Lady Arbella Stuart – The Queen that never was

Zoom talk by David Templeman Thursday 4 Feb 2021

Notes by Susanne Young

David entertained a good number of members yesterday evening with his illustrated presentation about Lady Arbella (the name she was known by, rather than Arabella as she was later referred to).

Arbella was the granddaughter of Bess of Hardwick and her story has largely been forgotten until recently. She had a greater claim to the throne of England than James 1 as she was born here but was most likely passed over by the Privy Councillors at Elizabeth I’s death simply because she was a woman. After two Queens, the Privy Council opted for a King rather than a third Queen.

Arbella’s parents were Elizabeth Cavendish (Bess of Hardwick’s daughter) and Charles Stuart (son of Mary Countess of Lennox and brother of Henry Stuart, spouse of Mary Queen of Scots). Both of Arbella’s parents were descended from Henry VIII’s sister Margaret Tudor, hence Arbella’s claim to the throne.

Grandmothers Bess and the Countess engineered the marriage and Elizabeth I was furious but later relented and welcomed Arbella to her Court as a young girl. Arbella (born 1575 at Chatsworth) was brought up by her grandmother Bess following the early deaths of her parents. She was also very close to her aunt and uncle George and Mary Talbot. Raised to be a Queen, she was well-educated and highly accomplished but very spoiled.

Arbella was popular at Court and like Elizabeth I became close to the Earl of Essex. Perhaps her popularity was her undoing as Queen Elizabeth later exiled the teenage girl from Court after which she was effectively kept under house arrest by her own grandmother Bess. A furious Arbella rebelled, tried to escape and refused to eat or drink for a time.

When James I succeeded to the throne in 1603, Arbella was released and she returned to Court. She disliked the frivolous Court of James I but met and fell in love with William Seymour. They were secretly married against James’ wishes due to the threat to his own dynasty. William Seymour was descended from Henry VIII’s sister Mary Tudor so any children born to him and Arbella would have a strong claim to the throne. James’ reaction was to arrest the couple, sending William to the Tower of London and banishing Arbella to Durham.

An escape plan was hatched with the help of the Gilberts and Arbella, dressed as a man, made her way to the coast of France. Unfortunately, William’s planned escape from the Tower was delayed and before they could be reunited, Arbella was apprehended and returned under guard to England. Her physical and mental health deteriorated rapidly and she effectively starved herself to death in 1615. 

She is buried in Mary Queen of Scots tomb in Westminster Abbey. Her husband William returned to England to become the first Duke of Somerset in 1660. He married the daughter of Arbella’s old flame the Earl of Essex and the couple named their own daughter Arbella.

Lynda Balmforth gave a vote of thanks at the end.

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