When William Camden, in his Annals (1615), was at pains to explain Queen Elizabeth’s attachment to Robert Dudley he resorted to astrology:
Whether this proceeded from any virtue of his, whereof he gave some shadowed tokens, or from their common condition of imprisonment under Queen Mary, or from his nativity, and the hidden consent of the stars at the hour of their birth, and thereby a most straight conjunction of their minds, a man cannot easily say.1
From these lines a diehard tradition has evolved that queen and favourite were born on the same day, that is 7 September 1533. Modern biographers eager to stick with this tradition have been maintaining that Leicester’s “alternative” date of birth, 24 June 1532, was only advanced by George Adlard in 1870 in his compilation of materials about Amy Robsart. Quoting Adlard, who claimed to have seen a letter of Robert Dudley to Queen Elizabeth in which he gave 24 June as his birthday, they quickly dismissed it: ‟Until the Adlard letter is found one must assume that there is no very good alternative to Camden’s date.“2
Interestingly, this ‟Adlard letter“ could have been found all the time – in the Public Record Office, in the Calendar of State Papers Foreign Series, 1587, and in Frederick Chamberlin’s work Elizabeth and Leycester (1939), which quotes it on the first page of Chapter 5, entitled ‟The First Twenty Years“:
This 24 of June … pleaseth god … ys my byrth day.
The only point in which Adlard was wrong is that the letter was addressed to William Cecil, Lord Burghley and not to Elizabeth.
Of Leicester’s modern biographers, Alan Kendall (1980) was keenest to argue for Camden’s trustworthiness on the grounds that ‟his mother-in-law was Robert Dudley’s paternal grandmother, from whom Camden may have had precise information“. Alas, this grandmother died before 1525, perhaps around the time of her son John’s marriage and certainly years before Robert’s birth (and unsurprisingly she was never Camden’s mother-in-law). Kendall also held on to Camden’s stars in the face of the Hilliard miniature of the earl, which the National Portrait Gallery had acquired in 1961. It is inscribed in typical Hilliard style with ‟Ano.Dni.1576 Aetatis Sue 44“, which is to mean that he was 44 years old in 1576 and cannot have been born later than 1532.3
Derek Wilson (1981), writing at about the same time as Kendall, gave 24 June as Robert Dudley’s birthday. Ignoring the NPG miniature, he pleaded for the year 1533, though, as this year ‟fits better with the known birth dates of Robert’s brothers and sisters.“ Sadly, exactly these dates are lacking from any of the surviving documents.4 However, the family tree in Wilson’s book is clearly based on a pedigree commissioned by the Earl of Leicester.
The manuscript entitled Genelogies of the Erles of Lecestre and Chester is believed to date from c.1572–1573 and is preserved at the University of Pennsylvania. On folios 18r–18v the children of John Dudley, Duke of Northumberland and Jane Guildford (with the exception of Robert) are enumerated, each with a short description. In some cases the age at death is given, in others not. This fact may point to the document’s general reliability, indicating that the information may well have come from Robert Dudley himself, who perhaps remembered only some of his siblings’ ages or birth dates.
If the ages given in the manuscript were taken as correct, Robert’s birth date of 24 June 1532 would indeed have followed very close on the births of his elder brothers John and Ambrose: John, Earl of Warwick, dying in October 1554 at age 23, could not have been born before late 1530, a date confirmed by his companion John Dee, who wrote that he “died Anno 1554 scarce 24 years of age”.5 Still, Ambrose could have been born, say, ten months later, around August 1531, and Robert again ten months later, in June 1532. It was not unusual for upper class women to have two children within less than a year.6 – The theoretical possibility of two of the three brothers being twins should also be considered; from the dynastic viewpoint – and that was what mattered most to contemporaries – the order of birth was important, not when the children were born. Given the scarcity of personal source material it should not surprise if twins, especially non-identical ones, should have passed without comment in surviving documents. Neither a quick succession of births nor the possibility of twins should be dismissed outright in favour of a biographer’s gut feeling of probability or the casual remark by a 17th century historian about stars. (Emmanuel van Meteren, who had known the earl for decades and also wrote in the early 17th century, thought Leicester was born as early as 15257).
The question of Robert Dudley’s birth date should have been settled a long time ago by his own letter regarding the day and the miniature by Nicholas Hilliard regarding the year. (Hilliard knew Dudley very well, the earl was his earliest patron and godfather to a number of his children). So, Robert Dudley, as his grave proclaims, was born as his parents’ fifth son – on 24 June 1532, the day of St. John the Baptist, a great feast day at the time and perhaps his father’s name day.
1 Wilson 1981 p. vi
2 Kendall 1980 p. 5; Jenkins 1961 p. 5
3 Adams 2004
4 Adams 2004
5 Mathematicall Praeface
6 Warnicke 2012 pp. 30, 198
7 Haynes 1987 p. 20
John Dee: The Mathematicall Praeface. http://www.gutenberg.org/files/22062/22062-h/main.html
Genelogies of the Erles of Lecestre and Chester: U Penn Ms. Codex 1070 http://dla.library.upenn.edu/dla/medren/detail.html?id=MEDREN_4218616
Adams, Simon (2004): ‟Dudley, Robert, earl of Leicester (1532/3–1588)“. Oxford Dictionary of National Biography. Oxford University Press.
Chamberlin, Frederick (1939): Elizabeth and Leycester. Dodd, Mead & Co.
Haynes, Alan (1987): The White Bear: The Elizabethan Earl of Leicester. Peter Owen.
Hearn, Karen (ed.) (1995): Dynasties: Painting in Tudor and Jacobean England 1530–1630. Rizzoli.
Jenkins, Elizabeth (1961): Elizabeth and Leicester. Victor Gollancz.
Kendall, Alan (1980): Robert Dudley Earl of Leicester. Cassell.
Warnicke, R. M. (2012): Wicked Women of Tudor England: Queens, Aristocrats, Commoners. Palgrave.
Wilson, Derek (1981): Sweet Robin: A Biography of Robert Dudley Earl of Leicester 1533–1588. Hamish Hamilton.