Did Robert Dudley Have a Spy in Margaret Douglas’ Household?

Robert Dudley, c.1561

Did Robert Dudley employ a spy in Margaret Douglas’ household at Temple Newsam in Yorkshire in the early 1560s? According to a number of Margaret’s and her son Darnley’s biographers, yes. The claim seems to rest on a single document. It was written by Sir William Cecil, Queen Elizabeth’s Principal Secretary on 9 May 1562, recording the deposition of one William Forbes, the supposed spy and a servant in the household of Margaret Douglas. Margaret was the daughter of the Scottish queen, Margaret Tudor, and her second husband, Archibald Douglas, 6th Earl of Angus. She was a Catholic and had a good claim to the English throne. Any suspect activities, like corresponding with foreign ambassadors, was thus likely to be scrutinized by Elizabeth’s government.

It is therefore likely that Margaret more or less unwittingly employed some spies in her household. The often-repeated claim that Robert Dudley employed William Forbes, though, does not hold water. The biographer of Lord Darnley, Caroline Bingham, believed that Dudley was both very ambitious and extremely unpopular, and that therefore he “attempted to protect himself against his enemies by employing spies in influential households.” She then goes on to list the items of Forbes’ deposition in chronological order as if reported directly to Robert Dudley when they occurred, although we only know about these events and supposed speeches of Margaret’s due to Cecil’s report after Forbes (and several other of Margaret’s servants) had been arrested in the spring of 1562. This does not preclude Robert Dudley employing other spies in other households at other times, but there is zero evidence that he ever employed William Forbes.

Margaret Douglas, Countess of Lennox, a possible claimant to the English throne

Although the Forbes the spy story has gained wide acceptance, the real Forbes was just a man under arrest who talked about what Margaret had allegedly been doing and said over the last few years:

That he has heard in all the house that the Countess [i.e. Margaret] is next the crown; that he has heard her say that Queen Elizabeth was a bastard, and that God would send her [Margaret] her right one day. …

That she suffered a fool to rail on the Queen and my Lord Robert, and that he [Forbes] has “heard her rail upon my Lord Robert and his blood, calling them traitor’s birds, and that he caused kill his wife, with mo[re] odious words nor I will rehearse; and said to Hew [Hugh] Allen she was informed from a man of good worship that he was lying sick in the pokkes.” …

That she gave thanks for the preservation of the Scottish Queen [Mary Stuart] from Queen Elizabeth. “And finally, I know she loveth neither God nor the Queen, nor yet your Honour.”1

1 Calendar of State Papers Foreign: Elizabeth, Volume 5, no. 34

Books saying William Forbes was a spy:
Caroline Bingham: Darnley: A Life of Henry Stuart, Lord Darnley, Consort of Mary Queen of Scots. Constable, 1995.
Mary McGrigor: The Other Tudor Princess: Margaret Douglas, Henry VIII’s Niece. The History Press, 2015.
Alison Weir: The Lost Tudor Princess: A Life of Margaret Douglas, Countess of Lennox. Jonathan Cape, 2015.

Books that don’t say Forbes was a spy:
Leanda de Lisle: Tudor: The Family Story. Chatto & Windus, 2013.
Morgan Ring: So High a Blood: The Life of Margaret, Countess of Lennox. Bloomsbury, 2017.

Posted in Elizabeth I, errors & myths, Robert Dudley, sources & historians, strange facts from popular books | Tagged , ,

Robert Dudley’s Noble Ancestors

According to the book Leicester’s Commonwealth (written in about 1584 by angry Catholic exiles), Robert Dudley had “but two ancestors”. Those being his father, John Dudley, and his grandfather, Edmund Dudley. John Dudley in turn became Viscount Lisle, Earl of Warwick, and Duke of Northumberland, while Edmund Dudley functioned among other things as Speaker of the House of Commons and tax collector of Henry VII. So far, so good, but Robert Dudley’s great-grandfather was supposed to have been a mere carpenter, according to the same book.

John Dudley of Atherington, father of Edmund, was not a carpenter but a country gentleman. He was a younger son of the major baron, John Dudley, or Sutton, of Dudley castle, the first Lord Dudley to be summoned to parliament as a peer of England in 1440. The Suttons of Dudley castle were a family of magnates going back at least four generations before they were summoned to parliament, and, fittingly, John Sutton the first baron was also the first to call himself Dudley instead of Sutton. Born on Christmas Day 1400 and living to the ripe age of 87, he served a handful of monarchs during the Hundred Years War and the Wars of the Roses, finding himself always on the winning side. He also served as Lord Lieutenant of Ireland between 1428 and 1430.

The ruins of Dudley Castle, ancient seat of the Suttons or Dudleys. Photo by Trevmann99

One of the four sons of John Sutton alias Dudley was William Dudley, Bishop of Durham from 1476–1483. The first baron was succeeded by his grandson, Edmund, second Lord Dudley and son of Sir Edmund Dudley. John Dudley of Atherington (the supposed carpenter) was thus the uncle of the new baron, while his son Edmund was the latter’s first cousin. Edmund was to be Robert Dudley’s grandfather.

Robert’s most illustrious ancestors, however, derived from his paternal grandmother, Edmund’s second wife, Elizabeth Grey. She was the daughter of Edward Grey, 1st Viscount Lisle, who had been created a viscount because of his wife, Elizabeth Talbot. Elizabeth Talbot was the daughter and eventual heiress of John Talbot, 1st Viscount Lisle (1423–1453), the first son of the famous John Talbot, 1st Earl of Shrewsbury, by his second wife, Margaret Beauchamp. Margaret happened to be heiress to the Lisle barony via her great-great-grandfather Gerard de Lisle (d.1360). She was also directly descended from King Edward I. Thus, Robert Dudley was among the many courtiers of the Tudor court who could count this king among their ancestors.

Margaret Beauchamp was above all the eldest daughter of Richard Beauchamp, 13th Earl of Warwick, and his first wife, Elizabeth de Berkely (daughter of Thomas, 5th Lord Berkely). Robert Dudley, when Earl of Leicester, was to pick a seemingly endless quarrel with his relatives the barons of Berkely about disputed landholdings. In the end he prevailed, but only because Queen Elizabeth decided in his favour.

Margaret Beauchamp’s father, the 13th Earl of Warwick, is chiefly known as governor of the young person of King Henry VI and, of course, for his beautiful funeral monument in the Beauchamp Chapel of St. Mary’s Church, Warwick. This chapel was also to become the final resting place of Robert Dudley, his little son Lord Denbigh, his wife Lettice (née Knollys), and his brother Ambrose Dudley, Earl of Warwick. According to his will, Robert wished to be buried “where sundry of my ancestors do lie”.

Robert Dudley’s reconstructed gardens at Kenilworth Castle: The bear and ragged staff, the heraldic symbols of the ancient earls of Warwick which Robert also adopted. Photo by Richard Croft CC BY-SA 2.0.

The ancient earldom of Warwick obviously mattered a lot. John Dudley received it in 1547 and took as his arms the bear and ragged staff. His sons, Ambrose and Robert, continued to use these heraldic symbols under Elizabeth I, having been created earls of Warwick and Leicester, respectively.

On 12 March 1542, King Henry VIII created Robert’s father, John Dudley, Viscount Lisle – “in right of his mother”. The previous holder of the title, the king’s illegitimate half-uncle Arthur Plantagenet, had died nine days before. Arthur Plantagenet had become Viscount Lisle in recognition of his marriage to John Dudley’s mother (Elizabeth Grey), who herself had become Baroness Lisle in her own right after the deaths of her brother (John Grey, 2nd Viscount Lisle, 1481–1504) and her niece (another Elizabeth Grey, Baroness Lisle and temporary fiancée and ward of Charles Brandon, later Duke of Suffolk).

Robert Dudley also had noble ancestors through his mother, Jane Guildford. Her mother was Eleanor West, daughter of Thomas West, 8th Lord De La Warre and 5th Lord West. The barons West and De La Warre went back to the 13th century, being first summoned to parliament in the early 14th century. A descendant of the 8th Lord (Robert Dudley’s great-grandfather) was Thomas West, 12th Lord De La Warre, who married Anne Knollys, Lettice Knollys’ sister, and acted as governor of Virginia from 1610–1618. He gave his name to the U.S. State of Delaware.

Posted in Edmund Dudley, errors & myths, family & marriage, Jane Dudley, John Dudley, Robert Dudley | Tagged , , , , , , | 1 Comment

How Much Did Lettice Knollys Resemble Queen Elizabeth I?

It is often said that Lettice Knollys, Robert Dudley’s second wife, bore a remarkable resemblance to her first cousin once removed, Queen Elizabeth I. Because Robert Dudley risked his favoured position with Elizabeth when he married Lettice, biographers have sometimes assumed that he felt attracted to Lettice chiefly because she was a younger version of the queen.

The only contemporary description of Lettice, contained in a report by the Spanish ambassador, Diego Guzmán de Silva, says that she was “one of the best-looking ladies of the court and daughter of a first cousin to the Queen, with whom she is a favourite.”1 There is no word of her supposed resemblance to Elizabeth. The only way to ascertain how much Lettice looked like her royal cousin is to compare their portraits. We have only a few, perhaps only one, authentic portrait of Lettice, while Elizabeth’s portraits, ubiquitous in her time, are mostly copies made after a handful of original paintings. Still, a comparison leaves much doubt whether they looked like one another at all.

Queen Elizabeth, in the early years of her reign

Elizabeth I by Nicholas Hilliard, c.1576-1578

Elizabeth I by Quentin Massys, c.1583

Elizabeth I c.1585-90

Elizabeth I holding an olive branch, c.1585-90

Elizabeth I in parliament robes, c.1595

As cousins (Elizabeth was Anne Boleyn’s daughter, Lettice Anne Boleyn’s grandniece) they might well have shared a family resemblance, but judging from the portraits this seems not to have been overwhelming. It is also often claimed that both Lettice and Elizabeth were red-heads. In the case of the queen this seems to be true, and she would naturally have set the fashion for many other ladies of the court (her black teeth certainly did). It is therefore likely that the not very natural-looking red hair of Lettice’s principal portrait was the result of dyeing or even a wig. Elizabeth apparently wore a wig after loosing all her hair through smallpox in 1563.

Lettice, Countess of Leicester, by George Gower, c.1585

Possible portrait of Lettice Knollys by Nicholas Hilliard, c.1578, the year she married Robert Dudley

Assumed portrait of Lettice Knollys, by Nicholas Hilliard, 1590s


1 Calendar of … State Papers Relating to English Affairs … in … Simancas, 1558–1603. I p. 472

Posted in Elizabeth I, errors & myths, Lettice Knollys, paintings | 4 Comments

Lady Jane Grey TV Series

England’s Forgotten Queen: The Life and Death of Lady Jane Grey, a new TV documentary in three parts, will air on 9, 10, and 11 January on BBC Four. The programme is presented by historian Helen Castor, and a handful or so of other experts will appear on the programme, too: I hear that John Guy, Leanda de Lisle, J. Stephan Edwards, James Sharpe, and Anna Whitelock will be there. I will be thrilled to watch this at some point as I was also consulted during the production process, concerning John Dudley. It will be great to see whether any of this went into the story. As I can’t watch BBC Four, I may have to wait for the DVD …

Official website “England’s Forgotten Queen”

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Interview (No. 3)

I am happy to say that I was invited by the wonderful Diana Milne to be her guest at The Review Blog.
Please go here …

Posted in Elizabeth I, my book

Amy Robsart at The Tudor Society

I am happy to say that I have been invited to write a little blogpost on Amy Robsart for The Tudor Society: Please go here!

Posted in Amy Robsart, my book

Amy Robsart in 19th Century Paintings

Amy Robsart, Robert Dudley’s first wife, was found dead on 8 September 1560 at her lodgings in Cumnor, Berkshire, at the foot of some stairs. Almost 261 years later, in January 1821, Sir Walter Scott published his 13th historical novel: Amy Robsart secretly marries the Earl of Leicester; through an intrigue she is killed by Leicester’s selfish servant Varney, who arranges her fall downstairs at her house; the story unravels during a great festival at the castle of Kenilworth, in the presence of Queen Elizabeth.

Kenilworth was an immediate bestseller. Victor Hugo wrote a play and Donizetti an opera, and throughout the 19th century many paintings were created illustrating scenes from the novel in the style of historicism …

Amy Robsart and the Earl of Leicester, by Richard Parkes Bonington, 1828

Amy Robsart, by Charles Robert Leslie, 1833

Amy Robsart, by Thomas Francis Dicksee (d.1895)

Robert Dudley, Earl of Leicester’s visit to his wife, Amy Robsart at Cumnor Hall, by Henri Jean-Baptiste Victoire Fradelle (d.1865)

Leicester and Amy Robsart at Cumnor Hall, by Edward Matthew Ward, 1866

Amy Robsart, by William Frederick Yeames, 1870

The death of Amy Robsart, by William Frederick Yeames, 1877

Amy Robsart looking at Leicester’s portrait, by Edward Charles Barnes (d.1890)

Amy Robsart, by William Quiller Orchardson (d.1910)






Posted in Amy Robsart, paintings, Robert Dudley | Tagged

Amy Robsart Book

BookCover Amy RobsartI am happy to say that my biography of Robert Dudley’s first wife, Amy, is now available, in paperback, Kindle worldwide, and Kindle Unlimited. Here are a few links:



Thank you!

Amy Robsart, the wife of Queen Elizabeth’s favourite Robert Dudley, was found dead at the foot of some stairs at Cumnor, Oxfordshire, on 8 September 1560. Did she fall and break her neck, as the coroner’s jury concluded? Was she ill? Did she jump? Was she pushed? Was she murdered, as many people suspected – at the time and since – and who were the killers? This vivid biography recounts her life and death in the shadow of the Tudor court, using all available documents, some for the first time. There will also for the first time be an in-depth look at the people around her, like her half-brothers, her host, or her supposed killer. The possible causes of her death, accident, suicide, murder, even illness, are discussed in context of the surviving evidence, modern statistics, and Renaissance culture. While there will never be a definite answer to the mystery of Amy’s death, her life can be rescued from the myths that have grown around her over the centuries.




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Almost There … Amy Robsart Book!

I’m happy to announce that my book about Amy Dudley, née Robsart, Robert Dudley’s first wife, will be coming out on amazon and other online retailers very soon. Amy, of course, fell down the stairs and died (or at least that’s what the coroner’s report said), but her case sent shock waves through Elizabeth’s court at the time and has occupied the grey cells of historians and historical detectives ever since.

A number of older posts on this blog deal with what happened or may have happened to Amy Robsart, and they were extremely useful, however the book will be a fresh look at her life and all the available sources concerning her “murder” or otherwise. It took me a long time to complete it, but in the end it was really fascinating to revisit the materials of her case and fun to write about it.

Stay tuned for details. Thank you!


The book is now available at all amazon stores:


Kindle U.K. amazon.co.uk
Kindle U.S. amazon.com

Thank you!

Posted in Amy Robsart, my book | 4 Comments

18 August 1553: The Duke of Northumberland’s Trial

The trial for treason of John Dudley, Duke of Northumberland, took place on 18 August 1553 at Westminster Hall. The Spanish merchant Antonio de Guaras may have been an eyewitness. Guaras lived in London and “spoke good English” according to the so-called Spanish Chronicle written by an unknown mercenary soldier where Guaras makes an appearance. Guaras’ own “narration” of the accession of Queen Mary was finished within weeks of the events in the summer of 1553. He dedicated his account to the Duke of Albuquerque, his Spanish patron who had visited England in 1544, under Henry VIII.

Afterwards, on the eighteenth of this month of August, the Duke of Northumberland was brought to trial, and as your Lordship knows, these proceedings are here conducted with great dignity. A stage was erected in the great hall of Westminster, very majestic and richly tapestried, and in the midst of it a rich canopy, and under this a bench with rich cushions, and carpets at its foot: and the commissioners in the cause coming with their maces and officers took their seats as managers for the Queen. And first upon the said bench was seated the aforesaid Duke of Norfolk, who presided for that day for the Queen’s person, and he held in his hand a long white wand, being the ensign of the Lord High Marshal, which office from ancient times the sovereigns have reserved for themselves; and on either side of the bench were seated the peers of the realm, who were named to be judges between the Queen and the delinquent, according to the law. And these same judges, or the most of them, were those whom Northumberland had left in the Tower with Lady Jane. And immediately it was commanded that the prisoner should be produced, and so the Duke of Northumberland was brought forth, who, making three reverences down to the ground before coming to the place where he had to stand, came with a good and intrepid countenance, full of humility and gravity.

The said Duke of Norfolk, whom he had kept in confinement for so many years, and all the other nobles present at the trial, whom a few days ago he had commanded at his leisure, beheld him with a severe aspect, and the greatest courtesy shown him of any was a slight touch of the cap. And forthwith three accusations of treason were brought against him. The first, if it was true that on the eighteenth of July and afterwards he was found in the field with an armed levy against the Queen’s majesty, her Highness having been proclaimed Queen the same day in London and throughout the kingdom. The second, whether he had caused himself to be proclaimed Captain General of the Kingdom. The third, if in the field he had proclaimed Jane Queen and the Queen’s majesty a rebel and a bastard. And if he had denied it, there were present, as has been said, twelve peers empanelled, in conformity with the law of this realm, to judge him after he should have been convicted by the witnesses who should be summoned. To all which the said Northumberland answered that it was the truth, and that he confessed, and that he stood condemned by the law; and out of compassion at beholding him in the misery into which he had brought himself by the ambition of reigning, and all grieving for their own sakes for the stain they had contracted by the offence they had committed against the Queen by consenting to his treason, even though by constraint, as has been said, many of those present could not refrain from tears.

And as he acknowledged his offence, the verdict of the twelve peers was not delivered, according to the law. He implored all that they would beseech the Queen’s majesty not to think upon his iniquities, but upon her exceeding clemency, though saying that he knew his offence to be so grievous that he deserved no mercy. He requested that two or three of the Council would come to confer with him in prison upon important secrets, which greatly imported her Highness’s service. He besought her Highness to grant him four or five days for the things which concerned his soul, which was allowed. He was condemned according to the law to be drawn on a sledge and hanged, and before he was dead to be drawn and quartered, and his heart and entrails cast into the fire. The same day the Marquis of Northampton, and the Earl of Warwick, Northumberland’s son and heir, were condemned in like manner. And the next day Northumberland’s brother, and the Captain of the King’s Guard and Vice-Chamberlain, who was named Sir John Gates, and Sir Thomas Palmer, and Sir Harry Gates, brother of the Vice-Chamberlain, were brought to trial, all of whom confessed and were condemned like the others.

Antonio de Guaras: The Accession of Queen Mary. (edited by Richard Garnett, 1892).

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