Lady Arbella Stuart (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, though she did not aspire to it.
Arbella Stuart was the only child of Charles Stuart, 1st Earl of Lennox and Elizabeth Cavendish; she was a grandchild of Matthew Stewart, 4th Earl of Lennox 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 grandparents included Henry Stuart, Lord Darnley, who became the second husband of Mary, Queen of Scots, and the father of James I and Sir William Cavendish and Bess of Hardwick. Arabella’s great great grandfather was King Henry VII of England.
In the closing months of Elizabeth I reign, Arbella fell into trouble via reports that she intended to marry Edward Seymour, a member of the prominent Seymour family. Arbella denied having any intention of marrying without the Queen’s permission, which she would have required for any marriage to be legal.
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 favour 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
In 1610 Arbella 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.
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