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: “Bess of Hardwick ~Empire Builder” by Mary S. Lovell

Bess of Hardwick cover

The Freelance History Writer is scheduled to go to the United Kingdom later this year on a tour following in the footsteps of Mary Queen of Scots. Needless to say, I am thrilled! So, in preparation, I’m trying to do some reading by some of the authors who will lecture on the tour and about some of the personalities related to Mary Queen of Scots. Mary was held captive by Queen Elizabeth I in England for nearly twenty years. For the first fifteen years, her jailer was George Talbot, 6th Earl of Shrewsbury and his formidable wife, Elizabeth Shrewsbury, otherwise known as Bess of Hardwick. One of our lecturers on the tour will be Mary S. Lovell who has written this biography of Bess.

This volume has been on my to-read shelf for quite some time so I was happy to give it a look. What a huge and very pleasant surprise. As Lovell tells us in the introduction, Bess is best known as the builder of some great houses in England such as Hardwick Hall and Chatsworth which we will visit. Bess and her children are the founders of the Dukedoms of Devonshire, Portland and Newcastle as well as the barony of Waterpark. Lovell is not the first biographer of Bess but she feels Bess hasn’t been presented properly by these prior authors. Previously she has been interpreted as being a shrew and as having a stormy relationship with Queen Elizabeth. Lovell spent many years pouring over volumes of letters, financial accounts and manuscripts by and about Bess and found no evidence for these portrayals. What she found was a strong, intelligent and entrepreneurial woman who got along well with Queen Elizabeth. In fact, she was a valued friend of the Queen.

Bess was married four times and had numerous children and step-children. Lovell gives us not just the details of Bess’ life but a full accounting of the lives, marriages and careers of her four husbands. This really enhances the biography as all the men are quite interesting. There are many twists and turns to this story, especially within all the family dynamics and dysfunctions. One of Bess’ husbands may have even been killed with poison by one of his brothers. Lovell tells us about Bess’ adroitness at handling her housekeeping duties, how she fed her family and servants, how much money she spent, how she entertained noble guests, her building projects and how she furnished her homes.

The years of the captivity of Mary Queen of Scots in the Shrewsbury household really bring to light the personality of Mary. I love the descriptions of how Bess and Mary sat together and labored at their embroidery. There are tapestries in Bess’ great homes still in existence that were worked on by Mary herself which I hope to see on the tour. Mary comes across as a conspirator who used her infamous charms and various methods to try to escape her jailer, even working to split up the marriage of Bess and her husband George. While this isn’t the only reason for their break up, Mary’s connivance certainly didn’t help the marriage.

This book isn’t just a biography of Bess and her husbands and family. It’s full of great details on the social history of the Tudor era. Born during the reign of King Henry VIII, the many changes in the monarchy during her eighty-one years affected her and her family in so many different ways. I especially enjoyed the insights into the operations of the reign of Queen Elizabeth I and her ministers. Lovell explains how Bess and her husbands negotiated their service at court with the management of their estates. Bess, through marriage and adept handling of her finances became a wealthy woman in her own right. This book is an easy and intriguing read and I highly recommend it.