A Lady In Waiting: Arabella Stuart’s Lonely Life On Noble Blood

Lady Arabella Stuart,duchess of Somerset

A couple falls in love, but their marriage is forbidden; an illness is faked to bring them together, but a tragic end awaits. It might sound like Romeo and Juliet, but it’s actually the real story of Arabella Stuart, one of Queen Elizabeth I’s potential successors. She spent most of her life locked away from the world waiting for a crown that never came, and when she finally made a desperate bid for independence, it only led to more loneliness and despair. Host and author Dana Schwartz dives into the details: flirtation at the Court, royal disguises, a secret marriage, and ill-fated winds sealing the doomed lovers’ fates, on this episode of Noble Blood


Queen Elizabeth I didn’t have any children of her own, but she was hesitant to name an official successor; after having watched her first cousin, Mary, overthrown in favor of her own son, she knew it was dangerous for a monarch to give their subjects someone else to throw their weight behind. So she played her cards close to her chest, and one of her potential heirs was Arabella, granddaughter of the formidable Bess of Hardwick. Bess “kept Arabella like a prize jewel, secure and locked away,” educated in all the subjects and etiquette a queen might require. “But Arabella didn’t want to be a queen, not really...For Arabella, marriage meant freedom. But marriage gets complicated when you’re in line for the throne.” When she finally was allowed to go to the Court to meet the Queen, she made the mistake of getting a little flirtatious with one of the Queen’s favorites. “Arabella was sent back home to Hardwick Hall with a slap on her wrist and reminder: you are of noble blood. Your body belongs to the Crown.” 

For ten years, Arabella was locked away at Hardwick Hall, “a decade of strict education, restricted walks and privileges, few visitors and fewer friends...in the prime of her life, she was a pawn, put back safe in the box.” Desperately lonely, Arabella’s only contact with the outside world was through letters, and hers became “increasingly mad, slightly frantic, seemingly manic,” Dana says, making wild claims to be engaged or even already married to first Edward Seymour, the Earl of Hartford’s son, and later her own cousin, King James VI of Scotland. “Historians argue about Arabella’s letters, whether they’re reckless or cunning,” Dana tells us; they could have been a way to try to force a powerful marriage for herself, or perhaps a sign that she was succumbing to the porphyria that would afflict so many royals. Or, “maybe she just wanted the world to be reminded of her existence,” Dana says. “Maybe she just wanted someone to notice her.” 

When Queen Elizabeth I died, King James ascended the throne, and he invited his cousin Arabella to come live at the Court with him. She was finally free. But not as independent as she would have liked. Though she asked him many times to permit her to marry, James would always demur. “A terrible realization dawned on her: the king didn't want her to get married and have a child. Of course he didn't. Any child of hers would be a potential rival for opponents of his to rally behind as an alternate ruler.” Yet again, the crown was in the way of Arabella’s happiness. “Her own existence was a threat...she could never be permitted to have children of her own.”

James I

So Arabella took matters into her own hands. “Without the King’s knowledge or consent, Arabella got married to a man a decade her junior...William Seymour...a Tudor descendant in his own right.” As soon as the King learned of their union, he had William thrown into the Tower of London, but the story doesn’t end there; Arabella disguised herself as a man to sneak away from the court, and William escaped from prison by dressing like a caterer. But a missed rendezvous and ill-fated winds led to Arabella’s eventual capture and imprisonment, and only a lonely end awaited the lonely woman. Hear the entire action-packed story on this episode of Noble Blood.

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Photos: Getty Images


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