Saturday, June 24, 2017

Shadows In A Timeless Myth Presents Lady Arabella Stuart


One of the most familiar names to the student of English history is that of Lady Arabella Stuart, who was long a constant source of alarm to James I., because she was born near the throne. She never urged her claim nor appeared to covet the crown; daughter of Charles, Earl of Lennox, and cousin to the King, she inherited a full share of the beauty and misfortunes of her race. A lovely girl, full of wit and grace, gifted with the gentle art of making friends, she was the life of a lifeless court.

Many matches were proposed to the sovereign, who had power to make or break a marriage for her. Suitors of various rank and countries knelt at her feet, and it was told that even Henri the Great of France had dreams of seating the blue-eyed Countess with the wavy tresses on the throne of Charlemagne.

So passed her youth; and in her thirty-fifth year James, by way of banter, told the maiden she had remained fancy free to suit him long enough; she might now wed whom she would. Poets, adventurers, courtiers, and knights of high lineage kissed her white hand, but came no nearer the heart, which beat faster for none but William Seymour, afterward Marquis of Hertford, a youth of twenty-three years. Only the stars were witness as they sealed their vows and oath, and the secret kept well for a season. But a bird in the air carried the matter to Windsor, and Seymour was arrested and brought before the Council to answer for the outrage—betrothal in secrecy.

He denied everything; swore he had not thought of anything but pastime. What did he want with a wife ten years older than himself? And so the rumor was forgotten with other court gossip.
They thought the King would give up his nonsense, for Seymour was from one of the proudest families of Europe, and there was no reason in this opposition; besides, he had consented to a wedding. But no relenting was admitted by James, and in July, 1610, a poor priest was found and bribed to risk his neck by going through the marriage ceremony for the lovers.

After a year of concealment the news reached the King's ear. He was enraged; the priest was thrown into prison, the two witnesses present were arrested, and the offending pair parted in the first sweetness of the honeymoon. Seymour was sent to St. Thomas's Tower on the river. He was furnished handsome apartments, with plates, hangings, books, luxurious belongings; and the Countess was lodged in a fine house on the Thames, with attendance and surroundings as became her rank; allowed every freedom—except freedom.

Indifferent to the elegancies about her, the bride wrote tender and passionate letters to her bridegroom, but he answered never a word. Sweet William made no sign, sent no love-gift. He wrote only to the Lords of the Council, praying to be restored to liberty, that his health would be lost if he were not freed, and busied his days making himself comfortable in the chambers over the Traitors' Gate of London Tower, his wife's money paying the bills.

One dull, foggy day she quietly stepped into a common barge and floated down the river to the barred window on the wharf, where she might make signs to him who did not appear bold enough to plan an escape, and returned safely to her castle. The brave movement could not be concealed, and in his wrath the King ordered a dozen counties to be put between his cousin and the defiant prisoner looking with despair at the water-gates.

Sadly did the tearful blue eyes turn to the bleak and frozen North, while sentinels doubled their watch on the square tower built over the moat. Such was his Majesty's pleasure.

Lady Arabella's attendants were devoted, ready to brave death itself for their mistress; her soft, kind manner never failed to win where self-love had not taken too deep a hold. Day and night, while she sighed her soul away, they schemed and planned to open a path to reunion in the pleasant land of France, where they might be at peace in banishment. At last she slipped off, well provided by her aunt, the Countess of Shrewsbury, with costly jewels current in any country, and with good English gold to lavish on any who might espouse her cause. She glided down the Thames, reached the Channel, by arrangement was taken on a light French bark; but the open water in front of Calais was not for the hapless bride. Captain Corvè did his best; his little craft was no match for the swift war-ship Adventure in pursuit. Gallantly he fought wind and wave, but Admiral Monson outsped him, and after thirteen shots were fired, he struck his flag, and the crew of the victorious vessel boarded the bark which carried the royal lady.

She gracefully yielded herself prisoner to James, King of England, consoled by the thought that he whom she loved better than life was so well disguised, and his plot so well laid, that he was safe in French port.

"Where is William, Earl of Seymour?" demanded Monson, Admiral in command of the chase.
Lady Arabella smiled.

"I cannot tell, but I believe he is beyond the reach of his enemies and mine."

So she was marched to the Tower, into rooms once occupied by Margaret Douglas, the common grandmother of the King and herself.

When brought before the Lords she was mild and patient, yet asked with becoming spirit why she, a free woman of royal blood, should be held a criminal and separated from her lawful husband.
The furious King seized her jewels and money; and her two companions in the flight, gentlemen by birth, were dragged to the torture-chamber of the Tower, and forced to confess what they knew of the perilous attempt.

The tale of Seymour's changes of wig and cloak, in various disguises and places, is too long to tell here. Delighted with liberty and with France, he seemed to mourn the loss of his bride less than the loss of her jewels and money, for William dearly loved to loiter in the delicate plain called Ease, and lie in the soft places gold can buy. The calculating fellow found his high name a passport in Paris, which city was vastly amusing, and so was the staid but not less delightful capital of the Belgians.
In the damp old rooms of her grandmother Lady Arabella languished five years. The third year an escape was arranged, and when the time was ripe and success appeared assured she was betrayed, and the venture ended in nothing but harsher treatment. While "William, dearest," danced the night away, she wore out the dark hours writing prayers to the King, who deigned no answer.

Like other high-born dames, she was skilled in cunning needle-work, and many a doleful day was spent stitching gay silks into canvas, making a bright broidery, offered as a souvenir to the man who imprisoned her; but the King would not touch the pretty gift. The courtesy did not move him any more than her demand to be tried by her peers, according to law, in open-court, instead of by a Committee of the Council sitting with closed doors.

When the tapestry came back rejected the blue eyes grew dimmer, and her cheek paled with the heart-sickness of hope deferred, or rather of despair, and it was rumored that the daughter of the House of Stuart had met her doom in madness. Sorriest of all the history is that the youthful husband forgot his too-loving wife. The letters full of tenderness reached the trifler at European courts, and lay unanswered. The low-browed villain Wood, who had her in charge, knew the death of his captive would please King James and the courtiers who lived on his smiles. His small mind lent itself to all sorts of petty annoyances and means to make imprisonment unwholesome. She must not walk, nor have her own attendants, nor food and dress befitting the near kinswoman of queens, though the offended monarch generously had the ceiling of her room "mended to keep out wind and rain."
The forlorn lady passed from deep melancholy to spasms that touched her brain. Even in such pitiful condition she was closely watched and guarded by the nervous coward, who pretended to believe there was an Arabella plot, with Raleigh at its head, secreted in the Tower.

For a year the insane Countess lived, gentle and harmless, chattering like a little child. Her one amusement was singing songs of love and longing, learned in happy days, with the lute, whose trembling strings made the saddest strains ear ever heard. The heart-breaking music softened even her jailer; he grew compassionate, and she wandered at will through the doleful halls and the garden. But the wan face never brightened; she faded slowly, drooped, and died.

In the chill midnight of autumn her wornout body was brought by the black-flowing river to Westminster Abbey, in a miserable coffin without a plate, and laid away in that sanctuary with no ceremony, not even a prayer. "For," says a loyal courtier, "to have had a great funeral for one dying out of favor with the King would reflect on the King's honor."

After a troubled life she sleeps well in the tomb of her ill-starred family, close beside the dust of her grandmother, Margaret Douglas. Her coffin lies across and flattens the leaden casket which holds the headless corpse of her great-aunt Mary, unhappy Queen of Scots. Neither name nor date is above her breast, and the skull and bones were plainly seen below the rotten wood in 1868 (a ghastly sight!) when the vaults were searched for the remains of James I.

Her persecutor rests near his victim. The enemies are at one now. The strange peace of death which ends all feuds has brought them together, and their restless hearts lie still, awaiting the coming of the Angel of the Resurrection.

The period of which I write is sometimes called the good old times. I call it the bad old times.

Compiled from sources in the public domain.

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Smiles & Good Fortune,
It is not wealth one asks for, but just enough to preserve one’s dignity, to work unhampered, to be generous, frank and independent. W. Somerset Maugham (1874-1965) Of Human Bondage, 1915

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