Robert Dudley: A Virgin Queen's Great Love, Despite His Many Mistakes
Robert Dudley was an English courtier who lived during the 16th century. He is best known as being a favorite of Elizabeth I, the Queen of England. He had been a suitor of the queen for many years and came close to marrying her. A scandal that erupted after the death of Dudley’s first wife, however, cost the courtier his chance of marrying the queen. Apart from that, Dudley was a statesman, and actively took part in the politics of his day. He held various high offices, thanks to his friendship with Elizabeth, and participated in several conflicts, the last of which was the defense of England against the Spanish Armada. Dudley died not long after the defeat of the armada, and the courtier’s death deeply affected Elizabeth. The queen kept Dudley’s last letter to her in a treasure box by her bedside, where it remained till her own death 15 years later.
Robert Dudley posing as the Earl of Warwick, a portrait miniature created by Nicholas Hilliard. ( Public domain )
Robert Dudley: Fifth Son of Duke of Northumberland
Robert Dudley was born on the 24th of June 1532/3. According to a popular tradition, he was born in the same year as Elizabeth I, i.e., in 1533. This, however, contradicts a 1576 portrait miniature of the courtier by Nicholas Hilliard. On the miniature is an inscription noting the courtier’s age when it was made, i.e., 44 years old. This suggests that Dudley was born a year before Elizabeth. Dudley was the fifth son of John Dudley, the Duke of Northumberland, and his wife, Jane, the daughter of Sir Edward Guildford.
Dudley came from a family of courtiers that had long served the monarchs of England . For example, Dudley’s paternal grandfather was Edmund Dudley, who served Henry VII. Shortly after the accession of Henry VIII , however, Edmund was tried for treason, and executed. In spite of his father’s execution as a traitor, John Dudley would be drawn into the service of the new king. When King Henry died in 1547, he was succeeded by his 10-year-old son, Edward VI. John played an increasingly important role in the new government, and by 1550, he was the de facto regent. In other words, he was now the most powerful man in England after the king.
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By 1553, however, John Dudley had lost everything. Edward died of an illness that year, and John attempted to place Lady Jane Grey on the English throne. This was the king’s cousin, and, perhaps more importantly, John’s daughter-in-law. Unfortunately for John, this scheme ended in failure, and Mary I, Edward’s half-sister, became the new ruler of England. Consequently, John, like his father before him, was tried for treason, and executed in the same year.
The Tower of London was briefly "home" to Robert Dudley and princess Elizabeth prior to her ascension to queen of England. ( rpbmedia / Adobe Stock)
The Dudleys: Locked in the Tower of London And Then Released
In addition to John Dudley, five of his sons, including Robert Dudley, were imprisoned with him in the Tower of London . They too were condemned to death. Fortunately for Robert and his brothers, their mother was able to secure their release. They were freed in the autumn of 1554. Incidentally, Robert Dudley’s imprisonment in the Tower of London coincided with that of his childhood friend, the future Elizabeth I. She was sent to the tower by the queen, her half-sister, on suspicion of her participation in the Wyatt’s Rebellion, which broke out in reaction to Mary’s intention to marry Philip II of Spain .
Robert Dudley was one of King Edward’s companions and shared the same tutor with Elizabeth, Roger Ascham. When Catherine Howard, Elizabeth’s stepmother, was executed in 1541, it was Dudley whom the eight-year-old princess confided in. During Mary’s reign, Elizabeth lived in constant fear of her life since she was seen as a threat to Mary’s position. This had the effect of strengthening her friendship with Dudley. Although his association with Elizabeth put his own life at risk, Dudley remained loyal to the future queen. Since Dudley was already married by this time, his friendship with Elizabeth generated much gossip.
Robert Dudley married Amy Robsart (pictured here in a painting by William Frederick Yeames) in 1550. (William Frederick Yeames / Public domain )
Robert Dudley’s First Marriage Causes Major Problems
Robert Dudley married Amy Robsart in 1550. Dudley’s wife was born in 1532, and was the only daughter of Sir John Robsart, a Norfolk squire, and his wife, Elizabeth Scott. The Robsarts were a prominent Protestant family in Norfolk, and Amy’s marriage to Dudley would have increased the influence of the latter’s father in that area. As the only child of her father, Amy was his heir, and received a good education. It has been speculated that Dudley married Amy because Elizabeth had told him (after Catherine Howard’s execution) that she would never marry.
Nothing much has been said about the relationship between Dudley and his wife during the early years of their marriage. In any case, although Dudley managed to escape his execution, he would have certainly not been as wealthy as he had been before his imprisonment. Amy’s parents, however, died during the 1550s, and Amy and Dudley received a substantial inheritance. This allowed them to rebuild their fortunes. Dudley and his wife were not exactly involved in the affairs of the court, since Mary was the reigning monarch, after all. Instead, they had plans to retire to the country once their fortune was made.
These plans changed drastically in 1558, when Mary died in November. The queen was succeeded by her half-sister, Elizabeth, and once again, Dudley was welcomed at the English royal court . Almost immediately after Elizabeth’s accession, Dudley was made Master of the Horse, an important office in the royal household. Consequently, Dudley was drawn even closer to Elizabeth. In the following year, Dudley was made a privy councilor, and a Knight of the Garter . Dudley was aware that his wife’s presence could potentially damage his relationship with the queen, and therefore kept her away from court.
On the 8th of September 1560, Amy Robsart, Dudley's first wife, was found dead with a broken neck at the bottom of a flight of stairs in her own home as depicted in this painting by William Frederick Yeames. (William Frederick Yeames / Public domain )
Rumors and The Strange Death of Dudley’s First Wife
Needless to say, rumors about Dudley and Elizabeth being lovers began to circulate. Around the same time, Amy fell ill. It was widely thought that when Amy died, Dudley would marry the queen. It was also rumored that Elizabeth was waiting for Amy to die, so that she could marry Dudley. This rumor may have been fueled in part by Elizabeth’s refusal to marry any of the foreign suitors presented to her. In May 1559, Amy visited London for a month, having seemingly recovered from her illness. This, however, was to be the last time she would see her husband.
In December 1559, after her visit to London, Amy moved to Cumnor Place (on the outskirts of present-day Oxford). On the 8th of September 1560, she was found dead with a broken neck at the bottom of a flight of stairs in her own home. According to reports, on the day of Amy’s death, she had sent all her servants away to a local fair. The only person with Amy at the time was a woman by the name of Mrs. Owen, another resident of the house. When the servants returned from the fair, however, they found their mistress’ dead body.
Till this day, it is still uncertain if Amy’s death was an accident, a suicide, or a murder. Although murder has been considered to be unlikely by modern scholars, the popular sentiment during Dudley’s day was very much the opposite. The most widely circulated rumor was that Dudley murdered his own wife so that he could marry the queen. This was especially popular amongst Dudley’s enemies, who sought to portray the queen’s favorite as a ruthless man who would stop at nothing to fulfil his ambition of marrying the queen.
Robert Dudley received news of his wife’s death a day after it happened, whilst he was with the queen at Windsor Castle. Upon hearing the news, Dudley sent Thomas Blount, his steward, to Cumnor Place to initiate an inquest. By the time the steward arrived at Cumnor Place, however, an inquest had already started. In the following year, the inquest, which consisted of a coroner and 15 jurymen, issued a verdict regarding Amy’s death. They decided that Dudley’s wife had died of an accident. This effectively freed Dudley from the suspicions that he had murdered her.
After Robert Dudley managed to get past the problems caused by his secret second marriage, Queen Elizabeth promoted him and expanded his powers. When the Spanish Armada threatened England, Dudley was appointed by Elizabeth as “Lieutenant and Captain-General of the Queen’s Armies and Companies.” ( Public domain )
Widower Dudley Fails to Marry Queen But His Power Increases
In spite of this verdict, Dudley’s image was already tarnished by the rumors that he had murdered his wife. This is perhaps most evident in the fact that when Dudley became an active suitor of the queen, he was rejected by Elizabeth. The queen even suggested that he marry Mary, Queen of Scots . The Scottish queen was one of Elizabeth’s most dangerous rivals at that time, and the marriage was perhaps also aimed at bringing Mary under control, since one of the conditions of the marriage was for Mary and Dudley to live at Elizabeth’s court. Around the same time, i.e., in 1563, Dudley was given Kenilworth Castle, and in the following year, was made Earl of Leicester and Baron Denbigh. It is thought that these gifts were made to further Elizabeth’s future plans of marriage to Dudley.
Ultimately, the marriage between Dudley and Mary did not materialize, in part because the latter was unwilling to marry the Scottish queen. In fact, Dudley continued to court Elizabeth. On Christmas 1565, Dudley proposed to Elizabeth. She evaded giving him an answer and Dudley left the court in a sulk, but was brought back, and ordered not to leave the queen ever again. It seems, however, that Dudley would soon give up on the idea of marrying Elizabeth. Dudley made his final attempt to woo the queen in 1575, when he invited Elizabeth to Kenilworth Castle, where she stayed for 19 days, the longest amount of time she would spend at a courtier’s estate. During her stay at Kenilworth Castle, the queen was entertained lavishly, but once again, Dudley’s hopes of marrying her were dashed.
In 1578, Dudley secretly married Lettice Knollys (depicted here in a portrait likely painted by George Gower) one of the queen’s ladies-in-waiting, when he learned she was pregnant with his child. (Attributed to George Gower / Public domain )
Robert Dudley Secretly Marries Elizabeth’s Lady-in-waiting
In 1578, Dudley married Lettice Knollys, one of the queen’s ladies-in-waiting, in secret. Dudley had been flirting with her for about a decade and was allegedly forced to marry her when she was found to be pregnant. Dudley’s marriage was kept hidden from the queen for some time, but eventually, Elizabeth found out. She flew into a jealous rage, resulting in Knollys’ permanent banishment from her court. In time, Dudley was forgiven by the queen, though their friendship was affected by this incident. Nevertheless, towards the end of his life, Dudley was once more on excellent terms with the queen.
In 1585, Dudley was sent by the queen to the Netherlands at the head of a 6000 strong army, in order to assist the Dutch in their revolt against the Spanish. On the one hand, this campaign showed that relations between Elizabeth and Dudley had been mended, as the queen, missing her favorite, sent an affectionate letter to him. On the other hand, it also exposed Dudley’s military and political incompetence, which resulted in his recall to England in 1587. In spite of this, when the Spanish Armada threatened England in the following year, Dudley was appointed by Elizabeth as “Lieutenant and Captain-General of the Queen’s Armies and Companies.” Dudley, for his part, accepted the appointment without hesitation, despite suffering from a serious illness, perhaps stomach cancer.
The tomb of Robert and Lettice Dudley, erected by the Countess. Beauchamp Chapel, Warwick, England. (Chris Nyborg / CC BY-SA 3.0 )
Robert Dudley Dies And The Queen Mourns
Although the threat of the Armada had passed, Dudley opted to stay with the queen, so as to make sure that the danger was indeed over. A celebratory parade was organized by Dudley’s stepson, the Earl of Essex, which Dudley and Elizabeth watched from a palace window. This was one of the last recorded sightings of the pair together.
Shortly after the celebrations, Dudley took his leave of the queen, as he was weakened by his illness. From Rycote in Oxfordshire, Dudley wrote his last letter to the queen. Five days later, on the 4th of September 1588, Dudley died at Combury Park, Oxfordshire.
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When Elizabeth heard the news of Dudley’s death, she was grief-stricken. And for several days, locked herself in her room. Dudley’s final letter from Rycote became Elizabeth’s most cherished treasure, which she kept in a locked casket by her bed till her own death in 1603.
Robert Dudley was buried in the Beauchamp Chapel of the Collegiate Church of St Mary, Warwick, as he had requested. After Lettice Knollys’ death in 1634, she was buried beside her husband, Robert Dudley. The epitaph, which Knollys’ had commissioned, reads, “best and dearest of husbands.”
Robert Dudley has been remembered as Queen Elizabeth I’s great love, with the ups and downs of the pair’s relationship being traced over the decades. Nevertheless, there are other aspects of Dudley’s life that have received less attention. For instance, his military and political contributions to Elizabeth’s administration, and, interestingly enough, the many portraits of himself that he commissioned. Dudley commissioned more portraits of himself than any other courtier in Elizabethan England: at least 20 portraits over a period of 30 years. This is certainly an interesting topic to explore further, but one that is beyond the scope of this article.
Top image: Robert Dudley, Earl of Leicester in a painting that was formerly attributed to the Flemish painter Steven van der Meulen (active 1543–1563). Source: Public domain
By Wu Mingren
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