Before Elizabeth: Amy and Robert Dudley, 1532 – 1558

Robert and Amy Dudley, as imagined by the painter Edward Matthew Ward in 1866. Sir Walter Scott’s 1821 novel Kenilworth established Amy Robsart as a tragic, romantic heroine.

Amy Dudley née Robsart is most often mentioned in connection with her death, yet she had also a life – and not even an especially “miserable” one, as is usually claimed in sensationalist TV programmes. She was born on 7 June 1532 (17 days before her future husband), probably in Norfolk, at Stanfield Hall. The only child of Elizabeth Scott and her second husband Sir John Robsart, a substantial gentleman farmer, or grazer, rather, Amy grew up in a firmly Protestant household. In 1550 the preacher Thomas Becon dedicated a book to her father, writing of the “godly affection and christian zeal which both you … and your wife have borne toward the pure religion of God these many years.”1

On 20 May 1550 Sir John Robsart and John Dudley, Earl of Warwick agreed on a marriage contract for their children, if the “said Robert and Amye will thereunto condescend and agree”.2 They seem to have done so with the greatest pleasure, and the likely wedding guest William Cecil later remarked that it had been a “carnal marriage”, begun in joy and ended in mourning.

Amy and Robert had probably met nine months earlier, in the summer of 1549, when the Earl of Warwick and his sons Ambrose and Robert had stayed overnight at the Robsarts’ Norfolk home. With an army of several thousand men they were on their way to defeat the rebels led by Robert Kett. That the 17-year-old Robert fell in love with his host’s 17-year-old daughter is the best explanation for this son of England’s chief minister to marry the heiress of an influential country gentleman. The wedding took place on 4 June 1550 at the palace of Sheen, in the presence of King Edward, a day after the much grander nuptials of Robert’s eldest brother with the eldest daughter of the Duke of Somerset.

Robert’s match cannot have been particularly attractive for John Dudley, though he was certainly happy to acquire a relative in a troubled area of England where he lacked personal influence. John Dudley and John Robsart agreed that the young couple would only inherit the Robsart estate (consisting of three manors) after the death of both Amy’s parents, not just her father as would have been the norm. Furthermore, the earl paid £200 as a “dowry” for Robert to Sir John, who in his turn was to pay his son-in-law £20 p.a. From his father, Robert received a rent of £50 p.a. as well as the former priory of Coxford, which lay near the Robsart estate. To this John Dudley later added two manors, so that “his son might be able to keep a good house in Norfolk”:3 “Know ye that I have given and granted the said manor, etc., to Robert Dudley, Lord Dudley, my son and the Ladie Amie his wife.”4

Serving as a member of parliament and in local offices with his father-in-law, Robert Dudley gained the enduring respect of the Norfolk gentry: “your Lordship’s name is in Norfolk of some authority and your person well beloved”, was an Elizabethan opinion.5 There is no reason to speculate, though, that John Dudley wanted to establish Robert as a successor to the Howards, now without influence, as this successor was de facto the Princess Mary. The greatest landowner in East Anglia, her position was strengthened even as late as May and early June 1553, when the government – Dudley’s regime, supposedly plotting her downfall – gave her the castle of Framlingham, the great former Howard stronghold.

Amy and her husband did not just live in the country, in fact they seem mostly to have resided in the capital, at Ely Place, the home of the Duke and Duchess of Northumberland, as Robert’s parents were since October 1551. Robert came to hold two court offices, Chief Carver and Master of the Buckhounds, and was a gentleman of Edward VI’s privy chamber – Amy would not have spent much time there, since the court of a young, unmarried king was naturally male-dominated. In December 1552 Robert was appointed keeper of Somerset House, which had been granted to Princess Elizabeth. The great Renaissance palace begun by Edward Seymour was still a building site and Elizabeth never visited the place, but Robert and his wife had now a London residence of their own.

This agreeable life was ended by King Edward’s death in July 1553 and after a fortnight of campaigning for Queen Jane in Norfolk Robert Dudley found himself first a prisoner at Framlingham and soon in the Tower of London. His father was executed by Queen Mary on 22 August; about this time the new privy council issued a warrant to a clerk of the Exchequer, “to deliver … such stuff, apparel and other things as he hath got into his hands of the Lord Robert Dudley’s, unto the lady his wife, and the same being called for her after, to be always answerable for their forthcoming to the Queen’s Highness’ use”.6 Lady Amy indeed gave up stuffs to the vice-chamberlain of the royal household, for he received a letter concerning “such apparel and other things as he hath of the Lady Dudley’s, the Lord Robert’s wife.”7 Meanwhile, by mid-September routine was allowed to take over the Tower, the lieutenant receiving a council order that willed him

to permit these ladies following to have access unto their husbands, and there to tarry with them so long and at such times as by him shall be thought meet; that is to say, the Lord Ambrose’s wife, the Lord Robert ‘s wife, Sir Francis Jobson’s wife, Sir Harry Gates’s wife and Sir Richard Corbett’s wife.8

In June 1554 Sir John Robsart died and in the late autumn the three surviving Dudley brothers were free men. They were still under sentence of death and attainted, however, so that Amy and Robert were “left with nothing to live by”. Help came from their mothers: Amy’s presumably gave accommodation and money, Robert’s died and left her sons some property, which the queen graciously allowed them to inherit. The brothers were occasionally seen loitering in London during 1555 and 1556, and they and their wives surely used Christchurch, the great London mansion of the youngest brother, Henry, and his rich wife. In the spring of 1557 Lady Robsart also died, leaving her daughter and son-in-law in much better financial circumstances. They could now take over the sheep business and start clearing debts. First, though, Robert Dudley and his brothers had to pay their due to King Philip by participating in the battle and siege of St. Quentin. Robert left England in early August 1557; his wife was now in charge of affairs:

Mr. Flowerdew, I understand by Gryse that you put him in remembrance of that you spoke to me of, concerning the going of certain sheep at Syderstone; and although I forgot to move my lord thereof before his departing, he being sore troubled with weighty affairs and I not being altogether in quiet for his sudden departing, yet, notwithstanding, knowing your accustomed friendship towards my lord and me, I neither may nor can deny you that request, in my lord’s absence, of mine own authority. Yea, and [if] it were a greater matter, as if any good occasion may serve you to try me; desiring you further that you will make sale of the wool so soon as is possible, although you sell it for 6s. the stone, or as you would sell for yourself, for my lord so justly required me, at his departing, to see those poor men satisfied, as though it had been a matter depending on life. Wherefore I [hesitate] not to sustain a little loss thereby to satisfy my lord’s desire, and so to send that money to Gryse’s house to London, by Bridewell, to whom my lord hath given order for the payment thereof. And thus I end, always troubling you, wishing that occasion may serve to requite you. Until that time I must pay you with thanks. And so to God I leave you.

From Mr. Hyde’s this 7 August
Your assured during life,
Amy Dudley9

Amy Dudley wrote this letter from Throcking, Hertfordshire, from the home of William Hyde, a member of the Dudley affinity (he even named one of his daughters Dudley). Neither too far from Norfolk nor from the Capital, his house served as periodic residence to Robert and Amy for a couple of years. Amy wants Mr. Flowerdew, her steward, to sell “certain sheep” in order to pay off some “poor men” in a business her husband could not complete due to his “sudden departing”. Her words have been thoroughly analyzed, especially since the letter was formerly believed to have been written two years later, after Elizabeth’s succession. Thus Amy’s phrase, “I not being altogether in quiet for his sudden departing”, has gained a connotation of romantic distress – which it may keep with the new dating as well: She could not be certain to see her husband return from the wars; her youngest brother-in-law, Henry Dudley, was killed.

Written in a delicate handwriting, her style is remarkably clear and elegant. Still, her personality shines through. A devoted and loving wife, there is no reason to interpret her use of “my lord” as submissive, as this was the standard formula for wives speaking about their husbands. She even displays a sense of irony regarding Robert’s fussing about the business (“as though it had been a matter depending on life”).

It is sometimes implied that the couple must have been estranged because they had no children. Medically speaking, this is patent nonsense, and a surprisingly high number of 16th century marriages remained childless, among them very happy ones like that of Robert’s sister Katherine Hastings and the last one of his brother Ambrose, Earl of Warwick. The critical Cecil, when listing Robert’s alleged shortcomings as a royal suitor, noted gleefully:

Nuptiae steriles.
No brother had children and yet their wives have.
Himself married and no children.10

(Cecil was not quite correct, it was in his interest to ignore the short-lived daughter Ambrose Dudley had had with his first wife).

Amy’s father’s ancestral home, Syderstone or Sidesterne, had long been in disrepair and was uninhabitable. In 1558 the couple planned to settle down in a suitable country residence of their own. They sold some property in Worcestershire, as is testified by a deed they jointly signed at Christchurch in London,11 and by the middle of the year Robert believed to have found the ideal place, provided the price was not too high. Mr. Flowerdew’s services were again called upon. With Amy’s brother-in-law, the husband of her half-sister Anne Appleyard, James Bigot, the steward inspected the envisaged hall at Flitcham, near Syderstone. He was also to take care of everything else, for – true to his class – Lord Robert could or would not do what he should have done himself:

Good Mr. Flowerdew, I do most heartily thank you for your pains and travail you have taken for me, as well touching the matter of Flitcham, as other mine affairs at Sidesterne. For the first, I would very gladly proceed therein, having it so as to be no loser by such rates as might be too over high set. For that, as I said before, I shall refer unto you, in thinking the prices too unreasonable, I must, if to dwell in that country, take some house other than mine own, for it there wanteth all such chief commodities as a house requireth, which is, pasture, wood, water, &c. To this I understand there is most of that the other wants, and besides it standeth somewhat nigh that little I have there. And where your care is so great for me in looking for my commodity herein, that you would have more advice than your own, for your contentation (though both your skill will suffice for a much greater matter than this, and my trust would not refuse that you should do in a greater matter also), I have required my brother Bige [Bigot] to take pains with you, and what order you take as well for the rent and prices, as for the year, I will accept and agree unto. Praying you that if you conclude that I may have a full certificate that the ground is what the stock is upon it already and what number of cattle you judge it may keep. And hearing hereof from you both, God willing, I will immediately come down to see it myself, and to take further order by your advices for my coming thither.

I understand also that there is stuff or furniture in the house, which the executors will depart with all; I pray you I may have some little inventory what it is, and how they will leave it, and I will send word again what I will do. If it be good and worth the prices, I would not refuse it. For Sidestern, first for the fold-course [sheep-pens] at Boxford, I do mind to store and lay it myself, praying you to give your order for it; and for all things else that is out of order, I pray you to redress it at your discretion, as well [as] for placing or displacing such servants or shepherds as be unmeet to have charge there, even in such sort as any way I would or should do myself. And think myself much beholding and greatly in your debt, for the friendship you have divers ways showed me. And so with my hearty commendations, and ready to do you all the pleasure I may, I bid you farewell.

From Hays, this Friday morning.
Yours assured,
R. Duddeley12

Whatever Flowerdew’s report, nothing came of the plans before England had a new queen and little remained as it was for Amy and Robert.

Notes
1 Skidmore 2010 p. 16
2 Skidmore 2010 pp. 23 – 24
3 Skidmore 2010 p. 24
4 Jackson 1878 p. 84
5 Skidmore 2010 p. 24
6 APC IV p. 323
7 APC IV p. 328
8 APC IV p. 344
9 Wilson 1981 pp. 94 – 95
10 Wilson 1981 p. 188
11 Skidmore 2010 p. 58
12 Adlard 1870 pp. 16 – 17

Sources
Acts of the Privy Council of England. Volume IV. (ed. J. R. Dasent, 1892).

Adlard, George (1870): Amye Robsart and the Earl of Leycester.
John Russell Smith.

Jackson, J. E. (1878): “Amye Robsart”. The Wiltshire Archaeological and Natural History Magazine. Volume XVII.

Loades, David (1996): John Dudley, Duke of Northumberland 1504–1553. Clarendon Press.

McIntosh, J. L. (2008): From Heads of Household to Heads of State: The Preaccession Households of Mary and Elizabeth Tudor. 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.

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5 thoughts on “Before Elizabeth: Amy and Robert Dudley, 1532 – 1558

  1. This is very interesting as I have struggled to find much about Amy and her mysterious death.

  2. Fascinating article. Any idea, though, as to how long it would take to find another suitable house or to refurbish one of the three manors inherited after the death of Amy’s mother? (if only the ancestral home was ruined, could they have lived in another one). I’ve never been surprised that Amy wasn’t at Elizabeth’s court (Mildred Cecil wasn’t at court, either and no one thinks that Elizabeth and William Cecil were in love), but I’ve always been curious why Amy and Robert didn’t have a place of their own.

    • Thank you! In fact even Amy’s father never seems to have lived at Syderstone, so it was probably quite unsuitable. He lived at Stanfield, which was his wife’s property from her first marriage, apparently. It therefore went to her son John Appleyard after her death. It is believed Robert lived a lot of the time in London, even under Queen Mary; how much Amy was with him we can’t know, there is so little documentation. They also had many debts and probably couldn’t afford much repair on houses or perhaps the new one.

      After Elizabeth’s accession she gave Robert a house at Kew; Amy visited London in 1559. There is evidence, though, that “Elizabeth’s favour did not extend to his wife”, as Simon Adams has put it. She lived at Cumnor for about ten months before her death, she wasn’t “imprisoned” there in any way, but she ceased her earlier travelling for some reason.

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