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.
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.
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.
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 .
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.
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
Weir Alison(1999) The Life Of Elizabeth
Skidmore Chris (2010) Death and the Virgin: Elizabeth,Dudley and the mysterious fate of Amy Robsart
We know Queen Elizabeth I never married, but do we truly understand why?
Imagine being the daughter of a king who couldn’t settle on a wife, and then going from Princess to Lady overnight.
Elizabeth’s mother, Anne Boleyn only had a couple of years with her young daughter. Elizabeth most likely had no memory of her mother because of her untimely end.
Anne Boleyn was vilified as a witch — she supposedly seduced Henry VIII into doing things that he normally would not have done. He became displeased with his queen and found ways to find her guilty of treason.
To ensure Anne was not an ongoing thorn in his side Henry had her beheaded instead of divorcing her. It seems clear that he still had some feelings for Anne, or he would not have allowed a more merciful death by sword instead of the normal axe. After her death Henry made sure to remove all traces of Elizabeth’s mother and allowed the Tudor propaganda machine to slander Anne.
All of these events, along with the subsequent marriages, deaths, divorces and beheadings of her father’s queens would inevitably shape Elizabeth’s future decisions on marriage and relationships.
Elizabeth also had an interesting relationship with Sir Thomas Seymour when she was just a teenager and living with the dowager queen, Katherine Parr. During the downfall of Seymour many of those close to him and Elizabeth were interrogated. One of them being Elizabeth’s governess, Kat Ashley. Ashley stated that Thomas would flirt with Elizabeth in an improper fashion – and to thwart him from continuing these escapades Katherine would participate (to keep a watchful eye) by holding down young Elizabeth while Thomas tickled her. Inevitably, Katherine supposedly found them alone in an embrace and she immediately put a stop to this behavior. She was after all Elizabeth’s guardian. Katherine was also pregnant with Thomas’ child at the time. She sent young Elizabeth away to the Denny household. We must keep in mind that Kat’s testimony may have been exaggerated or made up to spare herself from the Tower. Those responsible for the downfall of Thomas Seymour needed evidence and everyone was aware that torture for a confession was always a possibility. I’ve always found it interesting that this was the first time it was reported – while it allegedly happened there is no evidence to corroborate the stories. Surely a scandal as such would have been documented by someone for us to find. There is nothing.
When Katherine Parr died after the birth of her daughter Mary, Thomas Seymour once again turned his attentions to young Elizabeth. Seymour’s ambitions got the best of him and he was eventually charged with treason. Elizabeth was interrogated in order to help build the case against Thomas, but she refused to say anything that would incriminate him – Elizabeth understood by incriminating Thomas she would also be hurting her own reputation at court.
When Elizabeth’s sister Mary wed Philip of Spain she also witnessed the pain that her sister went through to fight for her husband. Mary’s council was concerned that Philip would try to take advantage of Mary’s power and use it for his own country. Mary loved Philip dearly and fought to make him her king consort. After much argument with the council they agreed to the marriage as long as Philip was not allowed to make any political decisions for England.
Elizabeth was witness to the heartache that her sister went through with the phantom pregnancies and when Philip left for Spain after it was discovered she was not pregnant the first time . Having seen for herself how destructive marriage could be, Elizabeth was in no hurry to wed – plus any man that she would wed as queen would be in a position of authority that would be nearly equal to her’s, so she understandably was leery to any agreement of marriage.
When the young princess became Elizabeth I, the first thing on her council’s agenda was to find her a suitable husband. However, Elizabeth’s past with men would determine her decision-making when it came to a husband.
Elizabeth had one man in her life whom she had known since childhood and loved very much — Robert Dudley. The Dudley family was a favorite at court but had fallen out of favor with their involvement in Lady Jane Grey’s rise to power, prior to the reign of her sister Mary I.
In 1550 Robert Dudley married Amy Robsart after he realized that Elizabeth would never marry him. Elizabeth was upset — she wanted him all for herself but couldn’t make the commitment, she was after-all a princess of England.
There had always been an attraction between Elizabeth and Robert. It’s obvious that Robert was her best friend, someone she trusted implicitly. Elizabeth would find ways to be near Robert. This began when she appointed him her Master of Horse. A position that would keep him very close to her. Later she would raise his station by making him a member of her privy council, Lord Stewart of the Royal Household and eventually the Earl of Leicester.
For many years Elizabeth gave Robert Dudley hope that he was a leading suitor for her hand in marriage — something that would raise his status greatly. When Elizabeth appointed Robert to Earl of Leicester it was to make him suitable to marry her cousin Mary, Queen of Scots. This was Elizabeth’s way of satisfying her cousin and controlling her through her most trusted friend, Robert. The marriage was something that Robert was against because of his feelings for Elizabeth – how could she so easily use him as a pawn when they shared such a great love?
Elizabeth understood that marriage meant an alliance. In order for her to marry there had to be a benefit for England. Marrying Robert Dudley would not benefit England – only Elizabeth. If Elizabeth married Robert it would only tear apart the country – plus he was already a married man. It was still long suspected that he would marry Elizabeth upon the death of his wife Amy.
On 8th September 1560, Amy Robsart had insisted that all her servants be away from the household that day. There was a local fair going on. When Amy was found dead at the bottom of her staircase with a broken neck Robert Dudley was immediately a suspect; however, he was vindicated because he was at court with Elizabeth at Windsor Castle.
An investigation was carried out and found the cause of death to be accidental but this did not remove suspicion from Robert and Elizabeth. It was too convenient. For Elizabeth to be able to marry Robert, Amy could not be in the picture. Whether this was declared an accident or not Elizabeth could no longer consider Robert a husband. It would ruin her kingdom and reign as queen.
There is no doubt that Elizabeth loved Robert Dudley. Unfortunately he would not wait forever for the queen to propose. Robert remained unmarried after Amy’s death for 18 years. When he eventually married again, in 1578, it was to Elizabeth’s cousin, Lettice Knollys. Elizabeth was crushed and saddened by the fact that her love could marry anyone but her – let alone her beautiful cousin.
When Robert died on 4 September 1588, his death came unexpectedly. Some historians have considered both malaria and stomach cancer as cause of death. Elizabeth was deeply affected by her dear friend’s death and locked herself in her apartment for days –until Lord Burghley had the door broken down.
Elizabeth kept the last letter Robert Dudley had written her prior to his death in her bedside treasure box — the letter was still there when she died over a decade later.
It seems clear now that all the male relationships that Elizabeth had — her father, Philip of Spain, Thomas Seymour and Robert Dudley and the fear of losing control of her kingdom had helped to shape her stance on marriage in her future. Elizabeth was able to witness how marriage affected women in her life and didn’t want the same for herself. She also witnessed the death of Jane Seymour and Katherine Parr after giving birth – another possible outcome after a marriage.
As she stated – she would rather be married to England than any man. Can you blame her?