. Nevertheless, once she was on the horse, she regained her vigor and rode all the way to a river inn at Blackwall. They arrived at six o’clock and Arbella was taken fainting from her horse.

How Arbella might have appeared in disguise on horseback
How Arbella might have appeared in disguise on horseback

William was supposed to meet them here but there was no sign of him. However, Anne Bradshaw was there along with all of Arbella’s and William’s baggage. A French ship captain named Corvé had been hired to wait along the road to take them by boat down the river to Leigh. The party waited at the tavern for an hour and a half. Arbella changed her clothes and put on a dark cloak and hood. The men of the party insisted they leave as it was getting dark and it would be more difficult to hire someone to take them up the river. Arbella begged for another half hour which they reluctantly agreed to. At eight o’clock, with tears and hesitation, Arbella was compelled to go. The sun had set as the boats pulled away from shore but there was still another hour of daylight.

After bribing some unenthusiastic rowers to complete the trip the party arrived at Leigh at four in the morning. Corvé’s ship lay about eight miles beyond but Compton had no way of knowing if the ship was still waiting for them. He spied a brig close by and asked the captain, John Bright, to convey them to Calais, offering him a large sum of money. Bright said his orders were to go to Berwick and he couldn’t disobey. Compton asked if any French ship was in sight and Bright said, yes he had noticed a strange ship a few miles off. They thanked Bright and pulled on, finding Corvé’s ship flying the agreed upon signal flag. Arbella hoped Seymour was already on board but he wasn’t.

The mysterious party raised John Bright’s curiosity and he followed them through his glasses as they boarded the French ship. Bright’s testimony was later taken and he described many in the party. In his description he says he saw a woman closely covered with a black hood over her head and face. He couldn’t see her face but noticed she had on white clothing and when she pulled off one of her gloves, she had a marvelous fair white hand. This white hand would be Arbella’s ruination.

Arbella still insisted on waiting for William but eventually Compton and Corvé refused to listen and pulled off. The wind was not favorable and would make the crossing to Calais even longer than usual. They hoisted their sails and carried Arbella away from England.

William Escapes from The Tower

In the meantime, Seymour’s servant Rodney made all the preparations for moving William’s goods and getting him out of the Tower. He had been lodging with William’s younger brother Francis but didn’t say a word to him about the plans as he suspected Francis would inform his grandfather about William’s escape. However, Rodney did write a letter explaining in cryptic terms what was happening and arranged to have it delivered to Francis on the day after the escape when he believed they would be beyond pursuit.

Rodney succeeded in getting a disguise to William consisting of a carter’s frock and whip, a wig and a beard of heavy dark hair. For two days before the designated day, William had lain in his bed complaining of toothache. On the day of the escape, a carter drove up with a load of wood to the watergate where he stopped and went in to speak to officials of the Tower. William arose from his bed and told his valet or barber he had a chance to meet with Arbella and convinced him to keep anyone out of his room until he came back by saying he was too ill and must not be disturbed. He donned his carter’s disguise and as soon as the carter returned to his cart, William boldly walked out and followed him through the Byward Gate. He met Rodney who was waiting for him with a horse and a boat at the Tower Stairs. Oddly, it was eight o’clock, the same time Arbella was leaving Blackwall. There had been some horrible misunderstanding about the agreed time of the rendezvous.

William dressed up as a carter to escape from the Tower of London
William dressed up as a carter to escape from the Tower of London

William threw off his disguise and rode off on his horse. Once there he realized Arbella was gone so he took a boat to Leigh. William paid a collier to alter his route and take him to Calais. Rodney explained that he and his unnamed companion were in trouble over a quarrel and wanted to leave England. The wind was unfavorable and they had to land at Harwich. They gave up on going to France and made their way to Ostend. When they didn’t find Arbella, they headed to Bruges sending a messenger along the coast to find Arbella and inform her of their location.

The next day, Francis Seymour read the letter Rodney had given him and realized William’s deceit. He went to the Tower to verify William was gone. The lieutenant of the Tower, Sir William Waad, entered William’s room and Francis revealed Rodney’s letter to him. Waad and Francis made their way to Greenwich where they informed the King and council. King James went into a panic and issued a proclamation declaring the truant couple was not to be harbored or assisted by anyone or any country. Several people, including Mary Talbot, were arrested, and many were questioned.

Lords Nottingham and Salisbury of the council commissioned Admiral William Monson to go to Blackwall and make chase. Monson questioned the watermen there and discovered how the French ship had taken a peculiar party on board and sailed for Calais. He sent a few men to Greenwich to get a royal ship to follow the French vessel and went out in a little fishing boat to watch what happened. The royal “Adventure” was dispatched and they chased Arbella’s boat. It was lingering, awaiting the arrival of William. Corvé threw up his sails and tried to make a run for it but there was no wind. The boat was overtaken and thirteen shot were fired straight into her. It was impossible to resist any further. Arbella came forward and surrendered herself, becoming a prisoner of the King. When asked where her husband was, Arbella replied she didn’t know but she trusted he was safe and that his escape was in consolation for her own capture and misfortune.

Arbella was taken to the Tower of London where she remained until her death five years later. William would remain on the Continent for a few years before requesting permission to return to England which he was granted. He would remarry, have children and become a valued member of the King’s court.

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

8 thoughts on “The Daring Escape of Arbella Stuart

  1. Too bad the history did not end in Calais My wife’s story is somewhat like that now. Sounds like the Stuart’s always get in a mess.


  2. So am I correct in inferring that the King forbade the match because their line would be a threat to his?


  3. What an amazing story. It is the type of love story one would like to have seen with a happy ending. It seems as though people were so cruel in those days.

    Liked by 1 person

  4. How fascinating, and how exciting! Arbella sounds like such a complex lady, with so much going on inside her head. So daring, and yet so vulnerable at the same time! You can’t help but wish she had had a chance of happiness. If only Seymour had been there on time – what would have happened to them? The ‘marvellous fair white hand’ seems to have been the undoing of several ladies! Great post, Susan.

    Liked by 1 person

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