Arbella Stuart: Life Story

Chapter 5 : Secret Lovers

Despairing of ever escaping her confinement, Arbella sent a message via one of the household servants, John Dodderidge, to Edward Seymour, Earl of Hertford, the unacknowledged widower of the unhappy Lady Katherine Grey, suggesting a marriage with his and Katherine’s grandson, another Edward, some eleven years younger than Arbella, but a very suitable match, considering they both had claims to the throne. In her letter, to ensure that any answer he might send her could be recognised, she asked that he enclose something in the handwriting of Lady Jane Grey, ideally, the prayerbook that Jane had given to her sister Katherine, just prior to her death. Alternatively something in Katherine’s hand, or that of Queen Jane Seymour, which only the Seymour family could have, would be acceptable. She also told Hertford to bring his grandson to Hardwick on the pretext of doing a land deal with Bess, as her grandmother would never be party to any attempt to deceive the queen.

Apparently, Hertford had mooted the idea of such a marriage some years previously, prior to it becoming apparent that the weight of Sir Robert Cecil (who had taken over the role of chief minister from his father, Burghley) and Elizabeth’s other councillors was behind James as Elizabeth’s heir. Now, on receiving Arbella’s invitation, Hertford panicked. Having felt the cold stones of the Tower of London in his youth, he had no intention of becoming embroiled in an action that might be deemed treasonous, and reported the approach to Cecil. Cecil sent Sir Henry Brounker to Hardwick to investigate. Sir Henry paid three visits in all, and was persuaded by Arbella that her choice of potential spouse had nothing to do with any united claim to the throne they might put forward, but merely to escape the unbearable confinement. By this time, the relationship between Arbella and Bess had completely broken down at a personal level, but they still protected each other in their letters to the queen. Arbella confirmed that Bess had been wholly ignorant of her marriage plans, while Bess assured Elizabeth of Arbella’s loyalty, but begged that she might be taken care of elsewhere, as Bess could no longer be certain of keeping her safe from plots.

Elizabeth, although she extended her royal pardon to Arbella for the failed intrigue with Hertford, was deaf to any plea to either receive Arbella, or allow her to live apart from Bess. Bess was told that she could reduce the level of confinement that she had imposed – Arbella was not permitted to walk, to ride, meet anyone unsupervised, or send private letters – any less strict supervision, Bess wrote, would mean she could not guarantee Arbella’s safety, or prevent her from being used by plotters. Elizabeth thought Bess was making too much of the matter – in part, she did not want Arbella to appear to be a prisoner, lest the public think the queen herself was to blame.

Arbella fretted under this dreadful curtailment of her liberty. She smuggled letters out, many of Bess’s servants being sympathetic to her plight, but they were not only intercepted, but had false replies written and delivered, in which the supposed writer refused to visit Arbella, or agreed to deliver messages. The purpose was to discover another marriage plot that Bess was sure was afoot. Arbella’s reaction, when she worked out what was going on, was to fabricate a lover, and write of him to her grandmother, well aware that her letter would be passed on to Cecil and Elizabeth. The letter, of several thousand words, weaves a strange mix of fantasy about her ‘best beloved’ and complaints about her treatment at Bess’s hands. Brounker was again dispatched to Hardwick to question Arbella. Arbella told the astonished investigator that her lover was none other than James VI. Then, pressed further, admitted she had made the whole tale up so that she could bring her plight to the attention of the queen and council. She begged to be freed from Bess’s custody. Brouncker had concerns about Arbella’s mental health, noting that her frenzied writing had led ‘to the distempering of her brain’.

By the turn of 1603, Arbella was physically ill, with severe pain in her side. Her symptoms were similar to those with which Mary, Queen of Scots, had been plagued, and it has been suggested that both women suffered from porphyria. In order to force the authorities to agree to remove her from Bess’s oversight, Arbella began to refuse to eat or drink if Bess were in the same house. She was permitted to move to another of the family’s properties at Oldcotes Manor, at Sutton Scarsdale (now called Owlcotes) but this was not enough. She complained to Brounker that despite being an adult, she was deprived of her rights, and, since she was not allowed to talk to anyone, she would continue to write to him of her melancholy. In her letters, Arbella referenced the late earl of Essex, whom she characterised as ‘her noble friend’, and hoped that his supporters might be her friends also – dangerous allusions to a convicted traitor. In response to this hail of letters, Cecil wrote to Bess, saying that she must stop Arbella writing ‘such strange letters’, and suggested she be taken back to Owlcotes, where she might be less distressed.

Arbella’s uncle, Henry Cavendish, sympathised with his niece – or was willing to help her to antagonise his mother, with whom he had quarrelled. He agreed to take Arbella away, alongside a man named Henry Stapleton, who was suspected of Catholic sympathies. The party were intercepted at the gates, and, unwilling to expose their servants to violence, Arbella and Henry capitulated. Once again Bess begged that Arbella be housed elsewhere, but the response from the government was that if she treated her granddaughter more leniently, Arbella would be content to stay at Hardwick. Brounker supported Arbella’s wish to be moved, fearing that she was planning an escape to Scotland but before his views could be taken into account, everything changed with the death of Elizabeth I, and the proclamation of James VI as James I of England.