In a race for the crown which lasted for most of the second half of the 16th century, likely winners were trained and backed. One such front-runner was Arbella Stuart, the ill fated daughter of Elizabeth Cavendish and Charles Stuart, Earl of Lennox, the great-grandson of King Henry VII.
Being of royal blood Arbella was considered by many, including her grandmothers Bess, Countess of Shrewsbury, and Margaret, Countess of Lennox, to be the rightful heiress to the throne of England. Her position was strengthened by the fact that Queen Elizabeth had no direct heir.
Next in line to inherit the English throne was Elizabeth’s cousin, Mary Queen of Scots, but implicated in the death of her husband Henry Darnley ( Arbella’s uncle through her father), Mary escaped from Scotland and threw herself on the mercy of her cousin.
But what did Queen Elizabeth do with a fellow queen without a kingdom and in a very strong position to take hers? She placed her under house arrest in the custody of Arbella’s grandmother Bess, Countess of Shrewsbury, and her fourth husband the 6th Earl.
This power couple owned properties in and around Derbyshire, and for sixteen years Mary Queen of Scots was moved between them under house arrest.
Because Arbella lost her father when barely a year old and her mother when she was seven, she was placed in the custody of her grandmother, Bess Countess of Shrewsbury, who has gone down in history as Bess of Hardwick. This meant that Arbella spent her formative years in her grandmother’s household in the company of her aunt, Mary Queen of Scots.
So for Arbella, everyday life was played against a backdrop of the ever present Catholic coup and European politics.
In 1587 the line of succession changed when Mary Queen of Scots was beheaded. Next equal in line were first cousins Arbella Stuart and Mary’s son, James VI of Scotland, both direct descendants of Henry VII.
Being Queen Elizabeth’s nearest female relative and the only royal princess at the English court, Arbella automatically took precedence over all other ladies after the queen.
If Elizabeth had nominated her as her heir to the throne, she would have been given the title Princess Arbella, and although foreign ambassadors called her that, Elizabeth remained tight lipped on the subject of her successor.
Decline in fortune
Arbella was destined for a great and glorious future, and as a royal princess, she was offered in marriage to foreign princes but never allowed to marry. Arbella was a pawn in a power game. She was meeting the most influential men of the day but made the mistake of falling in love with the queen’s favourite, the Earl of Essex.
Elizabeth was not pleased. She would have no rivals and Arbella was sent back to Derbyshire where the Earl and Countess of Shrewsbury were locked in an increasingly acrimonious fight for power in which the whole family was brought into disrepute.
With his mind unhinged, Shrewsbury led an army of thugs who destroyed his wife’s property, harassed her tenants, and abused her staff. When Bess and her household took refuge at Chatsworth House, Shrewsbury led an attack and threatened to starve them out.
They escaped to Bess’s remote childhood home Hardwick Hall, where Bess and Arbella lived in constant fear until Shrewsbury’s death in 1590.
As the years passed, the queen seemed to have forgotten about Arbella and she became a virtual recluse in the remote Hardwick Hall. She tried unsuccessfully to escape her precarious, miserable existence and at twenty seven, proposed marriage to Edward Seymour — also a distant cousin and direct descendent of Henry VII.
Suspecting a Catholic plot, Queen Elizabeth was informed and Arbella was placed under house arrest. She attempted an escape, went on hunger strike and her accomplice William Starkey hanged himself.
An unfortunate marriage
On the death of Queen Elizabeth, James of Scotland became King of England and Arbella was welcomed back to his court, but restricted by her low income and dependent on the king’s goodwill, Arbella became desperate. She entered into an unsanctioned marriage with William Seymour (brother of Edward) which resulted in their confinement to the Tower of London.
They escaped and tried to make their way to France, but Arbella was again arrested. After a mock trial, it was decided that Arbella was a danger to the realm and she was committed to The Tower.
All her jewels, money and possessions were taken but she was allowed to keep the Book of Hours given to her by Mary Queen of Scots. She inscribed it ‘Your most unfortunate Arbella Seymour’, and willed it to her husband William.
Arbella didn’t give up hope that James would relax the severity with which she was being treated, but he didn’t, and Arbella sank into bouts of black despair. As she languished in The Tower, William Seymour loitered in France, an impoverished exile making no effort to help or communicate with his wife despite her supporters plotting her release.
Her last known letter was written to the king in a desperate attempt to move him to pity, and to save her dearest William, but James was unrelenting.
Refusing all food, Arbella turned her face to the wall and died on 25 September 1615, aged forty. Her body, embalmed for the sum of £6.13s 4d and placed in a plain coffin, was carried out of The Tower at night and taken up the river to Westminster Abbey.
There with no ceremony except a hurried burial service, she was laid in the vault alongside her aunt Mary Queen of Scots and her cousin Prince Henry. This meagre funeral with nothing to mark her burial place was deplorable for the king’s cousin and it wasn’t until years later that a simple stone was laid on the floor by the tomb.
It states simply – ‘Arbella Stuart 1575-1615’.
Arbella Stuart was a legend in her own lifetime. Songs and sonnets were written about her, her name was linked with many leading men of the age, politicians, princes and priests, yet her involvement with Edward and William Seymour proved to be her downfall.
In 2015, four hundred years after her death, a national poll to nominate History’s Hot 100 was conducted by BBC History Magazine. During six weeks of voting, readers were asked to nominate which historical figures they were most interested in, and Arbella was placed 47th before such personalities as Queen Victoria, William the Conqueror and other famous faces.
Jill Armitage is an English photo-journalist who has written numerous historical books. Arbella Stuart: The Uncrowned Queen was originally published as a hardback book on 15 April 2017, republished in paperback edition on 15 July 2019 by Amberley Publishing.