A British historian offers an intriguing, scholarly look at the short, sad life of Arbella Stuart, cousin to Queen Elizabeth I and too close in the line of succession to enjoy a life of her own.
Intrigue marked Arbella’s life, and, if you can follow the complicated Tudor-Stuart genealogy lesson, Gristwood’s account makes for suspenseful historical reading. The orphaned Arbella, related to Henry VII on her father’s side, was, at age six, put in the care of her ambitious maternal grandmother, fourth-time married Bess of Hardwick, who raised the child with an eye to her marrying grandly and/or succeeding to the throne. In fact, Arbella was second in line, after James of Scotland, and thus practically peerless, as well as jealously dreaded by both Queen Elizabeth (who had already had to get rid of Arbella’s aunt, the treacherous Mary Queen of Scots) and, later, by James I. Elizabeth didn’t know what to do with Arbella, inviting her once to court when she was 11 and using her as a marriage pawn when the queen needed to woo an ally, yet consigning her to Bess’s autocratic watch at Hardwick Hall for years of reclusive, hopeless study. Finally, by her late 20s, Arbella acted, secretly initiating her own nuptial match with another glorious lineage, the Seymour sons—first the elder, unsuccessfully, then the younger, William, whom she eventually managed to wed in 1610 before both were thrown into the Tower. From her letters and rather guileless, erratic behavior, Arbella seems truly to have been pleading for the right to personal liberty and the right to love (“When all is done I must shape my own coat according to my cloth”) rather than acting out of political machinations. Her tragedy touches in some way all of the schemers close to Elizabeth, such as Mary Queen of Scots, the Earl of Essex, chief minister Lord Burghley, and Sir Walter Raleigh, and they come alive here.
A human drama truly Shakespearean.