In the spring or early summer of 1584 a toddler strolled in the great gallery of Leicester House, his father’s palatial London residence. At some point the little boy climbed a stool before a painting and started embellishing it. Some five years later the child’s exercise in contemporary art was recorded in an inventory of the Earl of Leicester’s picture collection:
A counterfeit of a gentlewoman in a petticoat of yellow satin (all broken and quite defaced by my young lord, ut dicitur [as it is said]).1
That this incident was still talked of when both the little lord and his father – the lord of the house – were dead indicates the uproar it caused; we do not know whether the undutiful nanny was dismissed. That such a small boy, the eyeball of his loving parents, was able to play around unsupervised says a lot about 16th century realities concerning the supposed lack of privacy. It would indeed have been unusual for the great gallery of Leicester House to be a lonely place – the mansion housed about 20 apartments, the complete resident household comprising about 150 servants and dependants – yet it did happen.
Although she too was away when her son embarked on his adventure in the gallery, indications are that Countess Lettice was a responsible and caring mother to her only child by Robert Dudley, Earl of Leicester. The long-awaited heir was born on 8 June 1581, after nearly three years of marriage and several miscarriages. From the day of his birth, Robert Dudley junior was styled Baron Denbigh, his father’s subsidiary title. A “noble imp”, his cradle at Leicester House was draped with crimson velvet, ‟with trains of crimson taffetta“, and his chair was ‟upholstered in green and carnation cloth of tinsel“.2 His father being busy at court – a place where his mother was persona non grata – she used to go on holidays with her little son; one of their hosts later reminded the countess of ‟the great charge I was at when you with the young lord and other your honour’s friends and company lay with me“.
If we believe Mary Queen of Scots, Leicester had great dreams for his heir. In the spring of 1584 she wrote to the French ambassador that her hostess-jailer, the Countess of Shrewsbury, the formidable Bess of Hardwick, entertained “the vain hope” of placing her granddaughter Arabella on the English throne, “and this by means of marrying her to a son of the Earl of Leicester. These children are also educated in this idea, and their portraits have been sent to each other.”3 As her other correspondence from this time shows, the Scottish queen had a clouded judgement concerning Leicester’s position, believing she had ample proof of his supposedly treacherous activities, both with and against Queen Elizabeth, and that she could bring him down whenever it pleased her to do so.4 The story of the young Arabella Stuart’s betrothal with the little Lord Denbigh may likewise have been an invention;5 still, Leicester’s long-standing friendship with Bess of Hardwick gives it a ring of truth.
No portrait of Arabella seems ever to have been listed in the Earl of Leicester’s many inventories, while Denbigh featured prominently at Leicester House: “two pictures of my young lord’s”, “in the high gallery”, as well as “one picture of my young Lord of Denbigh” and “my lady’s whole proportion in cloth and my young lord standing by her made by Hubard 1584.”6
On 19 July 1584, a Sunday, little Robert Dudley died at Wanstead, his father’s country house in Essex. Probably a sudden fever carried him away before Leicester could return from the court, although he immediately departed without asking the queen for a licence to leave. His friend Sir Christopher Hatton undertook this task:
I have told her Majesty of this unfortunate and untimely cause which constrained your sudden journey to London, whereof I assure your Lordship I find her very sorry, and wisheth your comfort, even from the bottom of her heart. It pleased her to tell me that she would write to you, and send to visit you according to her wonted goodness; and therefore she held no longer speech with me of the matter.
Elizabeth, who always showed great interest and love for Leicester’s children, both putative and real, sent her personal messenger. But it seems she could not bring herself to write a formal letter, a standard procedure which however would have implied to extend her condolences to the Countess of Leicester. The earl was shattered by the loss of his only legitimate son and sought comfort from God, as he told Hatton:
Mr. Vice-Chamberlain, I do most heartily thank you for your careful and most godly advice at this time. Your good friendship never wanteth. I must confess I have received many afflictions within these few years, but not a greater, next her Majesty’s displeasure: and, if it pleased God, I would the sacrifice of this poor innocent might satisfy; I mean not towards God … but for the world. The afflictions I have suffered may satisfy such as are offended, at least appease their long hard conceits: if not, yet I know there is a blessing for such as suffer; and so is there for those that be merciful. Princes (who feel not the heavy estate of the poor afflicted that only are to receive relief from themselves) seldom do pity according to the true rules of charity, and therefore men fly to the mighty God in time of distress for comfort; for we are sure, though He doth chastise, yet He forsaketh not, neither will He see them unrewarded with the highest blessing. I beseech the same God to grant me patience in all these worldly things, and to forgive me the negligences of my former time, that have not been more careful to please Him, but have run the race of the world. In the same sort I commend you, and pray for His grace for you as for myself; and, before all this world, to preserve her Majesty for ever, whom on my knees I most humbly thank for her gracious visitation by Killigrew. She shall never comfort a more true and faithful man to her, for I have lived and so will die only hers.
23rd July 1584.
Your poor but assured friend, Robt. Leicester.7
Young Denbigh’s death destroyed all Leicester’s hopes to continue his house. His brother Ambrose, Earl of Warwick was childless and he himself was “unlike to have” more children, “my growing now old”, as he explained to the Earl of Shrewsbury who had tried to console him with such a prospect.8 The problem was rather more Lettice’s age of 40 (the French ambassador would point out9), but Leicester was all the cavalier:
Cousin Davison, I have this 2nd of August received your letter of the 27th of July. It found me from the Court, whence I have been absent these fifteen days to comfort my sorrowful wife for the loss of my only little son, whom God has lately taken from us.10
The little Baron Denbigh’s heraldic funeral service was celebrated on 1 August 1584 at Wanstead. His parents having no role in the proceedings, they made a short country progress and stopped by at Theobalds, Lord Burghley’s great country residence. There, on 31 July, Leicester thanked his absent host
that it pleased you so friendly and honourably to deal in the behalf of my poor wife. For truly, my Lord, in all reason she is hardly dealt with. God must only help it with her majesty … for which, my Lord, you shall be assured to find us most thankful to the uttermost of our powers.11
The couple also used Theobalds’ parks, where they “made some … stags afraid, but killed none”.12
On October 1584 Lord Denbigh was laid to rest at St. Mary’s Church, Warwick, in the Beauchamp Chapel, next to his ancestor Richard Beauchamp, Earl of Warwick, and where he was ultimately to be joined by his parents and his uncle Ambrose. A beautiful effigy was made, displaying bears, ragged staffs, and cinquefoils. The epitaph betrayed his father’s hopes, for this life and the next:
Here resteth the body of the noble imp Robert Dudley, Baron of Denbigh, son of Robert Earl of Leicester, nephew and heir unto Ambrose Dudley Earl of Warwick, brethren, both sons of the most mighty Prince, John, late Duke of Northumberland, herein interred, a child of great parentage but far greater hope and towardness, taken from this transitory world unto everlasting life, in his tender age at Wanstead in Essex on Sunday, 19th of July, in the year of our Lord God 1584 … and in this place laid up among his noble ancestors, in assured hope of the general resurrection.13
1 HMC Bath V p. 222
2 Jenkins 2002 p. 252
3 Wilson 1981 p. 244
4 CSP Scottish VII p. 5
5 Adams 2004b
6 HMC Bath V pp. 224, 222
7 Hatton pp. 382 – 383
8 HMC Bath V p. 50
9 Adams 2004b
10 CSP Scottish VII p. 248
11 Wilson 1981 p. 247
12 CSP Dom p. 192
13 Kendall 1980 p. 198; Jenkins 2002 p. 288
Calendar of State Papers, Domestic Series, of the Reign of Elizabeth, 1581–1590. (ed. by Robert Lemon, 1865).
Calendar of the State Papers Relating to Scotland and Mary, Queen of Scots, 1547–1603. Volume VII. (ed. W. K. Boyd, 1913).
Manuscripts of The Marquess of Bath, Volume V: Talbot, Dudley and Devereux Papers 1533–1659. (Historical Manuscripts Commission, 1980).
Memoirs of the Life and Times of Sir Christopher Hatton. (ed. Harris Nicolas, 1847).
Adams, Simon (1996): “At Home and Away. The Earl of Leicester”. History Today. Volume 46. No. 5. May 1996.
Adams, Simon (2004a): “Dudley, Lettice, countess of Essex and countess of Leicester (1543–1634)”. Oxford Dictionary of National Biography. Oxford 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.
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.