Lesson #33: The Mysterious Death of Amy Robsart (1560)
Amy Dudley, daughter of Sir John Robsart, a wealthy Norfolk landowner, was the wife
of the Elizabethan statesman Robert Dudley, later Earl of Leicester. They had been
married at Sheen (Richmond) Palace in 1550 when they were both about eighteen. The
young King Edward VI was present at their wedding, and recorded in his diary that
some young gallants of the court amused the wedding guests by playing a kind of polo
or hockey with a trussed-up, live goose. (The English weren't always the great animal-lovers
they are today.)
On September 8th 1560, still only twenty eight, Amy was found dead at the foot of
a staircase in the manor house at Cumnor Place, where she was then living. At the
time there was speculation as to whether she fell accidentally, was murdered or committed
suicide, and many subsequent historians have speculated about her death.
As we shall see, the circumstances lent some color to suspicions of foul play, but
two factors about the evidence help to explain the subsequent debate. One is that
the record of the coroner's inquest into Amy's death has not survived; the other
is that in 1584, twenty four years after Amy's death, the Catholic enemies of Leicester
and the Queen produced a document, which has come to be known as "Leicester's Commonwealth",
claiming that he had murdered Amy, and others.
It was said she was shut up in Cumnor with one Sir Richard Verney, a retainer of
her husband's, who was supposedly something of a bad hat, who first tried to poison
her and then, having sent away her servants, broke her neck.
The ghastly Robert Dudley was the quintessential Elizabethan yuppie, a young man
on the make with an eye to the main chance and willing to step on anyone to get a
leg up in the scramble for favor and riches at court. In his early years, his ambition
appears to have verged on treason on more than one occasion, despite the fact that
both his father and his grandfather were executed for dabbling in that sort of thing.
In 1553 Robert was involved with his father, the Duke of Northumberland, in a plot
to secure the accession of Lady Jane Grey in place of Queen Mary ("Bloody Mary.")
For this Northumberland was beheaded and young Robbie was imprisoned in the Tower
until October 1554 and Amy visited him there; but his properties remained confiscated
and he was left "with nothing to live by" until March 1556. In that year it was rumored
that he was a fugitive in France suspected, probably correctly, of involvement in
further conspiracy against Mary. In view of her habit of executing members of his
family, this would have been understandable.
On her accession in November 1558 Elizabeth made Robert Master of the Horse, an important
post. They had been jail mates together when Bloody Mary had them both locked up
in the Tower, and supposedly would lay one another macabre wagers as to who would
go to the headsman's block first. It is believed that they first became lovers when
they were imprisoned in the Tower; in fact, Robert Dudley is the only man that most
historians agree did in fact have a sexual relationship with the "Virgin Queen,"
whom it must be remembered was at that time a spirited and beautiful teenager. The
seeming imminence of violent death at the hands of Elizabeth's homicidal sister no
doubt served as a turn-on.
It was not customary for courtiers' wives to live at Court; Elizabeth didn't appreciate
female competition, and would have wanted to keep Amy out of the way for she was
strongly attracted by Robert, who was, as Neale says, "a magnificent, princely looking
man". They were much together, and there was a great deal of gossip about the affair,
which Amy must have heard. In March 1560 the Spanish Ambassador wrote about the possibility
of Dudley divorcing his wife.
The problem was that such a divorce would have had to have been approved by Queen
Elizabeth herself, in her role as head of the Church of England. Had she then married
the divorced husband, the scandal would have been intense, especially in view of
the bizarre matrimonial history of her father, King Henry the Eighth. (It's difficult
to realize today, but as recently as fifty years ago divorce was still considered
shameful. In the sixteenth century it was regarded with horror.)
The news of Amy's death on September 8th 1560 was carried by Bowes, one of her servants,
to Robert Dudley at Windsor. On his way Bowes met Thomas Blount, a kinsman and business
associate of Robert's. It may be, though it is not clear, that Blount was on his
way to Cumnor. On hearing Bowes' news Robert immediately sent a message after Blount
asking him to use all "means you can possible for the learning of the truth" about
The main source for the events is a series of letters exchanged between Blount in
Cumnor and Robert in Windsor and Kew, copies of which are in the Pepysian Library
in Cambridge (they are printed in Bartlett and Adlard). The letters are copies, probably
made in 1567 at the time of the Appleyard affair (see below); but they are likely
to be accurate.
"The greatness and suddenness of the misfortune so perplexes me", Robert wrote to
Blount on the 9th September, and "how this evil doth light upon me, considering what
the malicious world will bruit as I can take no rest." Blount must see that the coroner
chose the "discreetist and most substantial men" for the jury, which may have been
a genuine appeal for fairness and honesty on Dudley's part, depending on how he intended
his servant to understand the term "discreetist". Blount replied that he found most
of them already chosen and some of them at the house when he arrived there on September
10th, and he judged them to be on the whole wise and able men. Robert also sent for
Amy's half brother, Appleyard, and "other of her friends" to be there and see what
went on. To give Dudley his due, there was no obvious appearance of cover-up.
Blount discovered that on the day she died Amy's servants were sent off by her to
the fair at Abingdon, and she remained in the great manor house alone. This was extremely
unusual behavior for a woman who, despite her reclusive life, was one of the foremost
ladies of the realm due to her husband's wealth and powerful position. Sixteenth-century
noblewomen were not in the habit of "roughing it" alone for a day just to be kind
to servants, and one of the great mysteries of the case has always been why Amy did
such a thing. But the servants confirmed that she did.
In the course of the day Amy allegedly fell downstairs to her death, and she was
discovered that night when the household returned from the fair. The Spanish Ambassador
reported that on September 11th the Queen told the Court that Amy had broken her
neck. On September 13th Blount wrote to Robert that the jury kept very secret; "and
yet I do hear a whispering that they can find no presumption of evil".
Robert was also assured by one Smythe, who seemed to be the foreman, that so far
as he could see the death was a "very misfortune"; and from other contemporary evidence
it is clear that the verdict was that Amy died by mischance. (Robert even suggested
that another jury "might try again for more knowledge of the truth".) Susan Doran
points out the contemporary chronicler (see BL Add. MS 48023), whose account is of
uncertain reliability and is hostile to Dudley, says this Smythe was the Queen's
man who was "put out of the house for his lewd behavior" and implies he was not impartial.
Prior to Amy's death there had been rumors floating around the courts of Europe that
Robert was planning to murder her, many of them undoubtedly put out and encouraged
by the Catholic intelligence and propaganda network. Poisoning was usually mentioned,
as by Cecil to the Spanish Ambassador on, or close to, the day of her death. Other
rumors were about to the effect that Amy Robsart Dudley was suffering from breast
cancer, was in pain, and was dying.
The people of England themselves were not happy with the affair. It was known that
Robert Dudley had moved into palace quarters below the Queen's own bedchamber, effectively
shacking up with her, and there was widespread shock and outrage at Elizabeth's immoral
behavior. Some ten days after her death the Rector of Coventry wrote to Cecil that
there was "a grievous and dangerous suspicion of muttering" about Amy's convenient
demise in his neighborhood. The accusations that Robert had had Amy murdered circulating
in the 16th century are not specific about how it was done but the assumption must
be that her neck was broken first - no murderer could rely on pushing his victim
As for Robert's guilt, certainly in the letters he showed little grief, but he does
seem determined to get at the truth. His agitation only emphasized that if he were
discovered in a plot to murder his wife he could never have married the Queen; indeed
it seems he was ordered to leave the Court while investigations were under way. Cecil
went to see him in his house at Kew and was thanked for his "great friendship"; and
though Cecil said Robert was "inflamed" by Amy's death he never said he caused it.
(He might have been glad to be rid of Amy but would not have wanted a scandal which
would have reflected on the Queen.)
Robert's brother-in-law, the Earl of Huntingdon, a man of puritan leanings, sent
Robert half a dozen stag pies on September 17th and added a postscript to his letter,
having just heard of Amy's death, saying that Robert had no doubt considered "what
a happy lot it was that brought man from sorrow to joy and from mortality to immortality",
and more in this vein, but with no hint of suspicion. He would presumably not have
behaved in such a friendly manner to a man he suspected of having murdered his sister.
In 1567 Appleyard, who had some personal grievance against Leicester, alleged that
the Duke of Norfolk and others had bribed him to revive the charge that Amy had been
murdered. He was put in the Fleet prison. He later withdrew the allegation of bribery.
The Privy Council seems to have had no doubt about Leicester's innocence, but gave
Appleyard the chance to see the inquest verdict. He declared himself fully satisfied
and persuaded that this proved "under the oaths of fifteen persons how my late sister
by misfortune happened of death". He added tantalizingly that he had returned the
copy to the Warden of the Fleet who had sent it back to their Lordships, but Privy
Council papers were subsequently destroyed in a fire.
Accounts based on "Leicester's Commonwealth" accuse Verney and another servant of
Dudley's named Forster of complicity in the murder though the original document,
while saying it happened in Forster's house, names Verney and another man as the
murderers. Sir Richard Verney, like Forster, was in Robert's employment, but there
is no evidence he was anywhere near Cumnor at the time. The landlord of the Abingdon
inn where Blount put up on September 9th said it was a great pity that the death
happened "in that honest gentleman's house", presumably meaning Forster.
Neale in his life of Queen Elizabeth says that Amy most likely committed suicide,
a view recently supported by Susan Doran. Blount interviewed Amy's personal maid
who "dearly loved her". She confirmed what Bowes had told him that Amy had ordered
her servants to Abingdon Fair that morning and had wanted Mrs. Odingsell’s to go
too, though she refused at first because it was Sunday and "no day for a gentlewoman".
Amy had been very angry when people objected to going.
When Blount asked the maid whether she thought Amy had died by "chance or villainy"
she said "by very chance, and neither done by man or herself." Her mistress was a
good virtuous gentlewoman who daily prayed upon her knees. Then she added "I myself
have heard her pray to God to deliver her from desperation". When Blount suggested
Amy might have had "some evil toy on her mind" the maid said that if he judged so
of her words she was sorry she had said so much. Twice Blount referred to Amy's "strange
mind" and promised to tell Robert more in person. Amy had reason for unhappiness:
her childlessness and her husband's neglectful behavior. However, death by a fall
downstairs can no more be relied on by a suicide than a murderer. No doubt an inquest
jury in 1560 would have been very reluctant to bring in a verdict of suicide against
Professor Ian Aird, in an article in the English Historical Review, excludes suicide
and puts forward another reason for Amy's desperation and death. In April, 1559 seventeen
months before her death, the Spanish Ambassador reported that people talked of Elizabeth
and Dudley's friendship so freely that "they go so far as to say his wife has a malady
in one of her breasts and the Queen is only waiting for her to die to marry Lord
Aird argues that this was cancer and had spread to the bones of Amy's spine, which
could have caused her neck to break spontaneously from any jolt or fall. Though Aird
accepts the questionable nature of the document, he finds support for his theory
in "Leicester's Commonwealth" which said that Amy fell so as to break her neck "but
yet without hurting her hood which stood upon her head". He also suggests that Amy's
anger and irritability on the morning of her death was due to this illness.
Edward Impey inclines to Aird's view; and Percy Williams in his book The Later Tudors
(1995), says Amy was likely to have been "weak and ill". But Aird's argument does
not seem conclusive. Amy visited Lincolnshire, Suffolk, London and Warwickshire during
the two years before her death; and there is no suggestion in the Blount correspondence
that she was physically ill. Just before, or even on the day of, her death Cecil
told the Spanish Ambassador that she was publicly reported to be ill "but she was
not so, on the contrary was quite well and taking good care not to be poisoned.”
The case against Dudley for murder must be returned as "not proven." There are, however,
two points which need explaining.
Why did Amy Robsart Dudley send all her servants away? It must be emphasized again
that this was completely unknown behavior for a very upper-class woman of the nobility
of the 16th century, accustomed to being waited on hand and foot from birth. The
only possible conclusion is that for some reason she wanted to be alone in the house.
This implies that either she intended suicide or that she was going to meet someone,
possibly a lover of her own. It would not be unknown for a lonely and neglected wife
to have an affair, except for the fact that there is not a jot of evidence that any
such man existed, and all those who knew Amy swore to her virtue and religious character.
Also, Dudley would have jumped on any affair as grounds for a divorce. He never made
any such accusation.
The second puzzling thing is the precise manner of the woman's death. Cumnor Place
no longer exists, but an early nineteenth-century floor plan does, and presuming
the building hadn't changed much between 1560 and 1830, it is very difficult to see
how Amy could have broken her neck falling downstairs, which contrary to what we
see in movies is a very, very uncommon form of fatality. There was no grand Victorian
staircase; the stairs seem to have all been "dog-leg" in design with five or six
steps and then a landing, and then another five or six steps. Very difficult to break
one's neck falling down--but what does break the neck sometimes is a hangman's noose.
Suicide in the sixteenth century was considered a mortal sin, and suicides were not
allowed to be buried in consecrated ground, but at crossroads with stakes through
their hearts. Amy's servants all loved and respected her. Suppose they came back
and found their mistress not lying at the bottom of the stairs but hanging from the
banister or a rafter beam? Not wanting to stigmatize her memory, what if they then
took her down and told everyone they'd found her at the foot of the stairs? A kind-hearted,
not to mention politic, coroner's jury might have hesitated to offend the most powerful
baron in the land with the imputation that his adultery with the Queen had driven
his wife to such despair that she had hanged herself.
Amy was buried in the chancel of the Church of St Mary the Virgin, her body having
been first taken to Gloucester (Worcester) College. (There is a relatively modern
tablet recording her burial.) Eighty poor men and women were said to have marched
in procession, followed by members of the University, a choir and heralds. Her funeral
cost Robert 500; but he was not present. The chief mourner, by custom of the same
sex, was Lady Norry’s, Forster's wife's cousin.
As for Dudley, the Queen blew hot and cold in her attitude towards him. Of course
she never married him, nor anyone else, though Dudley married again. However, she
made him Earl of Leicester and gave him Kenilworth Castle and large areas of North
Wales. He commanded the army at Tilbury when Elizabeth made her famous speech on
August 9th 1588 just after the Spanish fleet had been defeated. Later in the month
Robert set off for Kenilworth on his way to a cure at some spa. He stayed a night
at Lord Norreys' home at Rycote, and while there wrote a letter to Elizabeth. She
had afterwards to write on it "his last letter", for he got no further than Cornbury
Park, where he died.
According to the Little Guide to Oxfordshire (1906) Amy's ghost was supposed to have
met him in the park there saying that "in ten days he'd be with her". If we are to
believe Bartlett, writing in 1850, it was chiefly the people of Cumnor who remembered
Amy's mournful end. Her ghost, he said, haunted Cumnor Place, made people fear to
go near it and "destroyed the peace of the village". The ghost had to be exorcised
by nine clergymen from Oxford who drowned it in a pond in the adjoining close; and
the water never again froze over the spot.