Arabella Stuart and Bess of Hardwick

I mentioned in the last post immersing myself in some dubious sixteenth century doings. Wreath for Arabella by Doris Leslie (Hutchinson 1948) was the book that started me off on my tour of historical skulduggery. This is one of the spoils from a previous Trinity Book Sale. I feel sure that I must have read Leslie’s books before, but perhaps it’s just that I remember my mum having them from the library (along with Miss Reed and Mazo de la Roche). Doris Leslie (1891-1982) was a British novelist and historical biographer who originally wanted to be an artist, then studied drama and finally discovered a talent for writing, publishing her first book in 1927. I didn’t know anything about her before lighting on a biographical note by the Southborough Society who have put up a blue plaque in Leslie’s honour. She does not seem to be particularly well known today. Although she was writing contemporaneously with Georgette Heyer whose books are still widely available, her books have since slipped through the publishing cracks.

Wreath for Arabella is a lively, well-written fictionalised account of the life of the ill-fated Arabella (Arbella) Stuart (1575-1615), a cousin of Queen Elizabeth I (1533-1603). Both women descended from Henry VII: Elizabeth was his granddaughter (Henry VIII’s daughter) and Arabella his great great granddaughter (her father Charles Stuart was descended from Henry VIII’s sister Margaret of Scotland). Elizabeth apparently favoured choosing Arabella as her successor to the throne, only to change her mind in later years. From her earliest years, Arabella was educated as befitted as princess, studying Hebrew, French, Greek and Latin. In the end, Elizabeth’s choice of successor settled upon another cousin, James Stuart, the son of Mary Queen of Scots, so the careful preparation was to no avail. England was not to have three women (four queens if you count Lady Jane Grey) in a row on the throne after all.

As you might imagine, being a potential heir to the throne was not a particularly safe place to be. In fact, Elizabeth had taken it amiss that Arabella’s parents had married in the first place, due to the likelihood of creating yet another claimant to the throne. Arabella’s grandmothers languished in the infamous Tower of London for a while. In such family circumstances, probably it would be wiser to keep your head down (lest you lose it) and to be of a very shy and retiring disposition. Unfortunately, according to Leslie’s novel, Arabella was anything but shy and retiring and consequently earned the queen’s displeasure on more than one occasion. Elizabeth once sent Arabella away from court for flirting with her current favourite, the young Earl of Essex. More seriously, Arabella was the focus of various Catholic plots to remove Elizabeth from the throne, though admittedly she was not directly involved. Whether that was loyalty or merely the lesson learned from her cousin Mary Queen of Scots’ bad judgment, it is hard to ascertain from the novel. Suffice to say that many political figures would have liked to use Arabella as a pawn in their schemes (see, I told you there was skulduggery afoot).

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Stuart family history in general has always fascinated me, but as a bonus, Arabella’s story meshes with the most formidable woman of the era (apart from Elizabeth herself that is), her maternal grandmother, and known to history as Bess of Hardwick (1527-1608). From relatively modest origins, Elizabeth Hardwick rose to become the richest woman in England with a penchant for building beautiful houses such as Hardwick Hall. She came very close to being the grandmother of a queen, after engineering the marriage of Arabella’s parents and coming into conflict with her royal namesake. Unfortunately as I have said, Bess’s ambition didn’t allow her to achieve her final goal, but she still left her descendants very well placed in Tudor society. She even managed to survive the other Elizabeth by five years, and lived to see Arabella welcomed at the court of the new monarch James I (VI of Scotland) and his wife Anne of Denmark.

Bess would probably not have been a very comfortable relative to have around, but her drive and her energy were undeniable. Moreover, in an era when women’s role was to play a quiet domestic part, Bess had a public status not common at the time. Bess of Hardwick organised her own life very effectively, as well as those of her extended family, whether they liked it or not. The lady of Hardwick was the one moving the pieces across the chessboard and not the other way around. She married four times, each time carefully moving further up the social scale and acquiring more land and property. Her first marriage to Robert Barlow was very short and both bride and groom were only teenagers. After her husband’s death, Bess married a widower, Sir William Cavendish, with whom she had several children, six surviving into adulthood. After marrying and burying Sir William St Loe within a few short years, her crowning achievement was to become a countess upon her fourth marriage to another widower, George Talbot, Earl of Shrewsbury. She then very shrewdly married two of her children with two of the young Talbots to keep assets within the family. Oh, and in later years she had a very public marriage breakdown. Twentieth century celebs have nothing on Bess!

One of the short live series, Kate Hubbard’s A Material Girl from Short Books (belonging to He Who Put The Shelves Up) is a great introduction to this most fascinating of women. I first came across Bess of Hardwick many years ago via a BBC television programme but I can’t find any trace of it on the usually reliable YouTube. However, you can watch some more recent biographical clips if you want to look. Reading these two books has reminded me that I have yet to get around to visiting Hardwick Hall, so maybe I will manage to fit it in during my next trip over to see the family. I will also keep a look out for more of Doris Leslie’s historical novels (or perhaps not depending on the state of the TBR Pile!)

Meanwhile, I will continue with reading more of my Trinity Book Sale bargains…

Extra picture credits: the Doris Leslie plaque taken from the Southborough Society page (see above)

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2 comments on “Arabella Stuart and Bess of Hardwick

  1. […] I managed to read it, as it was both gripping and atmospheric. As you might recall, I am fond of historical skulduggery and this was an excellent example of 17th century political and religious […]

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  2. […] This ties in quite nicely with a few other books that I have read over the past few months (some previously featured on this blog). Christopher Hatton was one of Elizabeth I’s favourites, a statesman and councillor […]

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