Arbella Stuart: Life Story

Chapter 11 : Escape and Capture

Arbella was determined not to suffer Queen Mary’s fate, but to determine her own destiny, and she and William arranged to escape. Their confinements were not onerous, and there was always the opportunity for bribery, especially as public sympathy was with Arbella. The journey to Durham began, with a first stop at East Barnet. There, Arbella fell ill. James was suspicious, but her doctor confirmed that she was in a bad way. It might be possible, he reported, for her to be ‘cherished’ back to health, but for the time being, she must rest. Playing for more time, Arbella wrote to the king, saying that she was not resisting his orders, but was very ill. As soon as she had fully recovered, in perhaps a month, she would ‘undergo the journey after this time expired without any resistance or refusal.’ James, fearing (according to the Venetian ambassador) that he would be judged as too harsh, accepted the delay. Arbella used the time to her advantage.

On 3 June 1611, disguised in male clothing, Arbella slipped out of the house, and rode headlong to Blackwall on the River Thames to meet a waiting boat, which was rowed down the Thames to meet a previously bespoken ship. Meanwhile, William had left the Tower, disguised as his barber. His gentleman, Edward Rodney, had foolishly left a letter, vague in terms, but enough to arouse suspicions, with William’s brother, Francis. Francis rushed to the Tower, where he demanded to see his brother. But the bird had flown. Francis and the Lieutenant of the Tower hastened to Greenwich, to inform Cecil, and then the king and council. A royal proclamation was issued, referring to the couple’s imprisonment for ‘divers great and heinous offences’. All loyal subjects were forbidden to ‘receive, harbour, or assist them’ and to apprehend them if possible. Arbella, having reached her ship, could have been free, but waited for William. The Earl of Nottingham assured James that, the winds and tides being contrary, Arbella could not yet have reached France. Numerous ships were sent after them, and the brig she was on was spotted by Griffin Cockett, captain of the pinnace, Adventure, just before reaching Calais. Cockett launched a small boat with soldiers carrying armaments, giving the captain of Arbella’s craft no choice but to surrender. A despairing Arbella was returned to England, and taken immediately to the Tower of London. William, meanwhile, had managed to leave on a different ship, elude his pursuers and reach safety in Ostend.

Orders went out to arrest Catholic sympathisers, particularly Lady Shrewsbury. Mary was accused of aiding and abetting the couple by financing their escape attempt and was committed to the Tower. Part of the accusation was that she intended Arbella to consort with Catholics abroad to usurp the throne.

There was considerable sympathy for the couple – Archduke Albrecht, ruler of the Netherlands, sent an embassy to James, urging him to allow Arbella and William to be reunited, but James was implacable. Even James’s son, Henry Frederick, Prince of Wales, thought kindly of them, sending his chaplain to comfort Arbella. James, however, did not deviate from his course. He was quite unable to forgive open defiance of his commands.

After the initial flurry, the tone of the king and government’s rhetoric changed. The matter was presented less as a potential threat to the Crown, and more as the matter of disobedience to the king, who, he claimed, had been planning a different marriage for her. Arbella continued to hope that James would relent: believing that the occasion of Princess Elizabeth’s marriage in February 1613 might be an opportunity for her rehabilitation, she had three new dresses made, but still James would not back down. Three months later, it was reported by John Chamberlain, a prolific letter-writer on the periphery of the court, that ‘the Lady Arbella hath been dangerously sick of convulsions and is now said to be distracted.’ The following month, he reported that she was being held in still tighter confinement ‘being still, they say, cracked in her brain.’