Book Review: “Arbella: England’s Lost Queen” by Sarah Gristwood

gristwoods arbella

In reading about Bess of Hardwick, Bess’ granddaughter Arbella Stuart is mentioned. Arbella was the daughter of Bess’s daughter Elizabeth and Charles Stuart, 1st Earl of Lennox. Charles was the son of Margaret Douglas, daughter of Margaret Tudor, sister of King Henry VIII and dowager Queen of Scots as the wife of King James IV. The key point of Arbella’s ancestry is that she was a royal princess of the blood which had a huge impact on her life.

Arbella was the focal point of kidnapping plots as well as the subject of many marriage rumors. Because of this she led a very secluded life. Both her parent died when she was very young and she ended up in the care of her grandmother Bess. She essentially spent her days as a prisoner up until Queen Elizabeth I died in 1603. She was then allowed to go to the Stuart court of King James I and VI. After she obtained her freedom, she plotted her own marriage and ended up alienating herself from the King and court. I don’t want to tell more about her life at this time as she will be the subject of an article on the main blog.

I read an older biography of Arbella by Blanche Hardy and Mary S. Lovell covers her story in detail in her biography of Bess of Hardwick. Gristwood’s book is not a biography in the conventional sense. She does give us a chronological view of Arbella’s life but mostly writes about Arbella in the context of her times and gives us her analysis of some key points in Arbella’s life. This is definitely a more in-depth view of this eccentric and complex woman. Gristwood has read all the extant letters written by Arbella and sifts through the odd syntax to give us the meat of what she writes. She tries to give us an inkling of what Arbella was thinking when she wrote the letters.

Perhaps the most interesting aspect of this book is Gristwood’s theory that Arbella Stuart suffered from the scourge of royalty, the genetic disorder called porphyria. King George III is most well known as being a sufferer and it has been suggested Mary Queen of Scots had this complex disease. Gristwood has an appendix in the book explaining the different studies done on the disease in the royal family, comparing the symptoms of the disease to Arbella’s known symptoms. She also explains that while porphyria is the most convincing diagnosis for Arbella, there may have been other diseases or mental illnesses that explain her behavior. I think Gristwood makes a pretty good argument while saying we will never know for sure. If only we could send a doctor back in time to do some tests on Arbella and confirm her condition. I would definitely recommend this book, especially if you have read a conventional biography of Arbella. It helps to fill in the gaps.

Book Review: “Arbella Stuart: A Biography” by Blanche C. Hardy

arbella hardy book cover

I’m just going to admit it up front. I really enjoy reading history written by historians of another era. This biography of Arbella Stuart, a grand-daughter of Margaret Tudor, was written in 1913! As the author duly notes in her “Biographical Note”, the story of Arbella has been told many times beginning from right after her death in ballads and poems to biographical notes, novels and memoirs in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. Arbella is mentioned by Agnes Strickland in “Lives of the Tudor and Stuart Princesses” and some of Arbella’s letters were published in 1866.

That being said, I believe Blanche C. Hardy gives us the whole story of Arbella’s life in riveting detail and in her own words by quoting her letters, many of which still exist in various archives. She begins with the illicit conspiracy between two mothers, Bess of Hardwick and Margaret Douglas, Countess of Lennox who plotted to marry their children, Elizabeth Cavendish and Charles Stuart, 1st Earl of Lennox. Bess of Hardwick was a formidable noblewoman during most of the monarchies of the Tudor era. Margaret was the daughter of Margaret Tudor by her second husband Archibald Douglas, 6th Earl of Angus. Margaret and her sons Henry and Charles could rightly claim the throne of England. So the conspiracy to marry her son Charles without telling Queen Elizabeth I could have dire consequences. Bess and Margaret secretly plotted the marriage and managed to carry it off.

Elizabeth Cavendish gave birth to Arbella in 1575. Both of Arbella’s parents died while she was an infant and she was brought up in close confinement by her grandmother Bess of Hardwick. Bess, at the very least, wanted to restore Arbella’s interest in the Lennox estates which were taken away when her parents died. At the most, she harbored an interest in putting her grand-daughter on the throne of England. Arbella was given a first class education and there were many who were interested in marrying her to men in the aristocracy of England and Europe. She was therefore kept under strict guard most of her life. There is no evidence Arbella was ever deeply involved in any of these plots which to some extent was extraordinary.

However, Arbella did conspire to make a marriage to the nobleman William Seymour, a descendant of Mary Tudor, sister of King Henry VIII through her grand-daughter Katherine Grey, sister of Lady Jane Grey, the Nine Days Queen. Any alliance and heir born of this combination would have a considerable claim to the throne of England. Needless to say, this proposed alliance created a huge controversy. Queen Elizabeth was furious at the prospect and Bess of Hardwick broke off her relationship with Arbella for the rest of her life. This incident was the first indication that Arbella did not really have a stable mind. Letters written during this time strongly indicate this.

Once Queen Elizabeth died, Arbella was in high favor with Elizabeth’s successor, King James I. She had a high position at court and was well liked by James and his Queen and their children. But she managed to throw this all away by marrying Seymour in a secret ceremony and against the wishes of the King. She never regained her position at court and in fact, made a daring attempt to flee from England with Seymour. Hardy’s description of Arbella’s escape and Seymour’s breakout from the Tower of London makes for some exciting reading. Arbella’s only flaw was that she was too close to the throne of England. This made for an unfortunate and miserable life for her and her story doesn’t have a happy ending. Hardy does a great job of recounting all the foibles and adventures of this eccentric woman. We are lucky that Nabu Press has reprinted this one hundred year old volume so we can enjoy it. I highly recommend this book.