Sarah Gristwood is the author of ‘Arbella: England’s Lost Queen’, ‘Elizabeth and Leicester’ and ‘Blood Sisters: The Women Behind the Wars of the Roses.’
Many thanks to Sarah for answering my questions.
Why did you choose to write about Arbella Stuart?
I was just stunned to find a story this good – a girl who in her own day was seriously expected to inherit Elizabeth I’s throne, and yet who had been forgotten today. And then you add in Arbella’s amazingly dramatic personal story – in danger of her life, escaping abroad dressed as a man because she wasn’t allowed to marry. And then you add in the extraordinary letters she wrote . . . I was very lucky.
Arbella’s grandmothers (Bess of Hardwick and Margaret Douglas) were both formidable women. What traits if any, did Arbella inherit from them?
That’s a good one . . . In some ways it may be a shame Arbella didn’t inherit more from Bess, at least – her survivor’s pragmatism, for example. As it is she got from Bess, and perhaps from Margaret Lennox too, a strong conviction that the throne of England was her birthright, and that there was no other prize so well worth fighting for. But she never really had any weapons with which to fight, and having been raised to consider herself Elizabeth I’s heir, she was never able simply to walk away.
Is Arbella ‘England’s Lost Queen’? Did she ever have a real chance of inheriting the throne from Elizabeth I? If Elizabeth had died earlier, would this have increased Arbella’s chances?
Foreign ambassadors certainly believed at one point that Arbella was a real contender, writing that ‘It is Arbella they would proclaim queen if their mistress were now to die’. But that was in the 1580s, and through the long years of the 1590s, while she was living largely unseen in Derbyshire, stowed away in Bess’s house, her chances simply dwindled away. By 1603 Cecil had committed himself to James of Scotland, and the young men of court were tired of a woman’s government anyway.
Why did Arbella marry William Seymour (grandson of Katherine Grey)? Did she plan to challenge James for the throne? Why else would she have made such a controversial choice?
Yes, that’s the $64,000 dollar question – and I’m sure James thought so too! We might have believed Arbella had simply fallen for William IF she hadn’t already, some years earlier, tried to make a marriage alliance with his brother, a boy she had never even seen. We can’t know if she actually planned to challenge James, but it must have looked as though she were at least positioning herself so that she (or her heirs) should be ready . . . ready if anything happened to James’ line, ready if ever there should be a Catholic uprising in need of a figurehead.
The National Portrait Gallery had an exhibition about Henry Stuart, Prince of Wales. Is there any evidence of any contact between him and Arbella?
Oh yes, definitely – after all, at one point Arbella was living in Henry’s parents’ court. It’s possible she may have hoped he would intercede for her in her last imprisonment – and have been distressed by his early death.