The earliest known mention of Amy Dudley’s health occurred on 18 April 1559 in a dispatch of the Count of Feria to his master King Philip II of Spain: “Lord Robert has come so much into favour that he does whatever he likes with affairs and it is even said that her majesty visits him in his chamber day and night. People talk of this so freely that they go so far as to say that his wife has a malady in one of her breasts and the Queen is only waiting for her to die to marry Lord Robert.”1 From the Spanish original it appears that her condition was said to be even more serious, for ‟está muy mala de un pecho“2 translates literally to ‟she is very ill in one breast”, not just that she was suffering from “a malady”.
A good fortnight later these news had arrived in Brussels at King Philip’s court, Paolo Tiepolo, the Venetian ambassador, informing the Doge and Senate on 4 May 1559 (and putting all the interesting stuff in cipher):
Lord Robert Dudley, Master of the Horse, and son of the late Duke of Northumberland, a very handsome young man, towards whom in various ways the Queen evinces such affection and inclination that many persons believe that if his wife, who has been ailing for some time, were perchance to die, the Queen might easily take him for her husband.3
Interestingly, the Venetian ambassador in London, Il Schifanoya, on 10 May, knew nothing of Amy Dudley’s ill-health, although he too imparted “the opinion of many” about Lord Robert’s intimacy with the queen (and since he did not write in cipher he did not say everything: “it is better to keep silence than to speak ill”).4
Tiepolo, for his part, may even have been drawing on Feria’s report, which would have just arrived at Brussels when he wrote to Venice. However this may be, the Count of Feria’s version should not be easily dismissed. The count was not your typical gossipy ambassador but one of Philip’s most trusted confidants, known for his frankness;5 while he deeply mistrusted and disliked Queen Elizabeth, he was acutely aware of her feelings. He took Robert Dudley seriously and advised Philip to cultivate him: “I can assure your Majesty that matters have reached such a pass that I have been brought to consider whether it would not be well to approach Lord Robert on your Majesty’s behalf, promising him your help and favour, and coming to terms with him.”6
More importantly, Feria had recently married Jane Dormer, a first cousin of Sir Henry Sidney, Robert Dudley’s brother-in-law. Sidney was in Ireland during these months, but his wife, Mary, was in England and one of Elizabeth’s closest friends. She was also close to her brother Robert, in whose house at Kew she lived when not at court. In early 1559 Feria may well have had access to information from inside the Dudley family circle.
Later in May 1559, Amy Dudley came to London and stayed for about a month. Her health had improved. This is indeed confirmed by the new Spanish ambassador, Bishop Alvaro de la Quadra, who on 6 June wrote that “the wife of Milord Robert is already much better”, and that she was taking great care about what she ate on the advice of the doctors.7 From de la Quadra’s words it clearly appears that the Spanish court had no doubts about her precarious health.
At this time Amy Dudley also planned to move house, leaving Mr. Hyde’s in Hertfordshire, where she had stayed for the last two years, because she “said she was poisoned, and for that cause he desired she might no longer tarry in his house.”8 – Amy may really have believed she was poisoned, a very common phenomenon in the 16th century with people feeling unwell. Obviously Mr. Hyde wanted her to leave his house because he feared for his good name, but he may also have been tired of her hysterics.
From the London area Lady Dudley travelled into Suffolk and perhaps in September moved up to Warwickshire to stay at Compton Verney; from there she moved to Berkshire in December 1559, to Cumnor Place near Abingdon, where she passed the ten months until her death on 8 September 1560. During this time she still did her usual shopping and probably other things a lady did, but she certainly ceased her travels. Was she suffering from some illness, of the body or the mind?
When interviewed by Robert Dudley’s steward, Thomas Blount, in September 1560, Amy Dudley’s maid, Mrs. Picto, said that her mistress had been “a good virtuous gentlewoman, and daily would pray upon her knees; and divers times she saith that she hath heard her pray to God to deliver her from desperation.” – Asked if perhaps Amy had killed herself, Mrs. Picto’s answer was: “No, good Mr. Blount … do not judge so of my words; if you should so gather, I am sorry I said so much.” Thomas Blount – who knew Amy, having accompanied her on some of her journeys9 – was not a little puzzled:
Certainly, my Lord, as little while as I have been here, I have heard divers tales of her that maketh me to judge her to be a strange woman of mind. … My Lord, it is most strange that this chance should fall upon you. It passeth the judgment of any man to say how it is, but truly the tales I do hear of her maketh me to think she had a strange mind in her: as I will tell you at my coming.
The exiled Catholic courtiers who in 1584 wrote the libel Leicester’s Commonwealth claimed that Amy Dudley had been “sad and heavy”, rejecting treatment for her “melancholy”, while her husband’s henchmen tried to poison her seeking the co-operation of Dr. Bayley of Oxford University, who however refused to mix her medicine with poison out of fear to be used as a scapegoat. The real Walter Bayley was admitted to medical practice in February 1559 and in 1561, the year after Amy’s death, became Regius Professor of medicine at Oxford. Most interestingly, he was also Robert Dudley’s trusted doctor and good friend for many years. He accompanied the earl to the spa waters at Buxton during the 1570s, and in 1578 Dudley recommended him to the queen when she was suffering from severe toothache; three years later he became one of her personal physicians.10 The authors of Leicester’s Commonwealth were quite aware of the unlikeliness of the Earl of Leicester passing his holidays with the man who had refused to help him kill his wife, and so they made the absurd claim that the honest Dr. Bayley of 1560 was another ‟manner of man than he who now liveth about my Lord of the same name“.
Of course there is not the slightest hint that Dr. Bayley had a doppelgänger who not only bore the same name but was, like him, “Professor of the Physic Lecture” at Oxford University. The question remains, though, why the authors of Leicester’s Commonwealth included him in their story. Was it known that Robert Dudley had asked Dr. Bayley to treat Amy before her death? Was Philip Sidney alluding to him when he wrote that it was foolish of the authors of the libel to put false words into the mouth of “persons yet alive”?11
In the late autumn of 1559 the two Habsburg ambassadors reported “veracious news” that Lord Robert was sending his wife poison. On 12 November 1559 the German Caspar von Brüner wrote of a conspiracy between Elizabeth and Lord Robert to keep foreign suitors “in dalliance with mere words” until the couple were free to marry: “It is said that he seeks to poison his wife, for he is indeed a great favourite with the Queen”. The next day, 13 November, his fellow lodger de la Quadra wrote the same, that Elizabeth was “only keeping Lord Robert’s enemies and the country engaged with words until this wicked deed of killing his wife is consummated.” On 5 December Brüner repeated the charges of poison and “a secret understanding” between queen and favourite.12
The special envoy of Emperor Ferdinand I was frantic to contrive the marriage of the emperor’s son to Queen Elizabeth and was extremely hostile to Robert Dudley, whom he saw as the greatest obstacle to his mission. He wished him literally to the devil, desperately hoping for his assassination.13 The mentions of poison, of which other diplomats seem never to have heard, clearly had one source, Caspar von Brüner. In the unlikely event that they had a factual basis they may as well have meant “poisons” used more or less effectively as drugs; Robert Dudley may simply have sent his wife medicine.
A considerable number of people seem to have believed that Amy Dudley would not have very long to live (as opposed to expecting her to be murdered). Was her husband among them? The bulk of his correspondence having been lost, it is impossible to give an answer to this. His immediate reaction when Amy died in September 1560 was shock and an unvoiced suspicion that she might have killed herself. The gossip of the times may add some clues: In March 1560 de la Quadra picked up that Lord Robert had ‟told somebody, who has not kept silence, that if he live another year he will be in a very different position from now. … They say that he thinks of divorcing his wife.“14 This being the only mention of divorce in connection with their marriage, what de la Quadra heard could also have referred to Robert Dudley’s knowledge of some serious illness of Amy’s. A hostile account written within two years of her death claimed that among “the L. Rob. his men” it was rumoured “many times before … that she was dead.“15 – If true, this can only mean that they expected her to die anytime soon.
When the diplomat Nicholas Throckmorton, stationed in Paris, heard of her death he instantly believed Lady Dudley had ‟by mischance broken her neck herself“. Aware of his odd wording, he corrected his draft before dispatching it, but suicide had undoubtedly crossed his mind.16 The Throckmortons had had close connections with the Dudleys for over a decade, and it can be assumed that Sir Nicholas knew Amy or knew something about her. While Throckmorton may not have expected her death, this seems to have been different in the case of Thomas Parry, Elizabeth’s trusted Treasurer of the Household. He was known to be sympathetic towards a marriage of the queen with her favourite – until the scandal surrounding his wife’s death, which made him “half ashamed for Lord Robert”.17 However, if he originally was in favour of the match he must have believed that Dudley would soon become a widower, a scandal-free widower, of course.
Robert Dudley’s brother-in-law, the Earl of Huntingdon, a very pious and upright man, sent his condolences a couple of days after he must have heard by word of mouth of the startling news from Cumnor, which were the talk up and down the country:
My very good Lord.
After my most hearty commendations.
Although I am sure you are not without plenty of red deer, yet I am bold to send you half a dozen pies of a stag which was bred in the little garden at Ashby. I would be glad to understand how the baking doth like you, for I am in some doubt my cook hath not done his part, but you must pardon this fault, and it shall be amended: for if you love to eat of a stag, I will have one ready for you any time (I trust) this winter. It shall be as fat as any forest doth yield, and within four days warning he shall be sent to you. Thus my good lord and brother I take my leave, wishing to you in all things as to myself.
From Leicester the 17 of Sept.
Your assured brother to the end
As I ended my letter, I understood by letters the death of my lady your wife, I doubt not but long before this time you have considered what a happy hour it is, which bringeth man from sorrow to joy, from mortality to immortality, from care and trouble to rest and quietness, and that the Lord above worketh all for the best to them that love him well. I will leave my babbling and bid the buzzard cease to teach the falcon to fly and so end my rude postscript.
To my very good lord and brother, the Lord Robert Dudley.
This postscript has been much analyzed, and its content has been interpreted as referring either to Amy Dudley’s expected demise or the alarming death toll in Robert Dudley’s family generally. It is certainly worthwhile to additionally quote the original editor, writing in 1878:
On this letter I would only make one remark. It is a fair instance of the value of private and familiar documents. … Being merely a friendly message about such every-day matters as pies and a cook, it suddenly turns off, on the receipt of serious news, to a tone which would have simply been a piece of sickening hypocrisy, if the writer had ever had the faintest inkling of ill-will or ill-conduct on the part of Dudley towards his wife. If any such feeling had existed it must have been well-known to his own brother-in-law.18
William Cecil’s remarks to Ambassador de la Quadra – made directly after Amy’s death but before it was officially announced – give perhaps the most important clue as to whether she was ill or not. Seemingly depressed about developments at court during his recent absence in Scotland, Cecil pretended to think about retirement, leaving the sinking ship of state in time (if he was not sent to the Tower before)! “Of Lord Robert he said twice that he would be better in paradise than here”. Finally, he revealed “that they were thinking of destroying Lord Robert’s wife. They had given out that she was ill, but she was not ill at all; she was very well and taking care not to be poisoned. God, he trusted, would never permit such a crime to be accomplished or so wretched a conspiracy to prosper.“19
De la Quadra’s report contained information he had gathered between 6 September and 11 September 1560, the day when the news of Amy’s death was announced to him by Elizabeth two days after the queen herself, Lord Robert, and surely Cecil had first heard of it. In the past, Cecil’s words gave historians a bit of a headache, less because of his clairvoyance regarding Amy’s imminent murder, but because of the perceived involvement of Elizabeth. Martin Hume, the translator of the materials in the Spanish Calendar, solved the problem by changing the original “they” for “Robert”: “He ended by saying that Robert was thinking of killing his wife”.20 James Anthony Froude, the great Victorian historian, having made his own transcriptions at Simancas, stuck to the original: “Last of all, he said that they were thinking of destroying Lord Robert’s wife”.
It remains unclear which people Cecil (or de la Quadra) had in mind with “they”; but what is clear from the Spanish original is that he said that Amy “was now publicly ill, except that she was not but was very well and protected herself very well against being poisoned” (again, in her “strange mind”, had she been refusing to take her medicine?):
y por oltimo me dixo que pensavan hazer morir a su muger de Roberto y que agora publicamente estava mala, pero que no estava sino muy buena y se guardava muy bien de ser envenenada y que nunca Dios permitira tan gran maldad, ni podria tener buen suceso tan mal negocio.21
Historians now believe that Cecil was simply capitalizing on Robert Dudley’s misfortune by contributing to the incipient scandal – now that he had to reckon with the real possibility that Elizabeth would marry Dudley, a prospect he feared. It is certainly significant that, while muddying the waters, he thought it necessary to explicitly deny that Lady Dudley had been ill. The unavoidable impression is that she really had been.
Was Amy Dudley Ill? The Red Herring
1 CSP Span I p. 57 – 58
2 Adams 1995 p. 63
3 CSP Venetian 4 May 1559
4 CSP Venetian 10 May 1559
5 Loades 2008
6 CSP Span I pp. 58
7 Lettenhove I p. 536; Adams 1995 p. 68; Skidmore 2010 p. 146
8 Adams, Archer, Bernard 2003 p. 66
9 Skidmore 2010 pp. 83, 145
10 Skidmore 2010 p. 340
11 Skidmore 2010 p. 344
12 Skidmore 2010 pp. 166 – 167
13 Skidmore 2010 pp. 167 – 168
14 CSP Span I p. 141
15 Adams, Archer, Bernard 2003 p. 66
16 Skidmore 2010 pp. 223 – 224
17 Skidmore 2010 p. 260
18 Jackson 1878 pp. 76
19 Wilson 1981 pp. 115 – 116
20 CSP Span I p. 175
21 Lettenhove II p. 531
Calendar of State Papers Relating to English Affairs in the Archives of Venice, Volume 7 – 1558–1580 http://www.british-history.ac.uk/source.aspx?pubid=1006
Calendar of … State Papers Relating to English Affairs … in … Simancas, 1558–1603. (ed. by Martin Hume, 1892–1899). HMSO.
Relations politiques de Pays-Bas et de l’Angleterre sous règne de Philippe II. (ed. Kervyn de Lettenhove, 1882 – 1900)
Adams, Simon (ed.) (1995): Household Accounts and Disbursement Books of Robert Dudley, Earl of Leicester, 1558–1561, 1584–1586. Cambridge University Press.
Adams, Simon (2002): Leicester and the Court: Essays in Elizabethan Politics. Manchester University Press.
Adams, Simon, Archer, Ian, Bernard, G. W. (eds.) (2003): ‟A ‘Journall’ of Matters of State happened from time to time as well within and without the Realme from and before the Death of King Edw. the 6th untill the Yere 1562“ in: Ian Archer (ed.): Religion, Politics, and Society in Sixteenth-Century England. Cambridge University Press.
Adlard, George (1870): Amye Robsart and the Earl of Leycester. John Russell Smith.
Bakewell, Sarah (2004): ‟Bayley, Walter (1529–1593)“. Oxford Dictionary of National Biography. Online edition.
Gristwood, Sarah (2007): Elizabeth and Leicester: Power, Passion, Politics. Viking.
Jackson, J. E. (1878): “Amye Robsart”. The Wiltshire Archaeological and Natural History Magazine. Volume XVII.
Loades, David (2008): “Suárez de Figueroa, Gómez, first duke of Feria in the Spanish nobility (1520?–1571)”. Oxford Dictionary of National Biography. Online edition.
Skidmore, Chris (2010): Death and the Virgin: Elizabeth, Dudley and the Mysterious Fate of Amy Robsart. Weidenfeld & Nicolson.
Starkey, David (2001): Elizabeth: The Struggle for the Throne. Harper Collins.
Wilson, Derek (1981): Sweet Robin: A Biography of Robert Dudley Earl of Leicester 1533–1588. Hamish Hamilton.