This is a painting of Lady Arbella Stuart (1575–1615), first cousin twice removed of Queen Elizabeth I (1533–1603) and first cousin of King James the VI of Scotland and I of England (1566–1625). Her impressive ancestry made Arbella a likely candidate to succeed Elizabeth I to the throne.
The portrait was painted in 1589, when Arbella was 13-and-a-half-years old. The inscription in the top left-hand corner not only states the year of the painting, and Arbella’s age, but it also uses her full, though disputed, title: ‘Comitessa Leviniae’, or Countess of Lennox (a region in Scotland). Arbella and her family were determined to have her status and proper title recognised and respected by her royal relations.
Symbolism in the painting
The books close to Arbella’s hand highlight her extensive humanist education, which was modelled on Elizabeth’s own schooling. The dog at her feet represents loyalty, and she is dressed in a fairly simple black and white gown in the Protestant style. The painting and many of its details were perhaps intended as gestures of humility and homage to Elizabeth.
However, the extravagantly thick pearl necklace and the jewels Arbella wears in her hair, ears and on her wrists emphasise her royal status.
Her long, light brown hair is loose, and flows dramatically down her shoulders and back. Loose hair like this was a symbol of marriageable virginity.
Arbella and the Elizabethan marriage market
The painting was commissioned by Arbella’s grandmother, Bess of Hardwick (c. 1527–1608), in order to enhance Arbella’s profile at court and on the Continent. At 13 Arbella would have been considered old enough for marriage, or at least betrothal, and it was necessary to have a good likeness to show potential suitors.
However, Arbella’s royal blood was a poisoned chalice. Elizabeth was notoriously sensitive about naming an heir. She used the uncertainty surrounding the succession to play factions at court and in Europe against each other in order to maintain her power and the peace in England. In light of this policy, Arbella, as an unattached and English-born royal, made a good counterbalance to James VI of Scotland’s claim. Therefore, although Arbella was suggested as a possible match for foreign princes and British nobles, negotiations were never seriously initiated and Arbella was left in a state of romantic suspense throughout Elizabeth’s reign.
Lady Arbella Stuart and The Duchess of Malfi
Lady Arbella and the Duchess of John Webster’s The Duchess of Malfi were both powerful women in their own right – one by birth, the other by widowhood. However, both struggled to have their position and authority recognised by their relatives.
Romantic choices also overshadowed the fate of both women. The tale of Arbella’s star-crossed marriage is told in ‘The True Lovers Knot Untied’, a broadside ballad contemporary to the play.