Arbella Stuart: Life Story

Chapter 6 : Court Lady

James succeeded seamlessly, with the support of Robert Cecil, who had been planning the handover for some time, unbeknown to (or at least unacknowledged by) Elizabeth. James was male, adult, a Protestant, married with two sons as well as daughters, and, other than not having been born in England, was the ideal candidate. Arbella, female, unmarried, with no affinity, and more or less unknown to the wider public, was not a serious rival to him, and James’s attitude to her reflected his sense of security on the throne. Having been assured by Cecil that rumours that Arbella had converted to Catholicism were baseless, he was prepared to treat her more kindly than Elizabeth had. He broke his journey south at the Shrewsburys’ residence at Worksop. Gilbert and Mary told him of Arbella’s unhappiness, and assured him that her attempt to marry Edward Seymour was only the result of her unhappiness at being held at Hardwick. James asked them to recommend a more suitable guardian, and they suggested the Earl of Kent, whose nephew, Henry, was married to their daughter, Elizabeth Talbot. James dispatched a letter to Kent observing that Lady Arbella being ‘a young lady’ could ‘hardly agree’ with Bess’s ‘severity and age’ and requesting the earl to give her a temporary home, and treat her as befitted her rank.

Arbella was taken south to Wrest Park, in Bedfordshire, where, presumably, she recovered her health and spirits – although she may have had misgivings about her host, the Earl of Kent having ‘showed more zeal for [the] destruction of [the queen of Scots] than befitted a person of honour.’ However, she did not remain there long. Lady Shrewsbury wrote to James of Arbella’s eagerness to see him, He had already asked her, as the senior lady of the royal family, to act as chief mourner at Elizabeth’s funeral, but Arbella had refused the honour, saying that as she had not been permitted to wait on the late queen in life, she would not be paraded for public show after her death. Fortunately, James had not taken umbrage at this snub, presumably imputing it to Arbella’s resentment of the late queen rather than as an insult to himself, and Arbella was now invited to Greenwich.

It does not seem that she made a particularly good impression on her arrival at court, either on James or any of his courtiers or visiting ambassadors. The king was inclined to send her back to either Wrest Park or Hardwick, but Cecil, either from kindness or policy, prevailed upon him to give the young woman a measure of choice in her abode – that would prevent her feeling, once again, like a prisoner, and reduce the potential for her to make mischief. Consequently, Arbella chose to live at Sheen as the guest of Helena Snakenbourg, Marchioness of Northampton.

Now effectively released from Bess’s control, Arbella had to deal with the downside of her freedom – lack of money. The pension from Elizabeth I, meagre though it had been for a woman of royal blood, now ceased, and James, extravagant enough where he chose, did not feel inclined to reinstate it. Once again Arbella took to her pen, and sent numerous letters to Cecil, who eventually chiselled some £660 out of James – far less than the £2,000 that Arbella had requested.

The coronation of James and Anne was a rushed affair – London was suffering a severe plague epidemic. Arbella is not mentioned specifically as present, but can be presumed to have played a part, as her absence would probably have been remarked upon. She remained with the court, being treated as a princess, and bearing Queen Anne’s train, a position of honour.

To make up for the low-key coronation, in 1604 James and Anne, together with their children, made a formal procession through London, with Arbella as the queen’s chief attendant.

On the whole, Arbella enjoyed court life, although her letters to Lady Shrewsbury were not always complimentary about what she saw. Her erudition was quickly noticed, and George Chapman, in his dedication of his translation of Homer’s Iliad, referred to her as ‘our English Athenia, Chaste Arbitresse of virtue and learning.’ She was also the recipient of dedicatory verse from Emilia Lanyer (née Bassano)in Salve Deus Rex Judaeorum. Lanyer, who was one of the leading poets of the early Jacobean court, referred to Arbella as a ‘Rare Phoenix’ and she has a reputation as a poet, although this rests only on hearsay, as no extant verse can be attributed to Arbella.