Arbella Stuart: Life Story

Chapter 12 : Imprisonment and Death

Arbella was probably held in the royal lodgings (where Jane Grey, the Lady Elizabeth, and Katherine Grey had been held in 1553, 1554, and 1561 respectively). Like them, she was kept a ‘close’ prisoner. This was unusual for noble prisoners who were usually allowed to walk in the Tower precincts, receive visitors, and even, sometimes, enjoy conjugal visits. As was usual, prisoners were expected to maintain themselves, beyond a bare allowance given to the Lieutenant of the Tower. Arbella’s money and jewels had been confiscated, and James ordered that they be used for her maintenance. Mary Shrewsbury initially help support her niece, but then ran out of money herself, and was obliged to request funds from her husband – rather embarrassing as he was a privy councillor.

Harsh treatment (she was not allowed to choose her personal servants, as other prisoners did, or speak to them unsupervised, let alone walk or exercise) caused Arbella’s mental and emotional state to deteriorate. She now turned against Mary, claiming to the Lieutenant that Mary was continuing to plot for Arbella to be delivered to ‘papist’. Arbella said she had refused all such notions, and that she thought that Mary was ‘the most wicked woman in the world, enemy to the state’. It is unclear if any of this was true, or if it was a fantasy of Arbella’s or perhaps even a deliberate attempt to garner favour by exposing a supposed plot. Mary herself claimed that Arbella was sick and raving, and would regret her words once she was back in good health. Regardless, it did not help Arbella. James was even more sensitive about the succession, Prince Henry having died unexpectedly, and the succession now resting on his second son, Charles.

There is some evidence that Arbella, ever ingenious, began another attempt at escape, possibly conspiring with another prisoner, Patrick Ruthven, brother of the earl of Gowrie, whose family had been involved previously in plots against the king. If such a plan did exist it came to nothing, and Arbella now sank into melancholy. In September 1614, Dr Fulton, a minister, was sent to Arbella to try to alleviate her physical and mental sufferings. But, unable to face the prospect of long-term custody, Arbella began to refuse food, and wasted away, dying in 1615. Following her death, the post-mortem report recoded that she had had a ‘chronic and long sickness’, resulting in malnutrition, and that ‘by long lying in bed she got bedsores, a confirmed unhealthiness of the liver, extreme leanness…and so died.’ She had refused all medical aid. Contemporaries believed that her illness had ‘aris[en] from the grief of her unquiet mind.’ Shortly before Arbella’s death, she sent the Book of Hours that Mary, Queen of Scots, had bequeathed her to William, now in Paris, with the signature ‘Your most unfortunate, Arbella Seymour.’

Although sixty carriages followed the funeral procession, James insisted it be low key, and rejected his queen’s request to order court mourning. Nevertheless, Arbella was interred in his own mother’s tomb in Westminster Abbey. In 1618, Lady Shrewsbury was interrogated about a rumour that Arbella had borne a child, but she refused to testify. There does not seem to be any evidence to substantiate the story, as the possible pregnancy in 1611 had not come to term.

William was permitted to return to England. His second wife was Frances Devereux, daughter of the Earl of Essex. Initially an opponent of Charles I’s policies, he could not stomach the more radical demands of parliament, and remained faithful to the king. William was promoted to the marquisate of Hertford, and at the restoration of the monarchy in 1660, had the duchy of Somerset restored. His Majesty The King is William’s nine x great-grandson.


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