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It has long been noted that the plight of Arabella Stuart may have been echoed in Webster's The Duchess of Malfi.(1) Arabella, a full cousin to James I, secretly married Lord William Seymour in 1610, and by doing so further strengthened her claim to the throne. The two lovers were imprisoned but able to escape in 1611 and make for the Continent in separate ships. Arabella was captured while she lingered in mid-channel to make sure of her husband's safety. She was thereafter imprisoned in the Tower, went insane from anxiety, and ultimately died in 1615. The stories do not agree much beyond this, however. Arabella did not marry as far beneath her station as the duchess did. Seymour was not a household servant, nor did he father any children. For these and other details, a more apt though historically distant resonance is the secret marriage of Catherine of Valois to her steward Owen Tudor, grandfather of Henry VII and thus ancestor to both James and Arabella through Margaret Tudor, the sister of Henry VIII.
Henry V of England married the French princess Catherine of Valois in 1420 pursuant to the Treaty of Troyes, but Henry died soon after Catherine gave birth to the future Henry VI. In 1428, the Duke of Gloucester promoted an act of Parliament forbidding any person to marry the Queen Dowager without the express consent of the King.(2) By this time, Catherine had probably already married Owen Tudor, a young cousin of the Welsh leader Owen Glendower. Tudor, though poor, came of noble Welsh stock which traced its line back to Cadwallader. He possibly saw service under Henry V at Agincourt in 1415, but was definitely attached to Henry's household at the time of the latter's death in 1422. Catherine promoted Owen to clerk of her wardrobe.(3)
Rumours of a secret liaison may have reached the ears of her brothers-in-law, the Dukes of Bedford and Gloucester, but the Queen lived in greater seclusion than the Duchess of Malfi. The marriage and its issue (three sons and a daughter) were kept secret until 1436 when the queen was removed to Bermondsey Abbey, probably due to illness.(4) The children were taken from her and placed in the custody of Catherine de la Pole, abbess of Barking. Catherine died early in 1437 from a long illness, after which Tudor's goods were seized and he was imprisoned twice at Newgate. He was, however, able to escape from prison and return to Wales.(5)
The antagonist of the story is Catherine's brother-in-law, the Duke of Gloucester. He is known to history as |the good Duke Humphrey', probably because he retained, like Webster's Ferdinand, his popularity with the people, but he was in fact a choleric and lecherous man.(6) His two impulsive marriages to Jacqueline of Henault and the notorious Eleanor Cobham ruined first …