“If I Were As You”: Robert Dudley and His Siblings

On 18 December 1553 Lord Robert and Lord Guildford were granted liberty to take the air on the leads of the Bell Tower. Imprisoned after their father’s unsuccessful attempt at queenmaking, Robert Dudley was 21, Guildford perhaps 17. On 12 February 1554, Robert could see his brother walk out of the Tower of London towards the place of execution; he would also have seen the return of Guildford’s remains, the body thrown on a cart, the head wrapped in a cloth.1 In 1585, then Earl of Leicester, he purchased a new copy of Foxe’s Book of Martyrs, in which he would have found the sad tale of Lady Jane Grey and his second youngest brother, her husband. The marriage had been ill-starred from the beginning: ‟My Lord Guilford Dudley, … one of his brothers, the Admiral and other lords and ladies, recently fell very ill after eating some salad at the Duke of Northumberland’s, and are still suffering from the results. It seems the mistake was made by a cook, who plucked one leaf for another.“2

Mary Sidney, Robert Dudley's sister and the mother of Sir Philip Sidney, 1550s

Mary Sidney, Robert Dudley’s sister and the mother of Sir Philip Sidney, 1550s

John Dudley Duke of Northumberland had been executed on 22 August 1553, while his five sons stayed behind to await their fate. In the autumn of 1554 the surviving four of them – John, Ambrose, Robert, and Henry – were released thanks to the efforts of their mother, who had incessantly lobbied the Spanish nobles around the recently arrived Philip of Spain. Don Diego de Acevedo was having an eye on the brothers, in fulfilment of their mother’s last wish: ‟as he hath in my lifetime showed himself like a father and brother to my sons, so I shall require him no less to do when I am gone.“3 Likewise, the Duchess of Alba – spouse of the famed general – was asked ‟to continue a good lady to all [my] children as she hath begun“ (she was to have a green parrot for her kindness).

John Dudley junior, the family heir, died shortly after his release from the Tower. There were now three brothers left, and the two eldest, Ambrose and Robert, soon had occasion to resume a familiar sport from the days of King Edward: they took part in a series of tournaments held in January 1555, as King Philip was celebrating Anglo-Spanish friendship. In the same month their mother died. According to her will, Ambrose was to receive her manor of Hales Owen plus 100 marks, while Robert had to content himself with 50 marks, a sum also given to her youngest son, Henry, and her youngest daughter Katherine, a child of not yet 12. Her eldest daughter Mary Sidney was probably closest to her: she received not only 200 marks, as well as very personal keepsakes, but also her most precious household stuff, like the ‟hangings of the gallery at Chelsea“, in “gold and green”, and with the duke’s and duchess’ arms. All daughters and daughters-in-law were to have new velvet dresses.4

In November 1555 Ambrose and Henry Dudley, together with their uncle Sir Andrew Dudley, agreed to help Lord Robert, who was ‟left with nothing to live by and having most need of friendly and brotherly love“. It was he who should now have Hales Owen on condition that he pay his mother’s debts and grant his sister Katherine a rent of 50 marks p.a. Ambrose and Andrew Dudley were each to receive £800 from him, while brother Henry wanted nothing (he was married to a rich heiress).5

Despite their good connections to Philip’s entourage, the Dudley brothers were not exactly welcome in London or at court; during the queen’s ‟confinement“ in 1555 they were ordered to leave the city after being seen at St. Paul’s Cathedral in the company of ‟known malcontents“.6 In April 1556, after another anti-government conspiracy, the French ambassador reported that ‟les enfans du duc de Northumberland sont tous fugitifs et que l’on a fait une grande diligence pour les prendre“.7 It is true that quite a number of Dudley associates were in trouble, and it is possible that, as the French report says, the brothers themselves were on the run – if so, successfully. The next year, however, they were allowed to raise contingents for King Philip’s war in France: Ambrose, Robert, and Henry Dudley all took part in the victorious Siege of St. Quentin. In the storming on 27 August 1557 Henry Dudley was killed by a cannonball. Robert Dudley was shocked by this event which happened ‟before his own eyes“, as he still remembered in 1576. He also recorded his youngest brother’s death in a family pedigree together with some further notes on his siblings; unfortunately he did not write down their birth dates.8

Ambrose Dudley is directly behind the queen, “leading the second litter horse”; Robert, on horseback on the far left, is “leading the palfrey of honour.”

The surviving Dudley siblings were ‟at the centre of Elizabeth’s Court from the first days of the reign.“9 Top-listed among Elizabeth’s best friends a week before Queen Mary’s death, Lord Robert (with his wife, Amy) had taken up residence in Throcking, Hertfordshire, not too far away from Hatfield. There, on 18 November 1558, he witnessed the surrender of the Great Seal to Elizabeth, and before the day was over he was Master of the Horse. Another intimate friend of the queen, his sister Mary was appointed an extraordinary gentlewoman of the privy chamber – a position too honourable to carry a salary with it.10 Lord Ambrose also needed a post, and Robert was instructed to secure him the position of Master of the Ordnance; timing was everything, though, so as not to be affected by the predecessor’s corruption:

For that Sir Richard Southwell doth intend to go out of this town toward Friday next, I thought it good to advertise you of it afore his departure, for that he having so great an account to make about his office, it were not fit he should so lightily depart, nor yet to make his deputy to answer for his doings, for it is no small charge that he had under his hands all this while. Wherefore, if it be the Queen’s Majesty’s pleasure, I shall enjoy the office. I would be loath to enter so early unto it as that peradventure hereafter to be called to rehearsal for any part of his doings.

Eight days later Ambrose had become impatient: ‟I thought to have heard from you ere this as concerning my office. I would be glad to have it as soon as were possible.“11

After his first marriage, which had ended in 1552 with the deaths of both his wife and his infant daughter, Ambrose Dudley had married Elizabeth Lady Tailboys, a baroness in her own right with landed possessions in Lincolnshire. The St. Quentin campaign had almost bankrupted the couple, so that they even had had to dismiss their music master, and in August 1559 Ambrose asked his brother for a gift of hawks – ‟for I am so destitute“.12 His loving wife, who had suffered a phantom pregnancy in the same year as Queen Mary,13 organized his appearances at court in co-operation with Lord Robert – for Lord Ambrose was not keen on court life; he was careful not to arrive a day too early, and even complained when apartments had been prepared for him: ‟I may thank my sister Sidney and nobody else for the sending of my stuff thither, for that she sent me word she had got me the chambers within the court … it is the best grief for me to be turned out because it was never of my suit to be there.“14 By April 1560 Ambrose Dudley’s marriage seems to have been in a crisis; he had thrown out his wife. Robert Dudley received a letter from Elizabeth Tailboys in which she complained about the separation and asked for his help towards repairing the situation.15

Lord Robert himself had not seen his wife (who was now living near Oxford) for almost a year. The queen had granted him a mansion at Kew in 1558, but she obviously did not want to see Amy Dudley at court or anywhere near it, nor would she look favourably on any visits he made to her.16 After her death at the foot of a flight of stairs on 8 September 1560, a hostile commentator wrote: ‟And her death he mourneth, leaveth the court, lieth at Kew whither the lords resorted to him to comfort him. Himself, all his friends, many of the Lords and gentlemen, and his family be all in black, and weep dolorously, great hypocrisy used.“ Never having seen Lord Robert by his own description, this writer was obviously not a visitor at Kew himself.17 The house also served happier purposes: A month after Lady Amy’s death Mary Sidney gave birth to her daughter Elizabeth there, an event greatly anticipated by her brother Robert.18 Having no children of his own, he had grown fond of his little nephew Philip Sidney while the boy’s parents resided in Ireland. When Philip was about six he gave him a crimson velvet cap with a silver hatband and feather19 – an early token of a very special uncle-nephew relationship.

Robert’s youngest sister Katherine had been more or less married to Lord Henry Hastings at the age of eight or ten in May 1553. The match having been not yet binding,20 Henry Hastings had kept his wife despite her family’s disgrace. In April 1559 Lord Robert was elected a Knight of the Garter and half of Europe became aware that the Queen of England was in love. Katherine Hastings, at most 16, visited her 26-year-old brother Robert about this time, and both fell ill with malaria:

My good brother, after my heartiest commendations and thanks for your gentle letter, I assure you I was sorry that I could not see you at my departing, as you were, but I trust that we shall both meet fully merrily when our quartans be gone, whereof I would be glad to hear you were delivered though mine remain still in me, good brother. I hear God increased you with honour since my departure. I pray let me desire you to be thankful unto him that showeth himself so gracious unto you. I am bold to write this because I know honour doth rather blind the eye than clear it.

The dangers of hubris notwithstanding she asked Robert to assist her husband, who had come to court, with money and everything else:

I pray you esteem my lord as I am sure he giveth you cause, though peradventure he useth not such flattering behaviour as many will do … Brother, I would you would help to make him better able to wait [upon the queen], which I assure you he desireth, but necessity will drive him away unless you do keep him.21

Robert Dudley continued to receive many such letters from his sister and brother-in-law, who soon became the Earl and Countess of Huntingdon. The earl, to his regret, had a remote claim to the throne which did not make his relationship with Elizabeth any easier. It is an ill-founded notion that Robert Dudley supported this claim; his favoured candidate in the succession question always was the same as Elizabeth’s – Mary Queen of Scots.22 In February 1566, for the first time since the beginning of the reign, he obtained extended leave to visit his estates. He never got there though as he instead visited his sick sister Katherine, ‟with whom I tarried continually, because I would do her all the comfort I could“.23 Childless, Katherine had possibly suffered a miscarriage. After nearly two months absence Elizabeth impatiently demanded Robert’s return. He asked for a further 15 days, which was declined.24

Robert Dudley, Earl of Leicester, 1560s

Ambrose Dudley’s wife Elizabeth died in 1563 while he was away commanding an English army in France. He returned severely wounded, in great pain and fever. To his brother he wrote that he was happy ‟rather to end my life upon the breach than in any sickness. … Farewell my dear and loving brother, a thousand times.“25 Robert Dudley rushed to Portsmouth to visit him, undeterred by the plague that was raging in the camp. Elizabeth was much annoyed – because he was risking his life unnecessarily, as she thought, and because he could not return to court for many weeks of quarantine.26

Elizabeth liked Ambrose Dudley, to whom she had restored his father’s title of Earl of Warwick in December 1561 – to the great delight of Robert,27 who became Earl of Leicester only in 1564. Around this time the queen earnestly thought about matching her favourite with the Queen of Scots; a major problem was that she could not really forgo Leicester’s company, and she once fell on the idea that each queen could have one Dudley brother, if only Lord Ambrose ‟had the grace and good looks of Lord Robert … the earl of Warwick was not ugly either, and was not ungraceful, but his manner was rather rough and he was not so gentle as Lord Robert.“28

Queen Elizabeth and her favourite featured prominently in Ambrose Dudley’s third wedding on 11 November 1565, to the 16-year-old bride, Anne Russell, the Earl of Bedford’s daughter. The match had been arranged by the Earl of Leicester, and the wedding was a great court festival with banquets and tournaments. Despite the age gap of nearly 20 years the marriage turned out to be very happy, though not least to Robert Dudley’s great grief it remained childless: ‟my brother you see long married and not like to have children, it resteth so now in myself, and yet such occasions is there … as if I should marry I am sure never to have [the queen’s] favour.“29

Elizabeth had granted Ambrose, the Earl of Warwick, Warwick Castle, while Robert had received the neighbouring Kenilworth Castle. The brothers descended from the famous Beauchamp Earls of Warwick – something they were very proud of – and like their father before them had adopted the bear and ragged staff as their heraldic device. In January 1570 all four surviving Dudley siblings met at Kenilworth, where the building works necessary to convert it into an Arthurian-Elizabethan dreamland had recently started. Whenever Leicester (her ‟eyes“ or ‟ôô“) was away, the queen demanded his ‟often sending“, which he did, playing on the family emblem:

If it lay in the power of so unable creatures to yield you what our will would, you should feel the fruits of our wishes, as well as the continual offerings of our hearty prayers. We two here, your poor thralls, your ursus major and minor tied to your stake, shall for ever remain in the bond-chain of dutiful servitude, fastened above all others by benefits past, and daily goodness continually showed … Now if it please Your sweet Majesty that I may return to my wonted manner, your old ôô are in your old ill lodging here.

He added that ‟Sister Mary and Sister Kate … is here with me, and well amended“.30

Another favourite retreat of the Dudley-Sidney clan became Wilton, ‟the Countess of Pembroke’s Arcadia“. It was again the Earl of Leicester who arranged the match between his niece Mary Sidney and his boyhood friend, Henry Herbert Earl of Pembroke. The 40-year-old earl married the 15-year-old girl in April 1577, amid magnificent festivities organized by the bride’s mother. The first guests of the newlyweds were Ambrose and Robert Dudley, soon to be followed by Henry and Philip Sidney, all would-be long-term visitors as far as Her Majesty allowed. Leicester was back at Christmas, ‟to sport there awhile, making merry with his nephew, the earl of Pembroke“.31

Ambrose Dudley, Earl of Warwick, 1580s

Ambrose Dudley grew rather dependent on his brother, who was about two years younger; they spent as much time together as they could and were ‟almost inseparable“.32 Ambrose wrote of Robert: ‟there is no man knoweth his doings better than I myself“, and with reason he did so, knowing all his brother’s personal secrets. – Robert’s characteristic phrase on Ambrose was: ‟him I love as myself“.33 Whether management of estates, business and exploration ventures, or patronage of preaching – they did all these things together. Robert Dudley also had a good relationship with his brother’s wife, Anne, writing in one of his wills that ‟my noble & worthy sister the countess of Warwick at whose hands I have ever found great love & kindness, … [I] did both honour & esteem her as much as any brother did his sister“.34 When in London, Ambrose lived at Leicester House, his suite of rooms comprising ‟the Lord of Warwick’s bedchamber, the Lord of Warwick’s closet, the Lord of Warwick’s dining parlour“.35 Robert Dudley, a workaholic by nature, even wrote his brother’s business letters late at night: ‟For he is abed and asleep, it is now past eleven o’clock, and besides troubled with his gout.“36

One of the few individuals who did not suffer from the gout, Robert Dudley yet had other problems (with his legs, with his stomach) and was very fond of taking the baths – preferably at the well of St. Anne at Buxton, Derbyshire, on the estate of his good old friends, the Earl of Shrewsbury and his wife Bess of Hardwick. Robert typically brought his brother with him. In 1577 Queen Elizabeth wrote a wonderful letter to the Shrewsburys, to thank them for their hospitality to the Earl of Leicester:

Being given to understand from our cousin, the Earl of Leicester, how honourably he was lately received and used by you, … and how his diet is by you both discharged at Buxton, … we think it meet to prescribe unto you a proportion of diet which we mean in no case you shall exceed, and that is, to allow him by the day for his meat two ounces of flesh, referring the quality to yourselves, so as you exceed not the quantity, and for his drink the twentieth part of a pint of wine to comfort his stomach, and as much of St. Anne’s sacred water as he listeth to drink. On festival days, as is meet for a man of his quality, we can be content you shall enlarge his diet by allowing unto him for his dinner the shoulder of a wren, and for his supper a leg of the same, besides his ordinary ounces of flesh. The like proportion you should allow to his brother, Warwick … whose body is already so replete, that the wren’s leg be abated.37

Brother Ambrose had been suffering from his leg wound ever since he had received it in 1563, and his weight had naturally increased as a consequence: ‟A good fat whoreson to make bacon of“, was an unfriendly description of him in the 1580s.38 By that time he hardly had ‟use of his legs“ anymore.39

In late 1585 the Earl of Leicester sailed to the Netherlands to lead an English army against Spain; he soon incurred the queen’s wrath for accepting the post of governor-general. During the height of the crisis, Ambrose – a forthright Puritan – in moving terms reassured his brother of the full support of the faithful, but warned him:

Well, our mistress’ rage doth increase rather than any way diminish, and giveth out great threatening words against you, therefore make the best assurance you can for yourself … if I were as you … I would go to the furthest part of Christendom rather than ever come into England again. I pray you make me no such stranger as you have done, but deal frankly with me, for that that toucheth you toucheth me likewise. I have sent you divers letters of importance and as yet never had answer of them. Take heed whom you trust, for that you have some false boys about you. Let me have your best advice what is best for me to do, for that I mean to take such part as you do.40

Leicester rightly trusted that the queen would never send him to the block and finally returned to England, to Elizabeth’s greatest joy.41 During his absence his sister Mary and her husband Henry Sidney both died, only three months apart; Leicester had been close to the couple, but what shattered him completely was the tragic death of his nephew Philip in October 1586: ‟It was too much loss for me, for this young man was my greatest comfort, next her Majesty, of all the world“.42

In early September 1588, only weeks after the Armada and the camp at Tilbury which he had organized, Leicester was going to join his brother at Kenilworth for a holiday with the wives (in 1578 Robert had finally remarried, Ambrose being one of the secret witnesses). There was to be no further meeting, though, for Robert suddenly died after a few days in fever and pain. His brother was his principal heir, and he left him his debt-encumbered estate and the custody of his 14-year-old illegitimate son (also Robert Dudley). Another bequest was his wife, Lettice: ‟my last and best token to him shall be to present a faithful sister and handmaid to him, whilest you both live, which I pray God may be many years“.43 Countess Lettice indeed lived on until 91, but the Earl of Warwick was undone by his leg, which had to be amputated in February 1590. The well-being of his promising nephew Robert was on his mind until the end.44

Thus, within a few years Elizabeth lost the three Dudleys who for three decades had been central to her court: Mary Sidney (the queen being still very fond of her) left in 1579, apparently disgusted by Elizabeth’s fuss over her brother’s marriage,45 while the death of Leicester left a void never to be filled in Elizabeth’s heart. His youngest sister Katherine Hastings became a widow in 1595. Her slightly suspect husband – whom she had deeply loved – being gone, she suddenly found herself one of the queen’s best friends and remained so for the rest of the reign. She died in 1620, in her late seventies.

1 Chronicle of Queen Jane pp. 33, 55
2 CSP Span 12 June 1553
3 Adams 2002 p. 134
4 Collins 1746 p. 34
5 Adams 2002 pp. 159, 171
6 Adams 2004c; Wilson 1981 p. 71
7 Adams 2002 p. 161
8 Adams 2002 pp. 354, 317; Adams 2004c
9 Adams 2002 p. 134
10 Adams 2004d
11 HMC Bath V pp. 145 – 146
12 HMC Bath V p. 146
13 Adams 2004a
14 HMC Bath V pp. 166, 146
15 HMC Bath V p. 156
16 Adams 2004c
17 Adams, Archer, Bernard 2003 pp. 66 – 67
18 Adams 2004d; Adams 1995 p. 142
19 Adams 1995 p. 173
20 Adams 1995 p. 44
21 HMC Bath V p. 139; Wilson 1981 p. 80
22 Adams 2004c
23 Gristwood 2007 p.175
24 Adams 2004c; Kendall 1980 p. 90
25 Jenkins 2002 p. 96
26 Wilson 1981 p. 137; Adams 2002 p. 138
27 Jenkins 2002 p. 85
28 CSP Span I p. 313
29 Read 1936 p. 25
30 CSP Dom VII pp. 198 – 199
31 Stewart 2000 pp. 200 – 202; Jenkins 2002 p. 220; Adams 2004d
32 Adams 2004a
33 Adams 2004a
34 Adams 2004b
35 Jenkins 2002 p. 162
36 Jenkins 2002 p. 242
37 Wilson 1981 p. 243; Lovell 2006 p. 266
38 Hogge 2005 p. 57
39 Adams 1995 p. 390
40 Leycester Correspondence p. 151
41 Jenkins 2002 p. 327
42 Haynes 1987 p. 171
43 Haynes 1987 p. 198
44 Adams 2004a
45 Kendall 1980 p. 182; Adams 2004d

Calendar of State Papers, Domestic Series, of the Reign of Elizabeth. Volume VII. (ed. by M. A. E. Green, 1871)

Calendar of … State Papers Relating to English Affairs … in … Simancas, 1558–1603. (ed. by Martin Hume, 1892–1899). HMSO.

Calendar of State Papers, Spain, Volume 11 – 1553. (edited by Royall Tyler, 1916): http://www.british-history.ac.uk/source.aspx?pubid=973

The Chronicle of Queen Jane. (ed. J. G. Nichols, 1850)

Correspondence of Robert Dudley, Earl of Leycester, during his Government of the Low Countries, in the Years 1585 and 1586. (ed. John Bruce, 1844). Camden Society.

Manuscripts of The Marquess of Bath, Volume V: Talbot, Dudley and Devereux Papers 1533–1659. (1980) Historical Manuscripts Commission. HMSO.

Adams, Simon (1995): Household Accounts and Disbursement Books of Robert Dudley, Earl of Leicester, 1558–1561, 1584–1586. Cambridge University Press.

Adams, Simon (2002): Leicester and the Court: Essays in Elizabethan Politics. Manchester University Press.

Adams, Simon (2004a): ‟Dudley, Ambrose, earl of Warwick (c.1530–1590)“. Oxford Dictionary of National Biography. Oxford University Press.

Adams, Simon (2004b): ‟Dudley, Anne, countess of Warwick (1548/9–1604)“. Oxford Dictionary of National Biography. Oxford University Press.

Adams, Simon (2004c): ‟Dudley, Robert, earl of Leicester (1532/3–1588)“. Oxford Dictionary of National Biography. Oxford University Press.

Adams, Simon (2004d): ‟Sidney, Mary, Lady Sidney (1530×35–1586)“. Oxford Dictionary of National Biography. Oxford University Press.

Adams, Simon, Archer, Ian, Bernard, G. W. (eds.) (2003): ‟A ‘Journall’ of Matters of State happened from time to time as well within and without the Realme from and before the Death of King Edw. the 6th untill the Yere 1562“ in: Ian Archer (ed.): Religion, Politics, and Society in Sixteenth-Century England. Cambridge University Press.

Collins, Arthur (ed.) (1746): Letters and Memorials of State. Volume I. T. Osborne.

Cross, Claire (2004): ‟Hastings, Katherine, countess of Huntingdon (c.1538–1620)“. Oxford Dictionary of National Biography. Oxford University Press.

Gristwood, Sarah (2007): Elizabeth and Leicester: Power, Passion, Politics. Viking.

Haynes, Alan (1987): The White Bear: The Elizabethan Earl of Leicester. Peter Owen.

Hogge, Alice (2005): God’s Secret Agents: Queen Elizabeth’s Forbidden Priests and the Hatching of the Gunpowder Plot. Harper Collins.

Ives, Eric (2009): Lady Jane Grey: A Tudor Mystery. Wiley-Blackwell.

Jenkins, Elizabeth (2002): Elizabeth and Leicester. The Phoenix Press.

Kendall, Alan (1980): Robert Dudley Earl of Leicester. Cassell.

Lovell, M. S. (2006): Bess of Hardwick: First Lady of Chatsworth. Abacus.

Read, Conyers (1936): ‟A Letter from Robert, Earl of Leicester, to a Lady“. The Huntington Library Bulletin. No. 9. April 1936.

Stewart, Alan (2000): Philip Sidney: A Double Life. Chatto & Windus.

Wilson, Derek (1981): Sweet Robin: A Biography of Robert Dudley Earl of Leicester 1533–1588. Hamish Hamilton.

First published on 4 August 2011 at thehistoryfiles.com

About Christine Hartweg

Hi, I'm the author of "Amy Robsart: A Life and Its End" and "John Dudley: The Life of Lady Jane Grey's Father-in-Law". I blog at www.allthingsrobertdudley.wordpress.com
This entry was posted in Ambrose Dudley, Elizabeth I, family & marriage, Jane Dudley, letters, Robert Dudley and tagged , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

1 Response to “If I Were As You”: Robert Dudley and His Siblings

  1. Carol says:

    Brilliant article Christine – I never knew that Ambrose threw Elizabeth Tailboys out and that
    their marriage was in crisis.

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