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Lady Arbella Stuart - Hardwick Hall’s pretender to the throne

PUBLISHED: 09:34 15 May 2015 | UPDATED: 15:56 22 February 2018

The portraits of Elizabeth I, Bess of Hardwick and Arbella on display in the State Room at Hardwick  Photo: Richard Aspinall/National Trust

The portraits of Elizabeth I, Bess of Hardwick and Arbella on display in the State Room at Hardwick Photo: Richard Aspinall/National Trust

National Trust

Hardwick Hall is commemorating the 400th anniversary of the death of Lady Arbella Stuart

Hardwick HallHardwick Hall

At the impressive home of Bess of Hardwick, visitors this year will learn the story of Lady Arbella Stuart, and an emotive tale it is. The impressive National Trust team at Hardwick Hall has marked the anniversary of Arbella’s death, on 25th September 1615, with a new and dramatic installation within the hall. It is an exhibition which not only reflects this young woman’s potential to change the course of history, but alters the thinking behind the existence of Hardwick Hall itself.

Cracked mirrors, extracts of personal letters between Bess of Hardwick and Elizabeth I, full-size portraits of key members of the nobility of late Elizabethan times, as well as fascinating finds like a miniature early English book discovered ‘behind the panelling’ of the house, are sure to capture the imagination of visitors of all ages and interests as they tour Hardwick Hall and its grounds.

Raised at Hardwick Hall under the supervision of her grandmother, Bess, Lady Arbella’s life was full of drama, emotion and escalating misery; her story unfolding within the incredible Elizabethan period – as popular today as the Virgin Queen’s father’s reign has recently become.

Will a feature film or TV adaptation come out of Arbella’s story, as so many other Elizabethan and Tudor tales from history? It certainly has all the ingredients of a perfect period drama... Three formidable females are at the heart of the story: a powerful supreme monarch; one of the most successful women to rise through the ranks of English society; and a seemingly headstrong young woman with ideas of station, marriage and success way beyond those usual for a woman in Elizabethan times. Although, with the role model of her grandmother Bess and her acquaintance with Elizabeth I, it is perhaps only what you would expect.

Close up of Arbella aged 13.5 years  Photo: National TrustClose up of Arbella aged 13.5 years Photo: National Trust

A significant conclusion came about from research carried out by the team of volunteers at Hardwick, as they began to look in to the early life of Arbella and her time under the strict supervision of her grandmother Bess. Working in collaboration with Arbella’s biographer Sarah Gristwood, the Hardwick team – headed by Emily Rapley, Visitor Experience Manager, and Dr Nigel Wright, House and Collections Manager – spent months gathering the information about the would–be queen’s period of residence at Hardwick and in doing so uncovered fascinating new angles behind the architecture of Bess’s ‘new hall’. Was Hardwick in fact a ‘northern’ palace for a queen?

Dr Nigel Wright explains: ‘The story of Arbella certainly makes you think about Bess’s motives in building Hardwick. For example, to get to the High Great Chamber you walk under her coat of arms three times, but in the room itself you find the coat of arms of Queen Elizabeth I. Why? This is Bess playing the politics game, although she hoped her granddaughter would be queen, Bess is signalling her loyalty to the existing queen.’

Nigel continues: ‘We want visitors to get a sense of the power, ambition and politics at play as well as the turmoil and uncertainty of this time. Hardwick was more than a big house on a hill. The hall could have ended up as the seat of England’s power, and the turning point in this country’s history.’

Arbella’s biographer Sarah Gristwood has visited Hardwick many, many times, and must know the character of Arbella better than anyone. She explains the national significance of Arbella’s social standing, for a time: ‘Queen Elizabeth I had at one stage spoken of Arbella as a possible successor to her. Bess of Hardwick had grand ambitions for Arbella, so it is not surprising that the young girl’s contemporaries expected her to succeed to the throne. She’s been lost to sight over the four centuries since her death, so staff and volunteers at Hardwick are presenting her extraordinary story to visitors.’

The portrait of Arbella as a baby at Hardwick Hall  Photo: National TrustThe portrait of Arbella as a baby at Hardwick Hall Photo: National Trust

There was, sadly, no happy ending for Arbella and her period at Hardwick looks to have been one of frustration and mounting desperation to move in to the inner circle of royalty and to marry well.

However visitors interpret the story of Arbella’s time at Hardwick, her relationship to her grandmother and to the queen who reputedly spoke of her as a possible successor, the story of the would-be queen and her battles both inward and outward reveals a gripping insight in to the world of Elizabethan aristocracy and the often unfair and fraught destiny experienced by women at that time. By the end was Bess in empathy with or an enemy of Arbella? And did the princess bring her decline upon herself or was she a true victim of the times? Visit Hardwick Hall this year and decide for yourself. Whatever the conclusion, it’s the perfect excuse to be bowled over yet again by the sheer statement of Hardwick Hall’s architecture, erected under the instruction of one astounding, complex and durable Derbyshire woman.

The dramatic tale linking the lives of Elizabeth I, Bess ofHardwick and Arbella Stuart  Photo: National TrustThe dramatic tale linking the lives of Elizabeth I, Bess ofHardwick and Arbella Stuart Photo: National Trust

As we head into summer, the Arbella experience at Hardwick extends to the gardens and parkland. There will be a trail for young (and older) visitors, a point of contemplation at the newly-created bower, and the chance to find out more about the herbs of Arbella’s time, used for medicinal and culinary purposes.

The Hall is open Wednesday–Sunday, 12 noon to 4.30pm. The wider Parkland, restaurant and shop are open daily. ‘Arbella’ runs until 1st November 2015. Opening times and more information can be found at

Arbella - a brief life

Born in England in 1575, only child of Elizabeth Cavendish (daughter of Sir William Cavendish and Bess of Hardwick) and Charles Stuart, 1st Earl of Lennox, whose great grandmother was Queen Margaret Tudor (daughter of Henry VII), the widow of James IV of Scotland. Arbella’s father’s older brother was Henry Stuart, Lord Darnley, who married Mary, Queen of Scots. Their son – Arbella’s cousin – became James VI and I of Scotland, England and Ireland on Elizabeth I’s death.

Arbella’s father died in 1576 and her mother in 1582 leaving her at the age of 7 as the ward of her grandmother, Bess. She lived at Hardwick Hall during childhood. As first cousin twice removed to Queen Elizabeth I she was in the line of succession, the implications of which, with plot and counter-plot, were to colour her entire life. The political implications of her marriage both nationally and internationally were of vital importance.

Her cousin James acceded to the throne of England in 1603. In 1610 she married William Seymour, 2nd Duke of Somerset (sixth in line to the throne and a grandson of the younger sister of Lady Jane Grey), in secret. Angered by the marriage the King separated and imprisoned them. A dramatic attempt to escape together failed and Arbella, who nearly reached France, was captured and imprisoned in the Tower of London. It is reported that she refused to eat and died there on 25th September 1615. She was buried in Westminster Abbey.


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