Lady Arbella Stuart (or Arabella, or Stewart) 1575 – 25 September 1615, was an English noblewoman who was considered a possible successor to Queen Elizabeth I of England. She was the only child of Charles Stuart, 1st Earl of Lennox (of the third creation), by his marriage to Elizabeth Cavendish. She was a grandchild of Matthew Stewart, 4th Earl of Lennox (of the second creation) and Lady Margaret Douglas, the daughter and heiress of Archibald Douglas, 6th Earl of Angus, and of Margaret Tudor, daughter of King Henry VII of England and widow of King James IV of Scotland. Arbella was therefore a great-great-granddaughter of King Henry VII of England and was in line of succession to the English throne, although she did not herself aspire to it.
Lady Arbella Stuart
25 September 1615
Tower of London,
2nd Duke of Somerset
(No image available)
1st Earl of Lennox
Arbella’s father died in 1576 when she was an infant. She was raised by her mother Elizabeth Cavendish, Countess of Lennox, until 1582. The death of her mother left seven-year-old Arbella an orphan, whereupon she became the ward of her grandmother Bess, rather than Lord Burghley the Master of the Court of Wards, as might have been expected. During most of her childhood she lived in the protective isolation of Hardwick Hall in Derbyshire with her grandmother, who had married George Talbot, 6th Earl of Shrewsbury in 1568. It seems she enjoyed periodic visits to the court and to London, including court visits during the summers of 1587 and 1588 and one that lasted from November 1591 to July 1592. Starting in early 1589 or thereabouts “one Morley … attended on Arbell and read to her”, as reported in a dispatch from Bess of Hardwick to Lord Burghley dated 21 September 1592. Bess recounts Morley’s service to Arbella over “the space of three years and a half”. She also notes he had hoped for an annuity of £40 a year (equivalent to £10,900 today) from Arbella based on the fact that he had “been so much out of pocket by leaving the University”. This has led to speculation that Morley was the poet Christopher Marlowe, whose name was sometimes spelled that way.
For some time before 1592, Arbella was considered one of the natural candidates to succeed her first cousin twice removed, Queen Elizabeth I. However, between the end of 1592 and the spring of 1593, the influential Cecils – Elizabeth’s Lord Treasurer, Lord Burghley, and his son, Secretary of State Sir Robert Cecil – turned their attention away from Arbella towards her cousin James VI of Scotland, regarding him as a preferable successor.
Sometimes she was invited to Elizabeth’s court, but much of her time she spent away living with her grandmother. Continuing her education into her twenties, she studied several languages and could play the lute, viol and virginals. In 1603, after James’s accession as James I of England, there were those involved in a plot to overthrow him and put Arbella on the throne. When she was invited to participate by agreeing in writing to Philip III of Spain, however, she immediately reported the invitation to the king. Owing to Arbella’s status as a possible heir to the throne, there were discussions of appropriate marriages for her throughout her childhood.
In 1588, it was proposed to James VI of Scotland that Ludovic Stuart, 2nd Duke of Lennox, should be married to Arbella, but nothing seems to have come of this. James VI was interested in this match but the Countess of Lennox’s servant Thomas Fowler discouraged him. Other potential matches were Ranuccio I Farnese, Duke of Parma and Odoardo Farnese the sons of Alexander Farnese, Duke of Parma, who could claim the English throne as descendants of John of Gaunt. The idea was to secure toleration for English Catholics or even win Arbella for the Catholic faith. However, the eldest son, Ranuccio, was already married, and the younger son, Odoardo, was a Cardinal. The Pope was reportedly prepared to absolve Odoardo from his obligations but the resistance of Queen Elizabeth I to such a marriage stopped the plan probably even before Arbella could be approached.
In the closing months of Elizabeth’s reign, Arbella fell into trouble through reports that she intended to marry Edward Seymour, a member of the prominent Seymour family. This was reported to the Queen by the supposed groom’s grandfather, Edward Seymour, 1st Earl of Hertford. Arbella denied having any intention of marrying without the Queen’s permission. In 1604, Sigismund III Vasa, King of Poland, sent an ambassador to England to ask for Arbella to be his wife. This offer was rejected.
Arbella, who was fourth in line to the English throne, was in trouble again in 1610 for planning to marry William Seymour, then known as Lord Beauchamp, who later succeeded as 2nd Duke of Somerset. Lord Beauchamp was sixth-in-line, grandson of Lady Katherine Grey, a younger sister of Lady Jane Grey and a granddaughter of Mary Tudor, younger sister of King Henry VIII and Arbella’s ancestor, Margaret Tudor. Under the circumstances, the King wondered whether the marriage was the prelude to an attempt to seize the Crown itself.
Although the couple at first denied that any arrangement existed between them, they later married in secret on 22 June 1610 at Greenwich Palace. For marrying without his permission, King James imprisoned them: Arbella in Sir Thomas Perry’s house in Lambeth and Lord Beauchamp in the Tower of London. The couple had some liberty within those buildings, and often wrote love letters to each other. When the King learned of her letters to Lord Beauchamp, however, he ordered Arbella’s transfer to the custody of William James, Bishop of Durham. Arbella claimed to be ill, so her departure for Durham was delayed.
The couple used that delay to plan their escape. Arbella dressed as a man and escaped to Lee (in Kent), but Lord Beauchamp did not meet her there before their getaway ship was to sail for France. Beauchamp did escape from the Tower, but by the time he reached Lee, Arbella was gone, so he caught the next ship to Flanders. Arbella’s ship was overtaken by King James’s men just before it reached Calais, France.
She was returned to England and imprisoned in the Tower of London. She never saw her husband again and died in the Tower on 25 September 1615 from illnesses exacerbated by her refusal to eat. Over one hundred letters written by Arbella have survived. In 1993, a collection of them was published, providing details of her activities and ideas.
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