The story of Lady Arbella Stuart

Lady Arbella Stuart

History is written by the victors and as such the story of Arbella Stuart, England's future Queen, has been lost to history. However, Hardwick is retelling her story at her childhood home and posing the question "Is Hardwick a palace or prision?"

400 years ago a princess lay dying in the Tower of London, recalling her childhood at Hardwick Hall in north Derbyshire and reflecting on a life that could have been so different.  The story of Lady Arbella Stuart is one of those ‘what if’ moments in Scottish and English history; if Queen Elizabeth I of England had been succeeded by Queen Arbella and not by James VI of Scotland would the union of England and Scotland have taken place the way we know it? Would the lines of succession of monarchs down to the present Elizabeth II have been the same?  It is a surprise, therefore, that so few people have heard of Lady Arbella Stuart.

Lady Arabella Stuart, later Duchess of Somerset, aged 23 months, 1577 / Hardwick Hall NT 1129175
Lady Arabella Stuart, later Duchess of Somerset, aged 23 months
Lady Arabella Stuart, later Duchess of Somerset, aged 23 months, 1577 / Hardwick Hall NT 1129175

Arbella was born in 1575, the only daughter of Elizabeth Cavendish, (daughter of the Countess of Shrewsbury, colloquially known as ‘Bess of Hardwick’) and Charles Stuart, Earl of Lennox.  Born into the Stuart family Arbella was cousin to James VI of Scotland, niece of Mary Queen of Scots and a distant cousin to Queen Elizabeth I of England.  Charles was the younger son of Margaret, Countess of Lennox and the younger brother of Lord Darnley, second husband of Mary Queen of Scots (although he was dead by the time of Charles’ marriage).

By the time Arbella was two her father, Charles Stuart, had died and the title of Countess of Lennox and the Lennox lands in Scotland should have passed to Arbella.  However, the Scottish regency government moved quickly to seize the lands reasoning that as King James was still a minor he could not permanently grant the title and anyway, Arbella was English by birth and therefore her claim on the title was invalid.  Queen Elizabeth herself wrote to the Scottish regent asking for Arbella to be given her inheritance but nothing came of it.  Over the years Arbella frequently referred to her lost lands but she was never formally granted the title of Countess of Lennox.  Despite this when Bess of Hardwick had a portrait of Arbella painted as a two year old the title Countess of Lennox is prominent in the picture.

Arbella should also have inherited the jewels belonging to Lady Lennox upon her death including a jewel set with a diamond, a ruby and an emerald with a great pearl.  However, the steward of Lady Lennox who should have handed the jewels over to Arbella instead fled to Scotland where they ended up with King James himself. The lack of income for Arbella was something that plagued her throughout her life

Unfortunately, Arbella’s mother, Elizabeth died when she was six and the young girl spent much of her young adulthood at Hardwick.  Bess of Hardwick gave her granddaughter an education fit for a princess and Arbella proved herself an able pupil; fluent in Latin, Greek, French, Italian and Spanish, learned in philosophy and an accomplished musician.  On her first visit to the Court of Queen Elizabeth, Arbella made such an impression that Elizabeth spoke openly about twelve year old Arbella one day being queen.   However, these were turbulent times, the execution of Arbella’s aunt, Mary Queen of Scots was followed swiftly by the Spanish Armada and Arbella returned to the relative safety of Hardwick. 

Arbella painting at Hardwick
Arbella painting at Hardwick
Arbella painting at Hardwick

The following years were ones of increasing frustration for Arbella.  While Bess designed and built her new house at Hardwick as a palace fit for a queen, Arbella felt increasingly isolated.  Although often talked of as a suitable bride for many royal princes across Europe, Arbella never even got close to marriage; in her eyes marriage meant escape from Hardwick and a life of her own.  In desperation Arbella began to plot her own marriage, a dangerous game. In the winter of 1602/3 rumours of an affair became so strong that Elizabeth sent a trusted courtier, Sir Henry Brounker, to interrogate both Arbella and Bess, to find out what was happening.  Bess, worn down by the intrigue implored the Queen to let Arbella leave but the Queen disagreed. Arbella was to stay at Hardwick and she was not to marry.

Soon afterwards Queen Elizabeth died and James succeeded her as king of England.  In May Arbella was invited to Court in London to meet her Scottish cousin for the first time and in July when James’ Queen, Anne, arrived from Scotland Arbella was given the honour of being train bearer to the Queen when she attended chapel.  James later appointed Arbella as state governor to his eldest daughter Princes Elizabeth and in 1605 Arbella became godmother to Princess Mary.   Arbella seems to have continued to be well received at the court of King James although she found the tone and morality of Court to be ‘ridiculous’ and ‘wicked’. 

Arbella never suppressed her desire to marry and in 1609 she was questioned again about rumours of marriage.  Then in 1610, she finally became betrothed to William Seymour, from the Seymour family who themselves had a distant claim to the English throne and the couple secretly married in June 1610.  Within days the secret was out and William was imprisoned in the Tower and Arbella placed under house arrest. By September Arbella was convinced she was pregnant (she was not) but as a result she was to be sent north to the custody of the Bishop of Durham far away from her husband in the Tower. 

Plagued by illness (real or imagined we may never know) the journey north in the spring of 1611 was painfully slow while Arbella plotted an escape and Arbella never left the outskirts of London.  Early in June, dressed as a man, Arbella slipped out of her lodgings and made it to a boat on the Thames and set sail for France.  The alarm had now been raised, however, and the King gave orders to search for and capture the fugitive.  Within site of the French coast Arbella’s ship was boarded and she was brought back to London and imprisoned in the Tower.

Although Arbella argued she had sought only freedom to live with her husband she was kept in close confinement in the Tower, although never charged with a crime.  During 1612 and 1613 her health deteriorated but still hoped that James would take pity and release her, even ordering new dresses for the marriage of Princess Elizabeth early in 1613. By 1614, however, Arbella appears to have given up any hope of release and in the autumn of 1614 took to her bed and refused any medical attention as her health deteriorated.  Arbella Stuart died on 25 September 1615, aged just 39. 

James refused to give Arbella a royal funeral and her body was placed without ceremony in the vault of her aunt, Mary Queen of Scots, in Westminster Abbey.  Born of royal blood with a better claim to the throne than her cousin James VI in some people’s eyes, as she was born in England, Arbella fell foul of the same cousin when he became King of England and ended her days emaciated and despairing in the Tower of London.