Elizabeth & Robert: Did They or Didn’t They?

Guest article by Samantha K. Cohen

Being a romantic I hope they did but history being more practical than me says maybe they did and maybe they didn’t. In other words, we really don’t know.

Medically, Elizabeth I was a mess. Frequent headaches and stomach aches were two of her many illnesses. Missed periods were frequent.

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Letter from Queen Elizabeth to Robert Dudley, Earl of Leicester

As the Queen’s favorite, Robert Dudley, Earl of Leicester had petitioned to be sent to the Netherlands to assist in protecting the Protestants in the country. King Philip of Spain had recently taken control of the country after the abdication of Charles V. King Philip was shocked at the number of Protestants in the country and how fast the movement was growing – he wished to stop the movement and return the Netherlands to Catholicism. As a Protestant herself Elizabeth understood the importance of putting a stop to King Philip’s campaign as soon as possible – what was to stop him from continuing on through Europe?

The Dutch were extremely grateful for England’s intervention in their cause and the leaders had asked Leicester to take a position as the head of their government as Governor of the Netherlands. Leicester sent word to the Queen to get her permission in the matter but had not heard back from her. Eventually, the matter was pressed further and Leicester felt the need to accept the position without the Queen’s permission…something this letter shows she was not pleased with.

Leicester as Governor General of the Netherlands


In two and half years the Queen would lose her closest friend and the person she had known the longest.

Netherlands, April 1586

Right trusty and right well-beloved cousin and councillor, we greet you well. It is always thought in the opinion of the world a hard bargain when both parties are leasoned (slandered), and so doth fall out in the case between us two. You, as we hear, are greatly grieved in respect of the great displeasure you find we have conceived against you; and we, no less grieved that a subject of ours of what quality that you are, a creature of our favor above all our subjects even from the beginning of our reign, should deal so carelessly – we will not say contemptuously – as to give the world just cause to think that we are had in contempt by him that have looked to receive any such measure. Which, we do assure you, hath wrought as great grief in us as any one thing that have ever happened unto us.

We are persuaded that you that have so long known us cannot think that ever we could have been drawn to have taken so hard a course herein, had we not been provoked by an extraordinary cause. Burt for that your grieved and wounded mind hath more need of comfort than reproof, whom we are persuaded (though the act in respect of the contempt can no way be excused) had no other meaning and intent than to advance our service, we think meet to forbear to dwell upon a matter wherein we ourselves do find so little comfort, assuring you that whosoever professeth to love you best taketh not more comfort of your well-doing or discomfort of your evildoing than ourself.

Now to come to the breach itself, which we would be glad to repair in such sort as may be for our honor without the peril and danger of that country, we do think meet that you shall, upon conference with Sir Thomas Heneage and such others whose advice you shall think meet to be used therein, think of some way how the point concerning the absolute title may be qualified in such sort as the authority may notwithstanding remain, which we think most needful to continue for the redress of the’abuses and avoiding of confusion that otherwise is likely to ensure. Which as we conceive may be performed if the States may be induced to yield that authority unto you, carrying the title of lieutenant-general of our forces, that they do now yield unto you under the title of an absolute governor. And for that we are persuaded that you may be best able, knowing the dispositions of all sorts of people there as well of the inferior as the superior, to judge what is fit to be done to bring such a qualification as we desire to pass, we think meet that the whole of proceeding should be referred to the good consideration and extraordinary care of you and Sir Thomas Heneage, and such others whose advise you shall use in the matter. For we must needs confess that it is a thing that we do greatly desire and affect. And therefore we do look that you should use all the best endeavor that possibly you may to bring that same presently to pass. And yet notwithstanding, if by conference with Sir Thomas Heneage and other whose advice you shall like to use therein, you shall find that any such motion for the present may work any peril of consequence to that State, then do we think meet it be forborne and are content to yield that the government shall be continued as it now doth under you for a time until we shall hear from you how the said qualification we so greatly desire touching the title may be brought to pass without breeding any alteration in those countries. For we can be content (if necessity shall so require) to tolerate the same for a time. And so, we think, must the Council of State be given to understand, for that they maybe be the rather drawn thereby to devise some way to yield us contentment in this our desire.

And whereas by our letters directed our servant SirThomas Heneage we have appointed that the answer to the requests of the council of Estate there contained in their letters directed unto us for the stay of the revocation of your authority should be delivered by him unto the Council of State there according to such resolution as should be taken between you, wishing it shall fall out to be such as you shall think meet that our assent be yielded for the continuance of your government as it now standeth for a time, then would we have the said Sir Thomas in the delivery thereof let the said Council of State understand how we are drawn, for the love we bear towards them and the care we have that nothing should proceed from us that might any way work their peril, to leave all respects unto our own hands, hoping that the consideration thereof will draw them the rather to devise some way how to satisfy us in the point of qualification, as also to be more ready from time to time to carry that respect and regard to you, our minister during the time of your employments there, as may be both for our honor, your comfort, and the particular benefit of themselves. Given under our signet at our manor of Greenwich.

Elizabeth I – Collected Works (Pages 277-279)

Edited by Leah S. Marcus, Janel Mueller, and Mary Beth Rose

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Portraits of Elizabeth’s Favorite: Robert Dudley, Earl of Leicester

In the past there were no cameras, only brushes and canvas to leave us with images of those who we would later learn about in history books, lectures and blogs online. Their true identity would be left to the eye of the beholder – it was up to them to translate what they saw onto canvas…for prosperity. As with most portraiture the final product can vary with each artist.

Portraits of Robert Dudley, Earl of Leicester

“Dudley’s youth was overshadowed by the downfall of his family in 1553 after his father, the Duke of Northumberland, had unsuccessfully tried to establish Lady Jane Grey on the English throne. Robert Dudley was condemned to death but was released in 1554 and took part in the Battle of St. Quentin under Philip II of Spain, which led to his full rehabilitation. On Elizabeth I’s accession in November 1558, Dudley was appointed Master of the Horse.” – Christine Hartweg (All Things Robert Dudley)

These two portraits are very similar – the sitter (Robert Dudley) appears to be wearing the same outfit, however, the faces appear to differ as do the details on the clothing. I was unable to find the artist for either of these.

Yale Center for British Art released under Creative Commons CC-BY license. Archived from the original on 2011-09-03.

It was in Dudley that the eight-year-old Elizabeth had confided upon the execution of her third stepmother, Catherine Howard, in 1541, vowing: ‘I will never marry’. He would always remember the conversation, and it may have been the reason he decided to marry Amy Robsart nine years later. – Tracy Borman (Robert Dudley: Queen Elizabeth I’s great love)

Robert Dudley in 1576, aged 44, as is stated in the margin. Miniature by Nicholas Hilliard


by Unknown artist, oil on panel, circa 1575

“Robert Dudley’s private life interfered with his court career and vice versa. When his first wife, Amy Robsart, fell down a flight of stairs and died in 1560, he was free to marry the Queen. However, the resulting scandal very much reduced his chances in this respect.” – Christine Hartweg (All Things Robert Dudley)

by Steven van der Meulen

Portrait by Nicholas Hilliard.

“Elizabeth made it clear that she had no intention of giving up her favourite. If anything, she found ways to spend even more time with him. A year after her accession, she had Dudley’s bedchamber moved next to her private rooms in order to facilitate their clandestine meetings. Before long, their relationship was causing a scandal not just in England, but in courts across Europe.” Tracy Borman (Robert Dudley: Queen Elizabeth I’s great love)

van der Meulen, Steven; Robert Dudley, Earl of Leicester; The Wallace Collection; http://www.artuk.org/artworks/robert-dudley-earl-of-leicester-209567


“For the first 30 years of Elizabeth’s reign, until Leicester’s death, he and Lord Burghley were the most powerful and important political figures, working intimately with the Queen. Robert Dudley was a conscientious privy councillor, and one of the most frequently attending.”‘ – Christine Hartweg (All Things Robert Dudley)

unknown artist; Robert Dudley, 1st Earl of Leicester; National Portrait Gallery, London; http://www.artuk.org/artworks/robert-dudley-1st-earl-of-leicester-158140

unknown artist; Robert Dudley (1532/1533-1588), Earl of Leicester, High Steward of the University (1563); Old Schools, University of Cambridge; http://www.artuk.org/artworks/robert-dudley-153215331588-earl-of-leicester-high-steward-of-the-university-1563-195459


British (English) School; Robert Dudley (1533-1588), Earl of Leicester, KG; National Trust, Knole; http://www.artuk.org/artworks/robert-dudley-15331588-earl-of-leicester-kg-218909


Segar, William; Robert Dudley (1532/1533-1588), 1st Earl of Leicester; Corpus Christi College, University of Cambridge; http://www.artuk.org/artworks/robert-dudley-153215331588-1st-earl-of-leicester-193702



‘I humbly kiss your foot’ by Your Majesty’s most faithful and obedient servant. These were probably the last words ever written by Robert Dudley. Five days later, on 4 September 1588, he breathed his last. Elizabeth was inconsolable at the loss of ‘sweet Robin’, the only man whom she had ever truly loved. Their relationship had survived almost 50 years of trials and tribulations, and Elizabeth was lost without him.” -Tracy Borman (Robert Dudley: Queen Elizabeth I’s great love)


by Unknown artist, marble bust, late 18th century or 19th century


Robert Dudley, 1st Earl of Leicester by Unknown artist;silver medal, 1587  National Portrait Gallery, London


Robert Dudley, 1st Earl of Leicester by Christoffel van Sichem (Voschem) line engraving, 1580s – National Portrait Gallery, London


Christine Hartweg (All Things Robert Dudley)

Tracy Borman (Robert Dudley: Queen Elizabeth I’s great love)

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