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The History of Sheffield

Lady Arbella Stuart

Here is a fascinating story of someone who lived at the Castle for a short while…

Lady Arbella Stuart

In the Picture Gallery at Hardwick Hall there is a portrait of a pretty two-year old girl, wearing a Marie Stuart cap and clasping a doll. She is Arbella Stuart, grand-daughter of the Countess of Shrewsbury, better known as Bess of Hardwick.

During a visit to Lady Lennox and her son Charles Stuart, Earl of Lennox , Bess, well known as a matchmaker, managed to arrange the marriage of her daughter, Elizabeth Cavendish  to the young Earl, and the two were secretly married at the Abbey.

Arbella was the only child of the marriage. She was born at Chatsworth in 1575 and baptised at Edensor as Arbella (not Arabella). Her sponsors were her aunt and uncle, Gilbert and Mary Talbot, who remained her guardians.

Her father, the Earl of Lennox, was brother to Henry, Lord Darnley, Mary Queen of Scots second husband, and second cousin to Queen Elizabeth. Arbella was Mary’s niece and first cousin to King James.

When she was only eighteen months old, her father died of consumption, and in 1582 her mother died at Sheffield and was buried in the Shrewsbury Chapel, leaving Arbella an orphan at the age of seven. She spent her childhood in the care of her adoring grandmother, Lady Shrewsbury, while the captive Mary took a pleasurable interest in her little niece, who was looked upon by both her grandmothers as the future Queen of England and Scotland.

It is said that when Arbella was about twelve years of age, Elizabeth pointed her out to the wife of the French Ambassador, saying “Do you see that little girl? Simple as she looks, she may one day sit in this chair of state and occupy my place.”

Arbella’s grandmother, Lady Lennox, who was first cousin to Queen Elizabeth, died suddenly in London and was buried at Westminster Abbey. She left her jewels to Arbella, but it seems she never received them.

It seems it was her misfortune to be born a Stuart. She had an annual allowance from the Crown of £200, and her grandmother, Lady Shrewsbury, who constantly referred to her as “my sweet jewel”, sought the continuance of £400 which had been allowed to Arbella’s mother for the better education of her child. The Queen however, knowing the wealth of the Shrewsburys, considered £200 was quite sufficient. Her education was carefully attended to, and special pains were taken that due respect was paid to her as a child of royal blood.

Arbella spent most of her early years at Hardwick and Wingfield with her grandmother who, ever the matchmaker, began, when Arbella was only eight years old, to look for a betrothal to some great English noble. She finally fixed upon Robert Dudley, Earl of Leicester, but the plan was thwarted as a result of Bess’s hasty words to Mary, declaring that her son James could never inherit England, and that Arbella was the only rightful heir to the throne.

Other plans for Arbella’s marriage followed, but all came to nought. The story of her many love affairs is long and painful.

Meanwhile, Mary Queen of Scots had been tried and executed, and she left to Arbella her Book of Hours, which contained autographs of Mary’s friends, and poems she had written. This was treasured by Arbella, who filled it up with the signatures of her own friends.

As she grew up she was frequently at Court, and made much of by Queen Elizabeth, who invited her to sit at her own table. It is recorded that she behaved very prettily, and charmed all by her gentleness and grace.

Arbella was now 15 years of age, and clouds began to gather. She was not so much in favour with Queen Elizabeth, who began to treat her coldly, and long and dreary visits to the country were spent under the eagle eye of her grandmother, Lady Shrewsbury. In 1600 she reached her 25th year, and, notwithstanding plots and counter—plots for her marriage, she had not shown any personal liking for any of the men about her. She was, as someone has said, “a pawn in the endless game of king and queen making.”

At last, in an unhappy moment, she lost her heart to Robert Devereux, second Earl of Essex, handsome, romantic and profligate, a favourite of Queen Elizabeth. The two met secretly, and rumour was busy, but the romance was brought to a tragic close by the trial of Essex for high treason, with the result that he was beheaded in the Tower of London. We cannot follow all Arbella’s unhappy experiences. Neither Elizabeth, nor her successor, James, allowed her to live in peace. They would neither acknowledge her as a royal princess, nor would they let her marry whom she pleased. ” She was treated as a poor relation who might some day prove very troublesome”. It is, however, right to say that James showed her much kindness, and allowed her £80O a year, which was afterwards increased to £1,000.

Arbella frequently visited her uncle Gilbert, Earl of Shrewsbury, at Sheffield Manor. On one of these visits she had an attack of measles, but recovered in a few days. In the spring of 1607, whilst at Court, she was very unwell and, somewhat to the annoyance of Elizabeth, came to Sheffield Manor for change of air. She appears to have greatly enjoyed the quiet life of the Manor, and her uncle and aunt were glad of her company. On returning to London she again took a prominent part in the gaieties and masks of the Court. On one occasion, it is said, that she was garnished with more than £I00, 000 worth of jewels. These doubtless were amongst her happiest years.  In 1609, previous to one of her visits to Sheffield, great preparations were made to welcome her. She came in great state, as a royal personage, and not merely as a niece of the Earl of Shrewsbury. In a letter sent from Tankersley to his steward, the Earl wrote: “ Tell Richard the cook that I would have him stay at Sheffield until I come thither, which shall be, God willing, tomorrow at night. Tell Moorhouse that my lady Arbella will be at Sheffield some day this week, as I verily think. Fish enough must be watered: for there will be an extreme great number in the hall every day. Fat beef and fat muttons must be had, and the beef in time killed and powdered. Fat capons provided and reserved till then, and everything else that either Richard or Moorhouse can provide or think useful. This letter requireth great haste.”

This same year Arbella visited many places in England, amongst which were St. Albans, Northampton, Nottingham, Mansfield, Walton Hall Chesterfield, and then on to Sheffield, where she stayed some time. During her journeys money was lavishly expended in gifts and charity, for Arbella was the Kings kinswoman and her position had to be maintained. Servants at the various places were handsomely rewarded, and generous gifts made to the poor. At Sheffield she gave£62 to a Mr. Tuke “for a sermon he made by my Ladies command”.  She left Sheffield for Melwood Park, near Bawtry, after which she went on to Worksop Manor, “distributing 15s. 6d. to poor people on the way.” She then drove on to Aston, near Sheffield, the seat of Lord Darcy, where, to servants and the poor, she distributed over £7. After spending some time at Chatsworth, she proceeded to Buxton, where she tried the waters, gave £2 6s. 0d. to the attendants at the well, and 13s. 4d. to the poor.

Lord Shrewsbury sent two guides to bring her across the moors from Buxton to Sheffield, but the roads were so rough that her coach broke down and she had to alight while ” certen laborers mended the waves that day on the mores.” She was welcomed at Sheffield by the ringing of the church bells, and, on leaving the town, went with her aunt, Lady Shrewsbury, to Rufford, where her parents had been married. She returned to London by way of Wingfield, where she gave nearly £10 in tips, then through Derby, where she left over £5 for the poor; and in October was back in London. Her steward, Compton, has left a full account of the journey, which occupied about two months, and cost her about £350 – a large sum of money in those days.

Dark clouds were, however, now beginning to gather. Arbella was suddenly arrested and committed to the care of Lady Knyvett. What was the cause ? Some thought it was a matter of her many debts, and questionable measures to raise money, others, however, felt certain that it was a love affair, which proved to be right.

Arbella, who was now thirty-five years old, had chosen as her lover William Seymour, an Oxford student, who was twelve years her junior. They were warmly attached to each other, and seem to have gone through some ceremony of formal betrothal, but the consent of King James had not been obtained. The two were secretly married in July 1609, and went back quietly after the wedding to their duties at Court awaiting events, but the storm had to be faced. James was very angry, and Seymour was sent to the Tower, whilst Arbella was placed in charge of Sir James Croft, at Highgate. The lovers, however, found means to communicate with each other.

A long and romantic story must be cut short. Seymour, who seems to have made the best of it, busied himself with devising plans for escape. He demanded and secured spacious quarters in St. Thomas Tower, and sent to Lady Arbella’s house for furniture, plate, and necessaries as he required. One day, after some months of imprisonment, on looking out of a window, he noticed a cart laden with hay and faggots, driven by a carter in a slouch hat and white smock, who, having sold his wood, drove away. Seymour asked himself, ” Why should I not be that carter?” and so planned a scheme for escape  The carter came almost daily, and one day Seymour’s friend got hold of him, and procured an exact replica of his outfit-—smock and slouch hat, together with a false beard. A French ship in the river below was chartered. Guards and others were duly bribed, and arrangements completed without raising suspicion. According to instructions the carter one day drew up at a certain hour opposite the entrance of St. Thomas Tower, and, whilst pretending to attend to some matter at the rear of his cart, concealed himself under the hay. Watching his chance Seymour, disguised as an exact duplicate of the carter, hat, smock, and beard, all complete, stepped out of the door of his prison house, unhitched thehorses, and, slowly mounting the box, drove out of the Tower. In due course he found himself standing on St. Katherine’s Wharf, where he was met by his friend Rodney. The carter slipped from his place amongst the hay, and drove away, whilst Seymour was hurried into a room, where he changed his raiment.

Meanwhile Arbella, disguised as a boy, eluded the vigilance of her keepers, and in charge of a friend set out from Highgate, hired two horses,  arrived at Blackwall, and in accordance with a concerted plan entered a boat, expecting to be joined by her husband further up the river.

The tide unluckily caused Seymour to arrive two hours late, when he found that Lady Arbella whom he had planned to meet, had been compelled to sail without him. However, he hailed a passing barge and bribed the skipper to carry him across to the French coast. Meanwhile, it was noised abroad that important prisoners had escaped from the Tower, and one of H.M. ships set off in pursuit. The vessel overtook the French ship in which Arbella had sailed. She at once came forward and gave herself up, but Seymour, her husband, had in the meantime safely landed at Ostend.

Lady Arbella, physically exhausted and mentally bewildered, was committed to the Tower, where her servants were not allowed to attend her. With no friendly faces to cheer her, warmed by no hope of love and freedom, with no comforts and few necessaries, she remained a prisoner within those gloomy walls, a victim to a melancholy which almost bordered on madness.  Her faithful servant Crompton had sought to devise means for her rescue, but in vain. Her mind and body were alike wrecked. She never forgot her husband and was overjoyed at his escape. The precious Book of Hours left her by her aunt, Mary Stuart, was conveyed to him as a last gift of love with her signature, ” Your most unfortunate Arbella Seymour”.

She died in the Tower on the 25th of September, 1615. Her body was embalmed, and now rests at Westminster Abbey in the vault of her aunt, Queen Mary of Scotland. On the pavement is the inscription: “Arbella Stuart, born in 1575, died in 1615.” Such is the pathetic story of another unfortunate member of the Stuart race, of royal blood who, for a generation, was held by many as the rightful heir to Queen Elizabeth. Intelligent, kind, faithful, and brave, she was indeed a child of suffering, and as she pathetically described herself in one of her last letters ” the most sorrowful creature living.” Seymour, who was in Paris when his wife died, was allowed to return to England, and, in time was restored to the favour of King James. He married Frances Devereux, daughter of Robert, Earl of Essex, Arbella’s early love, and in 1621 became Lord Beauchamp. Three years after, on the death of his grandfather, he succeeded to the Earldom of Hertford. He appears to have regarded his first wife, who died so tragically for love of him, with real affection, and named his first daughter after here—Arbella. The tragic and pathetic story of Arbella Stuart is prominent in history and literature. Several LIVES of her have been published, including those by Miss A. Strickland, Miss Cooper +1566), Mrs. Murray Smith (1889), and B. C. Hardy (1913). She is the subject of a novel by G. P. R. James entitled “Arbella Stuart,” and of a poem by Mrs. Hemans. Lines from an old ballad by W. J. Mickle may fitly close this chapter:

“Where London’s Tower its turrets show
So stately by the Thames’s side, Fair Arabella, child of woe,
For many a day has sat and sighed.
And as she heard the waves arise,
And as she heard the bleak winds roar,
As fast did heave her heartfelt sighs,
And still so fast her tears did pour.  “

From “Historic Personages in Sheffield” by the Rev W Odom.



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