It is a widespread cliché that the Dudleys were a very unpopular family and that, accordingly, Robert Dudley was an unpopular man. One can even read that the project of putting Lady Jane Grey on the English throne failed because she was married to a Dudley, and that Queen Elizabeth’s rule was endangered from the very beginning by her evident fondness for the family.
While it is true that the Duke of Northumberland was widely hated around the time of his downfall – “the great devil Dudley ruleth, Duke I should have said”1 – it is also true that in the last years of Henry VIII he had been one of the most popular English noblemen, much feted as a military hero after naval and diplomatic successes against France.2 The government of Jane Grey was helpless against the overwhelming popularity of Mary Tudor; the royal blood of her family was not enough and when the hated Northumberland was safely in his grave Jane’s father was unable to raise even a small army in his or his daughter’s cause. High rank and his royal wife could not compensate for the lack of a substantial landed following. As for Elizabeth risking public support in her early rule because of her association with the Dudleys, not only was there unmitigated joy at her coronation festivities, but it has also been argued that it was Robert and Ambrose Dudley who “provided the necessary muscle” to underpin her early regime – the Duke of Northumberland’s “military clientele remaining intact.”3
In fact, what has all too often been overlooked is that popularity or unpopularity did not depend on the supposed good or bad deeds of a person or family, but on the respective loyalties of the person or persons who voiced the opinion. Thus, there usually existed two opposite opinions, such as when the following speeches about Robert Dudley and his brother Ambrose, Earl of Warwick, were reported to the authorities in 1581. Geoffrey Clover of Colchester had said that,
My Lord of Warwick and my Lord of Leicester are traitors and come of traitor’s blood, and if they had right they had lost their heads so well as others for making away of King Edward.
To which Thomas Wixsted of Dedham had replied that
the Lord of Oxford … was not worthy to wipe my Lord of Warwick’s shoes, and the Earl of Oxford was confederate with the Duke of Norfolk and was well worthy to lose his head as he, meaning the duke.4
The often quoted reports by foreign ambassadors were also very much influenced by the interests of the powers they represented. In the earliest days of her reign, as long as Elizabeth could be expected to follow Habsburg advice, Philip II’s ambassador, de Feria, spoke of Robert Dudley simply as “Lord Robert, the son of the late duke of Northumberland, Master of the Horse”.5 A few weeks later, when it was clear that the new queen had her own head, de Feria fumed:
In short, what can be said here to your Majesty is only that this country after thirty years of a government such as your Majesty knows, has fallen into the hands of a woman who is a daughter of the devil and the greatest scoundrels and heretics in the land. She is losing the regard of the people and the nobles, and in future will lose it still more now that they have brought the question of religion to an end.6
Equally, when the love affair between Elizabeth and Lord Robert had been going on for several months and was perceived as the major cause of her failure to marry the Habsburg candidate, the Archduke Charles, the Imperial ambassador (who came only to England to promote the match) wished Robert Dudley literally to hell:
I really do believe that he will follow in the footsteps of his parents [i.e. be executed], and may the Devil be his companion, for he causes me and all who are active on behalf of his Princely Highness a world of trouble. He is so hated by the Knights and Commoners that it is a marvel that he has not been slain long ere this, for whenever they behold him they wish he might be hanged. An Englishman once asked if England was so poor that none could be found to stab him with a poniard. But I am certain he will one day meet with the reward he so richly merits.7
Assessments that the Dudleys were universally unpopular rely on rants like this by an interested party whose knowledge of the English language was non-existent and whose experience of English affairs was very limited. Another widespread opinion is that Robert Dudley was not just unpopular, but the only unpopular man around Elizabeth. This notion originated early, in the 17th century, when a book like Leicester’s Commonwealth was widely used by historians from William Camden onwards, on the one hand, and a family like the Cecils had become a powerful dynasty, on the other. The principal reason why the Dudleys have retained their notoriety down to the present is probably that they did not survive as one of the great English families; Robert and Ambrose Dudley died without legitimate heirs – as was noted gleefully by some Warwickshire gentry.
A few decades earlier things were not so simple. Lord Burghley (William Cecil) was very annoyed when he heard about a Regnum Cecilianum – especially as there was also talk of a Respublica Leicestriae. Both terms signified that Elizabethan England was a dictatorship, run, respectively, by a tyrannical favourite or one evil minister and his son. While a handful of pamphlets attacked the Earl of Leicester there were also a number written against William Cecil (A Treatise of Treasons, 1572, being the best known). By the early 1590s, a few years after Leicester’s death, there was a feeling that times had changed and even politically interested Scotsmen referred to the earlier years of the reign as “in the Earl of Leicester’s time”.8 In some circles there was even nostalgia, as appeared from the questioning of a somewhat disgruntled individual:
He said that Mr. Davison [Elizabeth's former secretary who had been blamed by her for Mary Stuart's execution], being prisoner in the Tower, reconciled him with the Earl of Leicester, by whose means he was delivered from the Tower, on bail of the Earls of Warwick and Ormond. He spoke of the weakness of the state since Leicester’s death, and said the Lord Treasurer [Lord Burghley] was the wizard of England, a worldling to fill his own purse, and good for nobody, and so hated that he would not live long, if anything happened the Queen. … He called the Lord Chamberlain [Christopher Hatton] a testy fool and a hairbrain, and said, in an affair about a servant, that he would take no ill words from him, for he was as good a gentleman as any, and had beaten the old Earl of Arundel into his gates.9
Of course one could also avail oneself of the services of writers. One Thomas Trollope offered Robert Dudley to write a defence of his father, the Duke of Northumberland, as well as of his grandfather, Edmund Dudley. The suggested piece was to be revised by Robert himself and then dedicated to the queen. Such “articles”, “spread abroad”, would win the hearts of the whole people for Dudley.10
Though Robert Dudley declined said offer, he nevertheless became known as “the great lord” and “the great earl”, during his lifetime and beyond.11 When his faithful secretary Arthur Atye was buried in 1604, it was noted in the church records that he had served the “Earl of Essex”, and before that “the great earl”.
1 Alford 2002 p. 7
2 Wilson 1981 p. 22
3 Haigh 2001 p. 13
4 Nelson 2003 pp. 189 – 190
5 CSP Span I p. 2
6 CSP Span I p. 67
7 Skidmore 2010 pp. 167 – 168
8 CSP Scottish XI p. 485
9 CSP Dom 1591-1594 p. 18
10 HMC Bath V p. 168
11 Wilson 1981 pp. 309, 247; Adams 2008
Calendar of State Papers, Domestic Series, of the Reign of Elizabeth, 1591-1594 (ed. by M. A. E. Green, 1867).
Calendar of … State Papers Relating to English Affairs … in … Simancas, 1558–1603. (ed. by Martin Hume, 1892–1899).
Calendar of State Papers, Scotland, 1547-1603. Volume XI: 1593-1595 (1936)
Manuscripts of The Marquess of Bath, Volume V: Talbot, Dudley and Devereux Papers 1533–1659. (Historical Manuscripts Commission, 1980).
Adams, Simon (2002): Leicester and the Court: Essays in Elizabethan Politics. Manchester University Press.
Adams, Simon (2008): ‟Dudley, Robert, earl of Leicester (1532/3–1588)“. Oxford Dictionary of National Biography. Oxford University Press.
Alford, Stephen (2002): Kingship and Politics in the Reign of Edward VI. Cambridge University Press.
Burgoyne, F. J. (ed.) (1904): History of Queen Elizabeth, Amy Robsart and the Earl of Leicester, being a Reprint of “Leycesters Commonwealth” 1641. Longman.
Haigh, Christopher (2001): Elizabeth I. Longman.
Handover, P. M. (1959): The Second Cecil: The Rise to Power, 1563-1604, of Sir Robert Cecil, Later First Earl of Salisbury. Eyre & Spottiswoode.
Nelson, Alan (2003): Monstrous Adversary: The Life of Edward de Vere, 17th Earl of Oxford. Liverpool University Press.
Skidmore, Chris (2010): Death and the Virgin: Elizabeth, Dudley and the Mysterious Fate of Amy Robsart. Weidenfeld & Nicolson.
Wilson, Derek (1981): Sweet Robin: A Biography of Robert Dudley Earl of Leicester 1533–1588. Hamish Hamilton.