Tuesday, March 19, 2013

Arbella: England's Lost Queen review

Arbella: England's Lost Queen by Sarah Gristwood is a biography of a less popularly known figure in the Elizabethan era. Arbella Stuart was third cousin (I think that's correct) to Elizabeth I and first cousin to James I. She was, at one time, a serious consideration as heir to Elizabeth's throne. For anyone interested in that era of British history, this biography is a good addition to the field and gives a great deal of detail on a person who hasn't been written about in as much detail as the more well known figures such as Elizabeth, James, Robert Dudley, and others whose names are recognizable to popular audiences even today.

Gristwood writes with an amazing amount of detail and uses a prodigious amount of source quotes. Arbella seems to have left a large number of letters from which to pull information and, as a possible contender to the throne, her name and events in her life were topics of gossip and letters by a variety of officials of the era - from Cecil to James to foreign ambassadors. Like most documentation from that time period, there are gaps in what has survived and conflicting information slanted by whoever wrote it for their own political purposes.

Arbella's life is a rollercoaster with seemingly more downs than ups. Her fate rests entirely in the hands of others and yet she attempts to take control of her own destiny several times. Her royal blood makes her both incredibly valuable and equally dangerous, cutting her off from both of the avenues for which she was raised - ruling and marriage. Her attempts to get won or the other are met with hostility by both Elizabeth and James. Arbella seems at all times to keep one eye on her political ambitions which can never help her marital cause. Her family member's ambition is an equal part of the problem as, much like Jane Grey, Arbella is blamed for the plots of others - though neither woman is without ambition.

Arbella: Englad's Lost Queen seems to be the first biography by Gristwood and she does a fair job of it - it's a well-written and engaging read but Alison Weir's works of the same time period remain my favorites to this point. It may simply be that Gristwood has not found her stride yet and I'm certainly going to read more of her work.


An extraordinary life lost in history: the compelling biography of Arbella Stuart spans both Tudor and Stuart courts and encompasses espionage, a clandestine marriage, imprisonment and eventual death in the Tower of London.

Arbella Stuart was the niece of Mary Queen of Scots and first cousin to James VI of Scotland. Acknowledged as her heir by Elizabeth 1, Arbella's right to the English throne was equaled only by James. Raised under close supervision by her grandmother, but still surrounded by plots -- most of them Roman Catholic in origin -- she became an important pawn in the struggle for succession, particularly during the long, tense period when Elizabeth lay dying. The accession of her cousin James thrust her into the colourful world of his extravagant and licentious court, and briefly gave her the independence she craved at the heart of Jacobean society. At thirty-five, however, Arbella's fate was sealed when she risked everything to make a forbidden marriage, for which she was forced to flee England. She was intercepted off the coast of Calais and escorted to the Tower where she died some years later, alone and, most probably, from starvation.

This is a powerful and vivid portrait of a woman forced to carve a precarious path through turbulent years. But more remarkably, the turmoil of Arbella's life never prevented her from claiming the right to love freely, to speak her wrongs loudly, and to control her own destiny. For fans of historical biography, Arbella is possibly the most romantic heroine of them all. Hers was a story just waiting to be told.

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