Stuart, Arabella (1575–1615)

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Stuart, Arabella (1575–1615)

English princess whose unhappy life was dominated by the political exigencies of two wary monarchs, despite her disinterest in claiming the throne. Name variations: Lady Arabella Stuart; Arbella Stuart; Arabella

or Arbella Seymour. Born in October 1575 in London, England; died on September 25, 1615, in the Tower of London; interred on September 28, 1615, in Westminster Abbey, London; daughter of Charles Stuart (1555–1576), 5th earl of Lennox, and Elizabeth Cavendish (d. 1582); married William Seymour (1587–1660), 2nd duke of Somerset (r. 1660–1660), on June 22, 1610; no children.

In June 1611, King James I of England issued a warrant for the arrest of a royal princess who had contrived to escape from her confinement in England and flee to France. James considered the woman, who was his own cousin Arabella Stuart and his closest living relative, a potential threat to his power, and sent out search parties. The next day a small boat hurrying Arabella and her modest party across the English Channel was overtaken and all aboard were arrested. They were brought back to England and imprisoned in the Tower of London to await the king's justice.

As dramatic as it was, this escape attempt was only one of the many bids for freedom which dominated Arabella Stuart's life. Born in 1575, she was the only child of Charles Stuart, 5th earl of Lennox, and Elizabeth Cavendish . Her father was descended from Margaret Tudor (1489–1541), daughter of Henry VII, and was third in the line of succession to the English throne. Arabella's mother was the daughter of the wealthy Elizabeth Talbot and William Cavendish.

The secret marriage between Charles Stuart and Elizabeth Cavendish had displeased Queen Elizabeth I , since everyone of royal blood was compelled by law to obtain the queen's permission to marry; no one doubted that she would have forbidden the dangerous union of her potential successor with the wealth of the Cavendish family. But Arabella's birth was even more threatening to the queen; the baby held a strong claim to the throne through her father—as strong a claim as Elizabeth's eventual successor, James I. In addition, Charles Stuart was the brother-in-law of Elizabeth's enemy and rival monarch, the Catholic Mary Stuart , queen of Scots, who held the strongest claim to succeed Elizabeth. Queen Elizabeth was keenly aware that as a Protestant, she faced many enemies among her Catholic subjects who wanted to replace her with a Catholic monarch. The existence of a new claimant was especially dangerous since the child could become the center of conspiracies against the queen. This concern explains Queen Elizabeth's consistent efforts to keep Arabella as politically and financially weakened as possible.

When Charles Stuart died in April 1576, King James of Scotland seized the Stuart estates in Lennox, which should have become Arabella's inheritance. Then Arabella's grandmother Margaret Douglas (1515–1578), countess of Lennox, died, and Queen Elizabeth seized the Lennox lands in England. This left the infant Arabella without any source of income; even the jewels left to her were stolen by the will's executor. In May 1578, King James revoked two-year-old Arabella's claim to the earldom of Lennox; she would never again be recognized as countess of Lennox.

Arabella did have one important supporter throughout the trials of her childhood: her maternal grandmother Elizabeth Talbot, countess of Shrewsbury, with whom she and her mother lived. The countess was untiring in her efforts to regain Arabella's estates and to persuade Queen Elizabeth to provide Arabella with an income such as many other royal relatives enjoyed, although Arabella would fail to appreciate Talbot's consistent advocacy for her financial and political well-being. Even after Queen Elizabeth finally agreed to an annual stipend, the countess would continue for years to press the queen to increase the sum and to regain Arabella's stolen inheritance from James of Scotland. The queen put the countess off with vague promises and never requested James to relinquish Lennox to Arabella.

Around 1580, the countess moved her daughter Elizabeth Cavendish and granddaughter Arabella to her country manor in Derbyshire, where Arabella would spend most of her childhood. Her tutors instructed her in reading, classical literature, and history; she was a gifted linguist, fluent in French, Italian, Spanish, and Latin, and reading Greek and Hebrew. She studied dancing, the lute, and embroidery as well. The countess also saw to it that Arabella was well taught in the tenets of Protestantism.

Arabella was six years old when her mother died after a sudden illness. In response, Queen Elizabeth cut off most of the annual allowance she and her mother had shared. Despite the countess' protests, Elizabeth refused to raise the sum. Talbot was forced to support her granddaughter herself, which, although she could easily afford it, she strongly resented as a matter of principle. Arabella was, after all, a royal princess and the queen's close relative, and thus was entitled to a large royal stipend. Elizabeth refused to relent.

In the same household in Derbyshire lived England's most famous political prisoner, Arabella's aunt Mary Stuart, queen of Scots. Her grandparents were Mary's guardians during much of the unfortunate queen's confinement. It is not clear how much contact Arabella had with the captive queen. Their lives, however—as royal princesses orphaned young, denied their rightful titles, and confined in order to minimize their threat to reigning monarchs—would bear a striking resemblance in Arabella's later years.

The execution in 1587 of Mary Stuart had important consequences for Arabella. The removal of Queen Elizabeth's closest living relative left Arabella and her cousin James of Scotland with the strongest claims to succeed Elizabeth. For years, however, Elizabeth refused to name either James or Arabella as her heir, fearing the political factioning which would result.

Mary Stuart's death brought Elizabeth's attention to the 12-year-old girl growing up in Talbot's Hardwick House. Not long after, Arabella had her first face-to-face encounter with the monarch whose actions in many ways had determined the course of her life. The question of Arabella's marriage led Elizabeth to summon the girl to the court; with Arabella's parents dead and her claim to the throne so strong, Elizabeth was exercising royal prerogative in choosing a husband for her cousin. She was considering a betrothal to Duke Rainutio Farnese of Parma to seal a new treaty between England and the Italian city-state. Nothing came of this arrangement, and Arabella was soon sent home.

Cavendish, Elizabeth (d. 1582)

Countess of Lennox. Name variations: Bess of Hardwick. Birth date unknown; died in 1582; daughter of Elizabeth Talbot (1518–1608), countess of Shrewsbury, and Sir William Cavendish, 1st earl of Devonshire; married Charles Stuart, 5th earl of Lennox, in 1574 (died April 1576); children: Arabella Stuart (1575–1615).

In 1588, she was recalled to court, Elizabeth still holding out the possibility of marriage to the duke. However, this trip to London was cut short when Arabella was banished from court for three years for, according to diplomatic reports, her "excessive familiarity" with the earl of Essex. It is not easy to believe that 13-year-old Arabella was actually guilty of inappropriate behavior with the earl, although she was certainly infatuated with him. The queen was more likely using the rumors as an expedient for removing Arabella from court. For Elizabeth, Arabella was becoming more and more of a problem with each passing year; she would have to be married, but her husband must be carefully chosen, since the wrong man might try to push Arabella's claim to the throne. Elizabeth resolved the issue, as she did many other difficult decisions, by simply putting off the question for as long as possible.

There was another reason for keeping Arabella away from court; she did not fit in to the court's hierarchical structure in any way. She was a royal princess by birth, yet held no title; court records refer to her only as "Lady Arabella." In a court setting strictly ordered by rank, Arabella had no clear place. Her quiet and lonely country upbringing further isolated her from her new companions and had not prepared her for the constant ritual and socializing of court life.

Recalled a second time to London in 1591, Arabella again found herself in trouble with the queen. Some of the queen's councilors secretly offered Arabella's hand to Rainutio Farnese again, assuring him that he and Arabella would succeed Elizabeth. The duke's death soon afterwards ended this plot. But then Arabella became the center of another unsuccessful plot, in which Catholic nobles planned to kidnap her, marry her to a Catholic and put her on the throne. There is no evidence that Arabella agreed to or even knew about these court intrigues against Elizabeth, although the fact that she was a compelling target for would-be conspirators was enough to cause the queen to send her home in 1592.

Arabella spent the next nine years in Derbyshire. She grew increasingly restless with her endless studies and quiet life dominated by her aging grandmother, who, she complained, monitored her behavior closely and treated her like a child. Arabella longed to establish her own independent household away from the countess, but she owned no estates and anyway had virtually no income to support her own staff. This desire for her own home became a recurring theme in Arabella's life. Despite the numerous plots regarding the queen and, later, James I, which involved Arabella, she harbored no desire to raise herself to the throne, and never displayed any ambition for royal power. Her goal throughout her life went no further than achieving her independence and making her own decisions.

Finally, in 1601 Talbot agreed to let Arabella, now 25 years old, have her own household and staff on the countess' lands. Not contented with this, Arabella became determined to make a complete break from her grandmother by finding herself a husband. In seeking her own mate, Arabella was not only disobeying the countess but actually breaking the law which gave the queen the right to make royal marriage agreements. In 1602, she sent a secret messenger to propose marriage with the young noble Edward Seymour. It was an irrational choice, since Edward was the son of a disgraced family hostile to the queen; in proposing such a union, Arabella was ensuring the queen's anger if the marriage came to pass. But it did not; the Seymours were being closely watched by the crown, and Arabella's servant was arrested and forced to confess her plans. Arabella was questioned and apologized for causing trouble.

Yet her unpredictable behavior did not end; she wrote a series of rambling letters to various family members requesting their help in freeing her from her grandmother's care; she even threatened to go on a hunger strike until she could meet with the queen. In response, Queen Elizabeth sent a commissioner to meet with Arabella, and Arabella told him that she was the lover of King James. Various abortive plans to escape from Derbyshire followed. On hearing all this, the Queen's Privy Council wondered about Arabella's mental state but soon turned their attention to much more pressing matters: the queen's failing health and her death in March 1603, and the succession to the English throne by King James of Scotland.

James I would treat his cousin Arabella with the same caution Elizabeth had. One of his first acts as king was to order the earl of Kent to keep Arabella in his care, ending her brief period as mistress of her own household; this was a prudent move from James' point of view, since he needed to keep all potential rivals in check in order to consolidate his rule. Fortunately he enjoyed tremendous popular support in England, something Arabella never had nor sought. His party tried to ensure her lack of support by spreading rumors that Arabella was insane.

Arabella's irrational—and politically naive—behavior continued into James' reign, unintentionally reinforcing the rumors against her. She bluntly refused the royal summons to attend Queen Elizabeth's funeral as the only living royal princess, excusing herself by saying that the queen had never treated her with the respect she deserved. She did attend James' coronation in July, after which she remained at court in Queen Anne of Denmark 's retinue. The queen became a close friend, the first real friendship Arabella is known to have had, and she spent the next six years in relative happiness at court. Arabella's presence there served James' goals well: he could not forget that his claim to the throne was no stronger than hers, and that she had shown herself to be somewhat unstable and unpredictable (although she was never directly involved in a plot to overthrow him). Like Elizabeth, he sought to keep her under control, and never carried through on his promises to restore her father's property to her and to find her a husband.

Arabella was second in rank only to the queen, and because of her intimacy with the queen did not suffer from the isolation and awkward position she had experienced at Elizabeth's court. Arabella spent her days in idle games and pastimes—hunting, masques, dancing, music, and other diversions. In her letters to her family, she writes that although sometimes court life was tiresome, she was happier than she had ever been. Yet her happiness was always overshadowed by the same financial troubles she had experienced all her life. She received a moderate income from the king, but this was insufficient to support her in the style demanded by court society. Maintaining appearances was critically important in 16th-century court life; a high-ranking lady such as Arabella had to dress in the most expensive fashions, support numerous servants, give expensive gifts to her friends, and show charity to the poor. Because James would neither give her permission to leave the court nor increase her stipend so she could afford to stay, she was forced to borrow money from friends. This situation continued for years, until Arabella once again began to feel like a prisoner.

In 1606, with the aid of James and Anne, Arabella was reconciled with her grandmother, the steadfast advocate of her childhood whom she had grown to see as her jailer in her teenage years. She had had no contact with Elizabeth Talbot in years, but after their reunion she visited her regularly until Talbot's death in 1608. Talbot had reinstated Arabella into her will, leaving enough money for Arabella to finally purchase a house of her own in London. Still, she spent most of her time at court. The next year, Arabella made her first and only trip to the Midlands of England, where she had grown up. On her eight-week journey through the lands of her Cavendish family, she was reunited with distant relatives and old friends from her youth. The possibilities for independence inspired by this long trip intensified Arabella's lifelong desire to be her own mistress.

At age 34, Arabella was twice the age of most noblewomen when married. Yet there had been no serious betrothal negotiations on her behalf for 15 years, and it was obvious James had no intention of marrying off his rival. As she had done seven years before, Arabella decided to make her own agreement. In December 1609, James discovered that Arabella had communicated with the Seymour family about the possibility of a marriage. He ordered her confined to her suite but soon dropped the matter. In February, he was forced to call her before the Privy Council to answer to rumors that she had continued to discuss a marriage with William Seymour, the 22-year-old brother of Edward Seymour whom she had sought to marry in 1602. After swearing to her innocence, Arabella was forgiven and ordered to drop any plans for wedlock. She did not obey this order. Again she was behaving irrationally; by plotting to marry without James' permission, she was bound to alienate her strongest allies—James, Queen Anne, and their advisor Lord Cecil, all of whom had shown her friendship and respect despite her actions.

On June 22, 1610, Arabella and William Seymour married in a secret ceremony. On July 8, James was shocked to learn of the wedding, and had William imprisoned in the Tower of London; Arabella was arrested the next day. When questioned before the Privy Council, William denied the marriage, while Arabella confessed. The king ordered the couple kept apart, so that there could be no risk that a child would be born to threaten the succession. Confined in a noble's home, Arabella wrote letter after letter to James and court officials, begging to be restored to favor, but consistently defending her actions and refusing to admit that she had defied a royal command.

[S]he is allowed to come to court … but so far a husband has not been found, and she remains without mate and without estate.

—Venetian ambassador Nicholo Molin, 1607

Evidence suggests that despite the king's orders, William and Arabella managed to see one another occasionally, and in September Arabella wrongly believed herself pregnant. In consequence, the Council ordered that she be removed from London and put under the care of the bishop of Durham. Determined not to be taken from the court, and her short-lived marriage, Arabella managed to delay the trip until June 1611 by claiming to be ill. On June 3, with the help of several servants, Arabella disguised herself in men's clothing and, escaping her guards, rode to a prearranged site on the coast where she and her servants waited in vain for William Seymour. Then her party set out on their ill-fated voyage across the English Channel for France, from which they returned to London as prisoners. William Seymour had meanwhile managed to escape to the Netherlands, where James was content to let him remain; Arabella never saw him again.

There was no trial. Arabella remained a prisoner in the Tower, but was never charged with any crime. Her actions had consequences for her entire family, most notably her aunt Mary Talbot , who had helped plan her escape and suffered 12 years in the Tower for it, and her uncle Gilbert Talbot, who was forced to resign his position as privy councilor. Arabella's servants all served time in prison as well. Arabella's accommodations in the Tower were befitting a woman of her rank—she had a small retinue and elegant lodgings—yet she was a prisoner just the same. All her appeals to James and Anne for forgiveness went unanswered.

In 1614, she made a failed escape attempt, after which she fell into a deep depression. After years of struggling to control her own life, Arabella finally gave up all hope of such freedom, and her health began to decline rapidly. Her mental state deteriorated as well, and in September 1615 she began to refuse to eat. On September 25, she died of starvation at age 39. In a quiet ceremony, James had his cousin buried at Westminster Abbey, in the same vault holding the remains of her aunt, Mary Stuart, queen of Scots, whose unfortunate life had in so many ways mirrored her own.

Talbot, Mary (d. 1632)

Countess of Shrewsbury. Name variations: Mary Cavendish. Interred on April 14, 1632, at St. Peter's, Sheffield, England; daughter of Elizabeth Talbot (1518–1608), countess of Shrewsbury, and Sir William Cavendish, 1st earl of Devonshire; married Gilbert Talbot (1552–1616), 7th earl of Shrewsbury, on February 9, 1567; children: Mary Talbot (d. 1649); Elizabeth Talbot (d. 1651); Lady Alathea Talbot (d. 1654, who married Thomas Howard, earl of Arundel).

Devereux, Frances (d. 1674)

Duchess of Somerset. Name variations: Frances Seymour. Died on April 24, 1674 (some sources cite 1679); daughter of Robert Devereux (b. 1566), 2nd earl of Essex, and Frances Walsingham ; married William Seymour (1587–1660), 2nd duke of Somerset (r. 1660–1660), on March 3, 1616; children: William (b. 1621); Robert (b. 1624); Henry (b. 1626); Edward; John, 4th duke of Somerset; Frances Seymour (d. 1680); Lady Mary Seymour (d. 1673, who married Heneage Finch, 3rd earl of Winchelsea); Lady Jane Seymour (d. 1679).

William Seymour, her husband of a few weeks, was allowed to return to England in 1616, where he married Frances Devereux and eventually earned back royal favor. He served with distinction at James' court and at the courts of Charles I and Charles II, dying in 1660.


Durant, David N. Arbella Stuart: A Rival to the Queen. London: Weidenfeld & Nicholson, 1978.

Handover, P.M. Arbella Stuart. London: Eyre & Spottiswoode, 1957.

McInnes, Ian. Arabella: the Life and Times of Lady Arabella Seymour. London: W.H. Allen, 1968.

suggested reading:

Hibbert, Christopher. The Virgin Queen: Elizabeth I, Genius of the Golden Age. NY: Dutton, 1976.

Stuart, Arbella. The Letters of Lady Arbella Stuart. Ed. by Sara Jayne Steen. NY: Oxford University Press, 1994.

Laura York , M.A. in History, University of California, Riverside, California