Robert Dudley’s personal tastes were hardly more extravagant than those of his fellow noblemen, except that Queen Elizabeth expected her ‟honorary consort“ to dress magnificently.1 Thus, when the earl celebrated the Feast of the Order of St. Michael at Warwick in 1571, the onlookers were duly impressed:
And then came my said Lord the Earl of Leicester by himself, apparelled all in white, his shoes of velvet, his stocks of hose knit silk, his upper stocks of white velvet lined with cloth of silver, his doublet of silver, his jerkin white velvet drawn with silver, beautified with gold and precious stones, his girdle and scabbard white velvet, his robe white satin embroidered with gold a foot broad, very curiously, his cap black velvet with a white feather, his collar of gold beset with precious stones, and his garter about his leg of St. George’s order, a sight worthy the beholding.2
Unsurprisingly, almost no price was too high for such luxury; on 25 April 1579 Robert Dudley instructed the English representative at the court of the Prince of Orange in the Netherlands, William Davison:
Touching the silks I wrote you about, I wish you to take up and stay for me 4,000 crowns worth of crimson and black velvet, and satins and silks of other colours; and if there be any good cloth of tissue, or of gold, or such other pretty stuff, to stay for me to the value of £300 or £400, whatever the charge shall be. You shall be no loser though I should not go through with the bargain; but I mind certainly to go through with it, and will take order for payment as soon as I hear what you have stayed, and what the prices are.
P.S. Make stay of as much stuff as I have written for, and the money shall be sent you immediately, upon your answer that you have made bargain for me. Let it be of the best sort of every kind I have written for, according to the price, as the best, the second, and third sort to be worth their value, and to bargain accordingly, and I will send one over upon your answer, to take order for payment.3
When it came to furnish his castle of Kenilworth for the queen’s visit in 1572, the earl did exhibit some sense of economy, relying on his favourite Italian, Benedict Spinola, and instructing his trusty treasurer Anthony Forster with the details:
I willed Ellis to speak with you and Spinola again for that I perceive that he hath word from Flanders that I cannot have such hangings thence as I looked for for my dining chamber at Kenilworth. Yet he thought there would very good be had at this present in London and as good cheap as in Flanders. Palmer’s wife told me at Hatfield that she was offered very good for 11s or 12s an ell. In any wise deal with Mr. Spinola hereabout for [he] is able to get such stuff better cheap than any man and I am sure he will do his best for me. And, though I cannot have them so deep as I would, yet if they be large of wideness and twelve or thirteen foot high it shall suffice … I hope you have made the provision of spice for me and … I pray you send down with speed some such spice as is needful for all other matters against my chiefest day.
I have no mistrust of your care of such things as is to be sent thither. I have given this bearer £12 to buy trifles withal for fireworks and such like. When he hath provided his stuff, cause it to be safely sent hereafter, for that I have appointed him after four or five days to go to Kenilworth for a banqueting house that must be made. I have no leisure as you may see by my haste. If I forget you may judge meet to be thought of for this present, I refer it to further order. So fare you well Anthony, in much haste, this 16 July.
Your loving master.
Robert Dudley was always looking for precious things he could add to his collections. In 1571, as the Duke of Norfolk was about to plunge himself into political adventures, he sold much of his plate and jewellery to acquire ready cash; Leicester spent £335 to secure his item of choice, and he may have been happy to receive a ‟ship of crystal glass“ under the duke’s will when the latter’s plots had brought him to the scaffold a year later.5
The whole court had to present the monarch with a precious gift on New Year’s Day, but sometimes Leicester must have received a more personal gift from Elizabeth than the usual ounces of plate she bestowed on all the courtiers who had done their duty. A witness to that is ‟a ring of gold enamelled black with a fair diamond in it, cut lozenge wise with these letters in it ‘E.R.’“ Another personal piece from the earl’s collections were ‟the portraitures of the Queen’s majesty and my lord, cut in alabaster“.6 In the same vein, Leicester’s own gifts often were very special. In 1572 he gave the queen what must have been one of the first wristwatches: a ‟ruby and diamond bracelet with a ‘clock’ set in the clasp“.7 Another bracelet was of gold, inscribed: ‟Serviet eternum dulcis quem torquet Eliza (May it serve forever the sweet Eliza it intwines)“.8 He often gave a necklace – with which came his privilege to hang it round the queen’s neck: in 1583 it consisted of letters of diamonds and pearls, with ‟a cypher in the midst“. ‟Ciphers“ were the secret letters used in cryptography, a flourishing art in this age of plots and counterplots. In 1584 the necklace was once again of diamonds, made of cinquefoils, one of Leicester’s personal emblems, and interspersed with lover’s knots.9
His intimacy with Elizabeth entailed that he did her shopping as well; in January 1565, Robert Dudley wrote to his Flanders agent, Baroncelli: ‟The patterns of bodices which you have sent me for the Queen are beautiful, but not what she wants, having several of that make. She wants the kind used in Spain and Italy, worked with gold and silver.“ Baroncelli did his best, yet ‟if her Majesty had sent me a pattern I would have tried to supply her before now“.10
Thus, Leicester was always on the lookout to organize the most beautiful things for his queen, and he seems not to have failed her on his short trip to Antwerp in 1581, when he accompanied the Duke of Anjou (formerly Alencon) back from a visit to England. The rebels against Spanish rule in the Low Countries had long been hoping for Elizabeth’s support, and the appearance of her great favourite – who was known to have favoured their cause for many years – elicited scenes of jubilation. During his stay, he, the Prince of Orange, and Lord Hunsdon, Elizabeth’s cousin, ‟met in a room alone“, conversing for some time till they were joined by two pairs of burgesses of the cities of Antwerp and Ghent. The four burgesses brought with them four keys for a casket with four locks which contained very precious gems, including a carbuncle called the ‟Landsjewel“, indicating it was used as an official symbol:
Leicester was so much enamoured with it that he asked them why they had not sent it to London, as if the Queen had seen it she would have done anything they liked. They then closed the casket and Leicester put his seal upon the lock, a deed then being drawn up, and signed by him, Hunsdon, Orange, and the four burgesses.
‟I have not been able to learn … whether the casket came hither“, Philip II’s London agent concluded his report.11
1 Adams 2004; Starkey 2001
2 Warwick 1908 pp. 363 – 364
3 CSP Dom VII p. 558
4 Wilson 1981 p. 150
5 Williams 1964 pp. 112, 248
6 Wilson 1981 p. 80
7 Jenkins 2002 p. 174; Progresses p. 294
8 Jenkins 2002 p. 271
9 Jenkins 2002 pp. 275, 283
10 Jenkins 2002 p. 113
11 CSP Span III p. 312
Calendar of State Papers, Domestic Series, of the Reign of Elizabeth, Addenda 1566-1579. (ed. M. A. E. Green, 1871)
Calendar of … State Papers Relating to English Affairs … in … Simancas, 1558–1603. (ed. by Martin Hume, 1892–1899). HMSO.
The Progresses and Public Processions of Queen Elizabeth. Volume I. (ed. J. G. Nichols, 1823).
Adams, Simon (ed.) (1995): Household Accounts and Disbursement Books of Robert Dudley, Earl of Leicester, 1558–1561, 1584–1586. Cambridge University Press.
Adams, Simon (2004b): ‟Dudley, Robert, earl of Leicester (1532/3–1588)“. Oxford Dictionary of National Biography. Oxford University Press.
Jenkins, Elizabeth (2002): Elizabeth and Leicester. The Phoenix Press.
Starkey, David (2001): Elizabeth: Apprenticeship. Vintage.
Warwick, Frances Countess of (1903): Warwick Castle and its Earls. Volume I. Hutchinson & Co.
Williams, Neville (1964): Thomas Howard, Fourth Duke of Norfolk. Barrie & Rockliff.
Wilson, Derek (1981): Sweet Robin: A Biography of Robert Dudley Earl of Leicester 1533–1588. Hamish Hamilton.