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Amy Robsart and the Shadow of Suspicion Over Queen Elizabeth I

Was the queen somehow involved in her death?

1550 portrait miniature of Amy Robsart
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  • 1550 portrait miniature of Amy Robsart.Photo Credit: Wikipedia

Debate has raged for centuries regarding the precise nature of the relationship between Elizabeth I and her favorite courtier, Robert Dudley, Earl of Leicester. Such was the ambitious nobleman’s popularity with the Queen that it was even rumored early in her reign that Dudley had designs on marrying her. Before any such marriage could take place, though, Dudley faced one major stumbling block: he was already married to Norfolk heiress, Amy Robsart. 

It is little wonder, then, that when Amy died in mysterious circumstances less than two years after Elizabeth became queen, suspicions were raised regarding the nature of his wife’s death. 

Amy Robsart and Robert Dudley are generally believed to have met for the first time in August 1549, at her family home of Stanfield Hall in Norfolk. Both were just 17 years of age, having been born within weeks of each other in June 1532. Dudley’s father, John, had risen through the ranks to become a hugely influential figure at the court of the Boy King, Edward VI, and arrived in Norfolk that summer to quell a rebellion. When the party broke their journey overnight at Stanfield Hall, Dudley’s entourage included his fifth son, Robert, who was seeing his first military action. 

Less than a year later, Amy and Robert were married in a lavish ceremony at Richmond Palace, with Edward VI amongst the invited guests. In an era of strategic marriage alliances, the ambitious John Dudley may well have hoped for a more advantageous match for his fifth son than the daughter of a Norfolk landowner. This suggests, then, that the marriage may have arisen as a result of a genuine love match between the two teenagers. In his book on the Amy Robsart scandal, Death and the Virgin, Chris Skidmore recalls how one of the wedding guests, William Cecil, infamously dismissed it as “a carnal marriage, begun for pleasure”.

If the marriage did, indeed, start out happily, it didn’t take long before the young couple became entangled in the political machinations of the Tudor court. In 1553, another of the Dudley brothers, Guildford, married the young English noblewoman, Lady Jane Grey. When Edward VI died soon afterwards, the Dudleys were heavily implicated in an unsuccessful plot to have her crowned as Queen rather than Edward’s natural successor, his sister Mary. 

Robert was imprisoned in the Tower of London, along with his father and four brothers, and was only eventually released over a year later. His father and brother Guildford proved less fortunate; both were executed for treason. 

Through a strategic alliance with Queen Mary’s husband, King Philip II of Spain, Robert Dudley did successfully repair some of the damage caused to his reputation by his involvement with the plot. He was doubtlessly aware, though, that his best opportunity of exerting any real influence at court lay with the eventual accession of Mary’s sister, Elizabeth, to the throne. He and Elizabeth had been acquainted since childhood and were known to enjoy a close relationship. 

In 1558, Philip II’s envoy at court named Dudley as one of the men most likely to benefit, should Elizabeth accede to the throne, and it didn’t take long for that prediction to become a reality. In November of the same year, Elizabeth became queen following the death of her sister and immediately appointed Dudley to the prestigious position of Master of the Horse. This brought him into close daily contact with her and speculation soon began to grow regarding the blossoming relationship between the pair, not least because the Queen seemed in little hurry to enter into a strategic marriage, even though several eligible European princes were rumored to be interested in an alliance. 

In contrast, Amy was rarely, if ever, seen at the royal court. By 1558, she and her husband were ostensibly making their home together in Hertfordshire at the house of one of Dudley’s close associates, William Hyde. In reality, Dudley paid only the occasional fleeting visit. Despite the early promise of their marriage, the couple had remained childless and, in an era when an aristocratic wife’s success was viewed in terms of the number of heirs she produced, this can only have placed additional pressure on an already strained relationship.

In April 1559, Dudley was appointed as a Knight of the Garter, a rare honor which, according to his growing number of enemies, his achievements did not merit. Elizabeth’s increasing dependence on Dudley was also not well received by the foreign diplomats at court who were trying to broker a marriage alliance with the English Queen. 

The Spanish ambassador, the Count of Feria, wrote to King Philip II of Dudley’s growing intimacy with the Queen, adding that Amy was very ill and suffering from “a malady in her breast”.  By the time that his successor, Alvara de la Quadra, took on the role in late 1559, the gossip was becoming ever more scurrilous. “I have heard from a person who is in the habit of giving me veracious news that Lord Robert had sent to poison his wife”, de la Quadra reported to the Spanish King. “Certainly all the Queen has done with us, and will do with all the rest in the matter of her marriage, is only to keep Lord Robert’s enemies and the country engaged with words until this wicked deed of killing his wife is consummated”.

In late 1559, Amy moved, with her household, to Cumnor Place in Oxfordshire, the family home of Sir Anthony Forster, who was another of her husband’s close associates. Just nine months later, on 8th September 1560, 28-year-old Amy was found dead at Cumnor Place in mysterious circumstances, having apparently suffered a broken neck after falling down a small flight of stairs. On hearing the news, Dudley immediately sent his steward, Thomas Blount, there to arrange an inquest. This may have been done out of genuine regret at his wife’s passing, or, more likely, as an attempt to prevent the inevitable rumors of foul play that followed the news of her death. 

At the subsequent inquest, the all-male jury of 16 prominent local landowners recorded a verdict of accidental death. Undeterred, Dudley’s many enemies continued to look for incriminating evidence that would prove he was responsible for his wife’s demise, with some even privately daring to suggest that the Queen herself may have played a part in the proceedings.

The findings that came to light during the inquest did establish several key facts about the circumstances surrounding Amy’s death, but also left plenty of unanswered questions. As well as a broken neck, Amy is reported in the coroner’s report to have suffered two head wounds, “one of which was a quarter of an inch deep and the other two inches deep”, but she was found “without any other mark or wound on her body”.  If Amy had taken such a violent fall down the stairs that it resulted in her death, she would surely have suffered bruising to other parts of her body, in addition to which the two head wounds were not necessarily compatible with such a fall. These reported injuries led some to suggest that Amy was killed and her body then moved to the bottom of the stairs to allay suspicion.

Several witnesses also attested to the fact that, on the morning in question, Amy had instructed all of her servants to take a day’s holiday so that they could attend a fair in nearby Abingdon, even sending away one of her most loyal attendants who offered to stay with her. Had she been told to expect a secret visit from someone that day, who turned out to be her killer, or, as has also been suggested, was she in such fragile mental health that she was contemplating suicide?

Either way, Dudley’s reputation was irrevocably tainted by the scandal surrounding his wife’s death and any prospect of a marriage to the Queen disappeared. If Amy’s death was arranged by someone opposed to such a prospect, it certainly proved to be a successful strategy.

The scandal continued to haunt Dudley right up to his own death in September 1588. Several highly speculative versions of events appeared in print even during his own lifetime. One particularly critical biography, Leicester’s Commonwealth (published in 1584), alleged that Dudley sent his trusted advisor, Richard Verney, to Cumnor Place on that fateful day in 1560 with instructions to kill his wife. Amy knew the Verney family well, having stayed for a short while at their Warwickshire home in 1559, so, allegedly, would have not suspected that her life was in danger. 

Leicester’s Commonwealth influenced the way in which Dudley was viewed for many decades to come. The celebrated 19th-century novelist Sir Walter Scott appears to have been still using it as inspiration for his fictionalized account of events in Kenilworth over two centuries later. Yet it can hardly be regarded as an impartial source, as, at its heart, it was an attempt to criticize Elizabeth I’s rule through a personal attack on her most trusted advisor.

The mysterious circumstances of Amy Robsart’s death continue to intrigue historians today. Was she being slowly poisoned in the months leading up to her death, as suggested by the Spanish ambassador, or was she pushed to the bottom of the stairs where her body was found? This intriguing cold case from history may never be solved. What we do know for certain is that regardless of whether Amy was murdered, committed suicide, or died as a result of tragic accident, she was just one of sadly too many young women whose lives were irrevocably harmed by their association with the Tudor court.