Arbella Stuart: Life Story

Chapter 8 : Law and Money

Money matters continued to plague Arbella. Court life was fantastically expensive, and although Arbella was rich beyond the wildest dreams even of a gentleman’s family, the costs of court life were phenomenal. She continually petitioned James for a pensions or monopolies and the Shrewsburys for clerical livings for her to dispense in the usual manner of patronage. She bought a house in Blackfriars for £200 where she could retreat when court life, with its endless whirl of parties, masques, hunting, and general debauchery became too much for her. By this time, the court had more or less split. Queen Anne was based at the old Somerset House, renamed Denmark House, while James remained at the various royal palaces. In the early winter of 1608 – 1609, Arbella fell ill with smallpox, but recovered, probably without scarring.

The following summer Arbella took a long, meandering journey north, which was almost in the nature of a royal progress. Her arrival in towns was announced by bell-ringing and trumpets. Her route took her to St Albans, to Wrest Park, where her cousin, Elizabeth Talbot, was now mistress as Countess of Kent, then on to Rufford, to the Shrewsburys at Sheffield, to her uncle at Chatsworth, and to a friend, Isabel, Lady Bowes, at Walton Hall, near Hardwick.

On returning to London, Arbella began to withdraw from court life, spending more time at Blackfriars, exchanging her bouche of court for an annual allowance, and negotiating with Cecil over her finances, while still pressing James to return the Lennox estates to her, and either choose a husband for her, or let her select one herself.

In 1609, Arbella became involved in another legal case. In Attorney General v. Chatterton 1609, Sir Humphrey Hobart, Attorney General, brought a case in Star Chamber against Margaret Chatterton, gentlewoman, and Chatterton’s friend, Margaret Brewyn, alleging that the two women had conspired to ‘ravish’ William Cavendish. This William Cavendish was Arbella’s first cousin, son of Bess of Hardwick’s eldest son of the same name. Ravishment was the crime of raping (usually a woman, but possibly an underage man) and seizing the victim’s property. It was usually alleged against men who abducted heiresses, who were then obliged to marry their abductor. The facts of the case suggest that William and Margaret fell in love, and contracted to marry but that a couple of years later William changed his mind – either genuinely, or for fear of disinheritance if he did not marry as his father commanded, to Christian Bruce, daughter of the Master of the Rolls. Margaret claimed that during the period of their relationship, William had frequently written to her, entrusting the letters to his servant, Humphrey Maddox. William denied that the letters were genuine, and Maddox initially supported him. At this point, Arbella intervened. She summoned Maddox to her at Whitehall, and demanded that he tell her the full truth, assuring him that if he had been intimidated by Cavendish’s father, he need not fear repercussions, as there were other people who might employ him. Presumably comforted by this tacit suggestion that she would take care of him, Maddox reversed his testimony, and supported Margaret’s narrative – that she and William both considered themselves to have been privately married. Arbella’s actions were not considered favourably. No lawyer had been willing to act for Margaret, presumably for fear of upsetting the powerful Cavendish family, and the prosecution accused Arbella of supporting Margaret in a conspiracy, and offering ‘money, gifts, rewards or other recompense’ to witnesses to give false testimony. She had even prepared lists of witnesses, and assembled legal arguments. In due course, so much evidence came to light that Margaret had been wronged that the case against her was dropped, although William’s marriage to Christian Bruce remained in place.

Between December 1609 and January 1610, Arbella was questioned by the Privy Council, and kept under house arrest. There is no documentary evidence as to what this interrogation or imprisonment related to but it has been speculated that it was in relation to the Chatterton case.[1] Another possibility is that her confinement was due to fears that she had secretly contracted to marry one of the Douglas family (paternal relatives of her grandmother, Margaret Douglas, Countess of Lennox), or even suspicion on the cause of religion, as apparently she had not been attending church regularly. This, Arbella said, was not because of any interest in Catholicism, but because she was ill and worried about money.

[1] Carolyn Sale, ‘The “Roman Hand”: Women, Writing and the Law in the “Att.-Gen. v. Chatterton” and the Letters of the Lady Arbella Stuart’, ELH, 70.4 (2003), 929–61.