A letter from Arbella Stuart aged 12-years old in 1587/8: Bess as grandmother

Letter ID: 106

On 8 February 1587/88, Arbella Stuart, aged 12-years old, wrote to her 'Good Lady Grandmother', Bess, to send clippings of her hair and a pot of jelly (i.e. jam or conserve). The young Arbella's growing accomplishments can be seen reflected here in the letter's calligraphic handwriting and Latinate prose. Indeed, Arbella was to become well known for her prodigious intellectual talents. Perhaps most memorable are Sir John Harrington's recollections of the young Arbella's impressive displays of learning, to which he was eye witness 'severall tymes at Hardwicke' as well as at Chelsea and Wingfield: Arbella had him read to her from Ariosto's Orlando Furioso and, in the same year this letter was written, he recalls how the 12-year old 'read French out of Italian, and English out of both, much better then I could' (1602: 45).

Some credit for these intellectual fireworks must be given to Bess, who had ensured Arbella was provided with educational resources, tutors and books fit for a princess. For, being of royal Stuart blood, Arbella was in line to the throne. It is worth reviewing the young prodigy Arbella's educational upbringing as it is glimpsed through Bess's letters. When Arbella was only an infant, in 1576, her father, Charles Stuart, first earl of Lennox, died suddenly and unexpectedly. In the following months, Bess used her influence to pursue the inheritance claims of 'oure lytt[le] Arbella' (ID 083, ID 188, ID 120) and to petition the Queen to ensure 'my poore Arbella' ID 121 was permitted to live with her mother (Bess's daughter, Elizabeth Cavendish).

Only a few years later, in January 1581/2, tragedy struck again when Arbella's mother, Elizabeth Cavendish, died as suddenly as her husband, and the 7-year-old Arbella was left an orphan and ward of Lord Burghley. At this point, it was Bess (as requested in her daughter's will) who took over custody of the child and immediately began to fight for Arbella's financial entitlements, petitioning the Queen on behalf of 'a pore ynfant my Iuyll arbella' (i.e. jewel) ID 145. Bess argued the case that Arbella's financial 'portion' was essential in order to provide the child with a proper education suitable for a future high-ranking courtier and princess-in-waiting. As Bess put it, in her letter of 28 January 1581/2, the money is needed for 'seruantes and teachers' for Arbella's 'better education and trayninge vpp in all good vertue and Learninge, and so she maye the soner be redye to attende on her Majestie' ID 144.

In a subsequent letter of petition, written on 6 May 1582, Bess went so far as to cite the dying words of her daughter Elizabeth Cavendish, a death-bed scene, adds Bess, 'which I cannot without great grefe. remember' ID 145. The last words of Arbella's young mother, recounts Bess, were to express the earnest hope that her majesty would protect 'her innocent chyld' ID 145. In practical terms, Bess states, funds will be needed to educate Arbella in the style of a royal heir, especially given the child shows such intellectual promise: 'she ys of very greate towardnes to Learne anything' ID 145. Moreover, Bess reiterates, she herself will monitor Arbella's tuition and education development: 'and I very carefull of her good educatyon as yf she were my owne and only chyld' ID 145.

Bess never received any expenses from the Queen but evidently, as grandmother and guardian, she saw her role as being to oversee Arbella's education. One example will stand for many. On 5 November 1588 Bess's servant Nicholas Kynnersley wrote from Wingfield regarding the 13-year old Arbella's progress. He reports that at 6pm she was in good spirits ('mery') and had eaten well, but he is concerned because she has not studied for six days: 'she went not to ye scolle yis vj days'. For this reason, Kynnersley says, he will be glad of Bess's return: 'I wold be glad off your ladyship's comyng' ID 037. Kynnersley's comments show us that Arbella was expected to attend to her daily studies and that, if Bess was away, the upper servants were required to keep a close eye on the child. Moreover, Kynnersley's letter makes it clear that, when it came to Arbella's education, Bess was the figure who provided authority and impetus and that, even aged 13, Arbella, could run rings around her tutors and the gentlemen servants.

It is important to view Kynnersly's letter as part of a broader picture, in which we see Bess's direct and personal involvement, over several decades, in ensuring her children and grandchildren attend to their studies. So, in the letters, we find Bess, c.1560, praising her daughter Frances and Elizabeth Knowles for practicing their virginals: she tells them they are 'good gerles' ID 101. In c.1565 we find a Master Teyler from Oxford being employed as schoolmaster at Chatsworth for Bess's sons, and assurance being given that young William will encourage his younger brother Charles to 'apleye his bok' (i.e. apply himself to his books) ID 017. In 1577 Bess's grandson, little George Talbot, adamantly asks for his 'Lady Danmode' (i.e. baby-talk for 'Lady Grandmother') and his parents invoke grandmother Bess's name 'if he have any spyse' (i.e. if he gives them any spice, that is, naughtiness) ID 085. Bess's active involvement with the young children continued throughout her life. Aged almost 80, in 1601, we know that Bess had a high stool ('a hye stole'), chairs for children ('Chares for Chlidren') and little chairs for her youngest grandchild James ('tow lettell cheares for James') in her bed-chamber and adjoining withdrawing chamber at New Hardwick Hall, where she would tutor her grandchildren herself and sometimes had them subscribe letters to her son, their father, William Cavendish ID 020.

As these examples show, in the letters we find Bess, over many years, taking a careful interest in the education of her children and grandchildren. Whereas predominantly, and as we would expect, Bess's letters show her taking care of business matters (such as financial transactions, legal cases, land acquisitions and Court connections), these kinds of smaller interspersed references remind us of an ongoing maternal and domestic context with which Bess was, simultaneously, very much engaged. But the role of guardian to Arbella was exceptional and brought heavy responsibilities, not only for the child's education, but also, as Arbella matured, for her security and entry into society.

As a claimant to the throne, there were regular plots surrounding Arbella and, as a result, the Queen required Bess keep her granddaughter under virtual house arrest. Details about the strictures under which Arbella was kept at Hardwick are outlined in Bess's letter to Burghley of 21 September 1592. Bess responds to Burghley's fears about 'wicked and mischeuous' plots to kidnap herself and the now 17-year old Arbella, and tries to offer reassurance about security measures in the household: Arbella is not allowed to leave the house late or unattended, or to walk far from the house, or to go to anybody else's house.

To further reassure Burghley, Bess emphasises that she, Bess, keeps her eyes on Arbella almost constantly, and they even sleep in the same room together: 'I se hyr almost euery howre in the day, she lyeth in my bed chambre' ID 163. In addition, Bess assures Burghley that she herself is personally monitoring the household staff and vigilant over their behaviour. Indeed, she says, she only recently sacked Arbella's tutor, a university man called 'Morley', who had been reading with her for over three years but had become suspicious.

The Queen watched Burghley watching Bess watching Arbella. It was a situation that continued for many years and which mirrored Bess's earlier role as co-keeper of the Scots Queen: in both cases, Bess was under royal command to watch over a woman who was a claimant to the crown (and therefore a potential security threat to Elizabeth I) and who was involuntarily kept within the confines of Bess's household. In the case of Arbella, tensions within the household were inflamed by a clash of generations and personalities.

Repeatedly Bess asked for Arbella to be removed from her custody at Hardwick and housed elsewhere; repeatedly the Queen refused (for example, ID 136). Events peaked in Spring 1603 when Arbella - now 28 years old but still unmarried and deeply frustrated by her restrictive life at Hardwick with her elderly grandmother - took matters into her own hands. The extraordinary drama of Spring 1603, in which Arbella attempted to escape from Hardwick, unfolds in a famous sequence of letters. Other family members become involved in the drama, most notably Bess's eldest son Henry who sided with Arbella and attempted to take her from Hardwick. It was the final straw in Bess's already fractious relationship with her son, whom she refers to elsewhere as 'my bad son Henry' ID 135 and my 'vnnaturall sonne, Henry' ID 140.

In this most dysfunctional of families, the situation must have been excruciating for both women. In her letter of 3 March 1603, Bess pleads for the removal of Arbella from Hardwick and emphasises her own age and fear that the stress will be the death of her: 'a fewe more such weekes as I have suffred of late will make an end of me' ID 134. Her call was, in a sense, answered as soon afterwards the new King James came to the throne and summoned Arbella to Court. The uncomfortable predicament in which the two women had been caught was over, but not before, in March 1603, Bess had struck both Arbella and Henry from her will.

Whereas Henry was never restored to Bess's favour (or will), Arbella was later reconciled with her grandmother. She made a visit to Hardwick in 1605, when Bess was unwell, with a patent from the King for a peerage for her uncle (Bess's favourite son) William. In this way, grandmother forgave granddaughter, William got his peerage, Arbella left Hardwick with £300 and a gold cup and, when Bess died, received £1000 in her grandmother's will.

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References and Further Reading

  • Arbella's letters have been edited by Sara Jayne Steen, The Letters of Lady Arbella Stuart, Women Writers in English 1350-1850 (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1994).
  • A Tract on the Succession to the Crown 1602 by Sir John Harrington, Roxburghe Club (London: Nicholas and Sons, 1880), p. 45.
  • Bess's grief-stricken reaction to the death of her daughter Elizabeth Cavendish is reported by her husband Shrewsbury, 21 January 1582. He tells William Cecil, Lord Burghley, that his wife 'neither dothe nor can thincke of any thinge but of Lamentinge and wepinge'; London, British Library, Lansdowne MS 34, fols 2-3.
  • There are other examples of letters from household and family members to Bess which take particular care to report on Arbella's progress, purchases of new clothes, the Queen's reaction to a New Year's gift, or Arbella's health and reception at Court, for example ID 098, ID 091, ID 209 and ID 022.
  • It is from contemporary inventories and account books that we know Bess had 'a hye stole', 'Chares for Children' and 'a little cheare for James ... & a little stole for him' in her bed-chamber and adjoining withdrawing-chamber at New Hardwick Hall; Chatsworth House, Devonshire Collection, Hardwick MS 8, 1599/1600, fol. 81v, and Santina M. Levey and Peter K. Thornton, Of Houshold Stuff: The 1601 Inventories of Bess of Hardwick (The National Trust, 2001), p. 53. The chairs and stools were for William Cavendish's younger children, 'little' James, daughter Frances and eleven-year-old William (William's oldest son Gilbert was a teenager by this point).
  • The references to Bess tutoring her grandchildren at New Hardwick Hall appear in a letter from her son William Cavendish (who wrote to Bess from London, where he was attending to business matters for himself and on behalf of his mother). He closes his letter thanking Bess for her last letter (itself no longer extant), in which she had his children, her grandchildren, subscribe in their own hands: 'I humbly thank your Ladyship for the handes of the three litle honest folkes subscribed in your Ladyships letter'. William goes on to comment that: 'I know by Iames writing; where he lerned his skill', apparently a reference Bess's involvement in teaching little James to write. William ends with a further reference to the children, as he wishes Bess so long a life that she may see all of her grandchildren's own little ones: 'I besech god to bless them; & to graunt that your Ladyship may se litle ons of them all' ID 020.
  • Recent studies of the definition and construction of childhood in the early modern period include Sandra Cavallo and Silvia Evangelisti (eds), A Cultural History of Childhood and the Family in the Early Modern Age, (Oxford: Berg, 2012), and Andrea Immel and Michael Witmore (eds), Childhood and Children's Books in Early Modern Europe, 1550-1800, Children's Literature and Culture (New York and London: Routledge, 2006).
  • The speculation that Arbella's tutor 'Morley' ID 163 could have been the playwright Christopher Marlow cannot be substantiated; Charles Nicholl, The Reckoning: The Murder of Christopher Marlowe (London: Jonathan Cape, 1992), pp. 340-42.
  • The letter that describes Arbella's visit to Hardwick to reconcile with her grandmother is from Edmund Lascalles to Gilbert Talbot, seventh earl of Shrewsbury, 11 April [1605], London, Lambeth Palace Library, Talbot Papers, Vol. L, fol. 7.
Author(s): Alison Wiggins, April 2013


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'Bess of Hardwick's Letters' was developed by The University of Glasgow with technical development provided by The Humanities Research Institute at The University of Sheffield
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