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.