Arbella Stuart: Life Story

Chapter 9 : Secret Marriage

Although James felt no need to keep Arbella under close supervision, and welcomed her at the court, he was no more keen to allow her to marry that Elizabeth I had been. Rumours abounded about possible marriages, and King Sigismund III of Poland even made a formal application for her hand in 1605. He was, however, to be disappointed, as were all the European princelings who made approaches.

Arbella, however, was determined to escape a life she found miserable. She had wearied of the court, but had no estate of her own, and no husband, which according to the social attitudes of her time, made her life a failure. Although rumour had credited her with seeking a match with a disputed prince of Moldova, there was no real possibility of her negotiating an international match without James’s involvement. At home, there was only a small pool of men who matched her in status, and an even smaller pool who were unattached, and it was amongst them that she must seek a spouse. To marry outside of her rank would be to ‘disparage’ herself, and however slim her claims to the throne might now be, given James’s bevy of children, it would have been imprudent, and against all her training to dilute her royal blood.

Arbella’s acquaintanceship with the Seymour family had continued – it could hardly be otherwise in the small social world of the Jacobean court. The Seymours’ position had been enhanced by the discovery in 1609 of the clergyman who had married the Earl of Hertford and Lady Katherine Grey, who had eluded discovery for nearly fifty years. The man she had once hoped to marry, Edward Seymour, had wed Anne Sackville, daughter of the Earl of Dorset in June of 1609, but he had a younger brother, William, who was twenty-two to Arbella’s thirty-four. Like Arbella, he was well educated and studious, one of the few nobles who stayed long enough at a university to earn a degree, so they were temperamentally well-matched. The couple, probably at Arbella’s initial instigation, but with William certainly a willing partner, betrothed themselves on 2 February 1610.

Although Arbella’s selection of Seymour might have seemed to her to be a reasonable choice, it is hard to believe that she did not anticipate that the combination of their claims to the throne would b a major provocation to the king. Before long, news of their plans came to royal ears. They were brought before the king’s council (including Prince Henry) separately, and ordered to give up any notion of such a match. William’s defence was that he was under the impression that Arbella had received permission from James to marry at will, and that he therefore thought himself free to woo her. It seems that James had at some point told Arbella she could choose amongst his subjects, provided that he was not a Catholic – or at least, this is what Arbella had taken him to say. Both denied that their negotiations had, at this point, come to any contract for marriage, and, having submitted to James’s demands to apologise for whatever offence had been committed, no further action was taken.

Arbella, at least, was being disingenuous. She considered the betrothal of 2 February to be binding. (See here for more on the complexities of marriage.) William, however, did not feel the same, and apparently sent a message to Arbella, suggesting they drop any plans given the king’s ‘commandment to the contrary.’ Whether this message was genuine, or was intended to throw the king off the scent is unclear, but, if the latter, it worked. Arbella was re-admitted to royal favour, and took part in the masque to celebrate the investiture of Prince Henry Frederick as Prince of Wales, performing alongside Queen Anne and Princess Elizabeth in the Masque of Tethys. This was another of the extravagant masques that the queen loved. The theme was water. James played the King of the Oceans, Anne was the goddess of the sea, Tethys, while Princess Elizabeth and Arbella enthralled the spectators as the nymphs of the Trent and the Thames respectively. Nine-year-old Prince Charles played the part of the breeze, Zephyrus.

Arbella was not just playing a part in a masque, she was also playing a part in life – hiding the fact that she and William had re-kindled their plans for matrimony. The two married in secret on 22 June 1610, careful to ensure that the ceremony was valid, marriage law was complex, so to prevent any claim that their union was invalid (as had happened to Katherine Grey and the Earl of Hertford) the ceremony was conducted by an ordained minister, witnessed by at least six people, and followed by consummation.