Arbella Stuart: Life Story

Chapter 4 : Rustication

Later that year (1592) one of the many Catholic priests sent to England as part of the English Mission to comfort covert Catholics and convert as many to the old faith as possible, confessed that there was a plot afoot to kidnap Arbella and take her to Brussels. Burghley informed Bess, who wrote back of her gratitude for the information, lamenting that plotters might seek to entrap ‘my poor Arbell and me.’ She then outlined the precautions she was taking to keep Arbella safe. She was not permitted to walk out late, or far from the house. She was accompanied by attendants at all times, no visiting to neighbours’ houses was allowed and she slept in the same room as Bess. For a young woman of seventeen, this regime was irksome in the extreme. Since Bess did not tell Arbella of the potential threat of kidnap, it must also have seemed incomprehensible. Whilst Bess was emphatically Protestant, and had brought Arbella up in the new religion, there were many Catholic recusants in the country houses of Derbyshire, not least two of Bess’s daughters, Frances Pierrepoint, and Mary, Countess of Shrewsbury, who had converted at some point, and were widely accused of ‘papistry’. Consequently, Catholic plotters tended to think that Arbella might be a more sympathetic monarch than Elizabeth, although there is no evidence that Arbella gave them any encouragement. This idea of potential Catholic sympathy may have been the spur to Pope Paul V’s suggestion, in 1596, of a match for Arbella with Rainuccio Farnese’s brother, Cardinal Odoardo, for which match he would release the cardinal from his priestly vows.

Arbella’s continued rustication was deliberate on Elizabeth’s part. Bess’s contacts at court, cultivated over decades, were dying, and by preventing Bess and Arbella from building new networks, which were the conduits of political power in Tudor England, Elizabeth was ensuring that Arbella was isolated from any political influence. This lack of an affinity was exposed in a book which circulated (although prohibited in England) in 1594. Entitled A conference about the next succession to the throne of England… it was published in Antwerp, and came from the pen of one ‘Doleman’, which was taken to be a pseudonym of the Jesuit, Robert Persons. The book rehearsed the pros and cons of the various claimants to the English throne, with the agenda of promoting the pretensions of the Archduchess Isabella, Governor of the Netherlands, the senior Lancastrian heir, if the descendants of Henry VII were discounted. Doleman pointed out that Arbella (whom he thought at least persuadable on the point of religion) was ‘nothing at all allied with the nobility of England, and except it be the earl of Shrewsbury, out of respect to his old mother-in-law…I see not what noble man in England hath any band of kindred or alliance to follow her.’ Meanwhile, James was expanding his network amongst Elizabeth’s courtiers, corresponding with both the Cecil party and the Essex party, who were at odds between themselves, and positioning himself to be the default successor when Elizabeth should finally die.

No matter how enjoyable life was in itself at Hardwick Hall, in the beauty and opulence of the house, the visits from neighbours and extended family, the hunting, the entertainments from companies of players and the extensive music-making, Arbella had no freedom, and no purpose to her life. By 1602, after ten years of a pointless existence, which seemed so far from the royal destiny that had always been hinted at, Arbella was so stressed by the confinement that it was telling on her health and nerves. The household chaplain, James Starkey, wrote that she cried frequently. Bess attempted to alleviate the situation by repeatedly asking the queen to arrange a marriage for Arbella, or allow her to come to court, but Elizabeth was adamant.