Christine de Pizan

Christine de Pizan
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Friday, September 25, 2015

Arbella Stuart--She Might Have Been Queen?

Lady Arbella Stuart (died 25 September 1615)

The unfortunate Arbella Stuart was born to great potential, but her life ended in great tragedy. She might have become queen of England. Instead, she died in the Tower of London.

Lady Arbella Stuart,
c. 1589 
Hardwick Hall Collection
Arbella was the great granddaughter of Margaret Tudor, Henry VIII's elder sister: queen of Scotland, mother of James V of Scotland and, by her second marriage, mother of Margaret Douglas.*

Lady Margaret Douglas married Matthew Stewart, earl of Lennox, who was himself a descendant of James II of Scotland; when her son Henry, lord Darnley married Mary Stuart, queen of Scots, uniting and reinforcing these claims, Lady Margaret Douglas was imprisoned. 

Undauted, in 1574 Margaret Douglas arranged for her younger son, Charles, earl of Lennox, to marry Elizabeth Cavendish, the daughter of Elizabeth Hardwick, then countess of Shrewsbury; Queen Elizabeth sent Lady Margaret to the Tower once more. She was released by November of the next year, however, when she wrote to her niece Mary Stuart, the queen of Scotland, to announce the birth of a granddaughter, Arbella.

Little is known about the early period of Arbella Stuart's life. Her father died in April of 1576, when she was about six months old; in 1582, when her mother died, she was sent to live with her grandmother Elizabeth Hardwick.

Arbella Stuart aged twenty-three months,
Hardwick Hall Collection
Elizabeth Hardwick's fourth husband, George Talbot, had been Mary Stuart's "guardian" while she was imprisoned in England, but there is no surviving evidence about any relationship between Arbella and her aunt, the exiled queen. Even so, Sara Jayne Steen, who has written extensively about her, concludes that Arbella's subsequent "letters and actions suggest that she was influenced by [the queen of Scotland's] trial and execution." Arbella was eleven years old when Mary Stuart was executed in 1587.

Throughout her childhood, Arbella Stuart was "useful" to Queen Elizabeth as a "marrigeable property": "As a claimant who could bring the dowry of a crown, she was a commodity, one of high worth on the matrimonial market," Steen writes, but her status as a claimant "fluctuated with English and European politics and the rise and fall of Elizabeth's favor." 

Margaret Tudor's descendants had been cut out of the succession by Henry VIII and his son, Edward VI, but Queen Elizabeth had also acted to bar the descendants of Mary Tudor, Henry VIII's younger sister, from the throne. In such a complicated situation, James VI of Scotland, Mary Stuart's son, seemed to have the best claim to the English throne: he was the oldest unquestionably legitimate male descendant of Henry VII and Henry VIII. But he was also unquestionably a foreigner, and foreign birth was generally regarded as a bar to the English succession. 

After James VI, Margaret Tudor's daughter, Lady Margaret Douglas, might be considered "next in line" for the English crown. She had been born in England and had spent much of her life at the English court, but as Steen notes, she was older than Elizabeth Tudor and "unlikely to outlive" her. Lady Margaret's oldest son, Darnley, had married Mary Stuart, but he died in 1567; her younger son, Charles, was thus next in line for the throne, after James VI. After Charles's death in 1575, his daughter Arbella would inherit his claim. 

When Arbella was still a child, her grandmother had promised her to the four-year-old son of Robert Dudley, earl of Leicester, who, perhaps fortunately for Bess of Hardwick, died; the queen had been angered by the proposal and took upon herself the task of arranging Arbella's future.

As queen, Elizabeth used Arbella as a "bargaining chip in foreign policy, tantalizing continental nobility with the prospect of marriage accompanied by the declaration of succession." At various times those prospective alliances included Esmé Stuart, who had inherited Arbella's Lennox title and lands after her father's death; the king of Scotland himself, James VI; Rainutio Farnese, the son of the duke of Parma; Henry IV, king of France; the prince of Condé; and the duke of Nevers. Various alliances with members of the English nobility were also proposed, including Robert Cecil.

But none of these marriages ever took place. Arbella came briefly to court in 1587 and again in 1588, but she was sent away in disgrace for some offense. At the time it was rumored, on the one hand, that her presumption had resulted in her dismissal, on the other that a romance with the earl of Essex had precipitated her removal from court. Arbella herself, writing about the incident later, indicated that at first she had enjoyed the queen's approval. Queen Elizabeth had examined the young woman for herself when she arrived at court and "by trial did pronounce me an eaglet of her own kind . . . worthy . . . even yet to carry her thunderbolt." 

It wasn't until 1591 that Arbella was recalled to court, during the period when her marriage to the son of the duke of Farnese was being discussed. She remained with the court into the summer of 1592, but when the duke died and marriage negotiations failed, she was once again dismissed. She was with her grandmother later in that year when a plot to abduct her came to light. A Catholic priest revealed a plan to kidnap Arbella and then marry her to a foreign Catholic noble, who would invade England and claim the throne on the young woman's behalf. Arbella was not implicated in the plot, but neither was she recalled to court by the queen. 

Despite the dazzling array of marriages proposed for Arbella, the queen was no more interested in finding a husband for Arbella than she was in finding one for herself. Instead, she left the young woman in the care of her grandmother. Arbella was well educated, but she was completely isolated, and she came to regard her seclusion as an imprisonment rather than a retirement. 

Life at Hardwick Hall grew intolerable. A twenty-seven-year-old woman, Arbella still slept in her grandmother's bedroom and had her nose "tweaked" for punishment. After a decade of being cut off from court and court contacts, in 1602 Arbella sought permission from Bess of Hardwick to "present" herself to the queen, but even that "small and ordinary liberty" was denied to her, at which she "despaired."

At last she took matters into her own hands. Arbella proposed a marriage with Edward Seymour, Lady Catherine Grey's grandson and thus, himself, a claimant to the English throne--despite the fact that Elizabeth I had declared Catherine Grey's marriage invalid and the children of that marriage illegitimate. On Christmas Day Arbella sent a message to Seymour's grandfather, the earl of Hertford, indicating that she would be interested in an alliance with his grandson. If the earl approved, he should send his grandson to her in disguise so that they could meet one another and, after having met, "see how they could like."

But Arbella's plot failed. The earl of Hertford forwarded her message to Sir Robert Cecil, and within days Henry Brounker was sent to Hardwick Hall to investigate. By January he had cleared things up to his own satisfaction and the queen's. Arbella apologized in a letter to the queen, expressing her sorrow for having given "the least cause of offense"; "I humbly prostrate myself at Your Majesty's feet," she wrote, "craving pardon" and hoping that, out of "princely clemency," the queen would "signify" her "gracious remission" to Arbella's grandmother, whose "discomfort" she, Arbella, would be until then. 

Arbella was "forgiven," but her restrictions were "redoubled." "Educated for command," as Steen notes, Arbella "seemed powerless, politically and personally enclosed: chaste, with no opportunity to be otherwise; silenced, forbidden unmonitored conversations or letters; and obedient, under the very real threat of the Tower or death." Although she acknowledged herself as a "poor silly infant and wretch," Arbella insisted that she had taken as "great care" to preserve the queen's "royal lineage from any blot as any whosoever"; she would, she wrote, have judged herself "unworthy of life" if she had "degenerated from the most reknowned stock whereof it is my greatest honor to be a branch."

Despite her apologies, Arbella's efforts to escape her confinement continued. She fabricated another marriage plot, used her poor health to effect a move to another residence, and ultimately attempted to escape. The escape failed, however, and early in March Arbella was once more at Hardwick Hall, under investigation. This time her apologies were less abject: 
When it shall please Her Majesty to afford me those ordinary rights which other subjects cannot be debarred of justly, I shall endeavor to receive them as thankfully now as if they had been in due time offered.
She would bear her yoke, she wrote, "as long as I think good to convince them that impose it of hardness of heart," and then "shake it off when I think good to take my Christian liberty." If it were "denied" her, the "whole world" would be "made judge upon what cause, or color, or how justly given or taken and by whom." If she could be left to be her "own woman," then everyone's "trouble" would cease.

I thought this was a portrait of
Arbella Stuart . . . but maybe not?
(see comments, below)
Queen Elizabeth died on 24 March 1603, just days after Arbella's letter was written. Arbella acknowledged the authority of the queen's successor, James VI of Scotland, now James I of England, and she was once more welcomed at court.

Again rumors about a prospective marriage for her circulated, but in July two plots against the new king were discovered, one of which included a plan to place Arbella on the English throne. She was cleared of suspicion, and while in the years that followed she was able to exert a certain amount of influence and patronage, she remained both unmarried and without adequate financial support. 

By the end of 1609 she was again under guard; "rumors abounded" about her political plans, her religious preferences, and her marriage prospects. She was investigated once more, cleared of suspicion once more, and restored to favor once more. By 1610 she had taken her destiny into her own hands, secretly arranging to marry. 

Arbella Stuart married William Seymour, Edward Seymour's younger brother, on 22 June. By early July, both were imprisoned and under investigation, Seymour in the Tower and Arbella in a private residence in Lambeth. In a letter to her husband written shortly after their arrest, Arbella wrote that she had heard he was not well, suggesting his illness represented the "sympathy" between them since she herself had been sick at the same time. She looked forward to a return of the king's favor, however, and wanted to make sure that Seymour's "grief of mind" did not "work" upon his body. If they were not "able to live to" the return of the king's favor, she wrote, "I for my part shall think myself a pattern of misfortune in enjoying so great a blessing as you so little a while." 

Arbella's belief that James would restore the pair to favor derived at least in part from her conviction that the king had given her permission to marry a husband of her own choice. In a letter to the king she wrote that his "neglect" of her and her lack of money "drove" her to her "contract" with Seymour before she informed the king of her intentions; nevertheless, she wrote, 
I humbly beseech Your Majesty to consider how impossible it was for me to imagine it could be offensive unto Your Majesty, having few days before given me your royal consent to bestow myself on any subject of Your Majesty's (which . . . likewise Your Majesty had done long since), besides never having been either prohibited any or spoken to for any in this land by your Majesty these seven years that I have lived in Your Majesty's house I could not conceive that Your Majesty regarded my marriage at all.
Despite Arbella's hopes, in January 1611 William Seymour was condemned to life imprisonment, and she was exiled to the north of England, where she was to live out her life guarded by the bishop of Durham. She attempted to fight the decision, at first by law, but when the courts failed her, she again fell ill. As Steen notes, she "became--whether by policy, from illness, or some combination of the two--too weak to travel."

She was sent on her way north on 21 March, but she traveled only six miles before stopping. There she remained until 1 April, when King James had her examined by a physician, who determined that she was, as she claimed, too weak to travel. By the end of April James was insisting that Arbella be forced to leave for Durham, but again she appealed, using her continued illness. She was granted an extension until 5 June, but on 3 June she escaped from custody, dressed in men's clothing

Her husband had escaped from the Tower, and the pair planned to be reunited in France. Arbella reached Calais on 5 June, but she was caught immediately and returned to England, this time to imprisonment in the Tower. Seymour, meanwhile, remained in France. He returned to England five months after Arbella died, restored to the king's favor. 

It is generally claimed that while she was imprisoned in the Tower, Arbella became insane. "The primary source for the idea that Stuart became deranged," Steen writes, "was court observer and letter-writer John Chamberlain, who in 1613 and 1614 repeatedly commented on Stuart's distraction; in April 1613, for example, he wrote that she was said to be 'cracked in her brain.'" The Lieutenant of the Tower, too, described Arbella's "fits of distemper and convulsions." 

Most later historians have accepted the diagnosis that Arbella Stuart "lost her sanity," but Steen effectively disputes the notion that she spent the last years of her life "as a lunatic prisoner." The evidence does "suggest that Stuart indeed was distressed, perhaps even intermittently delusional," suffering from illnesses that were "physiological, strategic, or a combination of the two," but also that Arbella "remained active on her own behalf." 
Definitely a portrait of
Arbella Stuart, c. 1605
National Galleries Scotland

Throughout the period of her supposed madness, Arbella Stuart continued to manage her financial affairs. Her relatives and friends continued to work for her release, and various political supporters continued to focus on her as a replacement for King James. At least one rescue attempt was made, and at least one plot to place her on the throne dates from this period, unlikely efforts if she were "irrecoverably deranged": 
The phrase "went insane" conveniently labels Stuart a female hysteric, a woman exhibiting the mental instability and melancholia often attributed to learned women, thus allowing observers such as John Chamberlain to dismiss her transgressions of the code of appropriate female behavior as "madness," without calling the system into question. Those who were acquainted with and attended Stuart consistently characterized her illnesses either as intentionally deceitful and obstinate or as psychosomatic in origin . . . , as arising from her grief of her unquiet mind.
James and his examiners may well have used "madness" as a way of explaining Arbella's gender "transgressions," but such a determination was an effective political tool. If Arbella Stuart were "cracked in her brain," her continued "imprisonment" in the Tower could be justified, and she could more effectively be eliminated as a rival or as a threat. 

Arbella's story parallels those of other women whose claims to the throne for themselves or their children resulted in their containment as nuns, lunatics, exiles, or prisoners. In Spain, for example, Juana la Beltraneja was discredited as illegitimate and compelled to become a nun, while Juana of Castile was declared insane and secluded (or imprisoned) at Tordesillas. 

In England, Margaret of Anjou had fought to maintain the crown for her son; having lost her son, she was defeated, discredited, and exiled. Lady Jane Grey was imprisoned in the Tower after her brief rule, but no further action was taken against her; it was only after an unsuccessful rebellion against Queen Mary that her imprisonment was not enough, and she was executed. Her sisters Catherine and Mary were both imprisoned in the Tower as well. 

The potential threats offered by such women could be controlled in other ways, however, if they were willing to accept more traditional and subordinate female roles. Elizabeth of York offered no challenge to the new Tudor king because he married her. She became a queen consort rather than a queen regnant, her own claims to the succession united with her husband's in their children. And having worked to secure her son's succession throughout her lifetime, Margaret Beaufort was certainly no challenge to his kingship; she was, as we have seen, able to exert considerable influence in her "natural" role as his mother. 

But Arbella Stuart was either incapable of or unwilling to accept a subordinate role. She died in the Tower of London on 25 September 1615, her death almost certainly complicated by her refusal to eat.  

*This post has been adapted from The Monstrous Regiment of Women: Female Rulers in Early Modern Europe (Palgrave Macmillan).

I have quoted here from Sara Jayne Steen's The Letters of Lady Arbella Stuart, a volume in the Oxford Women Writers in English, 1350-1850 series.