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Lady Arbella Stuart

Lady Arbella Stuart
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Derbyshire’s would-be Queen of England

Hardwick Hall – ‘More Window than Wall’ was four-times married Bess of Hardwick’s crowning masterpiece.  An ambitious woman whose successive marriages had left her the richest woman in England after Queen Elizabeth I. She planned her ‘New House’ at Hardwick to be a palace fit for the Queen of England; this Queen was to be her own granddaughter.

In 1574 Charles Stuart, Earl of Lennox, brother of Lord Darnley the late husband of Mary Queen of Scots and therefore of royal blood, became ill whilst staying at Hardwick Old Hall.  Seeing an opportunity, Bess, Elizabeth Cavendish, Countess of Shrewsbury, saw to it that her unmarried daughter also called Elizabeth, would care for him during his illness.  The poor man had little chance and young Elizabeth became Countess of Lennox.

The result of this union was a girl born at Chatsworth, who was christened at Edensor church in 1575.  Unfortunately the couple both died quite young and there were no more of Bess’s grandchildren in line to become potential claimants to the throne.  Undaunted Bess took over the education of young Arbella, keeping her ever close while living at Chatsworth or Hardwick.  The education Arbella received must have been of a very high standard for the time, because from letters she wrote it appears that she was a highly intelligent young woman.

During this time, unmarried Queen Elizabeth was vacillating over who should be her successor, but let it drop in private that she might name Arbella as the rightful heir to become the next queen.  This delighted Lady Arbella Stuart, but it seems to have gone to her head and despite her grandmother’s strict upbringing, she put on many airs and graces, insisting that the servants at Chatsworth and Hardwick deferred to her as ‘Your Highness’.

Possibly due in part to Arbella’s attitude, relations with her grandmother became rather strained and she was kept virtually as a prisoner at the newly built Hardwick Hall.  Fortunately for the girl, in 1587 she received the welcome invitation to spend time at the court of Elizabeth I.

Unfortunately Arbella’s stay at court was not exactly a happy occasion.  Rather than play the demure young thing, finding her way into Queen Elizabeth’s approval, she continued her northern ways in having everyone referring to her as though she were already the queen’s anointed successor.  Further more she decided that it was time to get married and, rather than wait for the queen’s approval, allowed discussions of marriage to Raunutio Farnese, son of the Duke of Parma to take place. As the marriage would have been to a Catholic and with Queen Elizabeth the country’s leading Protestant, it was hardly likely to gain royal approval.  Luckily the Duke of Parma died shortly afterwards, leaving all plans of marriage for Arbella on hold and at least it avoided her becoming too much of an embarrassment in royal circles.

In 1662 back at Hardwick Hall and still longing for marriage, Arbella began to plot on her own account.  This time it was to marry Edward Seymour, the eldest grandson of the Earl of Hertford and Catherine Grey who was also a claimant to the English throne.  As Arbella was again Bess’s prisoner at Hardwick, she had to plot her escape, but got no further than the gatehouse, and so her plans came to nothing yet again.  All this angered Queen Elizabeth who ordered that Arbella should be removed from the now ageing Bess’ care and taken to live under the protection of the Earl of Kent.

Queen Elizabeth died in 1603 with her successor undecided.  Despite Lady Arbella’s stronger rights, Protestant King James VI of Scotland was made James the First of England and Ireland.  This was a far from popular move and various insurrections including the Gunpowder Plot, were attempted in order to replace King James with Catholic Lady Arbella.  Obviously she could be seen as a dangerous threat to James’ security, but luckily for her as it would have been easy to have had her executed, all that happened was that she was banished from court.

Five years after his coronation, King James welcomed Lady Arbella Stuart back at court, but on June 22nd 1610 at Greenwich she secretly married William Seymour, the youngest brother of Edward Seymour whom she had tried to marry eight years earlier.  This created a most dangerous situation for King James, because not only was Arbella a Stuart, but William was a direct descendant of the Tudor dynasty by way of his aunts, the sisters of Henry VIII.  With their marriage a direct threat to the King, the couple were forced to separate and Arbella was put in the care of Sir Thomas Perry at his house in Lambeth.  William was imprisoned in the Tower of London.

Somehow or other the couple managed to make plans to escape, with Arbella disguised as a man.  Their planned escape route was to meet at Lee in Kent and sail together to France.  Both were successful in evading their captors, but Arbella reached the rendezvous before William and set sail without him.  William was also successful and sailed for France on a separate ship.  Despite William landing successfully at Ostend, Arbella was apprehended by the King’s men in Calais and speedily returned to England where she was held in the Tower of London.

Following an unsuccessful attempt to escape, Arbella became ill and refused food; later on she began to lose her mind, thinking William was coming to her rescue.  During this time she kept to her bed and on September 25th 1615 she died and was buried just a day later in Westminster Abbey, on top of Mary Queen of Scots. Thus ended the unhappy life of a young woman who, under different circumstance could have been a Derbyshire born Queen of England.

Currently there is an exhibition devoted to the complex life of Lady Arbella Stuart, at Hardwick Hall (National Trust).  Running alongside there is also an exhibition of embroidery associated with Bess of Hardwick who was a skilled embroiderer, at one time working alongside Mary Queen of Scots during her imprisonment in Derbyshire.

Comment(2)

  1. There is a minor error in this. It states Lady Arbella Stuart was apprehending in Calais. Not so. Arbella delayed too long whilst waiting for her husband and was captured at sea and returned to England. Arbella sadly never actually made it to France. She may not have even got within sight of the French coast.

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