A persistent story holds that Mary Dyer was the daughter of Lady Arbella Stuart, cousin to the English King, James I, and William Seymour. Fearing Arbella’s claim to the English throne, and the claim of any children she might produce, James forbid Arbella to wed without his consent. Frustrated that James refused to offer or consent to a match, Arbella finally took matters into her own hands and in June 1610 secretly wed Seymour, himself a distant claimant to the throne. Thus angered, James confined the newlyweds to separate quarters in the Tower, from which both soon escaped. Seymour hurried safely to France, but Arbella hesitated and was recaptured just outside the harbor of Calais. James then determined to isolate Arbella from family, friends, and supporters by remanding her to the custody of the Bishop of Durham and sending her to the far north of England. However, Arbella complained of ill-health, required several extended rests, and ten weeks later she was only as far away as the northern outskirts of London. At the beginning of June Arbella attempted another escape, was again captured, and again secured in the Tower, where she died in 1615. In January 1612 it was rumored that Arbella had given birth to a child while convalescing at Sir Thomas Parry’s house at Lambeth and that the child had been spirited abroad.(1)
No matter that the child was understood to be male or that a vigorous inquiry in 1618 turned up no substantive support to the rumor, about 1889 this tale was married to the mystery of Mary Dyer’s birth by Frederick Nathaniel Dyer (1822-1900), of Macclesfield, England, a lineal descendant. F. N. Dyer sent some manuscript papers to Cornelia Joy-Dyer and Henry B. Bradford, both Dyer relations, in the United States. In her Some Records of the Dyer Family, published in 1884, Joy-Dyer quotes F. N. Dyer in a manner that does not match papers that F. N. Dyer wrote in his own hand and dated 1889, nor does she mention the Arbella tale. (2) Thus it appears that F. N. Dyer sent his story of Mary Dyer to multiple correspondents in the United States and elsewhere, in more than one variation, and with the Arbella tale being a later addition.
The notes that Bradford received came to the attention of Bradford’s niece, Elizabeth Canby Bradford du Pont. In 1938 du Pont read a paper summarizing the supposed royal origin of Mary Dyer before the Colonial Dames of Delaware. That paper was already lost a few years later when du Pont’s daughter, Alice Eugenie (du Pont) Ortiz, prepared a new paper based on her mother’s talk and perhaps notes. Ortiz’s daughter, Mrs. Harry Clark Boden (Marguerite du Pont de Villiers-Ortiz), published this paper in The New England Historical and Genealogical Register in 1944. (3) Several variations of the Arbella tale exist. One holds that Lady Arbella Stuart’s lady-in-waiting was a Barrett (in another version, a Dyer) and that Mary was raised by her. Another version, reported by Edward R. Dyer in 1915, held that Mary was born in the Tower and then raised by a close friend of Arbella—Amelia Dyer, the daughter of one Sir William Dyer, a knight of Herefordshire (sic). My guess is that this Edward Dyer was yet another correspondent of F. N. Dyer and had simply further confused the story. (4)
The noted genealogist, G. Andrews Moriarty, took the Register to task in 1950 for publishing the Ortiz-Boden article, stating that there was no substantial proof offered that Arbella ever had a child and that the family “tradition” that Mary Dyer was the daughter of Arbella Stuart didn’t even have “the authority of age.” (5) Moreover, Moriarty stated that the spurious tale would now persist, and so it was repeated again and again, and gained new life in Ruth Plimpton’s 1994 Mary Dyer: Biography of a Rebel Quaker. (6) Of note, Plimpton’s work is a biographical novel that mixes fiction with facts, that does not delineate between the two, and that is often cited as fact.
So what exactly did F. N. Dyer write? Some years ago I obtained a scan of Dyer’s 1889 notes that may have been the foundation for Ortiz and Boden. They contain no source documentation for their assertions and are replete with errors. For example, the birth and death dates for William Dyre, Mary’s husband, are wrong, and their is no source documentation for the assertion that Mary Stuart Seymour (Mary Barrett Dyer) was born at Lambeth on 9 August 1611 at Lady Parry’s house. No such record could be found. Meanwhile, F. N. is very sure he has it absolutely right.
Following the footnotes below you will find scans of the eight pages of F. N. Dyer’s papers. Judge for yourself what you would make of it. Caveat emptor.
- B[lanche] C[hristabel] Hardy, Arbella Stuart: A Biography (London: Constable, 1913), 322; Star Chamber proceedings against Mary Talbot, 26 June 1618, University of London, Senate House, ULL MS 20, ff. 145-50; Sara Jayne Steen, editor, The Letters of Lady Arbella Stuart (New York: Oxford University Press, 1994), 105.
- Cornelia Joy-Dyer, Some Records of the Dyer Family (New York: Thomas Whittaker, 1884), 123-24.
- Alice Eugenie (du Pont) Ortiz, “Tradition of Mary Dyer, Quaker Martyr,” The New England Historical and Genealogical Register 98 (January 1944): 25-28.
- Monograph in author’s files. Sir William Dyer (1583-1621), was of Great Staughton, Huntingdonshire, and had two daughters, Anne and Mary. Anne married William Gery and Mary married Edward Wardour. Sir William’s sister Anne married Edward Carre of Sleaford, Lincolnshire, and therein may be a family connection to Mary Dyer’s husband, William Dyre. William Dyre was born in Kirkby Laythorpe, adjacent to Sleaford.
- G. Andrews Moriarty, “The True Story of Mary Dyer,” The New England Historical and Genealogical Register 104 (January 1950): 40-42.
- Ruth Plimpton, Mary Dyer: Biography of a Rebel Quaker (Boston: Branden Books, 1994), 11-13.