Arbella Stuart suffered from Porphyria and lived during turbulent times. She longed to marry, but she was prevented from doing so. Arbella was too close to the throne.
Her grandmothers, Margaret Countess of Lennox and Bess of Hardwick, played matchmaker. Charles Stuart, Earl of Lennox, and Elizabeth Cavendish secretly married in November 1574.
Elizabeth I was furious. Charles, as a possible heir, married without her consent. She sent the two women to the Tower of London.
Arbella was born in 1575. Charles died one year later from tuberculosis. Elizabeth died on 21 January 1582. Arbella was six years old.
Elizabeth I assumed Bess of Hardwick, a very wealthy woman, could afford to provide for her royal granddaughter. Bess thought it was the Queen’s responsibility to ensure Arbella lived like a princess.
Marriage plans started from infancy but often came to nothing. The Earl of Leicester negotiated a marriage for his infant son when Arbella was a baby. The child died. Leicester was temporarily out of favour when the Queen discovered his plans.
Elizabeth opposed plans to marry Arbella to Esme Stuart.
Even James VI was suggested as a husband in 1584. James was not interested. He married Anne of Denmark four years later.
Bess provided an excellent education. Arbella enjoyed learning, especially languages and the classics. Arbella spoke Latin, French and Italian.
Arbella’s maternal relatives spoilt and indulged her. She grew into a wayward teenager who nursed a growing animosity towards Bess. She longed to see more of the world and experience life after her first visit to Court.
Elizabeth I feared Catholic plots with Arbella as a figurehead for rebellion.
She asked Bess to guard Arbella closely.
Elizabeth I was a cranky spinster in her forties who resented cousins seeking marriage. The succession was always a touchy subject. Arbella regarded herself as Elizabeth’s heir.
Initially Elizabeth liked Arbella. However, Arbella quickly fell from favour as the Queen was “displeased” with her arrogance and banished her from court.
Elizabeth heard rumours the Earl of Essex was Arbella’s “first great love”. Elizabeth did not like sharing her favourites. Arbella was again banished from court. She deeply mourned Essex’s death.
Arbella was suffering from insanity when she planned her marriage to Edward Seymour, a widowed royal cousin, to escape her grandmother.
Elizabeth I sent Sir Henry Bronker to investigate.
First Lady of the Court
James VI inherited the throne in 1603. Arbella’s life improved. She experienced genuine affection for the first time from James’s family. Arbella and Queen Anne became good friends. Prince Henry became the younger brother Arbella never had.
Arbella experienced newfound freedom as First Lady of the Court. However, the privilege proved expensive. Arbella always needed fashionable clothes, jewels and other accessories. She was often short of funds.
Court life was very dull. Arbella hated the frivolity, extravagance and vulgarity. Arbella was regularly absent due to recurring bouts of illness.
James did not want Arbella married. Her children were regarded as a threat.
Arbella formed a relationship with William Seymour, another royal cousin. They were obviously well-suited. Arbella was still an attractive woman in her thirties and he “delighted in her company”.
They eloped in June 1610. The newly-weds were arrested and separated.
They escaped but plans went awry. Arbella was caught, arrested and sent to the Tower. Seymour fled to France.
Arbella became ill. She suffered excruciating pain, refused food and lost considerable weight. Arbella passed away on 25 September 1615, aged 40.
A post-mortem revealed Arbella died from a long and chronic illness. Arbella was buried beside her aunt, Mary Queen of Scots, and her beloved cousin Henry in London’s Westminster Abbey.
Durant, David N, Bess of Hardwick: Portrait of An Elizabethan Dynast, Peter Owen Publishers, London, 1977 (Reprinted 2004)
Fraser, Antonia, King James VI of Scotland, I of England, Weidenfeld and Nicholson, London, 1974 (Reprinted 2004)
Fraser, Antonia, Mary Queen of Scots, Phoenix Press, London, 2002
Fraser, Antonia, The Gunpowder Plot: Terror and Faith in 1605, Phoenix Press, London, 2002
Gristwood, Sarah, Arbella, England’s Lost Queen, Bantam Books, London, 2003
Norrington, Ruth, In the Shadow of the Throne: The Lady Arbella Stuart, Peter Owen Publishers, London, 2002
Strickland, Agnes, Lives of the Queens of England (Elizabeth I and Anne of Denmark)
© 2008 Carolyn M Cash
This article was originally published by Suite 101 on 9 August 2008.