Posted on: August 18, 2014

The unexplained death of Amy Robsart, wife of Robert Dudley, Earl of Leicester and favourite of Queen Elizabeth I, is one of the most tantalising mysteries of the Tudor era. To put it simply, did she jump or was she pushed? Or was it all just a tragic accident? When Amy was found lying at the foot of a short flight of stairs in September 1560, it cast a big shadow over the early years of Elizabeth’s glorious reign, and – as many think – successfully ensured that the Queen stayed single for the rest of her life.

Amy was a Norfolk girl, born in June 1532 to a gentleman-farmer, Sir John Syderstone, and his wife Elizabeth. Unusually for the time, she was well-educated. Also, unusually for the time, she married for love. A few days before her 18th birthday, she married Robert Dudley, son of the Earl of Warwick. Amy was moving on the edge of a highly powerful circle. Her sister-in-law was the tragic Lady Jane Grey, who famously reigned for only 9 days, the victim of an ambitious Protestant coup to stop the Catholic Queen Mary from taking power. As a consequence, Robert was imprisoned in the Tower of London from July 1553 to October 1554. Amy was allowed to visit him there, but it must have been a fraught time for the young couple, particularly as Lady Jane and her husband Guildford were both beheaded in February 1554.

Upon Robert’s release, the couple were forced to live hand-to-mouth, usually on the benevolence of family members, for the rest of Queen Mary’s short reign. Robert’s luck changed for the better in November 1558, when Queen Mary died and her Protestant sister, Elizabeth, came to the throne. Robert and Elizabeth were old friends, a friendship that had been strengthened during their mutual incarceration in the Tower. Elizabeth wasn’t a woman to forget old friends, and she duly made Robert her Master Of Horse.

Gossip about the true relationship between Elizabeth and Robert was rife at the time, and has been a source of much speculation ever since. They were certainly very close, and Robert enjoyed liberties with the Queen which wouldn’t have been open to many. There was scandalous talk that he could burst into her bedchamber whenever he wanted (his own was very nearby), and had even been known to hand her her undergarments. Elizabeth must have been a captivating young woman. Witty, intelligent, and strikingly attractive with her long red hair. She also had the glamorous allure of power. Any man who married Elizabeth would become the King of England. Robert wouldn’t have been human if he hadn’t found that prospect enticing.

Modern romantic novelists and film-makers like to assume that Elizabeth and Robert had a full-on affair, but some historians dispute this. As Queen, Elizabeth had precious little privacy. She was on public display from the moment she woke up to the moment she fell asleep. Like all monarchs of the time, she couldn’t even visit the privy by herself, but would have a maid in attendance. Elizabeth’s bevy of ladies-in-waiting would have been dancing attendance on her at all times.

Also it is thought doubtful that Elizabeth ever had any intention of marrying anyone. She enjoyed the fun and the rituals of courtship, and certainly relished having all the crowned heads of Europe after her hand. But to her it was mainly a political game … one she had no intention of seeing through to the close. She had been only a little child of 3-years-old when her mother had been executed by sword, on (what is most certainly) trumped-up charges of adultery, treason, incest and witchcraft, because her husband, and Elizabeth’s father, King Henry VIII, had been desperate to be rid of her. From then on Elizabeth had had a succession of four stepmothers, one of whom, Kathryn Howard, had also met her death on the scaffold. It’s scarcely surprising that Elizabeth’s view of marriage would have been tainted by all that. She had also seen her cousin, Lady Jane, ruthlessly bundled into an arranged marriage, which ultimately spelled her doom, and had also seen the mistake her own sister Mary had made, by marrying a bridegroom, Philip of Spain, who was universally detested by the English people. Elizabeth was very far from stupid. She must have been determined not to make the mistakes her father and her sister had made.

So, although she and Robert were very likely soul mates, and enjoyed each other’s company, I doubt Elizabeth really wanted to take it any further. She had been through too much in her life already, and must have been determined that she would have no master to hamper her own much-fought for power. Flirting is fun, but planning on marrying is a whole different ball game. Particularly for a queen.

Meanwhile, Amy was languishing in the Oxfordshire countryside. She lived in a sumptuous apartment at Cumnor Place, owned by Sir Anthony Forster. Popular fiction always portrays Amy as living alone and neglected, buried in the boondocks, whilst her errant husband was away, being captivated by the Queen. Perhaps that was the case. Or perhaps Amy preferred the countryside to city life. She certainly lived well, with her own retinue of servants, and received regular gifts from her husband. As a country-girl, she may not have had any time for the falseness and shallow flatteries of the royal court. Perhaps she preferred to stay away and content herself with running her own household.

By the autumn of 1560 though, Amy (only 28-years-old) was seriously ill with breast cancer. On the morning of 8th September, there was a fair on at the nearby town of Abingdon. Amy wanted all the servants to go, although she didn’t feel like attending herself. According to the inquest into Amy’s death, Mrs Odingsell, who also lived at Cumnor Place, had asserted that she didn’t want to go either, as it was no fit place for a respectable woman to be. At this Amy had become quite upset, and insisted she go.

The servants duly went out. When Amy was seen again, she was found lying at the foot of the stairs, dead with a broken neck. Her death immediately caused an enormous scandal. The public finger of guilt pointed at the two close friends, Robert and Elizabeth. Had they plotted to have Amy removed so that they could marry? Elizabeth knew that if she married Robert she would most certainly indict herself as a murderess, so she publicly removed herself from him. Robert immediately ordered an inquest into his wife’ death.

At the inquest Amy’s maid, Mrs Picto, related how Amy had been wracked with misery with her illness, and had often prayed on her knees for God to remove her from such suffering. When she was asked if that meant Amy could have been considering suicide, Mrs Picto got quite upset: “do not judge so of my words … I am sorry I said so much”. Suicide was considered a terrible sin. Anyone doing away with themselves would not be able to be buried in consecrated ground for instance. It would be perfectly understandable for Mrs Picto to not want Amy to have that stigma attached to her.

Amy was buried with full pomp at St Mary’s, Oxford. Robert meanwhile went into full mourning, and went into seclusion for a month, away from the Court. When he returned Elizabeth greeted him as affectionately as ever, but it was clear that the goalposts had moved. The tittle-tattle wasn’t going to die down in a hurry, and William Cecil, Elizabeth’s trusted advisor, was in no rush to see Robert as King-Consort, and made sure that the poisonous gossip stayed alive.

Eventually Robert went on to marry Lettice Knollys, a cousin of the Queen’s (whom she greatly resembled), and a fiercely vain and ambitious woman. Elizabeth was furious at this marriage, and refused to receive Lettice at Court. Robert was eventually forgiven though (even if Lettice wasn’t). When he died in 1588, Elizabeth was distraught, and locked herself in her room for days. Elizabeth of course never married at all. For the rest of her life she seemed to see marriage more as a curse than a blessing. She was devoted to her job, and couldn’t seem to see why other people should need marriage and family life. I think there is no doubt that Robert was the second great love of her life … after England. There is a touching story that she kept a letter from him next to her bed, inscribed “his last letter”. But was she complicit in murder?

My own gut feeling is that no she wasn’t, and Robert wasn’t guilty either. Historians have pointed out that his behaviour in the immediate aftermath of Amy’s death wasn’t in keeping with a man who had cold-bloodedly organised the whole thing. His shock and surprise seemed genuine. He was entirely caught off guard by the whole thing. Amy’s unexpected death was more of a hindrance to him and Elizabeth than a help. They would have known that Amy didn’t have long to live. All they had to do was sit it out until the cancer took it’s dreadful course. There was simply no reason for them to take the law into their own hands.

So was it suicide? Again, I find that hard to believe. As a Tudor lady, running her own household, Amy would probably have had full knowledge of herbs and medicines. If she had been determined to kill herself, I can’t help feeling she would have known of more comfortable ways to do it, frankly, than throwing yourself down a short flight of stairs. Her behaviour on that fateful day does seem to have been that of a woman desperate to be alone, for whatever reasons she had in mind, but that could have been anything.

The most convincing explanation I’ve ever heard (and unfortunately I can’t remember where I heard it), is that it was an accident. By this time the cancer would have been so far advanced that it may well have eaten through to Amy’s spine, making her unbalanced. She may have slipped on the stairs wholly unintentionally.

Nevertheless the untimely death of Amy Robsart continues to be a matter of great fascination for historians and novelists alike. Her ghost was also reputed to haunt Cumnor Place for centuries afterwards, until it was pulled down at the beginning of the 19th century.



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