The Correspondence of Lady Arbella Stuart

Primary Contributors:

Sara Jayne Steen with the WEMLO project (co-directors: James Daybell and Kim McLean-Fiander)

Detail taken from the Hardwick Hall portrait of Arbella Stuart, by an unknown artist. 1589. (Source of image: Wikimedia Commons)

Lady Arbella Stuart (1575–1615)

The Lady Arbella Stuart (1575–1615) was a claimant to the English crown and a well-educated writer whose letters reveal a complex personal and political drama. The daughter of Elizabeth Cavendish and Charles Stuart, she was one of two primary claimants to succeed Queen Elizabeth, the other being her cousin James, son of Mary of Scotland.

Stuart was raised in the Derbyshire household of her grandmother, Bess of Hardwick, and she was educated and guarded as a potential queen. In 1603, when Queen Elizabeth was ill and Stuart at the age of twenty-seven was herself still under virtual house arrest, she explored a clandestine marriage. Her attempt to achieve independence (and perhaps the throne) was thwarted, and in her letters Stuart defended herself and created a fictional lover, alarming the court. She did not achieve freedom. Only after her cousin James acceded to the throne was Stuart removed from Bess of Hardwick’s custody. Within months, a plot to assassinate James and place Arbella on the throne led to treason trials, with Sir Walter Ralegh [Raleigh] among those prosecuted. Stuart was not implicated.

During her years at King James’s court, Stuart’s informal letters often were warm and lively, filled with court news. She worked to advance her family through patronage. She was known and praised by poets such as Aemilia Lanyer. Stuart struggled financially, however. King James did not provide her with the resources to live at his expensive court, nor did he negotiate her marriage. In 1610, now thirty-five, Stuart wed in secret William Seymour, also a claimant, in a marriage seen as a threat to the succession. Both were imprisoned. Stuart’s formal letters from this time include appeals for the opportunity to live with her husband. Instead, James I planned to exile Stuart to the north, just as Elizabeth I had exiled James’s own mother, Mary of Scotland. Stuart and Seymour coordinated escapes, with Stuart on horseback, cross-dressed like a Shakespearean heroine. Seymour landed safely on the continent, but Stuart was captured at sea and imprisoned in the Tower of London. She died there in 1615.

Stuart’s letters range from lively familiar letters to carefully drafted court letters, from warmth and affection to anger and defiance. They reflect an intelligent and articulate woman who was willing to challenge convention and the crown.

Partners and Additional Contributors

The WEMLO project is led by co-directors Professor James Daybell (Plymouth University) and Dr Kim McLean-Fiander (University of Victoria). When WEMLO began, much of the metadata for a number of individual women’s correspondence catalogues had been collated independently by James Daybell after years of research in archives around the world. Subsequently, Kim McLean-Fiander oversaw the curation of this metadata.

In the case of this catalogue, the WEMLO Directors reached out to the Arbella Stuart scholar Sara Jayne Steen, who had published The Letters of Lady Arbella Stuart with Oxford University Press in 1994. Thus, the Stuart catalogue metadata that had been previously collated by James Daybell was updated and much enhanced from cross-checks to Steen’s edition by Bruna Gushurst-Moore, with final metadata curation by Kim McLean-Fiander. Sara Jayne Steen wrote the text for this introductory page.

The WEMLO project has benefitted from the research and editorial expertise of Dr Ian Cooper and Dr Bruna Gushurst-Moore and the design expertise of Dr J. Matthew Huculak. Finally, all WEMLO-related catalogues have relied upon the skill and expertise of EMLO Digital Editor, Miranda Lewis. WEMLO would like to thank the entire team at Cultures of Knowledge and EMLO for their assistance and ongoing support.

Key Bibliographic Source(s)

The Letters of Lady Arbella Stuart, ed. Sara Jayne Steen, Women Writers in English 1350–1850 (New York and Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1994).



The catalogue contains metadata of 118 letters written between 1588 and 1611. Of these letters, ninety-two are written in English from Lady Arbella Stuart to family, friends, servants, and members of the court, including Queen Elizabeth I of England; King James IV and I of Scotland and England; Elizabeth Talbot, countess of Shrewsbury; Gilbert and Mary Talbot, earl and countess of Shrewsbury; Robert Cecil, earl of Salisbury; and Stuart’s husband, William Seymour (later duke of Somerset). Some letters are undated, and some are extant in multiple drafts. Nine letters are in Latin from Lady Arbella Stuart to members of the Danish court. Seventeen letters are addressed to Lady Arbella Stuart from various correspondents, including James I and his queen, Anne [Anna]. The records are linked to the metadata of The Letters of Lady Arbella Stuart, which was edited by Sara Jayne Steen in the Oxford University Press series Women Writers in English 1350–1850.

Scope of Catalogue

More complete data may be consulted in the printed edition, which contains full transcriptions and references to manuscript originals.

Further resources

Printed Edition

The Letters of Lady Arbella Stuart, ed. Sara Jayne Steen, Women Writers in English 1350–1850 (New York and Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1994).

Selected Bibliography

Bradley, E. T., Life of the Lady Arabella Stuart, 2 vols (London: Richard Bentley and Son, 1889).

Cooper, Elizabeth, The Life and Letters of Lady Arabella Stuart, 2 vols (London: Hurst and Blackett, 1866).

Durant, David N., Arbella Stuart: A Rival to the Queen (London: Weidenfeld and Nicolson, 1978).

Gristwood, Sarah, Arbella: England’s Lost Queen (London: Bantam Press, 2003).

Handover, P. M., Arbella Stuart: Royal Lady of Hardwick and Cousin to King James (London: Eyre and Spottiswoode, 1957).

Hardy, B. C., Arbella Stuart: A Biography (London: Constable, 1913).

Lefuse, M., The Life and Times of Arabella Stuart (London: Mills and Boon, 1913).

Lewalski, Barbara Kiefer, ‘Writing Resistance in Letters: Arbella Stuart and the Rhetoric of Disguise and Defiance’, in Writing Women in Jacobean England (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1993), pp. 66–92.

Mazzola, Elizabeth A., Women’s Wealth and Women’s Writing in Early Modern England: ‘Little Legacies’ and the Materials of Motherhood, Women and Gender in the Early Modern World (Aldershot: Ashgate, 2009).

McInnes, Ian, Arabella: The Life and Times of Lady Arabella Seymour, 1575–1615 (London: W. H. Allen, 1968).

Norrington, Ruth, In the Shadow of the Throne: The Lady Arbella Stuart (London: Peter Owen, 2002).

Steen, Sara Jayne, ‘The Cavendish-Talbot Women: Playing a High-Stakes Game’, in James Daybell, ed., Women and Politics in Early Modern England, 1450–1700 (Hampshire and Burlington: Ashgate, 2004), pp. 147–63.

Steen, Sara Jayne, ‘The Crime of Marriage: Arbella Stuart and “The Duchess of Malfi”‘, Sixteenth Century Journal, 22 (1991), pp. 61–76.

Steen, Sara Jayne, ‘Fashioning an Acceptable Self: Arbella Stuart’, English Literary Renaissance, 18 (1988), pp. 78–95.

Steen, Sara Jayne, ‘”How Subject to Interpretation”: Lady Arbella Stuart and the Reading of Illness’, in James Daybell, ed., Early Modern Women’s Letter Writing, 1450–1700, Early Modern Literature in History (Basingstoke and New York: Palgrave, 2001), pp. 109–26.

Steen, Sara Jayne, ‘Manuscript Matters: Reading the Letters of Lady Arbella Stuart’, South Central Review, special issue, ed. Margaret J. M. Ezell, 11, 2 (Summer 1994), pp. 24–38.


Additional resources

Women’s Early Modern Letters Online [WEMLO] project page

WEMLO network and resources hub



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