Arbella Stuart – the Lost Queen?

Portraits in the High Great Chamber at Hardwick

Lady Arbella Stuart, granddaughter of Bess of Hardwick, cousin to James VI of Scotland, descendant of Henry VIII and possible future Queen of England. Arbella's tragic story is interwoven with the 400 year history of Hardwick. Discover her story this year at Hardwick.

Granddaughter to the powerful Bess of Hardwick, Arbella was a prospective successor to Queen Elizabeth I, but hers is a little-known and dramatic story. The only daughter of Elizabeth Cavendish and Charles Stuart, and orphaned at a relatively young age, Arbella was cared for by her maternal grandmother, the Countess of Shrewsbury, otherwise known as Bess of Hardwick.  She was raised as a princess at Hardwick with her grandmother’s ambitions for her set high.

With no heir to Elizabeth I’s throne, there were a number of contenders who could have succeeded her.  Arbella was one of them, being cousin to James VI of Scotland, who eventually succeeded to the throne of England, and niece to Mary Queen of Scots. But Arbella’s life was not to follow a smooth path.  Instead it was one filled with events often contained in the most gripping period-drama, where she found herself at the centre of political wranglings, dispelled from court and ending her days in the Tower of London.

Arbella’s biographer, Sarah Gristwood, comments: “Queen Elizabeth I had at one stage spoken of Arbella as a possible successor to her.  Bess of Hardwick had grand ambitions for Arbella, so it is not surprising that the young girl’s contemporaries expected her to succeed to the throne.  When she made a bid for the crown and later tried to flee the country both were matters of national security.  She's been lost to sight over the four centuries since her death in the Tower, so staff and volunteers at Hardwick are presenting her extraordinary story to visitors.”

Visitors will be taken on a revealing room-by-room journey, set in the place where some of the key events happened and invited to consider whether Hardwick was a palace or a prison for Arbella.  One of the striking features of a visit will be the chance to meet eye-to-eye with portraits of the key players, brought off the walls to see them in the powerful light they were perhaps intended.

“We want visitors to get a sense of the power, ambition and politics at play as well as the turmoil and uncertainty of this time,” explains Dr Nigel Wright, Hardwick’s House and Collections Manager.  “Hardwick was more than a big house on a hill.  Built by Bess of Hardwick in the late 16th century, it could have ended up as the seat of England’s power, and the turning point in this country’s history."

Volunteers have been involved in researching the Arbella story to help put the experience together. Volunteer Jane Iliffe adds: “Arbella’s is a fascinating story about what might have been.  I have enjoyed sorting out some of the myths and getting a better understanding of who Arbella was and how she fitted into the politics of the day.  I hope our visitors will be just as interested in gaining an insight into this little known woman and her life, which started with such promise and ended in tragedy.”

Visit Hardwick this year and you will be able to explore the life and times of Lady Arbella Stuart in the very Hall where she spent much of her young adulthood, and debate the question of whether Hardwick was a palace or a prison for Arbella – the lost queen.