2015 marks the 400th anniversary of the death of Lady Arbella Stuart, granddaughter of the redoubtable Bess of Hardwick and at one time a candidate to succeed Queen Elizabeth I.
To mark the anniversary, the colleagues at Hardwick Hall have put on an exhibition about Arbella’s privileged but tragic life.
Orphaned at the age of seven, she was brought up by her grandmother, Elizabeth Talbot, Countess of Shrewsbury – known as Bess of Hardwick – at Hardwick Hall. She received a princely education, studying several languages and learning to play the lute, the viol and the virginals.
Through her father’s side Arbella was the great-great-grandaughter of King Henry VII of England and therefore potentially in line to the throne. Ultimately, however, the influential courtiers Lord Burghley and his son Sir Robert Cecil invited Arbella’s cousin King James VI of Scotland to become Elizabeth I’s successor.
Because of Arbella’s connection to the royal line, the question who she might marry was a fraught political issue. In 1610 Arbella secretly married William Seymour, Lord Beauchamp, who himself was sixth in line to the throne. King James imprisoned them for marrying without his permission. They managed to escape separately, but Arbella’s ship was overtaken by the King’s men just before it reached France.
After being imprisoned in the Tower of London, Arbella refused to eat, fell ill and finally died on 25 September 1615. Her life and death are a poignant illustration of the uncertainties and upheavals of Elizabethan and Jacobean Britain.