Time in the Tower – Arbella Stuart

tower of london
Photo by Moniek Bloks

Lady Arbella Stuart was considered a possible successor to Queen Elizabeth I as the great-great-granddaughter of King Henry VII of England. She was born in 1575, and she lost her father, Charles Stuart, 5th Earl of Lennox when she was still an infant. Her mother, Elizabeth Cavendish, died when she was seven years old. Her maternal grandmother then raised her.

arbella stuart
(public domain)

Ultimately, King James VI of Scotland became King James I of England in 1603. Arbella was well-received at court, and she was treated as a princess. However, she made an enemy of the King when she planned to marry William Seymour, who later became known as Lord Beauchamp and later became the Duke of Somerset, without the permission of the King. This led King James to believe it might be part of an attempt to seize the throne. They married in secret on 22 June 1610 at Greenwich Palace.

It wasn’t long until King James found out. On 8 July, William was summoned before the privy council and subsequently imprisoned in the Tower of London. The next day, Arbella was committed to the custody of Sir Thomas Parry. At the end of the month, both were interrogated, and while William tried to deny it, Arbella confessed to the wedding. She later wrote to the King, “I most humbly beseech your Majesty… to consider in what a miserable state I had been, if I had taken any other course than I did; for my own conscience witnessing before God that I was then the wife of him that now I am, I could never have matched with any other man but to have lived all the days of my life as a harlot.”1

When King James learned that Arbella had been writing to her husband, he ordered that she be moved to Durham. Arbella was also informed that her husband was sentenced to life imprisonment in the Tower of London. In March, Arbella was to be moved to Durham, but she managed to delay in such a manner that the party had to stop at Barnet for several weeks. This delay led to a daring escape plan which would end in tragedy.

While William also managed to escape from the Tower of London, and Arbella managed to board a ship heading towards Calais, there was to be no happy reunion. Arbella’s ship was seized in the middle of the Channel. It was reported that “the royal ship proceeded to compel obedience by firing, but finding this useless she dispatched her frigate and as the sea was calm and the wind had dropped, about a league off Calais she came up with the Lady Arbella’s ship and instantly seized her without meeting the smallest resistance from her crew.”2 A few days later, William safely arrived in Ostend; by then, Arbella was a captive. And she was ordered directly to the Tower of London.

During the subsequent interrogations, Arbella claimed she just wanted to live freely with her husband and that there had been no plot to overthrow King James. It is not clear where Arbella was first held in the Tower of London and under what conditions. Any records would have been destroyed in a small fire at Whitehall. It has been suggested, and it seems likely, that Arbella was held in the royal lodgings in the old palace. She certainly had a kitchen where a servant could prepare food for her. However. she was kept a “close prisoner”, which meant that she did not have the freedom to leave her lodgings, wherever they may have been, and roam the complex of the Tower freely. One of her own servants was finally allowed to serve her after two years at the Tower.

Arbella was never brought to trial, and she continued to linger in the Tower. By 1613, she was seriously ill, although she appeared to have recovered from this illness. However, it seems that her mental health was deteriorating fast and even William, still abroad, received word that Arbella had become “distracted of mind whereby he knew that she could not live long.”3

By the end of 1614, Arbella took to her bed, and she would not allow the doctors to feel her pulse or inspect her urine. For the last year of her life, very little is recorded. She died on 25 September 1615, and the post-mortem suggests that she likely died from starvation. The report stated that her death was caused by “a chronic and long sickness […] which increasing as well by negligence as by refusal of remedies… by long lying in bed she got bedsores, and a confirmed unhealthiness of liver, and extreme leanness.”4

Her body was taken to Westminster Abbey, where she was buried in the tomb recently erected for Mary, Queen of Scots. King James refused to let the court go into mourning.

  1. Arbella: England’s Lost Queen by Sarah Gristwood p.287
  2. Arbella: England’s Lost Queen by Sarah Gristwood p.306
  3. Arbella: England’s Lost Queen by Sarah Gristwood p.346
  4. Arbella: England’s Lost Queen by Sarah Gristwood p.353

About Moniek Bloks 2732 Articles
My name is Moniek and I am from the Netherlands. I began this website in 2013 because I wanted to share these women's amazing stories.

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