On the 25th September 1615 Henry VII’s great-great granddaughter Arbella Stuart died quietly in the Tower of London. It was an ignoble end for a woman who had once been considered likely to succeed Elizabeth I as Queen of England.
Things could have been very different.
Arbella’s mother died in 1582 and she was raised by her grandmother Bess, at Hardwick Hall in Derbyshire. Until 1592 she was regarded as a legitimate successor to Elizabeth and was brought up as a princess. She was literate, could speak several languages and played a range of musical instruments. Elizabeth herself sometimes invited Arbella to her court, which must have been seen, however obliquely, as a careful endorsement of her claim. It is even possible Hardwick Hall was reconstructed so magnificently because Bess believed it would, one day, become a royal palace for her granddaughter. But after 1592 the winds of succession changed direction and lacking influential backers Arbella’s claim drifted away.
Arbella might actually have been pleased. For a potential heir, marriage was problematic because any children, particularly boys, would become heirs themselves. However, any hopes she had were dashed when it became clear she would never be allowed to marry while Elizabeth was alive; although Arbella had no designs on the throne, others might try to use her children as political pawns in savage Tudor struggles for power. Instead, Arbella was kept in Hardwick Hall in gilded confinement, becoming increasingly desperate with each passing year.
Arbella must have hoped for a change in her fortunes when James VI succeeded Elizabeth in 1603. Initially James appeared to be sympathetic and invited her back to court. Arbella appears to have been loyal to the new king and dutifully reported a serious plot against him which, if successful, would have made her Queen of England at last. Her spirits must have been raised further when James did appear to consider a few marriages for her, but all came to nothing. By 1610 Arbella was thirty-five and desperate; the cogs of power had not only moved her away from the throne but also locked her into a life of futile, glittering irrelevance. Arbella’s claim was just too strong for her to ever marry and when King James discovered she had secretly married William Seymour, sixth in line to the throne, he reacted ruthlessly.
The couple were imprisoned separately but continued to write to each other. In response, the King ordered that she be moved to Durham. Perhaps knowing this would be last chance at happiness, Arbella disguised herself as a man and escaped to a port where she waited for William to join her. He managed to escape from the Tower of London but not in time to catch Arbella’s ship to France. Instead he boarded the next outgoing ship, to the safety of Flanders. Arbella’s ship never made it. Within sight of Calais it was overtaken by King James’ men and she was returned to London. She never saw William Seymour again. There is some evidence that even this didn’t completely crush Arbella’s spirits. In 1614 she was caught trying to sell pearls given to her by Queen Elizabeth in happier times and was suspected of trying to raise money for a final escape attempt. Any such attempt, it if existed at all, came to nothing and she was even cheated on the deal.
Giving up on life as well as marriage, Arbella stopped eating and died.
Arbella’s story reveals the dry, silted streams far away from the well charted rivers of Tudor power. Her story teaches us that then, just as now, for every glorious winner there were forgotten losers. Arbella teaches us not all Tudor ends were sudden, dramatic or bloody. Some were longer, more pointless and perhaps crueller in their obscurity.
Walk Hardwick Hall on a late autumn afternoon when the tapestries close in and the faded golds and greens stifle and suffocate as the light ebbs away. In this darkly glittering, poisonous air you can still see Arbella pacing the shadows, eyes sharp and waspish as she searches for a way through her twisted maze, the sun setting red as the cold night finally ends all her hopes.