Lady Arbella Stuart (or "Arabella" and/or "Stewart") (1575 – 27 September 1615) was an English Renaissance noblewoman who was for some time considered a possible successor to Queen Elizabeth I on the English throne.
Arbella Stuart was the only child of Charles Stuart, 1st Earl of Lennox, (of the third creation), and Elizabeth Cavendish, she was a grandchild of Matthew Stewart, 4th Earl of Lennox, (of the second creation), and Lady Margaret Douglas, who was, in turn, the daughter of Archibald Douglas, 6th Earl of Angus and Princess Margaret Tudor and granddaughter of Henry VII of England.
Arbella's paternal grandparents, the 4th Earl of Lennox and Margaret Douglas, had two sons: Arbella's father Charles and his older brother, Henry Stuart, Lord Darnley, who became the second husband of Mary, Queen of Scots, and the father of James I of Great Britain. Arbella's maternal grandparents were Sir William Cavendish and Bess of Hardwick.
In her final days, as a prisoner in the Tower of London, Lady Beauchamp (her married name), refusing to eat, fell ill, and died on 27 September 1615. She was buried in Westminster Abbey on 29 September 1615. She did not aspire to the English throne.
Arbella's father died in 1576 when she was still an infant. She was raised by her mother Elizabeth Cavendish until 1582. The death of her mother left seven-year-old Arbella an orphan, whereupon she became the ward of William Cecil, 1st Baron Burghley.
During most of her childhood she lived in the protective isolation of Hardwick Hall with her maternal grandmother, Bess of Hardwick, who had married George Talbot, 6th Earl of Shrewsbury in 1568. There were, apparently, periodic visits to the court of Elizabeth I of England and to London, including one that lasted from September 1589 to July 1592. A note survives, in French, written to Lord Burghley in Arbella's Italic hand, addressed on the eve of the Spanish Armada battles, dated 13 July 1588 and "postmarked" from the Talbots' Coleman Street Residence in London. It provides proof of the London visits.
About 1589, one "Morley" became Arbella's "attendant" and "reader", as reported in a dispatch from Bess of Hardwick to Lord Burghley, dated 21 September 1592. Bess recounts "Morley's" service to Arbella over "the space of three years and a half". She also notes he requested a lifetime stipend from Arbella based on the fact he had "been much damnified by leaving the University"; this has led to speculation that 'Morley' was the poet Christopher Marlowe.
Heiress to the English throne
For some time before 1592, Arbella was considered one of the natural candidates for succession to the English crown, after her cousin, Queen Elizabeth I (Marshall, 601). However, between the end of 1592 and the spring of 1593, the influential Cecils, Elizabeth's Secretaries of State Lord Burghley and his son Sir Robert Cecil turned their attention away from Arbella towards James VI of Scotland, regarding him as a preferable successor. Burghley wrote "If my hand were free from pain I would not commit this much to any other man's hand".
She was at times invited to Elizabeth's court, but spend most of her time with her grandmother away from it. She continued her education into her twenties. She studied several languages and could play the lute, viol and virginals.
In 1603, after James's ascension to the English throne, there was a plot (in which Sir Walter Raleigh was alleged to being involved) to overthrow him and put Arbella on the throne; but when she was invited to participate by agreeing in writing to Philip III of Spain, she reported the plan to James.
Owing to Arbella's status as a possible heir to the throne, there was discussion of an appropriate marriage for her throughout her childhood. It would have suited the Roman Catholic Church for her to marry a member of the House of Savoy and then take the English throne. A marriage was also mooted with Ranuccio, eldest son of Alexander Farnese, Duke of Parma and Maria of Portugal. According to the Curiosities of Literature by Isaac D'Israeli, this scheme originated with the Pope, who eventually settled on his own brother, a cardinal, as a suitable husband for Arbella; the Pope defrocked his brother, freeing him to marry "Arbelle" (as the Italians spelled her name) and thus claim the Kingdom of England. Nothing came of this plan, and in fact there is no direct evidence that Arbella was either a believing Catholic or a Protestant.
In the closing months of Elizabeth's reign, Arbella fell into trouble via reports that she intended to marry Edward Seymour, a member of the prominent Seymour family. This was reported to the Queen by the supposed groom's grandfather, Edward Seymour, 1st Earl of Hertford. Arbella denied having any intention of marrying without the Queen's permission, which she would have required for any marriage to be legal.
In 1588, it was proposed to James VI of Scotland that Esmé Stuart, 2nd Duke of Lennox should be married to Arbella, but nothing seems to have come of this suggestion. In 1604, Sigismund III Vasa, King of Poland sent an ambassador to England to ask for Arbella to be his queen. This offer was rejected.
There are some indications that Arbella tried to elope in about 1604 and that she fell out of favor with King James I as a result; she was certainly out of sight until 1608, when she was restored to the King's good graces.
Marriage to William Seymour
In 1610, Arbella, who was fourth in line to the English throne, was in trouble again for planning to marry William Seymour, then known as Lord Beauchamp, who later succeeded as 2nd Duke of Somerset. William Seymour was sixth-in-line, grandson of Lady Catherine Grey, a younger sister of Lady Jane Grey and a granddaughter of Mary Tudor, younger sister of King Henry VIII and Arbella's ancestor, Margaret Tudor.
Although the couple at first denied that any arrangement existed between them, they later married in secret on 22 June 1610 at Greenwich Palace. For marrying without his permission, King James imprisoned them: Arbella in Sir Thomas Perry's house in Lambeth and Seymour in the Tower of London. The couple had some liberty within those buildings, and some of Arbella's letters to Seymour and to the King during this period survive. When the King learned of her letters to Seymour, however, he ordered Arbella's transfer to the custody of William James, Bishop of Durham. Arbella claimed to be ill, so her departure for Durham was delayed.
The couple used that delay to plan their escape. Arbella dressed as a man and escaped to Lee (in Kent), but Seymour did not meet her there before their getaway ship was to sail for France. Sara Jayne Steen records that Imogen, the virtuous, cross-dressed heroine of William Shakespeare's play Cymbeline (1610–1611) has sometimes been read as a reference to Arbella.
Seymour did escape from the Tower, but by the time he reached Lee, Arbella was gone, so he caught the next ship to Flanders. Arbella's ship was overtaken by King James's men just before it reached Calais, France, and she was returned to England and imprisoned in the Tower of London. She never saw her husband again and starved herself to death in the Tower in 1615.
Over one hundred letters written by Arbella have survived. In 1993, a collection of them was published, edited by Sara Jayne Steen, providing details of her activities and ideas.
The English novelist and historical biographer Doris Leslie, wrote 'Wreath for Arabella' in 1948.
Aemilia Lanier's poem Salve Deus Rex Judaeorum is dedicated to Arbella. Lanier recalls a former personal friendship with Arbella that was unrequited; she addresses her as "Great learned Ladie ... whom long I have known "but not known so much as I desired".
Felicia Hemans' poem Arabella Stuart is about Arbella, imagining her thoughts as she died in prison.