The Earl of Leicester dressed in the full attire of a Knight of the Garter is not one of his better known portraits. In the 1580s, though, it became fashionable for Elizabeth’s favourite knights to have themselves painted in their Garter robes, and Robert Dudley was no exception when he commissioned the above portrait in the last year of his life. He had recently received his appointment as Lord Steward of the Royal Household; it meant a lot to him, and he celebrated it by commissioning a number of new likenesses of himself, all displaying his new wand of office. However, when exactly he became the second most important official of the royal household, second only to the Lord Chamberlain, has long been a historiographical conundrum.
Although the chronicler John Stow, who enjoyed his patronage, wrote that Leicester was appointed on 18 June 1587, historians used to ignore this statement and rather speculated that he became Lord Steward in 1584, or even 1570, following the death of the last holder of the office, the Earl of Pembroke. There are good reasons for this. Robert Dudley performed many of the tasks of a Lord Steward long before he actually held the office, while he was at the same time a very innovative Master of the Horse. To the latter office he held a strong attachment and – according to the Spanish ambassador Bernardino de Mendoza, who operated an excellent spy network in England – the earl was disinclined to give it up in return for the lord stewardship when asked to do so by Elizabeth in 1584. He was only prepared to cede the post three years later, to his stepson and the queen’s new favourite, the Earl of Essex. If Stow is correct, he received his reward on the day Essex became Master of the Horse.
During the later years of Henry VIII’s and his son Edward’s reign, an extended version of the office of Lord Steward had been known as the Great Master of the Household; Leicester’s father, the Duke of Northumberland, had effectively controlled the Privy Chamber in this function under the boy king. Robert Dudley also occupied a central position in Elizabeth’s household,1 and indeed he seems to have seen himself in this light. In 1581 he could assure his friend and colleague Christopher Hatton:
I trust her Highness will give me leave, as all other my predecessors in this office have done, to place these rooms with such persons as I shall prefer, and if I place any unfit men, let me have blame with their removal.2
A decade earlier there had already been widespread gossip about Robert Dudley’s “forthcoming” appointment, as is indicated by the exchange of two unsympathetic residents of the Tower of London:
Powell … said unto Bannister …, ‘How say you, you shall see shortly a horse keeper made Lord Steward of England’, and did speak the same with so loud a voice that these words were heard of such as stood without the Tower upon the wharf and, as they say that heard it, might easily have been heard to the further side of the Thames.3
Four years later, in 1576, the Italian horse expert Prospero d’Osma dedicated his Report on the Royal Studs to the “Grand Master to her Majesty”, Robert Dudley; and the Journal of the House of Lords referred to him as Lord Steward in November 1584. Still, it was only after the earl’s final return from his Netherlands campaign, in December 1587, that “My Lord of Leicester” became “My Lord Steward” in correspondence and news reports.
Of Elizabeth’s Lord Stewards “Leicester alone made any impact on the household”.4 He was responsible for the “below stairs” department, which meant basically the supply of the court with the commodities of everyday life, such as food and drink, fuel and lighting. The Lord Steward chaired the Board of Green Cloth, the household’s treasurer and comptroller operating under him. These two were Sir Francis Knollys and Sir James Croft, respectively. Knollys was the earl’s father-in-law, Croft a protegé and kinsman of whom he had grown foul because of Croft’s habit of selling information to Mendoza. Both Knollys and Croft regarded the royal larder as their private perk,5 and it could hardly be expected of Leicester to change anything in this behaviour, but his resolution was not in question:
The court was victualled by “purveyors”, merchants who held the privilege to supply the royal household. They were much resented by other tradesmen because they could buy from the market at substantial discounts on behalf of the crown, which of course invited large-scale corruption. This was possible due to an ancient feudal royal privilege, namely that (in theory) the local population was obliged to pay for the court’s needs wherever it stayed. Parliament had repeatedly tried to restrict purveyors, and local exemption from purveyance was a highly prized privilege.
It hath pleased her Majesty to call me to the place of lord steward within her most honourable house and to give me special charge as principal officer unto whom reformation of such abuses does chiefly appertain to have care of.6
Expenses of the royal household, on the other hand, grew alarmingly, year by year. In 1584, not as yet Lord Steward, Leicester embarked on a cost cutting programme. He began with restarting the activities of a royal brewing house, which was cheaper than to buy all the ale and beer from a cartel of 60 London brewers. This scheme died in March 1588, though, probably due to lack of funds to buy malt. Leicester still was proud to have saved the queen £1,000. In another case he sacked a purveyor after a public outcry at the court’s enormous demand of poultry; the royal purveyor and his men had turned to confiscating fowl in the shops and markets!7 The next year, 1588, Leicester died; Elizabeth never again appointed a Lord Steward.
1 Wilson 1981 p. 327
2 Hatton p. 204
3 Wilson 1981 p. 214
4 Adams 2002 p. 29
5 Haynes 1987 p. 142
6 Haynes 1987 p. 142
7 Haynes 1987 pp. 143 – 144
Memoirs of the Life and Times of Sir Christopher Hatton. (ed. Harris Nicolas, 1847).
State Papers Relating to the Defeat of the Spanish Armada, Anno 1588. Volume I. (ed. J. K. Laughton, 1894). The Navy Records Society.
Adams, Simon (2002): Leicester and the Court: Essays in Elizabethan Politics. Manchester University Press.
Hammer, P. E. J. (1999): The Polarisation of Elizabethan Politics: The Political Career of Robert Devereux, 2nd Earl of Essex, 1585–1597. Cambridge University Press.
Haynes, Alan (1987): The White Bear: The Elizabethan Earl of Leicester. Peter Owen.
Hoak, Dale (2004): “Edward VI (1537–1553)”. Oxford Dictionary of National Biography. Oxford University Press.
Wilson, Derek (1981): Sweet Robin: A Biography of Robert Dudley Earl of Leicester 1533–1588. Hamish Hamilton.