Edmund was executed for corruption on the orders of Henry VIII and it was carried out on 17th August 1510. It has been claimed that the new king had made this decision as a "gesture that would win him easy popularity and signal the advent of a new and more relaxed reign." (2)
John Dudley was a loyal supporter of Henry VIII. "By 1530 Dudley was an active and successful courtier, but he always seems to have been guided by his own reading of Henry's mind rather than by allegiance to any particular court party. This had its risks, but avoided dependence upon intermediaries for favour." (3)
After the death of his patron, Edward Guildford on 4th June 1534, John Dudley took over his father-in-law's parliamentary seat as knight of the shire for Kent and his mastership of the Tower of London Armoury. In 1536 he supported Thomas Cromwell in his struggle with the Boyleyn family. The following year he was appointed a vice-admiral and given the task of protecting the country from foreign invasion.
Little is known of Robert Dudley's education but documents suggest he both spoke and wrote Italian fluently, could read Latin and French and had an interest in mathematics, engineering, and navigation. As a child he associated with the king's children, Elizabeth and Edward. They were all pupils of Roger Ascham and he reported that whereas Elizabeth preferred history and languages, Robert was more interested in mathematics. (4)
By the time that Henry VIII died in January 1547, John Dudley was a senior figure in the government. In August 1549 Edward Seymour, the Duke of Somerset, sent Dudley and a large army to deal with the Kett Rebellion. Robert Dudley, aged seventeen, served under his father. Dudley's army attacked Kett's camp at Mousehold Heath and several hundred of the rebels were killed. Seymour wrote to a friend in Italy: "Kett fled, and the rest of the rebels, casting away their weapons and armour and asking pardon on their knees... were sent home without injury and pardoned... Kett, with three other chief captains, all vile persons... are still held to receive that which they have deserved... We trust, truly, that these rebellions are now at an end." (5)
Robert Dudley married Amy Robsart on 4th June, 1550. It was suggested at the time that it was a marriage of love. William Cecil, believed marriages should be based on political and economic issues: "marriages of physical desire begin with happiness and end in grief". (6) As a wedding present his father provided the couple with the lands of the nearby priory of Coxford. In 1550 he was knighted and the following year Dudley became a Member of Parliament for Norfolk. In February 1553 his father gave him the manor of Hemsby "so his son might be able to keep a good house in Norfolk." (7)
After the execution of Edward Seymour, the Duke of Somerset for treason, John Dudley, the Duke of Northumberland, was the main advisor to Edward VI. It has been claimed that the secret of his power was that he took the young king seriously. To be successful he "knew that he must accommodate the boy's keen intelligence and also his sovereign will". By this time the king clearly "possessed a powerful sense that he and not his council embodied royal authority". However, foreign observers did not believe that Edward was making his own decisions. The French ambassador reported that "Northumberland visited the King secretly at night in the King's Chamber, unseen by anyone, after all were asleep. The next day the young Prince came to his council and proposed matters as if they were his own; consequently, everyone was amazed, thinking that they proceeded from his mind and by his invention." (8) Dale Hoak agrees and suggests that "Northumberland was skillfully guiding the king for his own purposes by exploiting the boy's precocious capacity for understanding the business of government." (9)
In April 1552 Edward fell ill with a disease that was diagnosed first as smallpox and later as measles. He made a surprising recovery and wrote to his sister, Elizabeth, that he had never felt better. However, in December he developed a cough. Elizabeth asked to see her brother but John Dudley, the lord protector, said it was too dangerous. In February 1553, his doctors believed he was suffering from tuberculosis. In March the Venetian envoy saw him and said that although still quite handsome, Edward was clearly dying.
According to Philippa Jones, the author Elizabeth: Virgin Queen (2010): "Early in 1553, Dudley... began working to persuade the King to change the succession. Edward VI was reminded that Mary and Elizabeth were both illegitimate, and more importantly, that Mary would bring Catholicism back to England. Dudley reasoned that if Mary were to be struck out of the succession, how could Elizabeth, her equal, be left in? Furthermore, he argued that both the princesses would seek foreign husbands, jeopardizing English sovereignty." (10)
Under the influence of the Lord Protector, Edward made plans for the succession. Sir Edward Montague, chief justice of the common pleas, testified that "the king by his own mouth said" that he was prepared to alter the succession because the marriage of either Princess Mary or Princess Elizabeth to a foreigner might undermine both "the laws of this realm" and "his proceedings in religion". According to Montague, Edward also thought his sisters bore the "shame" of illegitimacy. (11) Coming under the influence of the Lord Protector, Edward selected Lady Jane Grey to succeed him. A few days later she married his fourth son, Guildford Dudley.
King Edward VI died on 6th July, 1553. Robert Dudley was ordered by his father to Hunsdon, Hertfordshire, to bring Princess Mary to court. (12) Mary, who had been warned of what was going on fled to Kenninghall in Norfolk. As Ann Weikel has pointed out: "Both the earl of Bath and Huddleston joined Mary while others rallied the conservative gentry of Norfolk and Suffolk. Men like Sir Henry Bedingfield arrived with troops or money as soon as they heard the news, and as she moved to the more secure fortress at Framlingham, Suffolk, local magnates like Sir Thomas Cornwallis, who had hesitated at first, also joined her forces." (13)
Mary summoned the nobility and gentry to support her claim to the throne. Richard Rex argues that this development had consequences for her sister, Elizabeth: "Once it was clear which way the wind was blowing, she (Elizabeth) gave every indication of endorsing her sister's claim to the throne. Self-interest dictated her policy, for Mary's claim rested on the same basis as her own, the Act of Succession of 1544. It is unlikely that Elizabeth could have outmanoeuvred Northumberland if Mary had failed to overcome him. It was her good fortune that Mary, in vindicating her own claim to the throne, also safeguarded Elizabeth's." (14)
The problem for John Dudley was that the vast majority of the English people still saw themselves as "Catholic in religious feeling; and a very great majority were certainly unwilling to see - King Henry's eldest daughter lose her birthright." (15) When most of Dudley's troops deserted he surrendered at Cambridge on 23rd July, along with his sons and a few friends, and was imprisoned in the Tower of London two days later. Tried for high treason on 18th August he claimed to have done nothing save by the king's command and the privy council's consent. Mary had him executed at Tower Hill on 22nd August, 1553. In his final speech he warned the crowd to remain loyal to the Catholic Church. (16)
Robert Dudley had been arrested with his father but was released in November 1554 and was pardoned on 22nd January 1555. He was deprived of most of his lands and was reduced to surviving on the revenue from the estates given to him as part of Amy's dowry. (17) It is believed that he owed his liberty to Philip of Spain. It was hoped this act of generosity would persuade Dudley to support the rule of Queen Mary. "Nevertheless, suspicion remained. In the summer 1555 the Dudleys were among the gentlemen ordered to leave London during Mary's confinement." (18)
In 1558 Mary began to get pains in her stomach and thought she was pregnant. This was important to Mary as she wanted to ensure that a Catholic monarchy would continue after her death. It was not to be. Mary had stomach cancer. Mary now had to consider the possibility of naming Elizabeth as her successor. "Mary postponed the inevitable naming of her half-sister until the last minute. Although their relations were not always overtly hostile, Mary had long disliked and distrusted Elizabeth. She had resented her at first as the child of her own mother's supplanter, more recently as her increasingly likely successor. She took exception both to Elizabeth's religion and to her personal popularity, and the fact that first Wyatt's and then Dudley's risings aimed to install the princess in her place did not make Mary love her any more. But although she was several times pressed to send Elizabeth to the block, Mary held back, perhaps dissuaded by considerations of her half-sister's popularity, compounded by her own childlessness, perhaps by instincts of mercy."
On 6th November Queen Mary acknowledged Elizabeth as her heir. Mary died, aged forty-two, on 17th November 1558. Pope Paul IV was unhappy that a Protestant monarch was once again in power. However, he suggested that if Elizabeth begged for his permission to be queen he would consider the matter. When she refused, the Pope excommunicated Elizabeth and ordered her subjects not to obey her. (19)
Robert Dudley soon emerged as one of Elizabeth's leading advisers and was given the post of Master of the Horse. He was described as "splendid in appearance and a promptness and energy of devotion". (20) He was allotted official quarters in the palace. He encouraged her to go riding every day. Unlike most of her officials, Dudley was of her own age. "Although Elizabeth did have some women friends, she much preferred the company of men, and it soon became apparent that she preferred Robert Dudley's company to any other." (21)
According to Dudley's biographer, Simon Adams: "It was only in April 1559 that Robert Dudley's peculiar relationship to Elizabeth began to attract comment. This relationship - which defined the rest of his life - was characterized by her almost total emotional dependence on him and her insistence on his constant presence at court.... It also helps to explain his separation from his wife, who came to London from Throcking in May 1559, but spent only a month or so there." (22) In 1559 Elizabeth gave Dudley land in Yorkshire, as well as the manor of Kew. She also gave him a licence to export woolen cloth free of charge. (23) It is estimated that this was worth £6,000 in 1560.
David Starkey has pointed out that in many ways Dudley was similar to Thomas Seymour. "Dudley was strikingly similar to Seymour - in looks, physique and temperament. But whereas Seymour's seduction had involved the threat and perhaps the reality of force, Dudley was all soft words and whirlwind charm. It was the more attractive for that. Did Elizabeth surrender and have sexual relations? She denied it absolutely - just as she had denied it with Seymour. On the other hand, powerful rumour accused her." (24)
In April 1559, Spanish Ambassador Gómez Suárez de Figueroa y Córdoba reported to King Philip II that Amy Dudley had "a malady in one of her breasts". (25) Another letter at the time from Paolo Tiepolo, the Venetian Ambassador, suggested that she had "been ailing for some time". It has been suggested that Amy was suffering from cancer and according to her maid, Mrs Pirto, her illness resulted in severe depression. However, on 24th August, 1560, she sent a letter to her tailor in a tone that was considered to be "cheerful" and shows her "looking forward to the pleasure of a new gown". (26)
On Sunday 8th September, 1560, Amy Dudley insisted that everyone in the house attend a local fair in Abingdon. (27) When her servants returned that evening, they found her lying dead at the foot of the staircase, her neck broken. According to several sources, as soon as he heard the news, Robert sent his household officer, Thomas Blount, to investigate. (28)
Philippa Jones has argued: "Robert acted quickly, with an eye to his own interests. His feelings for Amy were now largely irrelevant: he needed to minimize the damage that his wife's unnatural death might have on his chances of marrying Elizabeth. It was important that he remain in London, partly to be near the Court and partly to stem any accusations that he had rushed to Cumnor to orchestrate a cover-up or to intimidate the jury at the inquest. He counted on Blount to handle things at Cumnor without interfering personally. He was insistent that the jury should be composed of local men of good standing, even if they were hostile towards Forster or himself, as this would count for their impartiality. He knew that there had to be a full and honest appraisal of events, resulting in a finding that Amy's death had been an accident, in order for him to be free to marry Elizabeth after a suitable period of mourning." (29)
Thomas Blount reported that he spoke to several people in Abington and the general feeling seemed to be that Amy's death had been accidental. Others suspected that she had committed in suicide but there was a minority who thought it was possible that she had been murdered. Blount told Dudley he hoped it was an accident, but feared it was suicide, "My Lord... The tales I do hear of her make me think she had a strange mind as I will tell you at my coming." Robert replied, "If it fall out a chance or misfortune, then so to say; and, if it appear a villainy as God forbid so mischievous or wicked a body should live, then to find it so." (30)
Robert Dudley did not want a verdict of suicide as people would have claimed that his relationship with Queen Elizabeth had driven her to take her own life. Dudley was also concerned about the impact of this verdict would have had on her reputation. During the Tudor period suicide was considered a grave sin. "If she had taken her own life, she would have been denied a Christian burial and would have been laid to rest in unhallowed ground, although her rank would have saved her from the fate of being buried at a crossroads with a stake through her heart. In any case, her soul would still be damned for eternity." (31)
Dudley wanted a verdict of accidental death. However, there were problems with this theory. The records show that there were only 8 steps on the part of the staircase where she fell. Some experts have said such a small fall was unlikely to have caused a broken neck. Others have suggested that this also rules out suicide as such a fall would have resulted in injury rather than death. Professor Ian Aird believes the broken neck might be related to her illness. He has pointed out that breast cancer can cause secondary deposits in the bones, making them brittle (the deposits occurred in 50 percent of fatal cases studied; 6 percent of these showed deposits in the spine). If in a fall down a flight of stairs, as Aird explains, that part of the spine which lies in the neck suffers ... the affected person gets spontaneously a broken neck. Such a fracture is more likely to occur in stepping downstairs than in walking on the level." (32)
Rumours began to circulate that Dudley had murdered his wife so that he could marry Elizabeth. It was suspected that these were being promoted by the enemies of Elizabeth. Mary Stuart, who believed she should be queen of England, was quoted as saying: "The Queen of England is going to marry her horsekeeper, who has killed his wife to make room for her." (33) It was now politically impossible for Elizabeth to marry Dudley. It has even been suggested that Dudley's main rival, William Cecil, might have arranged Amy's death and "thus wrecking any chance of marriage and damaging the reputation of Dudley himself." (34)
At the inquest Amy's servant, Mrs Pirto, testified that her mistress suffered from severe depression and admitted the possibility that she had committed suicide. Anka Muhlstein is someone who supports this view. (35) However, the jury found it difficult to believe that Amy would have chosen such a method to kill herself. After weighing up all the testimony and evidence, the jury formally determined a verdict of accidental death. The foreman wrote to Robert to let him know, who in turn wrote to Blount, stating that the verdict "doth very much satisfy and quiet me." (36) Elizabeth Jenkins, the author of Elizabeth the Great (1958) has pointed out: "The verdict at the inquest was accidental death, but in the general opinion it should have been murder, either at Dudley's instigation, or without his connivance but in his interest. The question, all-important though hardly to be framed, was whether the Queen had been accessory before the fact." (37)
The most convincing evidence against Elizabeth and Dudley appeared in a letter sent by Alvaro de la Quadra, the Spanish Ambassador, to King Philip II, that recorded conversations with Elizabeth and her leading government officer, William Cecil: "He (William Cecil) told me the Queen cared nothing for foreign princes. She did not believe she stood in any need of their support. She was deeply in debt, taking no thought how to clear herself, and she had ruined her credit in the city. Last of all he said that they were thinking of destroying Lord Robert's wife. They had given out that she was ill, but she was not ill at all; she was very well and taking care not to be poisoned. God, he trusted, would never permit such a crime to be accomplished or so wretched a conspiracy to prosper.... Certainly this business is most shameful and scandalous, and withal I am not sure whether she will marry the man at once, or even if she will marry at all, as I do not think she has her mind sufficiently fixed. Since writing the above, I hear the Queen has published the death of Robert's wife." (38)
It seems the Spanish government definitely believed that Elizabeth and Dudley were involved in Amy's death. Philippa Jones, the author of Elizabeth: Virgin Queen (2010), clearly disagrees with this judgement: "If Amy was murdered, the most logical question to ask would be who would have benefited from the timing and manner of her death? It is hard to argue that Robert and Elizabeth did. Had Amy lived a few weeks or months longer and died of natural causes, Robert would have had a real chance of becoming King of England. They had no reason to rush; Elizabeth had successfully held off her various suitors for two years and showed few signs of giving in to any one of them. She and Robert had waited so long; a little longer would not have mattered. Furthermore, if Robert had genuinely wanted his wife out of the way, he had another option. He and Amy had no children and, with her ill health, were not likely to. A lack of children was a lawful reason for divorce at that time, and it was held to be the wife's fault unless she could prove otherwise. If Robert had wanted his freedom at any cost, he could have divorced Amy at any time." (39)
Robert Dudley soon returned to the Royal Court. He was a hated figure in Rome who saw him as one of England's leading Protestants. Pope Pius IV commented that Catholics feared that if he "becomes king, he will want to avenge the death of his father, and extirpate the nobility of that kingdom." This idea was rejected by Elizabeth who argued that Dudley "was of a very good disposition and nature, not given by any means to seek revenge of former matters past". (40)
In October 1562 the Queen Elizabeth fell ill with smallpox and selected Robert Dudley to become Protector of the Realm and to give him a title together with £20,000 a year. Elizabeth made a quick recovery and the plan was not enacted. (41) Dudley became known as "the favourite", a male favourite to a virgin queen was without precedent. "Elizabeth repeatedly described their relationship as that between sister and brother, but he was more than that: he was practically a surrogate husband. His widower status meant that there was now no other woman competing for his attention, and she could be assured of what she really wanted - his constant companionship." (42)
In March, 1563, William Maitland met with Queen Elizabeth to discuss the situation in Scotland. Elizabeth believed that Mary, Queen of Scots, posed a threat to her throne. She argued that it would be a good idea if Mary could be persuaded to marry Robert Dudley. He was, she said, a model of everything that was manly, noble and fine. "Maitland, presumably not sure if Elizabeth was joking or not, responded that, as Robert was so much to her taste, the Scottish Queen could not deprive Elizabeth of such a jewel; she should marry Robert herself." Elizabeth was indeed serious and sent Thomas Randolph, the English Ambassador to Scotland, to discuss the matter with Mary. He passed on Elizabeth's own thoughts that "being determined to end her life in virginity, she wished that the queen her sister should marry him." (43)
Queen Elizabeth wanted Dudley to marry Mary because she thought she could control him. (44) Mary agreed to the idea but Randolph had more difficulty persuading Dudley. He still had hopes of marrying Elizabeth, and feared that if he agreed to accept Randolph's suggestion, she would turn on him for betraying her. Randolph reported back to Elizabeth, "Now that I have got this Queen's goodwill to marry where I would have her, I cannot get the man to take her for whom I was a suitor." (45) To encourage him to take up the offer she gave him Kenilworth Castle in 1563 and the following year he was granted the title, Earl of Leicester.
Mary met Henry Stuart, Lord Darnley, on Saturday 17th February 1565, at Wemyss Castle in Scotland. Both Mary and Henry were grandchildren of Margaret Tudor, sister of Henry VIII of England, and the widow of James IV, king of Scots. Soon afterwards, arrangements were made for the two to marry. Queen Elizabeth was totally against the match because it would unite two claims on the throne. Any children of the marriage would inherit an even stronger, combined claim. At first Elizabeth was confident that she would block it because Darnley was an English subject, and his parents were her dependants with lands in England. (46) However, they married at Holyrood Palace on 29th July 1565, even though both were Catholic and a papal dispensation for the marriage of first cousins had not been obtained. (47)
In 1565 Elizabeth gave Dudley further large grants of estates, most of which he later sold. He became the leading figure in the Privy Council. The Spanish ambassador, Diego Guzmán de Silva, described Dudley on 16th August 1566 as the person who had most influence over the queen. This brought him into conflict with William Cecil. They especially disagreed over the issue of Mary, Queen of Scots. Dudley thought that she should become the next queen on the death of Elizabeth and therefore unite the two kingdoms. Cecil was totally opposed to the idea.
Following the sale of Kew he moved initially to Durham House. He purchased Paget Place near Temple Bar, in January 1570, and immediately renamed it Leicester House. Elizabeth was now approaching middle-age and Dudley had given up trying to persuade her to marry him. Dudley now began a relationship with Baroness Sheffield who gave birth to a son, Robert Dudley, in 1574. Elizabeth Jenkins believes the couple were secretly married. (48) Simon Adams disagrees: "From this affair there survives perhaps the most personal item of all Leicester's correspondence, a long undated letter that he wrote to Sheffield before 1574 in the course of a series of rows between them over his refusal to marry. He advised her to break off the affair and marry someone else, for he could offer her nothing more than what they had." (49)
It is not known if Queen Elizabeth was aware of this relationship. But it has been argued that during this period Elizabeth became close to Charles Hatton, Leicester's first real rival as a favourite. Hatton was captain of Elizabeth's bodyguard. Described as "well-educated, handsome and accomplished" he spent more time "in her Privy Chamber than reason could suffice, if she was virtuous". Hatton sent love notes and poems to Elizabeth. In one letter he wrote, "Your heart is full of rare and royal faith, the writings of your hand do raise me to a joy unspeakable." The two men spent a lot of time with her. She nicknamed Dudley her "eyes" and Hatton her "lids". (50)
On 21st September 1578, the Duke of Leicester secretly married the widow, Lettice Devereux, the former wife of Walter Devereux, first earl of Essex, who had died on 22nd September, 1576. Rumours began to circulate that the relationship had started in 1575 and that Dudley had poisoned Lettice's husband. Dudley offered Baroness Sheffield "£700 a year to let him no more of her, and when she refused the suggestion with angry dismay, Leicester attained his object and saved his money by explaining to her that their marriage had been invalid and she was not his wife." (51)
The Duke of Leicester was heavily involved in artistic patronage. At least ninety-eight books were dedicated to him, making him one of the greatest literary patrons of the reign. As chancellor of Oxford University he sponsored the revival of the Oxford University Press in 1584–5. His own library contained several hundred volumes. He also owned a large collection of paintings and it seems to be one of the largest of the reign. The paintings are almost entirely portraits. He was himself the subject of some twelve separate portraits. (52)
In September 1584 the first copies of the tract Leicester's Commonwealth were discovered in London. It had been printed in Paris the previous year. It has been argued that it was produced in response to the arrest and execution of Francis Throckmorton, one of England's most prominent Catholics. (53) The anonymous author is clearly an opponent of Leicester's religious views. "It has been described as a deliberate exercise in character assassination, relating a number of incidents in Leicester's life beginning with the death of Amy Dudley in a way that revealed him as a lecher, a murderer, and a tyrant.... The leading candidate was Arundel, who had gone into exile in Paris in December 1583 after the exposure of the Throckmorton plot. The tract also made public Leicester's affair with Sheffield, and since she was then residing in Paris with Stafford, who was ambassador at the French court, a question mark hangs over her role as well." (54)
Dudley was a strong supporter of Protestantism. In 1585 he was appointed commander of the expeditionary force to help the Dutch against Spain. Dudley was seen as a "new messiah" and a leader of the international Protestant cause. He was offered the post of Governor General of the Netherlands. He accepted the title, much to the "queen's fury and consternation". When at the beginning of 1586, he was confirmed as absolute governor, "she became incandescent with rage". (55)
Robert Dudley, Earl of Leicester, died from a malarial infection on 4th September, 1588.
Protective and adoring, the Master of the Horse fulfilled his office thoroughly to the Queen's satisfaction. He wrote to the Earl of Sussex in Ireland that the Queen would like some Irish horses sent over, thinking that they might go faster than hers, "which," he said, "she spareth not to try as fast as they can go. And I fear them much, yet she will prove them." But to the anxious councillors the satisfaction he gave to the Queen was far too great. In their view it accounted for her disinclination to marry, and her marriage was an object they desired with increasing fervour. During the negotiations in Scotland Cecil had written to her, praying that "God would direct your Highness to procure a father for your children ... neither peace nor war without this will profit us long", and all the answer the Queen had made was to reject the Scots' offer of the hand of the Earl of Arran. The Queen's youth and her glamorous appearance, and the fact that Dudley's young wife was living apart from her husband, gave their intimacy a scandalous air. Amy Dudley had no children and no proper establishment of her own ; she and her servants occupied part of a house at Cumnor, near Oxford, belonging to a man called Forster, who had been Lord Robert's steward. The house, isolated among fields and orchards, had originally been part of a monastery. Horse-transport and bad roads made every rural district secluded and remote, but a surprising number of people knew about Lady Dudley in her lonely situation. Then they heard that on September 8, a Sunday, she had been found at the bottom of a staircase with her neck broken.
The scandal was appalling. In France, Mary Stuart said with a ringing laugh: "The Queen of England is going to marry her horsekeeper, who has killed his wife to make room for her." Throckmorton, the Ambassador at Paris, wrote to Cecil: "I know not where to turn me, or what countenance to make."
Elizabeth sent Lord Robert away from Windsor at once, and he himself wrote begging his cousin Blount to go to Cumnor to take charge of everything: "The greatness, and suddenness of this misfortune doth so perplex me, until I do hear from you how the matter stands or how this evil doth light upon me, considering what the malicious world will bruit, as I can take no rest." He urged Blount to make sure that the coroner's jury were "discreet and substantial persons", who would sift the matter to the bottom.
The verdict at the inquest was accidental death, but in the general opinion it should have been murder, either at Dudley's instigation, or without his connivance but in his interest. The question, all-important though hardly to be framed, was whether the Queen had been accessory before the fact.
De Quadra told Philip that the Queen had said to him as she came in from hunting that Lady Dudley had fallen down a staircase and broken her neck, and asked him to say nothing about it. He made out that the Queen had said this before the news of the death was brought to Windsor on the 9th. Had Elizabeth connived at the murder, it may be safely asserted that she would not have been so grossly stupid as to tell de Quadra the death had occurred, before she was supposed to know that it had. The explanation, suggested by Maitland and also by Pollard, is that de Quadra here employed "a deft economy of dates". Nor can it be taken for granted that Elizabeth wanted Amy Dudley out of the way. She wanted an engrossing romantic relationship with Robert Dudley; there is no proof that she wanted a marriage with him, only that other people supposed she wanted it. If she did not want the marriage, the death was for her an untoward event; now that it could be expected to end in a marriage, her delicious amusement was brought into the realm of state affairs.
Dudley was strikingly similar to Seymour - in looks, physique and temperament. But whereas Seymour's seduction had involved the threat and perhaps the reality of force, Dudley was all soft words and whirlwind charm. It was the more attractive for that. Did Elizabeth surrender and have sexual relations? She denied it absolutely - just as she had denied it with Seymour. On the other hand, powerful rumour accused her.
The sudden death of his wife at Cumnor on 8 September 1560 was almost as important as Elizabeth's favour in shaping Dudley's future. The court was then at Windsor Castle, Berkshire, on its return from the progress in Hampshire, and ironically he was closer to his wife geographically than he had been for over a year. A near hysterical servant of theirs brought the news to Windsor on the 9th. On the road from Abingdon he had encountered Dudley's chief household officer, Thomas Blount of Kidderminster, who coincidentally was making his way home from Windsor. Blount decided on his own initiative to investigate, and the subsequent correspondence between him and Dudley is the only reliable source for the circumstances of Amy Dudley's death. No obvious explanation as to how she came to break her neck could be found, and while Blount worried about suicide, the verdict of the coroner's jury was death by misadventure.
Dudley retired to Kew in a state of shock, provided his wife with a full funeral, and went into mourning for six months. His letters to Blount reveal his concern to have her death fully investigated, but possibly more with an eye to the damage it might do to him than from grief at her loss. In 1584 Leicester's Commonwealth made notorious the story of a murder plot involving Sir Richard Verney.... has revealed that it was already in circulation by 1563. However, this is no more than public gossip and speculation. The more serious evidence against Dudley is provided by the single surviving report of the Spanish ambassador, Alvaro de la Quadra, bishop of Aquila, written from Windsor on 11 September 1560. In it Quadra records Cecil's complaints to him about Dudley's influence over the queen: that he was encouraging her to spend all her time hunting, that he (Cecil) wished to retire, and that Elizabeth and Dudley intended to do away with Dudley's wife. The day after this conversation Elizabeth told him in confidence that Amy Dudley was dead or almost so, and in a postscript he added that the queen had just made public her death from a broken neck. The internal chronology of this letter is not entirely clear, but it would appear that Elizabeth made her confidential admission on the 10th, and that the conversation with Cecil occurred on the 9th, just after the first news reached Windsor.
He (Robert Dudley) asked Blount to conduct an open inquiry to learn the truth, composed of a jury of "discreet and substantial men" who would be seen as honest. Robert also requested that Blount send him his "true conceit and opinion of the matter, whether it happened by evil chance or villainy... ", adding a postscript that he had also requested that his wife's half-brother, John, as well as others close to Amy be present so that they could keep an eye on matters." Amy's other half-brother, Arthur, was also sent for to ensure that Robert could not be later accused of a cover-up.
Robert acted quickly, with an eye to his own interests. His feelings for Amy were now largely irrelevant: he needed to minimize the damage that his wife's unnatural death might have on his chances of marrying Elizabeth. It was important that he remain in London, partly to be near the Court and partly to stem any accusations that he had rushed to Cumnor to orchestrate a cover-up or to intimidate the jury at the inquest. He counted on Blount to handle things at Cumnor without interfering personally. He was insistent that the jury should be composed of local men of good standing, even if they were hostile towards Forster or himself, as this would count for their impartiality. He knew that there had to be a full and honest appraisal of events, resulting in a finding that Amy's death had been an accident, in order for him to be free to marry Elizabeth after a suitable period of mourning.
As instructed by Robert, Blount stopped at Abingdon and spoke to the landlord of the inn to gauge the immediate reaction of the local people to the tragedy. The general feeling seemed to be that Amy's death had been accidental. Although there may have been some talk that it might have been murder, Forster was considered so honest by the local people that this speculation was not given much credence. Others thought it was suspicious that Amy had insisted on sending everyone to the fair on the day, which led them to conclude that Amy might have died by her own hand.
There would have been a good deal of evidence to support a verdict of suicide and this might have been better for Robert, but he did all he could to protect his dead wife from this conclusion, which was considered a grave sin. If she had taken her own life, she would have been denied a Christian burial and would have been laid to rest in unhallowed ground, although her rank would have saved her from the fate of being buried at a crossroads with a stake through her heart. In any case, her soul would still be damned for eternity.
With all this in mind, Robert and Amy's intimates would have grasped at the notion of an accidental death with almost frantic single-mindedness, since the alternative, as they saw it, was too hideous to contemplate. A verdict of suicide might also have been damaging to Robert, as his opponents would claim he had driven her to it. The best possible outcome was a verdict that Amy had been ill and had accidentally fallen. As the Cumnor house has since been demolished, it is unknown whether this is a realistic explanation for Amy's death. The records refer to a "pair of stairs": that is, a short flight to a small landing, then a second short flight to an upstairs landing. The bottom set of stairs was reported to have 8 steps; even if there were more, the whole number was unlikely to exceed 14 treads.
If Amy had planned to take her own life, throwing herself down such narrow, short stairs would have been more likely to result in injury than death. They would be suitable for an attempt that was essentially a cry for help, but in that instance it would be important for someone to find her quickly, in case she really did hurt herself. Ordering her servants to leave the house would tend to support the idea of a deliberate suicide attempt, however, the design of the staircase tends to preclude this as a convincing explanation. An accidental fall would be plausible, but in that case, how would Amy's neck have broken on a short flight of stairs?
He (William Cecil) told me the Queen cared nothing for foreign princes. She did not believe she stood in any need of their support. She was deeply in debt, taking no thought how to clear herself, and she had ruined her credit in the city. Last of all he said that they were thinking of destroying Lord Robert's wife. They had given out that she was ill, but she was not ill at all; she was very well and taking care not to be poisoned. God, he trusted, would never permit such a crime to be accomplished or so wretched a conspiracy to prosper....
Certainly this business is most shameful and scandalous, and withal I am not sure whether she will marry the man at once, or even if she will marry at all, as I do not think she has her mind sufficiently fixed. Since writing the above, I hear the Queen has published the death of Robert's wife and said in Italian, Si ha rotto il collo. "She must have fallen down a staircase."
On returning from the fair, the servants found her dead at the foot of the stairs leading to her apartment. Robert Dudley was summoned without delay and an inquest held. The unusual behaviour of the deceased, who seemed to have been at pains to send all her companions away, pointed in the direction of suicide. Despite the denials of her lady's maid the theory that she had yielded to this temptation could not be discounted: Amy had indeed been suffering from cancer of a very advanced and painful nature, and she was also depressed by her husband's neglect. A more modern theory, based on the extreme decalcification caused by her disease suggests that one false step could have resulted in a fatal fall. Although Robert Dudley was cleared, nothing could dispel the mystery - and to be cleared was insufficient to qualify a man for marriage to the Queen of England.
If Amy was murdered, the most logical question to ask would be who would have benefited from the timing and manner of her death? It is hard to argue that Robert and Elizabeth did. Had Amy lived a few weeks or months longer and died of natural causes, Robert would have had a real chance of becoming King of England. They had no reason to rush; Elizabeth had successfully held off her various suitors for two years and showed few signs of giving in to any one of them. She and Robert had waited so long; a little longer would not have mattered.
Furthermore, if Robert had genuinely wanted his wife out of the way, he had another option. He and Amy had no children and, with her ill health, were not likely to. A lack of children was a lawful reason for divorce at that time, and it was held to be the wife's fault unless she could prove otherwise. If Robert had wanted his freedom at any cost, he could have divorced Amy at any time.
Later writers, wishing to denigrate Robert, often refer to his imagined penchant for killing his enemies with poison. If Robert had wanted to kill his wife, poison would, indeed, have done the trick. Small doses, ending with a sufficiently large one, would have caused Amy's death in a way that mimicked a natural illness. But Robert would not have benefitted from Amy suffering a suspicious and unnatural death. Thus, if the timing, method and result of Amy's death all acted against Robert, is it possible that someone else might have had a motive to kill her in such a way as to tarnish Robert, making it impossible for Elizabeth to marry him?
There were certainly members of the Privy Council who feared what would happen if Robert became king consort, including William Cecil, Henry Fitzalan, Thomas Howard and Thomas Radclyffe, 3rd Earl of Sussex. The timing would fit this hypothesis. Amy was in the final stages of her illness and any day might die in her bed, freeing Robert to woo the Queen in earnest. It was crucial that she die in a way that pointed the finger at her husband, but without the investigation of an open murder that would risk the true perpetrators being discovered.
If Amy's death was the result of this type of plot, the plan worked perfectly. It could have been suicide, or an accident, or murder. In the end, the verdict was accidental death; however, the rumours of murder were damaging enough, spreading through England and the Royal Courts of Europe in a matter of days. If it could not be proved, it also could not be disproved. Robert's reputation was irretrievably blemished: with Amy's tragic death, the chance of Elizabeth and Robert marrying died as well.