His Lordship needed a break. After weeks of preparing for the dreaded Spanish invasion, and then victory celebrations, the Earl of Leicester had last been seen at a palace window with the queen – watching a parade staged by the Earl of Essex, his stepson. Robert Dudley’s plan was to go to Kenilworth Castle, his magnificent Warwickshire seat, and thence to Buxton in Derbyshire to take the baths. His wife, Lettice, would go with him. His stepdaughter Penelope Rich (for whom he was simply her ‟uncle“) was great with child and wished to secure the wardship of a young heir for herself. William Cecil Lord Burghley was not only Master of the Wards, but by any standard one of the most frequent and longstanding correspondents of Leicester. It is thus fitting that the penultimate letter surviving from the earl’s hand should be addressed to his old friend. Yes, friend, despite all differences – and all the nonsense that has been written about them in later centuries – Leicester always regarded Burghley as his friend:
My good L., my business yesternight to dispatch me would not suffer me to take my leave. But hoping to see your L. ere long again I know you will excuse such ceremonies. And here my L., beside my very hearty recommendations, I must recommend to your good favour my suit for Sir Robt. Jermyn, for whom I doubt not but Mr. Secretary [Walsingham] hath told your L. how gracious her Majesty is therein. There was yesterday a great-bellied lady to have solicited the same but she was not able to tarry it out, your L. being with her Majesty in my chamber. She hath required her uncle your true servant to solicit this matter, for she & her husband are both much beholding to Sir Robt. Jermyn whose suit good my L. for all sakes give your honourable furtherance with what speed may be. And so from mine inn at Maidenhead I commend your L. to ye Almighty this 27 of August.
Your L. assured
This letter being written by Leicester on 27 August 1588, during the next days at least 10 letters were addressed to him, a man supposed to be on a holiday. Lord Buckhurst (not exactly a friend) was eager to send a stag killed ‟by mine own hand … to present him to your good Lordship as a poor token of my skillful cunning.“ Leicester’s chief secretary Arthur Atye sent a business letter dealing with the sale of manors; and, on the orders of the queen, first Sir Francis Walsingham and then Sir Thomas Heneage wrote to the former Governor-General of the United Provinces about the precarious and mutinous state of the English garrison of Ostend,
which I need not much to trouble you with, considering I have written to your Lordship thereof already this morning; only I have now to let your Lordship know that her Majesty cannot be drawn by the opinion of her whole Council that be here, to grant them pardon or to give any man she will send authority to promise them pardon, if necessity should require, which we greatly fear may prove the loss of the town to her Majesty’s both dishonour and disadvantage.
Sir James Croft had been a client of Leicester’s – to whom he owed his political advancement – until he agreed to spy for the Spanish cause in the 1580s. Elizabeth had nevertheless employed him shortly before the Armada on a peace mission to the Duke of Parma, where Croft (who spoke no language other than English) had seriously strayed from his instructions. On his return he was sent to a damp cell in the Tower – by Lord Burghley; however, it was widely believed that he was a victim of the Earl of Leicester’s vendetta. The earl received a number of letters on behalf of Croft; one from the prisoner himself, asking him to procure his release, as he was ‟forced to lie in this loathsome prison“. Another plea came from Ambrose Dudley Earl of Warwick, Robert Dudley’s trusted elder brother. He begged Leicester to
help towards his enlargement , or at least that he may be removed to some sweeter place. His age is great and his case is lamentable, … who without some speedy good order for his relief is like to perish in prison. Wherein I do very earnestly entreat your Lordship to … assure yourself there can be no greater honour than to forgive and help to raise up again such as are fallen so deeply as of themself they are in no hope to rise up again.
The queen had dined alone with Leicester for the last days he was at court, a unique favour which made clear to everybody her fondness for her old favourite, and her gratitude. Robert Devereux Earl of Essex was the rising star, though, and within three days of his stepfather’s departure things amounting to a silent revolution were going on:
Since your lordship’s departure her Majesty hath been earnest with me to lie in court, and this morning she sent to me that I might lie in your lordship’s lodging, which I will forbear till I know your lordship’s pleasure, except the Queen force me to it.
For the last 27 years Robert Dudley’s apartments had always been nearest to the queen’s – this had not even changed during the courtship and visits of the Duke of Anjou (Elizabeth’s ‟frog“). Did Elizabeth have a foreboding that Leicester’s absence would last forever?
On 29 August 1588 the earl stayed at Rycote, Oxfordshire, the home of Sir Henry Norris and his wife, old friends of the queen and Robert Dudley. After a night in the bed that was reserved for the queen on her visits, Leicester composed what probably were the last lines he ever wrote. They were addressed to Elizabeth, reminiscent of the happy hours they had had at Rycote in the 1560s (above the word “poor” he made the sign which symbolized the queen’s nickname for him, “eyes”):
I most humbly beseech your Majesty to pardon your pôôr old servant to be thus bold in sending to know how my gracious Lady doth and what ease of her late pain she finds, being the chiefest thing in this world I do pray for, for her to have good health and long life. For my own poor case, I continue still your medicine and find it amend much better than with any other thing that hath been given me. Thus hoping to find perfect cure at the bath with the continuance of my wonted prayer for your Majesty’s most happy preservation I humbly kiss your foot, from your old lodging at Rycote this Thursday morning, ready to take on my journey, by your Majesty’s most faithful and obedient servant,
Even as I had written thus much I received your Majesty’s token by young Tracy.
Having continued his journey, Robert Dudley fell seriously ill in the night. Four days later, on 2 September, his father-in-law Sir Francis Knollys answered a letter he had received from Leicester regarding the administration of the royal household. He had heard
that your lordship hath been troubled … with an ague at Cornbury Park whereof I am very sorry. Nevertheless I trust in God that through your lordship’s foresight and good order of diet, that you will easily and soon dispatch yourself thereof with good recovery of your health again in short time.
The earl died, comforted by his wife and by his chaplain, in the early hours of 4 September 1588. The nature of his disease is uncertain, both malaria and stomach cancer having been suggested by historians.
To free his father from the Tower, Sir James Croft’s son Edward had availed himself of a man called Smith; as soon as Smith heard of Leicester’s death he claimed to have bewitched the earl into eternity – the council, however, decided their colleague had died of malaria and let Smith go free. Elizabeth never quite recovered from the loss of the man she had loved and kept his note from Rycote in her bedside jewel box. On the outside she wrote: ‟His last letter“.
Manuscripts of The Marquess of Bath, Volume V: Talbot, Dudley and Devereux Papers 1533–1659. (ed. D. G. Owen, 1980) Historical Manuscripts Commission.
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Hoak, Dale (ed.) (2002): Tudor Political Culture. Cambridge University Press.
Jenkins, Elizabeth (2002): Elizabeth and Leicester. The Phoenix Press.
Varlow, Sally (2007): The Lady Penelope: The Lost Love and Politics in the Court of Elizabeth I. André Deutsch.
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Wilson, Derek (1981): Sweet Robin: A Biography of Robert Dudley Earl of Leicester 1533–1588. Hamish Hamilton.