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The Weird Aryan History Series

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 Amy's death.

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 downstairs.

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 Dudley's wife.

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 Robert."

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.