Lady Arbella Stuart

Arbella’s parents, Charles Stuart, Earl of Lennox and Elizabeth Cavendish, married without Elizabeth I’s permission, which, as he was in the line of succession, infuriated the queen. Arbella and her soon-widowed mother lived with Arbella’s paternal grandmother, Margaret Douglas, Countess of Lennox, who tried in vain to persuade the regency government in Scotland to recognise Arbella as Countess of Lennox in her own right.

Following Margaret’s death, Arbella and her mother lived with Arbella’s other grandmother, Bess of Hardwick, Countess of Shrewsbury, who was eager to promote Arbella as a Protestant, English, heir to the throne, preferable to James VI of Scotland. Arbella’s education was intended to support this ambition, and was similar to that received by Mary I and Elizabeth I, based on Latin, Greek, philosophy, history, and modern languages. Arbella’s first invitation to court was received in 1589, but, although treated honourably by Elizabeth, the visit was not repeated until 1591, when she was invited back in consequence of potential marriage negotiations with the Duke of Parma’s son. The trip to London was conducted almost as a royal progress. Bess and Arbella travelled in a coach, followed by Arbella’s maternal uncles and their wives, and the ladies’ gentlewomen. Some forty servants were necessary to look after them all in a journey that took a week to travel from Hardwick Hall. Reinforcing the image of Arbella as a possible queen, 40 shillings was doled out to the poor in each town they passed through.

The family stayed until July 1592. Huge sums of money were spent on outfitting Arbella for court and portraits were dispatched to Parma. Bess corresponded with Raleigh, Essex and Sir Robert Cecil, amongst others, hoping to build up support for Arbella’s position. But when plague returned to London in the summer of 1592 the court was broken up and Bess and Arbella returned to Derbyshire. The Parma match had faded away.

The next decade was one of misery for Arbella. Lord Burghley informed Bess that he had heard of a plot by Jesuits to abduct Arbella and take her to Flanders. Bess’s suspicions immediately fell on Arbella’s tutor, Mr Morley. Morley had previously asked Arbella for lands of £40 value, claiming that he had lost money by leaving Cambridge to become her tutor. Arbella refused, and referred him to her grandmother. He then said that he would stay with Arbella without any pay at all. The hard-headed Bess thought this so strange that she considered he must be up to no good, although she could not honestly say she had scented ‘papistry.’ Bess now felt that Arbella needed to be carefully watched – not for any fault in her, but because she might attract treasonable behaviour. Soon, the girl was almost as closely guarded as Mary, Queen of Scots had been. Bess was usually with her, no unknown guests came to the house and she could only walk or ride with constant attendance.

Frustrated, Arbella hatched a plot to escape by marriage, choosing Edward Seymour, grandson of Lady Katherine Grey and Edward, Earl of Hertford. This was a phenomenally risky endeavour. Seymour had a claim to the throne. Partnered with Arbella, there was a realistic prospect of them being preferred to James VI. A complex scheme was concocted to send the proposal to Lord Hertford. He was horrified when he received the message and immediately reported it to the queen and Council. A messenger, Sir Henry Brounker, was sent hot-foot to Hardwick and Arbella confessed everything. Brounker concluded that Arbella was not really plotting, just trying to escape her difficult situation. Bess asked Elizabeth to either send Arbella to somewhere she could be kept safely, or allow her to be married. The queen rejected both requests, but suggested Arbella could be kept less strictly. Arbella’s own plea to the queen to be allowed to come to court was also rejected.

Towards the end of Elizabeth’s reign, Arbella, who relieved the misery of captivity with copious letter-writing, announced to Sir Robert Cecil that she had a secret lover. She refused to eat or drink, but eventually revealed that her lover was none other than James VI of Scotland, her cousin, whom she had never met, and who was already married. Cecil was concerned about her mental state, and thought she had ‘some vapours on the brain’.

Whatever hopes Arbella might have cherished for succeeding to the English crown came to nothing when James VI became James I on the death of Elizabeth. He signified his willingness to receive Arbella, who, after a short stay with the Earl of Kent, joined Queen Anne of Denmark’s entourage. A plot concocted by Sir Walter Ralegh and Lord Cobham to murder the king, and set up Arbella as queen, married to Lord Grey of Wilton, was not taken seriously by her – she handed over a letter proposing it to Cecil. Arbella’s life at court was comfortable enough, and she was much admired for her accomplishments. But Arbella wanted to marry, and realising that James was no keener on the idea of a rival royal family than Elizabeth had been, secretly arranged a marriage with William Seymour. Within three weeks the match was discovered, and he was sent to the Tower. James decided to banish Arbella to Durham, but she managed to escape, disguised as a man. The plan was for William to also escape, and for the two to take ship to the Low Countries. Arbella waited too long on her ship in the Channel and was captured and taken back to the Tower. Meanwhile, Seymour, although delayed, had arrived in Ostend. Arbella spent the last five years of her life in the Tower. James was deaf to all pleas to release her. Eventually, having refused to eat, she died.