Arabella Hunt: Lesbian Soprano and Lutist for the Court of Five Royal Monarchs

Arabella Hunt (1662-1705) was celebrated for her beauty and her musical talents during her lifetime. Her contemporaries remarked that her soprano voice had the “reed of a bullfinch” and inspired various composers, including Henry Purcell (1659-1695) and Dr. John Blow (1649-1708). 

She spent most of her life at St. James’s Palace as a singer and lutist, entertaining five monarchs. She debuted her singing at court at age thirteen when she performed in the court masque, “Calisto, or the Chaste Nymph.” She was employed at St. James’s Palace as a singing tutor to Princesses Mary (1662-1694) and Anne (1665-1714). When Mary became Queen, she provided Arabella with a yearly pension of £100. 

Portrait of Arabella Hunt by Godfrey Kneller, c. 1692. Credit: Public Domain, Government Art Collection

Sometime around 1678 and 1679, Arabella’s father passed away. As an only child, she inherited from him a house in Upton, Buckinghamshire. This inheritance bolstered her financial stability, lending her quite a bit of independence. 

Arabella Hunt took on many female lovers, including famous courtiers like Aphra Behn (1640-1689) and Nell Gwyn (1650-1687). She was also briefly married to a woman named Amy Poulter who styled herself as James Howard, dressing and living as a man. 

James had courted Arabella for half a year before marrying. They lived together in Haymarket for six months before Arabella moved to get the marriage annulled on the grounds that James was a hermaphrodite already married to an Arthur Poulter, who had recently passed away. 

Queen Mary II of England by Peter Lely, c. 1677-1680. Mary gave Arabella Hunt a yearly pension of £100 when she became Queen. Credit: Public Domain, Wikimedia Commons.

James claimed to have married Arabella as part of an elaborate prank, but sources show that he courted her, seriously, months before their marriage dressed as both a man and a woman. By all indications, Arabella wasn’t so naïve, and James wasn’t a mischievous trickster. Still, five midwives examined James and declared that he was “a perfect woman in all parts.” 

Their marriage was annulled on December 15, 1682 on the legal basis that a marriage between two women was not valid. Arabella returned to St. James’s Palace and resumed tutoring the Princesses Mary and Anne in singing. Amy Poulter, or the self-stylized James Howard, died shortly after the scandal, possibly by suicide

Anne, Queen of Great Britain by Michael Dahl, c. 1705. Arabella tutored Anne as well as Mary. Credit: Public Doman, National Portrait Gallery, London

Arabella never married again, much preferring to have sexual and romantic love affairs with other women. She remained a celebrated figure throughout her life until she died in 1705 with Anne as Queen. She was forty-three. She inspired composers, playwrights, and musicians. She had sonnets, odes, and songs written to her beauty and talents, including the poem “On Mrs. Arabella Hunt Singing” by William Congreve (1670-1729) and the song “Ode on the Death of Arabella Hunt” by Johann Sigismund Kusser (1660-1727). Her life was also used as an example for those creating political conversation around marriage between the same gender. 


Arabella Hunt – Lesbian Icon by Tyne O’Connell, on the historian’s personal website

Arabella Hunt / St Marylebone Parish Church on History Pin

LGBT+ ROYAL HISTORIES on Historic Royal Palaces


Ode on the Death of Arabella Hunt J Kusser, YouTube Video of Kusser’s song, performed by Hanna Marti and Lukas Henning

On Mrs. Arabella Hunt Singing / William Congreve, Poem by William Congreve

The Wild and Wacky Queer Women of 17th Century Europe by Heather Rose Jones, The Lesbian Review

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