This 17th-century broadside ballad tells the true story of Lady Arbella Stuart's (1575–1615) ill-fated marriage to William Seymour (1587–1660).
Broadside ballads were sung on the streets of London, and in ale-houses and public places throughout the country. This one was probably first composed while Arbella was languishing in the Tower of London after her daring yet unsuccessful elopement, which is the subject of the song. It continued to be in print until the close of the century.
The existence of ‘The True Lovers Knot Untied’ demonstrates that there was significant public interest in Arbella’s story. It also provides insight into early modern aristocratic and popular attitudes towards a noble woman marrying for love.
View an easy-to-read transcription and listen to a recording of the ballad being sung here.
Lady Arbella Stuart and The Duchess of Malfi
John Webster probably wrote The Duchess of Malfi around 1612–13, while Arbella was in the Tower and news of her dire circumstances circulated through London. It is likely that Webster used Arbella’s story as inspiration, capitalising on the public interest it generated.
There are many parallels between the plight of the Duchess and Lady Arbella. Both secretly married socially inferior men for love and both had to face the wrath of close male relatives. Failed escapes are also common to both narratives, as are incarceration, madness and death.
Lady Arbella Stuart’s elopement
Lady Arbella Stuart was a close relation to both Queen Elizabeth I (1533–1603) and King James the VI of Scotland and I of England (1566–1625). Her proximity to the crown meant that she could not marry without the monarch’s permission.
However, in 1610 after many years of hoping in vain for a suitable match Arbella took matters into her own hands. She married William Seymour, who despite being from a noble family was a second son and far below Arbella in rank (as well as being 12 years her junior).
They wed in secret on 22 June 1610. When King James discovered their relationship he was furious and placed Arbella under house arrest, and imprisoned Seymour in the Tower of London. Nevertheless, with the help of influential friends and loyal servants they managed to escape.
Seymour didn’t appear at the pre-agreed rendezvous, but Arbella insisted on waiting for him aboard her ship in the Channel. The delay this caused gave James’s men the time they needed to recapture her. Arbella was brought back to London and imprisoned in the Tower of London, where she remained for the rest of her life. She died in 1615 after a long and drawn out illness exacerbated by poor mental health and a refusal to eat.
William Seymour successfully crossed the Channel and lived in exile on the Continent until after Arbella’s death. He returned to court in 1616 and received a full pardon from James I.