AoH Book Club: Sarah Gristwood on Arbella

The acclaimed and bestselling author discusses England's lost Queen.
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Arbella is one Sarah Gristwood’s gems, a biography of a woman of whom many will be unaware. Poorly treated by her cousins Elizabeth I and James I, she died unhappily, but Sarah brought her to life in her 2003 account.

Arbella: England’s Lost Queen was very well received when published, and Alison Weir described it as ‘compelling and exquisite’. Arbella was a woman who it could be argued had been lost to history (at least away from academia), until your book brought her story out. Why was she forgotten?

Arbella as a child

Because history is written by the winners! Arbella’s political importance in her own day – the fact that in the 1580s many expected her to succeed her kinswoman Elizabeth I – was masked by the fact that the throne actually went to her cousin James of Scotland (a man; already an experienced ruler and father of a family). And most of us were taught a very straight ‘x was succeeded by y’ version of history, without any of the uncertainties and negotiations of the day.

And of course, respect for Arbella as a writer of letters – extraordinary long letters exploring her own identity – had to wait for the reappraisal of women’s writing in the later 20th century.

How did you discover Arbella?

By chance – through visiting the wonderful Hardwick Hall in Derbyshire. I became fascinated by the quartet of women whose stories seemed entangled with the house. Bess ‘of Hardwick’, who built it; and her friend and mistress Queen Elizabeth. Mary, Queen of Scots (Arbella’s aunt), who was given into the custody of Bess and her husband, and who is extensively commemorated at Hardwick. But I grew to realise that the real story lay with the fourth, Arbella – so closely linked with all the others, with a story at least as dramatic, and yet far less widely known.

In your introduction you nail your colours very much to the Tudor mast, but Arbella is a Stuart. What was it about her that led you to write about the Stuarts for the first and, in non-fiction, only time?

I don’t altogether see Arbella as ‘a Stuart’, despite the surname. Yes, her short-lived father Charles Stuart was younger brother to Lord Darnley (and grandson to Henry VIII’s elder sister Margaret). But she was raised, largely at Hardwick, by her maternal grandmother Bess, who was every inch the Tudor matriarch – and trained up by Bess in hopes that descent from Margaret would lead to her inheriting the English, the Tudor, throne.

Her personality seems to come out in her letters, what kind of woman was Arbella?

The longest of the letters all date from the beginning of 1603 – that crucial time when Queen Elizabeth was dying, and Arbella made her own bid for the throne. As the Privy Council rushed to investigate, Arbella’s mental health crumbled under the strain – but through the panic and incoherence of even those letters, flashes of her personality do indeed show through. Determined, scholarly, independent – and not unambitious, even though she’s often been portrayed that way. ‘I must shape my own coat according to my cloth’, she wrote, ‘but it will not be after the fashion of this world but fit for me.’

Do her letters give us an indication of how Arbella saw marriage – was it a route to freedom?

In 1603 she tried to arrange a marriage with a much younger boy she’d never even met – but who had his own claim to the throne. Then when, a few years later, she actually did make a secret marriage, it was into the same family (descendants of Henry VIII’s younger sister Mary)! So she might have seen marriage as a route to something even more significant than freedom from the constrained life of a 17th century spinster.

Why were both Elizabeth and James I so reluctant to allow Arbella to marry?

Because (especially given her choice of husband) any children of hers could continue to be seen as rival claimants to the throne.

She was a fascinating woman, and cared very much about her letters’ appearance. Why was that?

The visuals of a letter were very important to the Elizabethans – never mind that a blank space on the paper could allow dangerous words to be inserted by an official or a spy. But Arbella’s handwriting varies hugely from the elegant presentation hand (very difficult to read today) to a huge informal – and curiously modern – scrawl when she was writing in distress.

She made a break for freedom in an unconventional fashion, and was in sight of France when recaptured – did this failure lead to the decline of her health?

After Arbella secretly married William Seymour in 1610, King James had them both imprisoned.

The next year, a daring double escape was arranged. Arbella feigned illness, and then galloped away from her house arrest disguised as a man; William slipped out of the Tower of London disguised as his own barber. But he was too late to catch the ship that was to carry them both abroad, and though Arbella safely set sail, she refused to land in France without him. While William, ironically, did eventually make it to the Continent, Arbella was captured by a warship King James sent in pursuit. She was herself sent to the Tower, and over the next four years, her mental health began once again to decay. Willaim, in exile abroad, heard reports that his wife had become ‘distracted in mind’.  It has been suggested she suffered from porphyria, the genetic disease often blamed for the ‘madness’ of George III, though other diagnoses have included anorexia and hysteria.

She met her end in the Tower of London, but at least with her head, but do we know how she died?

Effectively by self-starvation. Realising she’d never be set free, she began refusing food and drink, and the dubious assistance of the doctors. ‘I dare to die, if I be not guilty of my own death,’ she wrote,  ‘and oppress others with my ruin too.’ Word of her plight spread though London, and may have inspired John Webster’s The Duchess of Malfi.

If you were to revise the edition, would you change anything?

Truth? I’d probably put the several pages of genealogy and back history into an Appendix, and just give the one-line version in the main text! What I’ve said above, here, basically …I’m  more confident now than when I first wrote: I might expect readers just to take my word for it that Arbella had a really strong claim to the throne, and that Bess of Hardwick’s four marriages had made her an immensely wealthy and ambitious woman, who probably plotted Arbella’s birth with the Scots Queen Mary … But as for Arbella’s own life and works, I stand by everything I originally said.

Sarah Gristwood is the author of Arbella: England’s Lost Queen, and The Tudors in Love: The Courtly Code Behind the Last Medieval Dynasty. You can hear Sarah interviewed about her latest book on the Aspects of History Podcast.