Phineas Pett’s autobiography has produced a number of interesting tangents. This passage, from 1610 particularly intrigued:
The 4th of June, being Tuesday, being prepared to have gone to London the next day, about mid- night one of the King’s messengers was sent down to me from the Lord Treasurer to man the light horseman with 20 musketeers and to run out as low as the Nore head to search all ships, barks, and other vessels, for the Lady Arabella that had then made a scape and was bound over for France ; which service I performed accordingly, and searched Queenborough, and all other vessels I could meet withal, and then went over to Leigh in Essex and searched the town ; and when we could hear no news of her went to Gravesend, and thence took post horse to Greenwich, where his Majesty then lay, and delivered the account of my journey to the Lord Treasurer by his Majesty’s command ; and so was dismissed, and went that night to Ratcliff, where I lay at Captain King’s
What had occurred to pull our respectable shipwright out of his bed to lead to party of armed men to search the Kentish coast and shipping? The story is actually one which has all the hallmarks of a rather overblown romantic fiction, with cross dressing, escapes from the Tower, forbidden love and tragic death, only redeemed because it happened to be true and one, to my embarrassment, which I had not come across before.
“Lady Arabella” was Arbella Stuart, granddaughter to both Bess of Hardwick and Margeret Lennox, Niece of Mary Queen of Scots, thus descended from Henry VIII’s sister. As it became clear that Queen Elizabeth, last surviving of her father’s brood would die childless, England had to look back a generation for the succession which yielded both Arbella and James Stuart of Scotland.
It is arguable whether Arbella really had any chance of taking the throne if James survived Elizabeth, but she was certainly the next strongest claimant and Elizabeth used the threat of her inheriting to keep James honest and used the prize of marrying her pedigree as a bargaining piece in her diplomacy.
Although Arbella spent some time at court, she spent most of her childhood and young womanhood under the strict controlling care of her formidable Grandmother, Bess at Hardwick Hall in Derbyshire.
With Elizabeth close to death, Arbella made an extraordinary move, seemingly entirely of her own volition, and tried to arrange a marriage, without the Queen’s consent to Edward Seymour, one of the leading nobles in England and with an outside claim to the throne himself. Her plot was discovered and she found herself in considerable royal disgrace, at least until Elizabeth’s demise.
Even before this incident she felt that she was a virtual prisoner at Hardwick which was proved to be so when, after the Seymour debacle, she tried to leave, with an elaborate escape planned with a group of gallants, only to be stopped at the gate of the hall.
James, once securely on the English throne was somewhat kinder to her and she seemingly repaid him with loyalty, rejecting the “Main Plot” to kill James and put her on the throne.
Then in 1610 in another misguided act of impressive boldness she married, in secret, Edward Seymour’s younger brother William, a man twelve years younger than the now 35-year-old Arbella. It is unclear if this was a true love match, but even if Arbella herself had given up any pretensions to the throne, any offspring would be potential claimants should circumstances change. This marriage was illegal without the King’s permission and both were arrested, he imprisoned in the Tower and Arbella, after a while held in London, was due to be sent north to imprisonment in the care of the Bishop of Durham.
In a quite impressive feat, they both managed to engineer simultaneous escapes. He escaped from the Tower, seemingly disguised as his barber, whilst she gave her female attendant the slip at Barnet after feigning illness on the way north and (according to Sir John More):
disguising her selfe by drawing a pair of great French-fashioned Hose over her Petticotes, putting on a Man’s doublet, a man-lyke Perruque with long Locks over her Hair, a blacke Hat, black Cloake, russet Bootes with red Tops, and a Rapier by her Syde
[As an aside I couldn’t resist chuckling at biographer Sarah Gristwood’s whimsical comment of her “feeling for the first time the stiff, unaccustomed padding of fabric between her thighs” at her first experience of trousers]
She rode to the Thames and after delaying (fatally as it turned out) waiting for William who had missed their rendez vous was rowed out to sea by some watermen (who promptly doubled their fee during the short trip). Avoiding the attentions of our Phineas Pett and others she boarded a pre-arranged French barque under a Captain Corvé and, delaying again for William, set sail for France. The delays however had been crucial and with English shipping alerted for the fugitive, the Pinnace “Adventure” caught up to Corvé’s ship, fired “Thirteen Shots Straight into the vessel” (More again) which promptly struck their colours and Arbella and her party were captured.
She was imprisoned in the Tower where, after a few vain attempts to escape, she died, miserable and dispirited in 1615.
William Seymour on the other hand, having successfully escaped to Ostend, was virtually forgotten about by the government, being no threat after the capture of Arbella. The degree of forgiveness often shown in the Seventeenth Century, (as well as its equally frequent absence) often astonishes me and William was back soon after Arbella’s death, an MP by 1620 and was a prominent Royalist during the Civil Wars and survived to see his loyalty pay off in the restoration.
It is a remarkable story and one I’ve only sketched here in the barest detail but one I’m surprised isn’t better known, although I realise I may be projecting my ignorance on the wider public. With the romance and adventure of the tale I would have thought that she would have been the darling of the the more romantic historical authors, whereas I believe only Doris Leslie in the 40’s has made her into such a heroine and I know of no stage or screen adaptation of her life. Even at Harwick Hall where she spent much of her life, although not ignored, she is painted as an incidental figure, a sidebar to Bess of Hardwick.
Perhaps the reason for her relative obscurity now is that her significance during her lifetime was always what she could possibly be, not who she actually was or what she did. She was never expected to take the throne. Her position as a rival claimant was vital, but entirely passive. Her existence and lineage put her in the position of rival (or, perhaps more properly, alternative) heir to the throne but nothing she could do make this work to her advantage. In fact it was in almost everyone’s interest, certainly of the two monarchs that she did absolutely nothing. She was dangled, on occasion, as a potential bride to both domestic and foreign suitors, and as James’ daughter, Elizabeth showed a generation later, this could lead to an influential and significant existence in a foreign court, but even this was denied to her. Her name was worth using at bait, but for her to marry and possibly bear children was not a risk worth taking.
The tragedy of her existence (and it seems to have been a life with very few moments of happiness) was, to me, that she understood all this. She was an educated and fairly intelligent (if deeply unwise) woman. She understood that whilst her existence and ancestry was useful, her person was a an inconvenience. She fought against this her whole life. The proposed and actual marriages to the Seymours, the dramatic attempted flights were, more than simple escapes from the gilded cage she found herself in but, far more attempt to forge an existence for herself beyond her pedigree, a plea for the world to recognise her. That maybe makes it all the crueller how largely forgotten she is. She does at times come across as a hard woman to like, and her judgement was disastrously poor but I can’t help feeling great pity for her.