Un giovane bellissimo, a very handsome young man: thus a Venetian diplomat described Robert Dudley in the spring of 1559, and, the envoy added, Queen Elizabeth ‟might easily take him for her husband“, should his ailing wife ‟perchance … die“.1 This event being as yet nearly 18 months away, the occasion that put Lord Robert in the limelight was his election as a Knight of the Garter in April, causing ‟the admiration of all men“.2 Robert Dudley’s earliest portrait, sometimes attributed to the Flemish painter Steven van der Meulen, very likely shows him just about this time, proudly resting his hand on a helmet and displaying on his breast his magnificent Garter necklace made of pearls (top). This portrait (now in the Wallace Collection) remained his standard likeness until about the mid-1560s, and a woodcut in The Philosophers game, a book printed in 1563, is clearly based on it. As late as 1738, it was used by Jacobus van Houbraken for an engraving of the Earl of Leicester (bottom).
In many of his portraits Robert Dudley has the air of the natural dancer about him, and indeed he was Elizabeth’s favourite partner: seemingly effortless, he used to leap into the air ‟after the Florentine style, with a high magnificence that astonished beholders“.3 Familiar with the stage from his youth, Dudley performed the lead role in a play given by the Inner Temple at Christmas 1562. It was once again a Venetian diplomat who witnessed the event and observed that Lord Robert was a ‟man of tall personage, a manly countenance, somewhat brown of visage, strongly featured, and thereto comely proportioned in all lineaments of body“.4 His dark good looks have universally been associated by biographers with his supposed nickname of ‟The Gypsy“; however the original anecdote played at a very different thing, Dudley’s alleged lack of noble or honourable ancestors. In a society where this group of the population was ‟to be used as felons“ – persecuted, and even tortured and executed – to be called a gypsy would have been a terrible slur to one’s name.5
On his deathbed the Earl of Sussex, Thomas Radclyffe, is said to have warned his colleagues of his old enemy: ‟but beware the Gypsy, for he will be too hard for you all. You know not the beast as I do.“6 This was first written down by Sir Robert Naunton in the 1630s, about 50 years after the words were supposedly uttered. Naunton’s description of the Earl of Leicester, ‟tall and singularly well-featured, of a sweet aspect“, repeated the familiar themes;7 nevertheless, his anecdotes cannot be regarded as anything better than apocryphal. As Elizabeth’s principal favourite Dudley was a perfect target of slander, especially since there was a body of pertinent literature available to draw on, from Leicester’s Commonwealth (1584) onwards. Naunton’s main purpose was covert criticism of the Stuart court and favouritism, not a realistic representation of the Elizabethan political scene. In his account the queen becomes the perfect ruler, relying on Caesar’s maxim of “divide and rule” – and putting Dudley in his place: ‟I will have here but one mistress and no master.“8
Another author of the Stuart court, Sir Henry Wotton, wrote to a similar purpose when he described Leicester as the ‟complete courtier … wont to put up all his passions in his pocket.“9 This dictum was meant and has always been quoted in a derogatory sense. As late as 2006 a popular author could repeat in all earnest: ‟Leicester was the perfect courtier, civil and well mannered, never giving sway to his passions, but even that only reinforced the impression of self-serving calculation and guile.“10 The irony is that this is from a biography of Francis Walsingham, who of all colleagues complained most loudly about the earl’s temper; in a 1585 council session one of his proposals was opposed by no-one except Leicester, ‟who according to his accustomed manner is very passionate in the matter“.11 For this his passionate manner there is plenty of proof from letters and reports, not least about a number of tiffs with Elizabeth. The earl certainly was the model of a courtier if ever there was one, but in the sense of Castiglione’s Il Cortegiano (1528), a work which he possessed in the original Italian and certainly had studied along with his practical training at court: ‟My bringing-up has been too long about Princes to misuse anything towards them.“12
1 Wilson 1981 p. 95; Skidmore 2010 p. 2
2 Wilson 1981 p.96
3 Skidmore 2010 p. 94
4 Richardson 1907 p. 33
5 Skidmore 2010 pp. 126 – 127; Haynes 1992 p. 52
6 Wilson 1981 p. 249
7 Richardson 1907 p. 34
8 Adams 2002 pp. 56 – 57
9 Adams 2002 p. 54
10 Budiansky 2006 p. 88
11 Hamilton Papers II p. 667
12 CSP Scottish VII p. 248
Calendar of the State Papers Relating to Scotland and Mary, Queen of Scots, 1547–1603. Volume VII. (ed. W. K. Boyd, 1913).
The Hamilton Papers: Letters and Papers illustrating the Political Relations of England and Scotland in the XVIth Century. (ed. Joseph Bain, 1892).
Adams, Simon (2002): Leicester and the Court: Essays in Elizabethan Politics. Manchester University Press.
Budiansky, Stephen (2006): Her Majesty’s Spymaster: Elizabeth I, Sir Francis Walsingham, and the Birth of Modern Espionage. Plume.
Haynes, Alan (1992): Invisible Power: The Elizabethan Secret Services 1570–1603. Alan Sutton.
Richardson, Aubrey (1907): The Lover of Queen Elizabeth: Being the Life and Character of Robert Dudley, Earl of Leicester 1533–1588. T. Werner Laurie.
Rosenberg, Eleanor (1958): Leicester: Patron of Letters. Columbia 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.