Arbella Stuart: Life Story

Chapter 2 : Education and Court Visit

Arbella was Elizabeth I’s first cousin, once-removed. Since the relationship was on the Tudor side of the family, and Elizabeth had no children, Arbella was a potential heir to the throne. To fit her for such a role, her education was the best available, modelled after that which the Tudor queens-regnant had received – Latin, Greek, history, philosophy, French, and other modern languages, as well the courtly skills of dancing, music-making, and etiquette. When she was in her early thirties, Arbella was praised by Sir John Harington for ‘her choice education, her rare skill in languages, her good judgement and sight in music….’. Whether the queen was pleased to hear this praise is unrecorded, but it seems unlikely. Arbella’s many extant letters show the depth of her learning and erudition, as well as her facility with words.

The possibility has been raised that one of Arbella’s ‘readers’, (an individual who was not a tutor, but who would read to or with a pupil) was Christopher Marlow. Bess refers to one Morley, who was discharged from service in 1592. He had apparently been in the household for three and a half years, having left one of the universities. The only man of similar name who can be identified is Marlow. According to Bess, Morley had importuned Arbella for an annuity of £40, which he asked as compensation for his losses on leaving the university. Bess, discovering him to be unhappy in his position and also ‘doubtful of his forwardness in religion (although [she could] not charge him with papistry’, took the opportunity to sack him. A few days later, he returned to Hardwick, begging to be readmitted, even without wages. In the mind of the ever-practical Bess, this was so odd that she communicated the information to Burghley, thinking Morley must be a spy. Nevertheless, the identification is uncertain. What is certain is that the surveillance and counter-surveillance that was a fact of life for anyone remotely connected to centres of power was an ongoing fact of life for Arbella.

As was common for girls of her rank, an early betrothal was sought for Arbella. Cognisant of Elizabeth’s fondness for Robert Dudley, Earl of Leicester, Bess mooted a marriage for Arbella with Leicester’s son. This aggravated Queen Mary, who thought that Bess was undermining her own position as heir to the English throne and she wrote of her annoyance to the French ambassador. In the event, the little boy, Lord Denbigh, died soon after, and it appears that Bess was told to leave any matchmaking for Arbella to the queen herself. Elizabeth had no intention at all of arranging a marriage for the girl – her mere existence was enough of a provocation to the queen, and the thought of Arbella having a husband and child when the queen had no designated successor, was intolerable. Nevertheless, Arbella’s marriage could be, and was, used by Elizabeth as a bargaining tool with foreign potentates. In 1585, it was mooted by Sir Francis Walsingham that Arbella should marry her cousin, James VI of Scotland, but nothing came of the discussion: Queen Mary believed the notion was part of Bess’s scheming, James was not interested, and Elizabeth I was unlikely to have looked favourably on the strengthening of either party’s claim to her throne.

During her childhood, Arbella generally lived with her grandmother, but also spent extensive periods of time with her maternal aunt, Mary, whose husband, Gilbert, was heir to the earldom of Shrewsbury, and was Bess’s stepson. The on-going marital discord between Bess and her husband created tensions in the wider family, but Mary and Gilbert were both supporters of Bess in the domestic quarrels. It was under Mary and Gilber’s supervision, alongside that of Mary’s brother, Charles Cavendish, that Arbella made her first appearance at court, in 1587 when she was summoned by Elizabeth I to further negotiations for a marriage with Rainuccio Farnese. Farnese’s father, Alessandro, Duke of Parma, was the nephew of Philip II of Spain and his regent in the Netherlands, whilst his mother, Maria of Guimares, was a Portuguese infanta, and Philip’s cousin. Presumably, the negotiations were entered into by Elizabeth to try to defuse mounting tension with Spain over the recent execution of Arbella’s aunt-by-marriage, the queen of Scots. James VI took the occasion of his mother’s execution to make demands on Elizabeth, one of which was the right to be consulted over any match proposed for Arbella.

During Arbella’s visit, the court was based at Burghley’s splendid mansion at Theobalds. She dined with the queen, even being invited to sit next to her, which was an enormous honour, but Elizabeth did not display much personal interest in the twelve-year-old girl, and, according to Charles’s letters home, she did not take the opportunity to let Arbella show off her educational attainments.

Elizabeth’s interest in Arbella was never personal. The girl had two elements of value to the queen – first to keep King James on his toes, rather than letting him assume that he would be Elizabeth’s heir, and second, as a pawn in the European royal marriage game – the hint that Arbella might be the queen’s nominated successor was dropped to the French ambassador’s wife with the words ‘[l]ook to her well. She will one day be even as I am and a lady mistress, but I will have gone before.’

Lord Burghley was more considerate, perhaps wishing to maintain good relations with a girl who might one day be queen, and he and Sir Walter Ralegh dined with Arbella (although Ralegh was later to say he had never met her), after which Burghley complimented her on her musical and language skills. Burghley extended his interest by inviting Arbella and her companions to stay at his home at Pymmes, near Edmonton. It was from this location that the first of the hundred or so of Arbella’s extant letters is dated, addressed to her grandmother. This epistolary effort conforms closely to the conventions of the time – it asks after Bess’s health, confirms her own, and sends the hair clippings from a recent trim (probably to cast a horoscope) and a pot of jelly, made by her servants.