A Royal Love Affair: The Mystery of Amy Robsart Dudley’s Death

Royal courts were always a hotspot for intrigues, secrets, schemes, and love affairs. Where prestige and power reign, true love is often  nowhere to be found. But in those cases when royal passions truly arise, nobles, kings, and queens might go to  any length to make their goals come true. Such was the story of Robert Dudley, 1st Earl of Leicester, a daring, opportunist nobleman who was the talk of England in the mid-16th century AD. Dudley spun many a heart, but one was special in every aspect. He was the favorite of Queen Elizabeth I. Their love affair was one of the biggest scandals of the English royal court and might have entailed some truly malicious moves with murder being the biggest one. The mysterious and sudden “accidental” death of Robert Dudley’s wife, Amy Robsart, was all too suspicious. Was Amy Robsart’s death really an accident?

A Love of Power Or Passion? The Rise Of Robert Dudley

In every  royal court  there are illustrious, opportunistic men and women. After all, what else other than an immense drive for ambition and power can lead to great heights and prominent positions at court? One could argue that a nobleman of the 16th century AD could simply  not rise to great power without being skilled in intrigue, conniving, and even  treachery, and, above all, opportunism. Robert Dudley was certainly one such man, who rose to lofty heights aided by a royal love affair.

Robert Dudley, Earl of Leicester, and husband of Amy Robsart Dudley, who died under mysterious circumstances. (Attributed to Steven van der Meulen / Public domain)

Robert Dudley, Earl of Leicester, and husband of Amy Robsart Dudley, who died under mysterious circumstances. (Attributed to Steven van der Meulen /  Public domain )

Born into an old noble family, Robert’s youth was overshadowed by the misdeeds of his father, and the gradual downfall of his family. His father, John Dudley, 1st Duke of  Northumberland, attempted to prevent the ascension of Queen Mary I to the throne. He attempted to install Lady Jane Grey into that position, but ultimately failed, and paid with his head. Robert Dudley, his son, was imprisoned in the  Tower of London  as a consequence, alongside his brothers, and was sentenced to death.

Although he was pardoned not long after, Robert Dudley’s stay in prison led to some new and crucial acquaintances. While imprisoned he met Elizabeth I, the half-sister of Queen Mary, who was imprisoned under suspicion of being involved in Wyatt’s Rebellion. This chance meeting would later be crucial in both Dudley’s and Elizabeth’s lives.

Robert Dudley was certainly a desirable catch. His  noble lineage  attracted many marriage proposals. Some three years before his imprisonment, he married the daughter of a Norfolk gentleman-farmer, i.e., minor gentry, Amy Robsart. She was a few days away from her 18th birthday at the time, as was Robert. The marriage itself was a cause of minor talk in  court society . It was clearly a marriage of convenience, with both families seeking to improve their standings through the connection. Amy Robsart and Robert Dudley were married in 1550, on June 4th, with the young King Edward VI being present.

A portrait of an "unknown lady" that many have concluded was Amy Robsart, wife of Robert Dudley, the favorite of Queen Elizabeth I. (Levina Teerlinc / Public domain)

A portrait of an “unknown lady” that many have concluded was Amy Robsart, wife of Robert Dudley, the favorite of Queen Elizabeth I. (Levina Teerlinc /  Public domain )

In the initial stages of their marriage, the young couple had to move constantly around the many estates that Lord Dudley owned. At first they resided in Ely Place in London, and afterwards in the lavish Somerset House that Robert kept. However, after he was imprisoned for roughly 15 months and then freed, their debts increased, and the couple was in a somewhat difficult position financially. But, as one could foresee at the time, his in-laws soon passed away, meaning that his wife, now Amy Dudley, inherited the fortunes of her deceased parents and that ultimately meant that Robert Dudley once more gained a foothold.

The coronation procession of Queen Elizabeth I of England, 1559 AD, with Robert Dudley in the rear, considered to be the highest position after the queen herself. (Public domain)

The coronation procession of Queen Elizabeth I of England, 1559 AD, with Robert Dudley in the rear, considered to be the highest position after the queen herself. ( Public domain )

Sweeping the Queen Off Her Feet

However, Robert Dudley’s proximity to Queen Elizabeth I was becoming all too obvious to everyone at the court. The two of them had known one another from youth, and Dudley was knowingly the  Queen’s favorite , and many suspected intimacy between them. These suspicions were made all the more reasonable when the Queen created a new title in the  peerage of England, the so-called “Master of Horse.” It was one of the first proclamations she made, and you can guess who was given the title: Robert Dudley.

This was a prestigious position at court, and no one except the Master of Horse was allowed to physically touch the young Queen Elizabeth. The two of them became increasingly intimate, and Amy Robsart Dudley saw her husband less and less.

The Queen and her Master of Horse spent a lot of time together, and Dudley’s duties pertained not only to the obligations of the Master of Horse, but also for the queen’s accommodations and her travel arrangements. To make things even more odd, his sleeping quarters were adjacent to those of the Queen. This became the talk of the court, and Count de Feria even mentioned it in detail:

“Lord Robert has come so much into favor that he does whatever he likes with affairs. It is even said that Her Majesty visits him in his chamber every day and night. People talk of this freely that they go so far as to say that his wife has a malady in one of her breasts and that the Queen is only waiting for her to die to marry Lord Robert.”

The Queen was enamored with her favorite courtier. That much was certain. But everyone else was thinking of Robert Dudley’s wife. Everyone understood that she was “in the way” and that she alone stood between Queen Elizabeth and her quarry, Robert Dudley. And when a queen desires something, naught can stand in her way. Their intimacy was obvious. After a visit to the court, the ambassador of the Republic of Venice wrote that  “[Robert Dudley] is very intimate with Her Majesty. On this subject, I ought to report the opinion of many, but I doubt whether my letters may not miscarry or be read, wherefore it is better to keep silence than to speak ill.”

Suspicions soon reached an all-time high when Queen Elizabeth increasingly refused suitors that were sent to her from the high courts of Europe. Several princes were vying for her favor, but she denied all of them, and did not let Robert Dudley from her side. The  Spanish imperial ambassador to England was the first to suspect that Dudley was trying to slowly poison his wife in hopes of getting rid of her. This in turn placed the finger of blame on Robert Dudley, as the  English nobility  began blaming him for Elizabeth’s reluctance to marry. Some even planned to assassinate him.

The Queen’s possessive infatuation was now fully obvious. When Robert Dudley planned to go overseas for military operations, she strictly forbade him to do so. The courtiers believed she wanted to marry him, but only when his wife was out of the way. And because of this, rumors began spreading that she would attempt to kill her. All could see she was in love with him, and some speculated that they spent days and nights together in her bedchamber, and that her own good disposition and mood depended only on his nearness to her.

Of course, one could argue that all of this didn’t trouble Robert Dudley one bit as he garnered only the best things from the circumstances: power, prestige, and wealth. He became a  Knight of the Garter  with Elizabeth’s appointment, a title reserved only for the most powerful nobles.

Of Love Unrequited And Hearts Given To Despair

All the while, his poor wife, Amy Robsart Dudley, was left wilting at home, almost never seeing her husband, and probably fully aware of the  scandals and rumors that surrounded their marriage. Moreover, she was seemingly stricken with  breast cancer , an illness faintly understood at that time, and known simply as the “malady of the breast.” These circumstances threw Amy into deep depression and solitude, and she was given over to utter despair in the face of her disease. Her female servants would report that she would “ pray to God to deliver her from desperation.”

But in the autumn of 1560, her fate would reach a climactic finale. On September 8th, the day of the grand Fair at Abingdon, tragedy struck. She began her day seemingly normal and in good spirits, due to the festivities. Amy decided to stay at home, while her servants were given leave to go and enjoy the fair. However, when the latter returned home, they stood as mute witnesses to their mistress’s tragic fate: Amy Robsart Dudley was found dead at the foot of the stairs, her neck broken.

The death of Amy Robsart was ruled an accident by the coroner, but rumors and suspicions continued long after in court circles. (William Frederick Yeames / Public domain)

The death of Amy Robsart was ruled an accident by the coroner, but rumors and suspicions continued long after in court circles. (William Frederick Yeames /  Public domain )

From the position of her body and the circumstances, the only logical initial conclusion was death by accident. And now the enigma arose. In an almost true medieval detective mystery, questions began floating up. Could this be more than an accident? Amy Dudley was certainly a depressed woman wracked by despair. Could it have been suicide? Or did Queen Elizabeth or even Robert Dudley at last dispose of her to pursue their prospects of marriage? These questions had to be answered.

Robert Dudley was at Windsor Castle when he received news of his wife’s demise, on September 9th. Almost immediately he implored his own steward to hurry to the scene and request an inquest, to determine the cause of death. The steward, Thomas Blount, arrived as the inquest was already underway, and later wrote to his master:

“Lady Robsart would not that day suffer one of her own sort to tarry at home, and was so earnest to have them gone to the fair, that with any of her own sort that made reason of tarrying at home she was very angry… my lady answered and said that she might choose and go at her pleasure, but all hers should go; and was very angry…. Certainly, my Lord, as little while as I have been here, I have heard divers tales of her that maketh me judge her to be a strange woman of mind.”

The death of Amy Robsart did not end Robert Dudley's ambitions, nor did it remove him entirely from Queen Elizabeth I’s favor. (William Frederick Yeames / Public domain)

The death of Amy Robsart did not end Robert Dudley’s ambitions, nor did it remove him entirely from Queen Elizabeth I’s favor. (William Frederick Yeames /  Public domain )

Accident, Suicide, Or Something Far Worse?

These snippets certainly tell us that Amy Robsart Dudley  insisted that all should go to the fair while she remained alone behind, which, in itself, is very suspicious. The steward, Mr. Blount, shrewdly remembered to question Amy’s personal maid. When he asked her whether the death was accidental or not, she swore “ by her faith ” that she believed it to be an accident, and neither a murder nor a suicide. The jurors of the inquest, all 15 of them, with the coroner at their head, all said the same: her death was the result of an accident.

According to Thomas Blount, who kept Robert Dudley informed of everything, some of the jurors did not seem too honest in their claims. Nevertheless, Robert Dudley was relieved that the inquest came to such a conclusion. He was well aware of the scandal that loomed over his head, and his quick reaction to the death was mostly due to his own interests. But even so, Thomas Blount stood by his belief that Amy was “ of a strange mind,”  and that her death may have been a suicide, as he wrote to his master in confidence.

While Robert Dudley wanted to put an end to the scandal with the verdict of an accidental death, holes in that story soon began appearing. Some records from the period revealed that there were only 8 steps in that flight of stairs and that a fall from such a height could not lead to death. Soon, rumors began spreading that Amy Dudley was murdered by either the Queen or Robert, or both of them. Mary Queen of Scots, who at one point claimed that she should reign instead of Elizabeth, was amongst the first to openly say so:  “The Queen of England is going to marry her horsekeeper, who has killed his wife to make room for her.”

This scandal and the combined rumors now meant that Queen Elizabeth could never marry Robert Dudley.

A 16th Century Mystery Remains Unresolved

Nevertheless, the coroner brought the final verdict on Amy Robsart Dudley’s death before the court on August 1st, 1561 AD. He announced to all that:

Lady Dudley, being alone in a certain chamber … accidentally fell precipitously down the adjoining stairs to the very bottom of the same. She had sustained two head injuries. She had also, by reason of the accidental injury or of that fall and of Lady Amy’s own body weight falling down the aforesaid stairs, broken her neck, on account of which … the same Lady Amy then and there died instantly; … and thus the jurors say on their oath that the Lady Amy by misfortune came to her death and not otherwise, as they are able to agree at present .

All of this meant that the final verdict was accidental death . But it also meant that the reputation of Robert Dudley was virtually destroyed, while Queen Elizabeth lost every prospect of ever marrying her favorite courtier. The scandal greatly diminished their prominence and a great question mark remained above the cause of Amy Dudley’s death. Whether accidental or purposeful, her demise was a tragic outcome of a complex story of passion, power, and unrequited love. To this day, the mystery remains unresolved, and the true answer is lost in time.

Top image: Procession portrait of Elizabeth I, who was in love with Robert Dudley, a man already married to Amy Robsart.          A classic tale of royal privilege and ambition for intimacy with the highest power in the land.  Source: Attributed to Robert Peake the elder /  Public domain

By Aleksa Vučković

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