Amy Robsart: Did She Die or Was She Pushed? (Guest Post)


The following article is a guest post by Catherine Hunt about Amy Robsart and her death. There has been much speculation over the centuries as to the true cause of her death. Today, Catherine Hunt gives her opinion on the matter.

Painted by Charles Robert ca 1833 - Oil on mahogany panel depicting Amy Robsart, a 16th century Countess of Leicester. Copyright: © Victoria and Albert Museum, London 2016
Painted by Charles Robert ca 1833 – Oil on mahogany panel depicting Amy Robsart, a 16th century Countess of Leicester.
Copyright: © Victoria and Albert Museum, London 2016

Amy Robsart is probably the only one in history whose fame consists solely on being dead. She was married at the age of 18 to Robert Dudley who, to her misfortune, was the favourite of Elizabeth I. It definitely wasn’t a love match.

Dudley had been imprisoned for treason as he was the son of John Dudley who had tried to usurp the succession of Mary Tudor by putting his daughter in law, Lady Jane Grey onto the throne. Jane reigned for only nine days until her execution for treason.

Amy was born in 1532, dying at age 28 at Cumnor Place in Oxfordshire at the bottom of a staircase whilst alone in the house.

Yeames, William Frederick; The Death of Amy Robsart; Nottingham City Museums and Galleries;
Yeames, William Frederick; The Death of Amy Robsart; Nottingham City Museums and Galleries;

So what? A lot of people died young in those days didn’t they?

However, regarding the circumstances surrounding this particular death, due to the fact that her spouse had supposedly become Elizabeth’s lover, there were only three possible causes of death: Accidental, Suicide or Murder. The last of which, in my opinion is the true cause.

One needs to look at the circumstances happening in her life at the time of her death. During her husband’s time in the Tower Amy had been allowed frequent visits. Her whole situation changed after her husband became Master of Horse after Mary Tudor’s death and the succession of Elizabeth. Amy and Robert had to rely on the charity of relatives for quite some time after his imprisonment but her father, Sir John Robsart, owner of Syderstone Hall, willed his property and possessions to his daughter, so together with her husband’s exalted position they were quite comfortably off.

Most Historians agree that Amy had some kind of cancer, possibly starting in her breast or neck. Also at the time of her illness her husband was spending less and less time with her as his Queen demanded more and more of his attention. She also insisted that sexual relations should not take place whenever he took the time to visit Amy. At the time of her death, we find a sick woman, deprived of the person she would have loved to spend her final days with and word had reached her that he was the Queens lover. Surely then there is a strong possibility of suicide.

In present times, yes, but in Tudor times I think not. Amy was a person of great faith and was often seen and heard by her servants praying aloud for the help of God. Faith in those days was simply part of your life, whatever your lot. You did not end your life. You prayed for divine intervention, and, if this did not come, then you accepted your sorrow. Those who favour the suicide theory, base it on the fact that she was known to pray frequently for help in her desperation, however her servants who heard her thought she naturally was praying about her illness, as there was no cure for cancer or much pain relief then, so the disease was likely to have spread when she died and she would have been extremely physically weak and tired. There is also the fact that she asked all her servants including Lizzie Odingsellsher, chief carer and also occupier of Cumnor, to go to the local Fair. The latter took a lot of persuading, not because she was unduly worried about leaving Amy alone for a while, but because she considered herself too much of a lady to go fairing on a Sunday. On her return, as we know, poor Amy was dead at the bottom of the stairs. This fact of wanting to be alone could also back up the suicide theory, but how did she know Lizzie would go with the other servants who were going anyway, and, always having been described as a caring, loving person, surely in her mind we must consider that perhaps she decided it was time Lizzie had some sort of treat .

Ward, Edward Matthew; Leicester and Amy Robsart at Cumnor Hall; Southampton City Art Gallery;

Amy was not dressed but out of bed for a while that day. Might she have decided to go downstairs, became dizzy and fallen. Amy was sensible. Although she was able to get out of bed for a while on that day, might she have been weaker than she thought and fallen? It is my opinion that because she was sensible, she would not have attempted stairs, or if she had, as soon as she felt any weakness or dizziness she would have sat down where she was, even if it meant waiting for others to return. It was not early in the day. Severe cancer sufferers tend to weaken as the day progresses and Lizzie had, in all likelihood, last seen Amy in bed. Also regarding the stairs it is unlikely that Amy would have been able to get down them at all. It is assumed there was some sort of balcony. To fall off a balcony one has to climb onto it. In no way can anyone in what was definitely terminal cancer in Amy’s case climb onto a balcony! In my mind this rules out the verdict of the time of accidental death, which was anyway the only verdict the Tudor investigation would dare give as to implicate Robert Dudley, ipso facto, would implicate his lover the Queen and nobody would dare do that! The verdict was passed before the case was heard, it seems.

Hearing of her death it was Robert himself who insisted on a proper inquest, knowing what the verdict would be but it looked good didn’t it. However I do not think he instigated murder. There is no doubt in my mind, though, that it was. My reason is not only the fact that the other suggestions have been ruled out for me, but for a further couple of what might seem odd facts to the reader. The first is that Elizabeth wore BLACK, on hearing of Amy’s death so “methinks the lady doth protest too much!” I think that as she was an extremely jealous woman, getting that bit older, adoring Robert although Robert hardly saw Amy she still considered her to be dangerous competition as she would have liked the married couple to cease total contact even though Amy was too ill to come to court. Elizabeth demanded total devotion from her men, married or not .William Cecil, the principal secretary, couldn’t even get Elizabeth to marry and he knew that she possibly never would.

He would have benefited from Amy’s death, but I am pretty certain that if not he, then someone who knew Elizabeth as well as he did, murdered Amy, knowing that Elizabeth would be fully cognisant of any plot and would approve it.

Amy Robsart (1532–1560) William Frederick Yeames (1835–1918) Wolverhampton Art Gallery
Amy Robsart (1532–1560)
William Frederick Yeames (1835–1918)
Wolverhampton Art Gallery

Maybe this sounds very far-fetched but even today love and jealousy are very strong motives for murder. My second reason for thinking murder is reading something as a child about Amy’s death but I can’t remember or find the reference but it is something which made Lizzie Oddingsells think of murder. It all rests on a nightcap which one always wore in bed in Tudor times. Women could either let the strings of this bonnet like item hang loose or tied. Now we don’t know how Amy liked to wear them but wear them she did. If anyone falls from even a slight height wearing such lightweight headwear then  it will either fall off completely if unsecured or at least tilt or change angle. What gave Lizzie food for thought was that the nightcap was in PERFECT position on Amy’s head.

I do not believe though that Robert himself had any part in her murder and that his personal acquittal was justified.
In the wonderful TV drama where Tom Hardy played Robert I think the scriptwriter summed up Dudleys attitude towards Amy when the actor says to Lizzie:
“Take care of her Mrs Oddingsells, she could well be the best part of me ”

Written by Catherine Hunt
References :
Weir Alison(1999) The Life Of Elizabeth
Skidmore Chris (2010) Death and the Virgin: Elizabeth,Dudley and the mysterious fate of Amy Robsart

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8 Comments Leave a comment

  1. The reference to a balcony is confusing here and I am wondering where that evidence comes from. I also agree with a previous comment regarding the assumption in the post about suicide in Tudor times. I have read a lot about this case and this post is interesting but there are some holes in the arguments. There needs to be more research presented about such a complex case.

  2. As an investigator and criminaloligist of 13 years daily experience once would look to the conditions of the body….she had cancer or likely did according to what’s been said here.

    If her neck were broken in the fall that would be apparent. Ascribing motive to others is not part of the scientific method…only evidence is considered and since the persons with the most alleged motive of GAIN were not at hand….one is left with accidental death by means of trauma not inflicted by intention. The rest of what was said then and now is born of a SPIRIT that is neither interested in the TRUTH nor a good moral assesment of others. For that one must look to one’s self for the answer and leave the poor woman’s tragic death just that. DCR

  3. Actually, Mrs Odingsells along with Mrs Owen did stay with Amy, granted they were lodged in a different part of the house at the time of Amy’s death but they were still there. Does the author of this piece know much about this case? I wonder.

  4. I think she was murdered and I believe Robert Dudley was responsible he had so much to gain if she died he could get closer to the queen and be better off wealth wise I remember reading another account of this and Dudley had been missing in the royal court the queen had been asking where he was all his family had done things for personel gains his grandfather his father and later on his brother

    • It did not go well for him, it ruined his relationship with the Queen. That’s why it’s often speculated that she was murdered by someone looking to sabotage him.

  5. I don’t disagree that someone might have killed Amy Robsart, but I do disagree with your reasoning.

    For one thing, it ls *not* “well-known” – or, for that matter, true in any way – that unmedicated cancer patients weaken as the day goes on. Cancer patients ***who are under a modern evidence-based medical treatment plan*** are often stronger in the morning – but that’s “often”, not “usually”, and most absolutely not “always” as your essay would have us believe – but cancer patients who are not on medication and have not undergone chemotherapy do not always have a regular pattern of better/worse – and when they do it’s not usually based on a day/night rhythm. (It may be more closely related to hydration, warmth, or even mental state than wakefulness or the position of the sun. Some who cycle do so through a pattern that lasts a few hours, others a few days or weeks; most don’t have a regular cycle at all.)

    Second, you’ve ignored natural causes, which in my opinion is more likely than murder in this case. Cancer spreads to the bone: that’s what it does, and breast cancer above almost all. If Amy Robsart had cancer and if it did spread to her bones, it’s very possible that the jarring of walking down stairs caused a bone to break. This is why so many elderly people with osteoporosis or cancer break hips or spines “falling” down the stairs – in truth it’s the added stress walking down stairs places on the weakened bone that causes it to break. The victim falls because the bone breaks, not the other way around.

    Third, discounting suicide because Amy Robsart was religious is – and I’m sorry – both unhistorical and deeply, intensely ignorant of the reality of suicide among religious people or in Tudor England. We know there were suicides – including among the most intensely religious – but we can’t give an exact number because suicides were not counted; if a suicide couldn’t be hidden in the books as an accident, no record of the death was left behind except accidentally. And religious feeling has never stopped someone with severe depression (let alone severe pain) from committing suicide; if anything it makes it more likely, as the depressed person often believes they are going to Hell anyway so why does it matter?

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