If you’re not familiar with the story of Arabella Stuart (or “Arbella Stewart,” if you are so inclined) that’s quite alright. During the majority of her lifetime, few outside of royal circles were even aware of her existence and, in my opinion, her status as a true rival claimant to the throne has been a bit overblown. Nevertheless, her relatively brief life played out just as England was passing from Tudor to Stuart hands and it draws on the dynastic sensitivities that came from a childless queen and a foreign-born king.
If you remember the story of Margaret Douglas, Countess of Lennox then you likely have some idea of who Arabella was, but for those who don’t, let’s start at the beginning. She was born at some point in 1575 to Lady Elizabeth Cavendish and Charles Stuart, Earl of Lennox. Her parents had married in secret, her father being the younger brother of Henry Stuart, Lord Darnley (the ill-fated second husband of Mary, Queen of Scots) and son of the Countess of Lennox, a niece of Henry VIII via his sister, Margaret Tudor.
Her mother was the daughter of the formidable Elizabeth of Hardwick, Countess of Shrewsbury, more commonly referred to as “Bess of Hardwick.” Bess and her husband had custody of Mary, Queen of Scots for years after she was living in England as a prisoner, an obviously politically sensitive situation given the longstanding belief by some that Mary, a Catholic, was the true queen of England despite Elizabeth’s reign.
The abdication and imprisonment of Mary Stuart and subsequent accession of her infant son, James VI, had done little to address the issue as to who would succeed Elizabeth. However, by 1575, the issue as to when Elizabeth would marry was at its dusk and the question then became, who would she choose to as heir. Likely she always intended to name James her successor – he was, after all, descended from Henry VII twice over – but Elizabeth, true to form, refused to state that definitively.
Part of Darnley’s appeal to Mary had been his claim to the English throne as a male descendant of Henry VII – his upbringing in England made Mary less foreign and his blood infused into a new generation only made the Stuart claim stronger. As such, after his death and Mary’s deposition, the role of his younger brother, Charles, was not without some question. The likelihood of him taking the throne alone was unlikely, but the issue of who he married was of the utmost importance.
That he chose Elizabeth Cavendish, daughter of Queen Mary’s keeper, looked suspicious to Elizabeth’s eyes and, given the ambitions of their respective mothers, the match was unlikely to have been motivated by pure passion.
Within a year of Arabella’s birth, Charles took ill with tuberculosis and died and, six years after that, Elizabeth also died, aged 26. An orphan, but one with a distant claim to the throne, Arabella was raised under strict supervision by her maternal grandmother, Bess. She spent the majority of her time at Hardwick Hall in Derbyshire, however there is a record of her occasionally visiting Elizabeth’s court as a child.
Those visits, significantly, only came after the execution of Mary, Queen of Scots, which occurred in February 1587. By this point, Arabella was 12 and thanks to the protection of Bess, virtually unknown to the public. Her trips there were likely not particularly social, nor were they meant to herald a life as a career courtier, but rather an inspection of a distant relation by queen. As she entered adolescence, the question of her marrying and producing a male heir was remote so long as Elizabeth was keeping tabs.
During the last year’s of Elizabeth’s life, her councilor Robert Cecil worked day and night with the Scottish government to smooth the succession for James VI, the future James I. Arabella signified the only possible dynastic alternative to his rule, which brought her back to the forefront of controversy. However, while there were some who were opposed to the idea of a Scottish king swooping into London, particularly the son of a Catholic traitor, Arabella was never a strong possibility. Had she been used as the face of any sort of coup when Elizabeth died, her fate would likely have been akin to that of Lady Jane Grey. Even if she had escaped the scaffold, she would have been crushed and lived out her days in prison.
The woman herself, 28 when Elizabeth died, didn’t seem predisposed to politics and nothing about her upbringing had prepared her for the reality of staging a rebellion, much less ruling. Bess’s strict governance may well have ensured she lived and received a robust education, but she was also incredibly isolated as compared to what a young woman of her station in any other set of circumstances would have experienced.
At some point during this time, prior to Elizabeth’s death, it was reported that Arabella was in negotiation to marry Edward Seymour, grandson of Edward Seymour, Earl of Hertford and great-grandson of Edward Seymour, Duke of Somerset (brother to Jane Seymour, Henry VIII’s third wife). Given the prominence of the Seymour family, which had seen its apex in the early years of Edward VI’s reign, the match wasn’t viewed with favor.
Following James’s succession, the King of Poland asked the King for Arabella’s hand. The offer was swiftly refused by James.
In 1608, well into her 80s, Bess died and was buried in what is now Derby Cathedral. Her granddaughter, now 33, was officially on her own for the first time in her life. What history there is of these two women is usually centered on Bess’s plans for Arabella. It can easily be assumed that Bess desired Arabella be queen, however it’s less clear how she meant for that to come about. There are varying reports as to the nature of their relationship, however the common narrative is that Arabella was largely mistreated. That the issue of Edward Seymour, mentioned above, may have not only been real, but ended because Bess kept her granddaughter captive to keep her from taking a step that would land her in prison.
Perhaps – certainly if that was the case it would make Arabella’s story pretty par for the course for a young woman in her position. There is similar legend around Lady Jane Grey, for example, and her mother, Frances Brandon.
Whatever the case, left to her own devices, Arabella ended up marrying Edward Seymour’s younger brother, William. The marriage took place in secret on May 22, 1610 at Greenwich Palace – the bride was 35, the groom 22. Given how little we know about either’s personality, particularly Arabella’s, it’s difficult to assert what the nature of this relationship was. One could assume love given that each risked a great deal to marry the other, yet at the same time it may well have been ambition, which casts Arabella in an entirely different light. Was she, in fact, biding her time? Or did she have the misfortune to fall in love with a man who also had a claim to the throne?
William’s claim was even more distant than his wife’s. Like his brother, he was from the politically prominent Seymour family, however their “claim” came from their grandmother, Katherine Grey, younger sister of Jane Grey. Separate, neither William nor Arabella had a good shot, but together they or their children, who would carry both of their bloodlines, might be enough of an alternative to Stuart rule to become significant.
And that was the real risk for King James. His line was secure in 1610 thanks to the presence of two sons, Henry and Charles, so there was no question as to who would succeed him. But, consider what would have happened a few decades later had a reinforced Seymour line existed in the lead up to the civil war – would they have been considered as an alternative to abolishing the monarchy altogether? Perhaps not given the nature of the war, but events may have unfolded differently had another strong dynastic option been on the table.
In any event, the secret marriage enraged King James and both parties were swiftly arrested. William was condemned to a life in prison and Arabella was put under house arrest with Sir Thomas Parry. The couple wrote to one another, perhaps revealing a real emotional connection, however when James caught wind of it he ordered Arabella to be transferred. Citing illness, her move was delayed and in that timeframe, she and William hatched a plot to escape and meet each other on the continent.
Dressed as a man, Arabella managed to evade her guards in June 1611, however William wasn’t at their pre-arranged meeting place. When the boat was ready to ferry her to safety in Calais, Arabella boarded it without him. William, late, managed to get on a different boat headed for Flanders. Unfortunately, Arabella’s boat was apprehended by James’s men before it reached Calais and she was promptly returned to England and placed under much stricter observation in the Tower of London.
She remained in confinement for four years before dying on September 25, 1615 after refusing to eat. She was eventually interred at Westminster Abbey.
It is unclear exactly how long William remained abroad, however Arabella’s death would have negated any reason for his arrest. He was certainly back in England by 1620, which is the year he was first elected to Parliament, and by 1621 he had inherited his grandfather’s title of Earl of Hertford and been moved to the House of Lords. At first opposed to Stuart policy, including both James and, later, his son, Charles I, William eventually took the side of the Royalists during the Civil War. He was an important political figure throughout the conflict, dying just after the Restoration of 1660.