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Elizabeth I and the Mysterious Death of Amy Robsart Dudley

For over 400 years, historians have been trying to discern the mysterious death of Amy Robsart and whether her husband, Robert Dudley, had anything to do with it.

Rainbow Portrait of Elizabeth I
Elizabeth I – The Rainbow Portrait (Wikipedia)

Robert Dudley, Earl of Leicester, and Queen Elizabeth I played together as children, but their relationship may have deepened while both imprisoned in the Tower of London by Mary Tudor. While Mary executed Dudley’s father, the Duke of Northumberland, and his brother, Guilford Dudley, for the family’s plot to set Lady Jane Grey on the throne in early 1553, she pardoned Robert in October of 1554. Elizabeth, accused of plotting against Queen Mary, her half-sister, in February 1554 with the Wyatt Rebellion, also miraculously escaped Mary’s wrath. In May, Mary sent Elizabeth to Woodstock where she remained under house arrest for another year. Yet, for four months of their captivity in the Tower, Elizabeth and Dudley had plenty of time to enjoy each other’s company, despite periodic visits from Dudley’s wife of 4 years, Amy Robsart.

When Mary Tudor died in late 1558, Elizabeth acceded to the throne of England. The next morning, she appointed Dudley her Master of Horse. The position suited Dudley, an expert horseman and breeder of fine horses, and put him in close proximity to the new Queen. The position required daily, if not hourly, time in the Queen’s presence. This appointment resulted in Dudley spending months away from his wife, Amy, who lived with friends in different parts of the country, far from court. Elizabeth rarely let Dudley leave her side.

Rumors abounded of an affair between the Queen and Dudley, and Elizabeth often brazenly showed her affection for him. Meanwhile, England needed an heir and Elizabeth’s chief advisor William Cecil pressured her to marry. Several foreign suiters vied for her hand during this time, and while she considered some, she ended up refusing them all.

painting of amy robsart
Amy Robsart – Countess of Leicester (Wikipedia)

In mid-1559, Dudley went to Throcking, Hertfordshire for a short time to visit Amy who had been diagnosed with breast cancer. Talk at court stated that Elizabeth and Dudley planned to wait until Amy died, and would then proceed with marriage, making Dudley King Consort. Amy, no doubt had heard the rumors, and knew of her husband’s ambition, which must have added to her stress.

Later that same year, Amy traveled to London to visit her husband for one month, but after that never went back to court, or saw her husband again. During her time at court, it is said she ate sparingly, and according to some accounts, “was careful of her food.” Could she have suspected Elizabeth, jealous of anyone’s time with Dudley, of trying to poison her? Or could Dudley be so in love with Elizabeth, or in love with the power he’d gain by marrying the Queen, that he would want Amy dead?

By December of 1559, Amy moved to Cumnor Palace, rented by a family member, Sir Anthony Forster. Amy occupied the upper story of the palace, and supported a large household with the proceeds from her family’s estate. She soothed her worries and loneliness by ordering dresses and finery.

In September of 1560, on the day of the fair at Abingdon, Amy encouraged her servants, Sir Anthony, and his wife to attend the fair. One friend, Mrs. Odingsells, refused to leave the ailing Amy, but later retired to her rooms. When the others returned from the fair, they found Amy at the foot of the stairs with a broken neck.

A messenger from Cumnor dispatched the news to Windsor Castle where Dudley was in residence with the Queen. Dudley called for an immediate inquest. The coroner and a jury of 15 local gentleman called the death an accident. Relieved, but wanting to be sure—or ensuring that no guilt would be placed on him, Dudley called for another investigation. The coroner again assured him, the fall down the stairs caused two head injuries and the breaking of Amy’s bones which had become brittle due to her illness. No evidence could be found of wrong-doing on Dudley’s part.

Robert Dudley Earl of Leicester
Robert Dudley – Earl of Leicester (Wikipedia)

The mysterious circumstances of Amy’s death haunted Dudley for the rest of his life. Because of the scandal created by Elizabeth and Dudley’s relationship, and his wife’s early demise, it didn’t prove wise for the two to marry. Robert continued to remain close to the Queen.During the next several years, princes and noblemen from all over Europe continued to vie for the hand of England’s Queen. She refused all marriage proposals. Dudley greatly disappointed and angered Elizabeth when he wed Lettice Knollys in 1578. Still, once the anger wore off, Dudley remained among Elizabeth’s closest circles until his death in 1588. At Dudley’s death, Elizabeth went into deep mourning and did not leave her rooms for three days.

History leads us to believe that Robert Dudley could well have been the love of Elizabeth I’s life. Her refusal to marry and share her crown with anyone else proved she had a staunch will, confidence in herself and her rule, and no desire to share the emotional intimacies of marriage.

Did Dudley, or even Elizabeth, impetuously plot to remove Amy from their lives without thinking of the consequences? Had Amy died of natural causes, would history be altered? Would Dudley have shared Elizabeth’s crown, her rule, and her life? Did Elizabeth use her crown and her power to alter the evidence or the outcome in the case? It’s hard to say. Speculation has endured for centuries, but one thing is clear, only she and Dudley knew what truly happened.

For more information on Queen Elizabeth go to Elizabethi.org –  click here.