Arbella was the only child of Charles Stuart, 1st Earl of Lennox, (of the third creation), and Elizabeth Cavendish. Her father’s mother was the daughter of Princess Margaret Tudor, elder sister of Henry VIII, making her a first cousin, twice removed of Elizabeth I. Her father was the younger brother of Henry Stuart, Lord Darnley, second husband to Mary, Queen of Scots and thereby father to James VI of Scotland. She was – as one historian would put it – “too royal for her own good”.
Arbella’s father died when she was very young and at the age of seven she was orphaned completely and became the ward of her maternal grandmother Elizabeth Talbot, Countess of Shrewsbury – or – as this indomitable woman has come down to us through the ages – “Bess of Hardwick”.
It is likely she had an amount of contact with Mary, Queen of Scots in her childhood, as Bess’ husband, Lord Shrewsbury, was her jailer. Certainly Mary willed Arbella some jewels and instructed her son James that he bestow upon Arbella the title ‘Countess of Lennox’, which was her right through her father.
Unsurprisingly with Elizabeth as a model, Arbella received a thorough and excellent education. It is even speculated that the poet/playwright Christopher Marlowe was one of her tutors, She was formally educated well into her twenties, could speak fluent Latin, French, Spanish and Italian and play various instruments to a high standard. All of the household were instructed to refer to Arbella as “Your Highness” and it seems that she was brought up with the expectation that she would one day be Queen of England.
There are unfortunately reports that Arbella was a difficult person to like. Apparently she could be arrogant and haughty and this behaviour did not endear her to the courtiers and Elizabeth was forced to curtail her stays in court and send her back to Hardwick Hall on several occasions.
In the 1580s and 90s there was a general apathy towards James VI and Arbella was definitely considered one of the most natural candidates to succeed the aging queen. Arbella’s name was bandied around Europe incessantly; there was marriage proposal after marriage proposal. The then pope even ‘defrocked’ his own cardinal brother in an attempt to have him marry Arbella and through her lay claim to the English crown.
Although there is evidence that Arbella periodically visited court and had correspondence with her cousin the queen, by and large she was kept secluded away in her grandmother’s home, Hardwick Hall. Later, she would bemoan her upbringing as exceedingly lonely, and her home as a ‘prison’.
A few months before Elizabeth’s death, rumour reached the queen’s ears that Arbella was making plans to escape her grandmother’s custody and had made an agreement of marriage with Edward Seymour. This branch of the Seymours were descended from Lady Catherine Grey, sister of Lady Jane Grey (the “Nine Days Queen”), a granddaughter of Princess Mary Tudor, youngest sister to Henry VIII and Arbella’s own great-grandmother, the Princess Margaret Tudor. Therefore their marriage would be uniting two families with a strong claim to the throne.
Being a relation of the monarch, it was illegal for Arbella to make any marriage whatsoever without express permission from the crown. Both Arbella and Seymour denied any intent to marry and the matter was dropped.
Elizabeth died in March 1603 and James VI of Scotland succeeded the throne as James I of England. There were those who argued that James should have been excluded from the succession, due to being foreign-born. Arbella, being his first cousin, was a junior branch of the same line, but importantly, was English-born. Soon after the succession, malcontents contacted Arbella, attempting to embroil her in a plot to overthrow James in favour of herself. She refused, and immediately reported the conspiracy to the authorities. In 1604, the King of Poland sent an ambassador to James asking for permission to make Arbella his queen; his request was denied.
Arbella’s life improved under King James. She was considered First Lady of the Court and was close with James’ queen, Anne. It became clear however that James would never permit her to marry or have children that could ever go on to pose a threat to his own son and dynasty.
In June 1610 Arbella was in her mid-thirties and perhaps growing desperate for a last chance at happiness, at control of her own life. She entered into a secret marriage with William Seymour (Lord Beauchamp), the younger brother of the Edward Seymour she had been linked with all those years ago. The two had been brought before James a year or so before to deny that they were intending to marry, so it appears that their relationship was long-standing.
It seems to have been a genuine love-match, for all that it seemed merely politically astute, and considering Beauchamp was a decade younger than his new bride. Once, when Beauchamp was taken ill with a cold, Arbella sent him a letter:
I do assure you that nothing the State can do with me can trouble me so much as this news of your being ill doth; and, you see, when I am troubled I trouble you with too tedious kindness, for so I think you will account so long a letter, yourself not having written to me this good while to much as how you do. But, sweet sir, I speak not of this to trouble you with writing but when you please. Be well, and I shall account myself happy in being
Your faithful, loving wife.
The marriage was not discovered until the following summer. James was enraged at the deceit. The couple were imprisoned separately. Beauchamp – his presumption the greater, to marry one of the king’s blood – was sent to the Tower, Arbella to be held at a private residence in Lambeth.
Their confinements, however, were not harsh and they lived in relative comfort. They were allowed to correspond and wrote many letters to one another, including the one quoted above. However, when James discovered that the pair were in communication, he resolved to send Arbella north to stricter circumstances, guarded by the Bishop of Durham.
When Arbella was told of this she became distraught and hysterical. A doctor attended her on her journey north, but part-way there he reported to James that the lady was simply too ill to travel. Thus Arbella procured an important few months’ delay.
Her correspondence with Beauchamp, it seems, had somehow continued and the two had concocted a plan. Somehow, Arbella persuaded an attendant to aid her in paying a last visit to her husband, whom she declared she must see before going to her distant prison. She promised to return. This credulous servant, led astray, perhaps, by sympathy for the star-crossed couple, not only consented to the request, but assisted the lady in assuming an elaborate disguise.
“She drew a pair of large French-fashioned hose or trousers over her petticoats, put on a man’s doublet or coat, a peruke such as men wore, whose long locks covered her own ringlets, a black hat, a black coat, russet boots with red tops, and a rapier by her side. Thus accoutred, the Lady Arbella stole out with a gentleman about three o’clock in the afternoon. She had only proceeded a mile and a half when they stopped at a post-inn, where one of her confederates was waiting with horses; yet she was so sick and faint that the hostler who held her stirrup observed that the gentleman could hardly hold out to London.”
It is often noted that Imogen, the cross-dressing heroine of Shakespeare’s Cymbeline, was inspired by Arbella.
Eventually, after a many-legged journey, Arbella made it to the harbour at Lee, where a French vessel was anchored waiting to take the lovers into exile where they could be free and together. But Beauchamp was not there. Arbella insisted that they wait for him, saying that she did not care to leave if it was not to be with her beloved husband. It was to prove disastrous; the delay allowed the king’s forces – by then informed of Arbella’s disappearance – to apprehend her and take her to the Tower of London.
Heartbroken, Arbella finally gave in completely to the melancholic despair that had plagued her most of her life. Over the next four years imprisoned she faded away; most reports claim she simply starved herself to death. She died on the 25th September 1615 at the age of just 40. In the 19th century, during a search for the tomb of James I, her coffin was found in the vault of Mary, Queen of Scots, placed directly on top of that of the Scots’ queen. Her sad ghost purportedly haunts the Queen’s House at the Tower of London.
And what of her husband, William, Lord Beauchamp? He did escape the Tower that day. A cart had entered the enclosure to bring wood to his apartment. On its departure he just brazenly followed it through the gates, apparently completely unobserved. His servant stayed behind with orders to keep all visitors from the room, telling the warders that his master was in bed with toothache.
He made it to Lee but just missed Arbella, quite literally “ships passing in the night”. Not knowing what to do, he boarded a ship to Flanders and escaped to the continent. After some years, and Arbella’s death, James VI allowed him to return to England. He was to live through three successive reigns and prove himself a loyal man to the Stuart dynasty.