Guest article by Nicola Cornick
Amy Robsart is a woman from the footnotes of history who is most often defined as either a wife (of Robert Dudley, favourite of Queen Elizabeth I) or as a victim (of an unexplained death.) When I came to study and write about Amy, I wanted to find out as much as I could about the woman behind these different identities, which is no easy task. There are however clues to Amy and her life that shed some light on both her character and her activities, and help us to visualise her as a person in her own right.
Amy was born in 1532. Her father, Sir John Robsart, was a member of the Tudor gentry, a landowner who was influential in local politics. He had already fathered an illegitimate son, Arthur, when he married Elizabeth Appleyard, the widow of another gentleman landowner with four children. Amy, the couple’s only child and the youngest of six, was therefore provided with a ready-made family of siblings.
A significant aspect of Amy’s life was that she was born and grew up in Norfolk. Thomas Howard, 3rd Duke of Norfolk was one of the leading magnates of the Tudor period until his downfall and imprisonment in 1546 and Sir John Robsart was favoured by him. It has been suggested that Amy might have spent some time at Kenninghall with the Duke’s children and perhaps even shared in their education. Certainly, she was both literate and articulate, and her style of writing, as demonstrated in her surviving letters, shows a good standard of education.
Amy, like all daughters of the prosperous Tudor gentry, would have been brought up to understand that her obvious and normal destiny would be to manage a home. Her mother Elizabeth would have been the one who tutored her in this aspect of her future life. The country housewife, whether titled or a labourer’s wife, needed to understand how to run every aspect of a household from the still room to the dairy to the kitchen even if she did not do all the actual work herself. In addition, a lady would walk, ride, play cards, discuss sermons and be skilled at fine needlework. Sometimes they even read books.
An important influence on Amy’s life was her father’s strong Protestant faith and it’s likely that she would have been brought up with the same principles, something that she and Robert Dudley had in common. It was in part this firm Protestantism that made Sir John a natural ally of John Dudley, Earl of Warwick, Robert’s father. He was also a man who firmly believed in Royal supremacy and the rule of law.
East Anglia was considered a wild and lawless place in the mid-sixteenth century. It’s geographical distance from London in a period when travel was difficult and time-consuming added to the sense that it was a different world from the sophisticated capital. When rebellion flared in Norfolk in 1549 it only served to emphasise this difference. It was also rebellion that brought Amy and Robert together when, as part of the army sent north to quell Kett’s Rebellion, he met Amy at her father’s manor of Stansfield.
Historians have debated whether or nor the marriage of Amy Robsart and Robert Dudley was a love match and many have dismissed the idea. In its favour is that Robert, as the third son of an Earl who was one of the most powerful men in the kingdom, could have looked to make a much more ambitious match than to the daughter of a country gentleman. All his brothers and sisters made more advantageous marriages. However, it is also the case the there wasn’t as great a disparity in Robert and Amy’s situations as there might have seemed. Not only was Amy her father’s heiress but it suited Warwick for his son to step into a role of some authority in East Anglia and fill the power vacuum left by the downfall of the Duke of Norfolk. Whatever the personal relationship of Robert and Amy at this stage, it must have been a remarkable shift in circumstance for Amy to move from life at Stansfield Manor to life at the court of King Edward VI.
From this point, much of Amy’s life story as we know it is dictated by her husband’s career at court, for although he held a number of posts in her home county of Norfolk, the focus of his ambitions was of course in London. Whilst his father’s star continued to rise, Robert prospered too. The whole structure came crashing down, of course, with the failed attempt to place Lady Jane Grey on the throne after the death of Edward VI in 1553. John Dudley, now Duke of Northumberland, was executed and his sons imprisoned in the Tower of London. Amy, like the other Dudley wives, was permitted conjugal visits to her husband during the eighteen months of Robert’s imprisonment. It’s likely that during this period she lived with her mother’s relatives, the Scotts, in Camberwell near London in order to remain near him.
There are a number of personal issues on which the historical record is silent. It would be intriguing to know, for example, the effect this tumultuous rise and fall in circumstances had on Amy, how she dealt with what must have been the enormous trauma of her husband being under sentence of death, and how, more broadly, she felt about their childless marriage. We have very little of Amy’s own writing to draw on to illuminate her character and very little description of her or her actions. We can only infer that under the standards of the period her “barrenness” would have been commented upon, and would have been seen as a failure on her part. For an ambitious man like Robert Dudley, who came from a large family and would surely wish to build his own dynasty to succeed him, this lack of offspring would also surely have been a source of dissatisfaction.
Robert’s pardon and release from the Tower of London in 1554 did not in any way return the couple to a familiar lifestyle. Lacking both royal favour and money, Robert struggled to pay his debts and the family’s loyalty was still deeply suspect. Robert was able to recover his position to a certain degree through ingratiating himself with Philip of Spain, the husband of Queen Mary. However, this had deep implications for his relationship with Amy for it led to a number of absences abroad travelling with King Philip or on his behalf.
Robert’s financial situation improved after the death of Amy’s mother as he finally gained possession of Sir John Robsart’s Norfolk estates. A letter written by Amy in 1557 to John Flowerdew, the steward of those estates, about the sale of wool, demonstrates that during Robert’s absence abroad she had some control over the running of the estate and the making of decisions in relation to it. This could be considered unusual, especially give the number of stewards and men of business involved in Dudley’s affairs, and it may have been because the estates had come to Dudley via his wife and that Amy had a family connection to John Flowerdew, that she had this authority.
By this time, Amy was living at Throcking in Hertfordshire, in the home of William Hyde, an associate of Robert Dudley. Throcking was conveniently placed between London and the estates in Norfolk so if Amy did have a role in the running of these the relative proximity would have made communication easier. However, Throcking was also a tiny, isolated place with very little company. Whilst Amy might make the occasional visit to London she did not have a permanent home there; Robert himself was probably residing at his sister-in-law’s house, Christchurch, near Leadenhall Street.
It seems likely that at this stage Robert Dudley was still looking to establish himself in Norfolk, for John Flowerdew had undertaken a review of the manor of Flitcham, near Norwich, on his behalf in 1558. In all likelihood, had this purchase gone ahead, Amy’s life might well have followed a different course with a family home in the county of her birth where she could live whilst Robert was at court. The death of Queen Mary and the accession of her sister Elizabeth changed all that.
A lot has been written about the complex relationship between Robert Dudley and Queen Elizabeth I. In terms of the effect on Amy’s life it was on one level very simple. Elizabeth wanted Robert constantly by her side, which meant that Amy was very much de trop. The small glimpses into her life given through the references in Robert Dudley’s household accounts suggest that she continued to live at Throcking on and off until 1559, when she left there for Camberwell. This was not, however, a visit to see Robert. When she arrived, he had already left for Windsor with the Queen. Although they spent a couple of weeks together in June that year, when Robert left for Elizabeth’s latest royal progress, Amy was despatched to stay with another of his supporters, this time the Verney family of Warwickshire. Two months later she moved again, to Cumnor Place in Oxfordshire. She did not see Robert again; nine months later, she died.
What Amy made of her peripatetic life with no family estate to call her own, what she thought of Robert’s constant attendance upon Elizabeth, or the rumours about their relationship, or the fact that he was absent from her own life, is not recorded. During the time she spent in Cumnor, a village only slightly larger and less isolated than Throcking, the only letter we have in her own hand is to her London dressmaker, William Edney. A number of historians have drawn on the letter and on Amy’s tailoring bills, as recorded in the Dudley household accounts, to suggest she had a pre-occupation with fashion, and certainly they show that she dressed as an aristocratic woman would, with expensive and luxurious fabrics of satin and velvet and silk. However there is a danger in reading too much into these bills and orders as an indication of her interests; in the absence of other records they can take on too great a significance. We know very little, for example, of the books she would read, the sort of occupations she would spend time upon or the lives of the people with whom she mixed.
The letter to Edney has also been analysed for an indication of Amy’s state of mind in this period of the life. There had been rumours at the time that she was very ill, even close to dying; there were also suggestions that Robert and Elizabeth’s behaviour had driven her to contemplate suicide. In this light the positive tone of the letter is read as suggesting that Amy was in good health and good spirits. Her request of Edney that the dress be made “with as much speed as you can” has also been interpreted as posing a tantalising mystery: What was the urgency? We do not know.
Just as Amy’s sparse letters have been minutely analysed for evidence of her interests and state of mind, so her behaviour on the last day of her life has been picked over both at the time and subsequently for clues to her death. Amy was found dead at the bottom of a flight of stairs on 8th September 1560. Her neck was broken. The man sent by Robert Dudley to interview the staff and household at Cumnor reported that Amy had been determined to be alone, telling them all that they should attend the fair in Abingdon that day. When a couple of her companions had refused, Amy had apparently been very angry. It seems an odd reaction from a woman whose maid “dearly loved her” and who referred to Amy as “a good virtuous gentlewoman.” As with the letter to Edney, it prompts us to wonder what was in Amy’s mind that day.
Barring the discovery of some previously unknown evidence, we are never likely to know whether Amy Robsart’s death was murder, suicide or an accident. What we can do, however, is piece together as much of Amy’s life as we can from the little glimpses provided by the historical record, from her childhood in the rural wilds of Norfolk, to the sumptuousness of Edward VI’s court, to the obscurity of her life at Cumnor. In that way we may remember that Amy Robsart should not solely be defined either as Robert Dudley’s unwanted wife nor by her mysterious death.
Ed Adams, Simon, Household Accounts and Disbursements Book of Robert Dudley, Earl of Leicester Volume 6 Royal Historical Society Cambridge 1995
Fussell, GE and KR, The English Countrywoman Bloomsbury London 1985
Hartweg, Christine, Amy Robsart, A life and its end 2017
Skidmore, Chris, Death and the Virgin: Elizabeth, Dudley, and the Mysterious Fate of Amy Robsart Phoenix London 2010
Ed Vincent, J, The Derby Diaries 1869 – 1878 A Selection from the Diaries of Edward Henry Stanley, 15th Earl of Derby, between September 1869 and March 1878 (Camden Fifth Series) London 1996