Hidden historical heroines (#19: Amy Robsart)


(Probably) Amy Robsart, her wedding portraitAmy Robsart (7 June 1532 – 8 September 1560) was a Tudor noblewoman, the first wife of Lord Robert Dudley, the controversial favourite of Elizabeth I. Were it not for Amy’s sudden and suspicious death in 1560, it is assumed by some that Elizabeth would have, in time, made her “sweet Robin” her consort.


Amy was born into a charmed life, the beloved only child and heir of a Norfolk farmer-gentleman. She was attractive, especially by the standards of the time, fair and blonde with delicate, feminine features and figure. She was indulged and educated to a high standard and was kept living with her doting parents until she was just shy of eighteen, quite old for such a eligible heiress. In 1550 she was married to Robert Dudley, the youngest son of the powerful Earl of Warwick; his older brother, Guildford, was the unfortunate husband (and king-consort) of Lady Jane Grey, the Nine Days Queen.


Amy and Robert were the same age and had been acquainted for around a year; it was considered a love match, with wedding guest William Cecil commenting (rather disapprovingly) that it was a “carnal marriage, begun for pleasure”. The pair settled in Norfolk and for a time, things seemed blissful. Robert’s father – the Earl of Warwick – grew ever more influential, and Robert began spending more and more time at court. Often, Amy remained in the country, but on occasion did join her husband in London. In 1553 the couple even spent some time living in Somerset House on the banks of the Thames, Robert having been given the warden-ship of this glorious new palace. Robert’s father was further honoured with the title Duke of Northumberland.


 King Edward VI died on 6th July 1553; his death at such a young age and without children of his own created a knock-on effect that would change the course of Amy’s life. Edward had been raised a fervent reformer, a Protestant; however his elder half-sister, Mary, was an avowed Catholic and preceded the Protestant Elizabeth in the line of succession. Both princesses also had the stain of illegitimacy on them. On his death-bed, Edward (possibly influenced by Robert’s father) changed his will to disinherit his sisters in favour of his Protestant cousin, Jane Grey, Robert’s sister-in-law.


Mary raised those loyal to her in revolt and the Dudley faction was defeated almost immediately. Robert – along with the rest of his family and the unfortunate Jane – was committed to the tower, where he was sentenced to death for treason. A dutiful Amy visited him as often as she was permitted to. Robert was eventually pardoned and set free, although his father, brother and sister-in-law were all sent to the executioner’s block.


Robert Dudley

Amy and Robert tried to return to a normal life, although the Dudley family shame left them impoverished. In 1557, Robert and his brothers went to fight Queen Mary’s war in France. Henry Dudley was killed by a cannonball in front of Robert, but when the remaining Dudleys returned to England they (and their sisters) were restored in blood by Parliament. Mary’s husband, the Spanish Philip II, was reportedly quite fond of Robert, and used him as a message-bearer.


Amy’s fortunes were immeasurably improved. Both her parents died and she and Robert inherited their lands. Things improved even further when, in November 1558, the sickly Mary died and Elizabeth, Robert’s childhood friend, inherited the throne. Robert immediately received the envious position of Master of Horse. Soon after he was awarded the Order of the Garter. As Amy’s parents’ house was run-down and uninhabitable, Amy guested at a succession of stately houses in the countryside; Robert remained almost always at court, probably due to his own wishes, but also, as his queen commanded.


Elizabeth was in love with Robert. Scandalised ambassadors reported back to their home courts how intimate the young monarch was with her Master of Horse.  Most foreign courts considered them established lovers, openly speculating that Elizabeth would marry Robert straight away were he to be widowed. Many diplomats speculated that the queen was already carrying Robert’s child.


It is at this point that rumours of Amy’s ill-health begin to circulate, with one ambassador noting that she was “very ill in one of her breasts”. Certainly Amy was deeply depressed, with an absent husband, no children and no home to call her own, as well as full knowledge that she was a point of gossip for the whole of Europe. After her death, members of her household were to testify that she daily prayed to God to deliver her from her misery.


Elizabeth and Robert dancing

Amy visited Robert in the summer of 1559, but it was quite clear that she was not welcome in the jealous Elizabeth’s court. The couple were never to see one another again, although they corresponded frequently, and (a perhaps guilt-ridden) Robert continued to lavish sumptuous gifts upon his abandoned wife; ‟a hood for my Lady“, ‟6 doz. Gold buttons of ye Spanish pattern“, ‟a little chain for my Lady’s use“, ‟sewing silk“, ‟a looking glass“, ‟ten pairs of velvet shoes“, ‟a velvet hat embroidered with gold“. At the same time, gossip swirled around Elizabeth’s court, and the continent, that the queen and her lover were planning to do away with the latter’s inconvenient wife by way of poison – perhaps poison was what was causing Lady’s Dudley’s reputed delicate health, the ambassadors mused.


The Death of Amy Robsart - William Frederick Yeames


In the autumn of 1560 Amy was residing in Cumor Place, in what is now Oxfordshire. On the morning of the 8th September, Amy instructed her entire household to take the day off to visit the fair in nearby Abingdon. She deigned not to accompany them. Upon the servants’ return, they discovered their lady dead, lying at the bottom of the stairs, ostensibly having tripped and fallen. The staircase was a short one, comprising of only eight steps. Her autopsy report denotes two head injuries, although Elizabeth was recorded as telling a courtier that Amy had also broken her neck.


Despite the apparently violent fall and the injuries it caused, Amy’s headdress was still affixed atop her head, and her skirts were neatly covering her to her ankles, rather than having twisted or ridden up during the tumble. There were immediate suspicions that someone had been present at the death of Amy Dudley, and in an act of decorum or compassion had straightened her clothing to make her presentable. Had the wife of the queen’s lover been murdered, the death made to look like an accident?


Robert was with Elizabeth in Windsor when the news arrived. In a state of complete shock he wrote to his man:


“Immediately upon your departing from me there came to me Bowes, by whom I do understand that my wife is dead, and, as he saith, by a fall from a pair of stairs. Little other understanding can I have of him. The greatness and the suddenness of the misfortune doth so perplex me, until I do hear from you how the matter standeth, or how this evil should light upon me, considering what the malicious world will bruit, as I can take no rest. And, because I have no way to purge myself of the malicious talk that I know the wicked world will use, but one which is the very plain truth to be known, I do pray you, as you have loved me, and do tender me and my quietness, and as now my special trust is in you, that [you] will use all the … means you can possible for the learning of the truth; wherein have no respect to any living person. And, as by your own travail and diligence, so likewise by order of law, I mean by calling of the Coroner, and charging him to the uttermost from me to have good regard to make choice of no light or slight persons, but the discreetest and [most] substantial men, for the juries, such as for their knowledge may be able to search thoroughly and duly, by all manner of examinations, the bottom of the matter, and for their uprightness will earnestly and sincerely deal therein without respect; and that the body be viewed and searched accordingly by them; and in every respect to proceed by order and law. In the mean time, Cousin Blount, let me be advertised from you by this bearer with all speed how the matter doth stand. For, as the cause and the manner thereof doth marvellously trouble me, considering my case, many ways, so shall I not be at rest till I may be ascertained thereof; praying you, even as my trust is in you, and as I have ever loved you, do not dissemble with me, neither let anything be hid from me, but send me your true conceit and opinion of the matter, whether it happened by evil chance or by villany. And fail not to let me hear continually from you. And thus fare you well, in much haste from Windsor this sixth of September in the evening. Your loving friend and kinsman, much perplexed, R. D.”


Robert, clearly distressed, called for an inquest into his wife’s death. As it turned out, he needn’t have worried: an inquest had been called before his man even arrived at Cumor Place. Robert’s first, frenzied letter shows how clearly he understood that his enemies at court would turn the tragedy to their advantage, that they would claim he had grown impatient waiting for his sickly wife to die of natural causes and sent someone to end matters quickly.


The inquest concluded that – despite the suspicious neatness of Amy’s clothing, and the coincidence of her having engineered that the house was empty that very day – that Amy’s death had been an accident, a misfortune, the result of her falling down the flight of stone steps. Robert wasn’t happy with this – clearly, by this point, he personally believed that there had been foul play – but the second inquest also concluded Amy’s dead as accidental.


Robert wore mourning in memory of Amy for six months, whom he arranged to be buried with all honour at the Church of St. Mary the Virgin in Oxford; the funeral cost him £2,000 (the equivalent of about £100,000 today). Telling of wide-spread public opinion at the time, the chaplain who preached the funeral sermon forgot himself, and described Amy as “pitifully slain”.


Whatever the cause of Amy’s death, it turned out not to be the convenient event that Robert and Elizabeth may have anticipated it would be. Despite the findings of the two inquests, and with even Elizabeth herself protesting his innocence, public opinion was forevermore that Robert had cruelly arranged the murder of his long-suffering, faithful wife, in his greed for Elizabeth and the crown. The chances of Elizabeth being able to marry him had always been extremely slim; now they were non-existent. The romantic legend of course holds that it was due to this frustrated love of Robert that Elizabeth remained unmarried for the rest of her life.


So what did happen to Amy Dudley? With hindsight, historians usually agree that Robert had nothing to do with her death after all. His letters all show shock, panic and a genuine desire to discover what happened to his wife, who, after all, may not have been the glamorous, passionate Tudor queen, but whom he had once loved and whom he had never forgotten his duty of care over.

Leicester and Amy Robsart at Cumnor Hall, 1866 Edward Matthew Ward


What’s the first question that should be asked in any ‘Whodunit’? Cui bono? Who benefited from Amy’s death? Most of Elizabeth’s court – not least of which, Cecil, her chief advisor – would have done absolutely anything to prevent Elizabeth marrying the wholly unsuitable, swaggering Dudley. If Amy was murdered, it was probably on the orders of someone like Cecil. But to remove the only real impediment to an Elizabeth and Robert marriage was a risky gamble; if the public hadn’t taken the issue to heart in the way that it did, Amy’s death would have facilitated rather than obstructed the match. Then – dare we consider? – perhaps the young Elizabeth – impatient, and mad with love for her childhood friend, her dashing, exciting Master of Horse – arranged for Amy’s death, never anticipating the complications it would cause.


How about suicide? Amy’s depression was well documented and understandable in the circumstances. But suicide was a sin, and Amy was extremely pious, and wouldn’t risk her eternal soul with such an action. Plus, Amy had just ordered a new, expensive dress to be made for her – perhaps in the anticipation of shortly being reunited with her husband – a rather odd thing to do if she was planning on ending her life.


For a long time before her death, Amy was said to have been ill with what was presumably breast cancer (“a malady in one of her breasts”, as above). There is a medical theory that advanced breast cancer can cause weakening of the bones. Perhaps Amy suffered a spontaneous fracture in her neck as she made her way down the stairs and slid, already dead, to the bottom? The well-known historian Alison Weir goes one step further, suggesting that Amy’s death was caused by the terminal enlargement of one of the arteries out of the heart. Symptoms of this disorder would have included rather bipolar-like fits of depression, then anger, mental aberrations and pain and swelling in the chest: “sudden slight pressure can cause the bursting of the aneurysm, bringing instantaneous death”.


So was it just an accident, after all? Amy has the urge to be alone and removes her household from her presence. She then takes a tumble down eight stone steps, causing two superficial head-wounds and somehow snapping her neck without disturbing her hood, coming to rest on the ground floor with her skirts perfectly in place. There are far too many coincidences in the ‘accident’ theory, but far too many leaps of faith to take in all the others. No shoe fits completely, and short of finding a verifiable and signed confession from one of the major players, I guess we will never be sure about who – if anyone – killed poor Amy Robsart.



One thought on “Hidden historical heroines (#19: Amy Robsart)

  1. Pingback: Hidden historical heroines (#26: Penelope Rich) | ErinLawless.co.uk

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