Lady Arbella Stuart was born in 1575, to Charles Stuart, Earl of Lennox and his wife, Elizabeth. Through her father’s line, Arbella was a great-granddaughter of Margaret Tudor which made her a cousin of both Elizabeth I of England and James VI of Scotland (also later James I of England). Having both Tudor and Stuart blood in her veins meant that Arbella was a possible heir to Elizabeth I.
Arbella lost both of her parents while she was very young; her father died when she was just one and her mother when she was seven. Arbella’s paternal grandmother Margaret Douglas also died around the same time, and all of her estates and titles were seized by the English crown. Arbella’s relatives tried to regain the Lennox inheritance but sadly failed and the young girl was left without money or title. The Lennox title remained out of Arbella’s grasp for the rest of her life.
Luckily, the young child was not alone in the world and was able to live as the ward of her maternal grandmother Bess of Hardwick. Bess came from a minor gentry family but rose up to be a Countess and one of England’s wealthiest women. She was very ambitious, and it is believed that she had planned the marriage of her daughter to Charles Stuart so that any children born of the union would come high up in the line of succession. Bess’s plan came to fruition when Queen Elizabeth I mentioned Arbella as a possible successor, and so the young girl was raised as if she were a princess at Hardwick Hall and Chatsworth House, where she was referred to as ‘your highness’ by the many servants.
Arbella received a prestigious education from her grandmother and excelled in many subjects. She spent her time playing music, learning languages and reading, but her childhood was a lonely one. There were no other children around to play with she was often alone or with her tutors. One of Arbella’s few companions was her aunt Mary, Queen of Scots who was imprisoned under the watch of Bess’s husband at the time.
The young Arbella was a very desirable bride and had many possible suitors. Her grandmother firstly arranged a marriage for her with the son of Robert Dudley, but the boy tragically died in infancy. Possible pairings with the son of the Duke of Parma or King James VI of Scotland also fell through. Many matches were discussed, but it was evident that Elizabeth I and later James I did not wish for Arbella to be married. Any children of Arabella’s would mean yet more rivals and conspiracies for taking the throne, and neither Elizabeth nor James wanted that.
In 1588, Arbella was set free from the confines of her grandmother’s home when she moved to court as a Lady in waiting for Queen Elizabeth. This happy time was not to last, however, and Arbella was soon banished from court in disgrace after she was seen flirting with the Earl of Essex, a favourite of the queen. Arbella left the excitement of court behind as a young teen and spent the following ten years back under the watch of her grandmother where the relationship between the pair turned sour.
In a bid to break free from her isolated life, Arbella made a terrible mistake and tried to orchestrate a marriage between herself and Edward Seymour. Since the Seymours were also in the line of succession, Elizabeth was furious about the plan as it could have instigated a usurpation of her throne. Eventually, Arbella was forgiven, and many believed she was playing up to draw attention to herself and add some excitement to her life. Arbella even went as far as pretending to be involved in a love affair with the married King James.
Elizabeth I died in March 1603, and things seemed to be improving for Arbella under the reign of King James I. Arbella managed to stay on the right side of James by reporting a plot to murder him and place her and Thomas Grey on the throne instead. James trusted Arbella after this episode and invited her back to court, where she received an income of her own. In 1605, Arbella was made godmother of Princess Mary and seemed settled into life at her cousin’s court.
In 1608, Bess of Hardwick died, and Arbella was herself hit by a bout of smallpox. This reminder of the fact she was ageing and had not yet made plans for her future must have led to Arbella’s next move. It was clear to Arbella by this stage, that although King James cared for her wellbeing, he was as unwilling to allow her to marry as Elizabeth I had been. Arbella decided, at the age of thirty-five, to take her destiny into her own hands and turned towards the Seymour family again for assistance.
On 22 June 1610, Arbella Stuart married William Seymour, a twenty-two-year-old who was a grandson of the Earl of Hertford and brother to Edward, whom Arabella had tried to marry eight years before. William had fallen for Arbella at court and was impressionable and foolish enough to ignore warnings from King James, who had heard rumours of a possible match between the couple. In marrying, Arbella and William had united the rival Grey, and Stuart claims to the throne (as both descended from sisters of Henry VIII) which King James would not permit. Within seventeen days, James had learned of the secret marriage, and the couple were separated from each other; William was taken to the Tower of London, and Arbella was detained in a house in Lambeth.
Despite both being imprisoned, somehow the couple managed to arrange secret liaisons. After it appeared that Arbella had suffered a miscarriage, King James found out about the couple’s meet-ups and sent Arbella to Durham where she could not see William. Again the pair did not take no for an answer and planned to escape; Arbella fled from her guards, dressed as a man and when William did not meet her at a planned location, she boarded a ship to France. Arbella’s ship was intercepted on the Channel, and she was sent to the Tower of London. Her husband was more fortunate and managed a successful escape to Belgium.
Once trapped in the Tower, Arbella’s physical and mental health began to crumble. She pleaded for help or release because of her illness, but due to the lies she had told in the past, people believed thought she was faking her ailments. After a year-long period of illness and refusing to eat, Arbella died in the tower on 25 September 1615. A post-mortem ruled out poisoning, and it became clear that Arbella had starved herself to death slowly. Arbella died without ever seeing her husband again and without the opportunity to have children or make a life for herself. She lost her life because of Elizabeth I and James I’s urge to streamline the line of succession.