Wednesday, June 17, 2009
Arabella Stuart's Letter to Shrewsbury
Arabella Stuart (1575-1615), cousin of King James I of England, had also been considered a successor to Queen Elizabeth I, as she was also directly descended from Henry VII. In 1582 she became one of the wards of William Cecil, Lord Burghley. She was housed mostly in the care of the famous Bess of Hardwick, but she also must have been a familiar to fellow ward Henry Wriothesley (3rd Earl of Southampton, born 1573) at times.
After James’ succession there was a plot (The Main Plot), implicating Raleigh, to get rid of James and put Arabella on the throne. Arabella (sometimes spelled Arbella) was a prolific letter writer.
On June 17, 1609, she penned a curious letter to her uncle, the Earl of Shrewsbury. The holograph letter still exists, shown below. The Earl of Shrewsbury in question was George Talbot 7th Earl, son of George Talbot 6th Earl ((1528–1590) and his wife, Gertrude Manners, daughter of the 1st Earl of Rutland. The 7th Earl married Mary Cavendish, daughter of his stepmother, Bess of Hardwick who had become the 6th Earl’s second wife.
George Talbot 7th Earl of Shrewsbury
While of only minor historic importance, this letter has a few fascinating features. We see Arabella’s literary flair. “Idle lines” resonates with the sonnets of Thomas Watson and Shakespeare’s poetry. We see her wicked dry sense of humor at play as she compares herself to Pope Joan. And I find charming Arabella’s description of some sort of illusion show in which two virginals (small harpsichords) were seen and heard to play by themselves. Another contraption heated a glass invisibly.
To the right honorable my very good uncle the Earl of Shrowsbury,
"Because I know not that your lordship hath forsaken one recreation that you have liked heretofore, I presume to send you a few idle lines to read in your chair, after you have tired yourself either with affairs or any sport that bringeth weariness; and, knowing you well advertised of all occurrents in serious manner, I make it my end only to make you merry, and show my desire to please you even in playing the fool, for no folly is greater, I trow, than to laugh when one smarteth; but that my aunt's divinity can tell you St. Lawrence, deriding his tormentors even upon the gridiron, bade them turn him on the other side, for that he lay on was sufficiently broiled, I should not know how to excuse myself from either insensibleness or contempt of injuries. I find if one rob a house and build a church with the money the wronged party may go pipe in an ivy leaf for any redress ; for money so well bestowed must not be taken from that holy work, though the right owner go a-begging. Unto you it is given to understand parables or to command the comment ; but if you be of this opinion of the Scribes and Pharisees, I condemn your lordship, by your leave, for an heretic, by the authority of Pope Joan; for there is a text saith, you must not do evil that good may come thereof. But now from doctrine to miracles. I assure you within these few days I saw a pair of virginals make good music without help of any hand, but of one that did nothing but warm, not move, a glass some five or six feet from them. And if I thought thus great folk, invisibly and far off, work in matters to tune them as they please, I pray your lordship forgive me, and I hope God will, to whose holy protection I humbly recommend your lordship. From Broad Street, June 17, 1609.
"I humbly pray your lordship to bestow two of the next good personnages of yours shall fall on me; not that I mean to convert them to my own benefit, for though I go rather for a good clerk than a worldly-wise woman, I aspire to no degree of Pope Joan, but some good ends, whereof this bearer will tell your lordship one. My boldness shows how honourably I believe of your disposing of such livings.
Your lordship's niece, "ARBELLA STUART."
Although her political ambitions were thwarted, Arabella successfully made a killing in commodities through monopolies granted by James. For a time she had rights to control imports of wine and spirits into Ireland, and sought the the grant for exclusive rights for licensing, brewing and selling beer in Ireland! Now that’s a profitable market!