Murder, in Elizabethan England, was a rare occurrence. As opposed to manslaughter and the occasional “bloudie robberie”, “wilful murther” with “malice aforethought” made up only about 5% of indicted felonies in the courts of assize, and, interestingly, “killing one’s spouse was … not a common type of murder” according to surviving statistics.1
The eminent legal commentator and civil servant, Sir Thomas Smith, believed murder by poison to be as good as non-existent in England. Indeed, in chronicles such as Holinshed’s and in moralistic pamphlet literature, “a severe blow to the head followed by the cutting of the unconscious or semi-conscious victim’s throat” was the classic murder method. The use of knives and daggers was somewhat less common, while poison (Smith’s skepticism notwithstanding) was the preserve of the female perpetrator. Suspicious details were also important clues in these early examples of “detective stories”, such as rushes of straw that had been suddenly exchanged or a body found without wounds but with a broken neck.2
Leicester’s Commonwealth, the vicious satire of 1584, clearly played with such themes in its account of the death of Amy Dudley in 1560: “she had the chance to fall from a pair of stairs and so to break her neck, but yet without hurting of her hood that stood upon her head.”3 While the rest of the wildly inaccurate story in Leicester’s Commonwealth has been largely ignored (such as the claim that “she was found murdered … by the crowner’s inquest”4), the detail of the hood has made its way into nearly every account of the case.
The supposedly unaltered headdress has indeed often been quoted as the most suspicious element in Amy Dudley’s death. Then, in 2010, the long-overlooked report of the coroner’s inquest was published, and now the two head injuries she sustained (one of them but a flesh wound) were sensationally presented as a prime indication or even proof of murder in the media. Where before there was a perception of too little violence for her death to have been an accident, there was now a perception of too much. From a medical viewpoint there is no need to see anything sinister, because serious and fatal stair accidents do occur all the time, with and without a broken neck, and not untypically with severe cranial injuries.5 As the updated ODNB entry on Amy Dudley concluded in 2011: “The head wounds add a new twist, but they are compatible with either accident or foul play.”6
However, this is hardly of consequence to a wider audience, since the true cause for the modern-day interest in Amy Dudley is not her actual fate, whatever it was, but Sir Walter Scott’s novel Kenilworth. Its publication in 1821 triggered a Romantic fascination with the supposed murder of Amy Robsart, establishing her firmly as a tragic heroine in the public imagination. Added to this comes the general taste for conspiracy theories and, seriously, how many publishers or TV producers would be interested in a conspiracy-free solution to an age-old “political thriller”?
So it happened that a truly sensational find in the archives was not published, as it should have been, in a scholarly journal, but in a biased and flawed account of the “mystery”: According to this theory, Amy Dudley was first poisoned for some 18 months and then murdered by over-assiduous men of Dudley’s following without their master’s knowledge; in the end it is hinted that Dudley, and possibly Queen Elizabeth, did somehow influence the jury.7 While here it is at least conceded that Amy might have as well died from an accident,8 this is hardly the case in several TV documentaries featuring titles such as Elizabeth I: Killer Queen?
Clearly, many coroner’s juries in the 16th century were influenced, either by connections of perpetrators or relatives of victims (or both).9 And it was not just Robert Dudley’s steward Thomas Blount who was around during the inquest into Amy’s death, but also her two half-brothers and “other her friends”. Importantly, none of these persons was in the vicinity of Cumnor, the place she died, when the jury assembled.
According to his own notes, William Cecil manipulated the case of the 17th Earl of Oxford’s – his son-in-law’s – killing of a cook in his household. On Cecil’s pressure a London jury found that his servant had committed suicide (by the odd method of running into Oxford’s rapier).10 On the other hand, when the 4th Duke of Norfolk’s pistol went off in a riding accident and killed one of his retainers the case was judged as manslaughter, though the duke was pardoned.11 There is a real danger to suspect every inquest to have been manipulated as soon as interesting people are involved: “Trust the coroner”, Professor John Bossy commented on the notion of Christopher Marlowe the murdered government spy.
In the case of Amy Dudley the 15 jurors were local men of the gentry and yeomanry.12 They all signed the document and sealed it with their personal badge. The foreman was Sir Richard Smith, who became mayor of Abingdon in 1564 and was a former servant of Elizabeth I when princess. He and another juror, John Stevenson, have been suspected of foul play in the case, because it is alleged that they had connections to Robert Dudley, then or later. However, the John Stevenson in Dudley’s service was a “ferrier”, listed in a 1559 wages list between grooms of the stable and riders; his yearly salary was £4 and he also received a cap from Dudley’s haberdasher.13 It is not without interest that the John Stevenson of the jury was accompanied in his duty by his brother Edward and lived in a hamlet called Southwell; both Stevensons were assessed as possessing £9 each in goods by the fiscal authorities and it seems obvious that neither was a servant in Dudley’s household. The man called Smith has received more media attention, but here again it seems that “Mr. Smith, the queen’s man” who was given four ells of black taffeta and other stuffs by Dudley in 1566 was of a lower social standing than Sir Richard Smith, the jury’s foreman. It is unlikely that Sir Richard was Mr. Smith, but even if he should have been the same man it is extremely far-fetched to imagine this conventional present as (seriously delayed) payment for help or connivance in a serious crime.
It is sometimes implied that the death of Amy Dudley was not “fully investigated”. The members of Elizabethan coroner’s juries were perfectly capable of basic detective work like surveying the crime scene and questioning neighbours and witnesses. Depositions would then be recorded and influence the juries’ verdicts; unfortunately, very few such documents have suvived.14 Coroners’ juries also regularly considered medical evidence before rendering verdicts, relying both on expert witnesses and “their own knowledge of medicine, which was often extensive and reliable”, investigating suicides and accidental deaths as thoroughly as homicides.15
Robert Dudley’s steward Thomas Blount, sent to inquire about Amy’s death, reported that the jury members were very diligent and, some being “very enemies” of Amy’s host Anthony Forster, were anything but slack:
Whether equity of the cause or malice to Forster do forbid it, I know not, they take great pains to learn the truth. … They be very secret; and yet do I hear a whispering that they can find no presumptions of evil. And if I may say to your Lordship my conscience, I think some of them may be sorry for it, God forgive me.
A sinister meaning has also been read into the supposedly delayed closure of the case. This is based on a misunderstanding of legal practice, however:
The jury inspected Amy Dudley’s body at Cumnor on 9 September , but then was progressively adjourned in order to record its verdict before the justices of assize. This finally took place on 1 August 1561. As was standard procedure, the justices then lodged the verdict … with the court of king’s bench.16
Further misconceptions about the coroner’s report have been aired, for example supposed details about Amy’s clothing and headdress(!) and the location of her head injuries; in fact the report contains no such information. Another misunderstanding concerns the stairs Amy Dudley fell down. It has been claimed that this was a staircase leading down from the house’s long gallery; however, the coroner’s report makes unmistakably clear it led down from a “chamber [camera]”, a very different architectural element. The sentence “as they are able to agree at present [prout eis ad presens constare potest]” at the end of the document has also caused raised eyebrows, though it clearly indicates a formula rather than a covert expression of dissent among the jurors. Finally, there is a paradox in that the details established by the jury in the coroner’s report have been presented as unimpeachable evidence for a supposed murder, while the very same jury’s verdict of accident has been ignored entirely. – Believe the coroner:
The same jurors say under oath that the aforesaid Lady Amy … being alone in a certain chamber within the home of a certain Anthony Forster, in the aforesaid Cumnor, and intending to descend the aforesaid chamber by way of certain steps (in English called “steyres”) of the aforesaid chamber there and then accidentally fell precipitously down the aforesaid steps to the very bottom of the same steps, through which the same Lady Amy there and then sustained not only two injuries to her head (in English called “dyntes”) – one of which was a quarter of a thumb deep and the other two thumbs deep – but truly also, by reason of the accidental injury or of that fall and of Lady Amy’s own body weight falling down the aforesaid stairs, the same Lady Amy there and then broke her own neck, on account of which fracture of the neck the same Lady Amy then and there died instantly; and the aforesaid Lady Amy was found there and then without any other mark or wound on her body; and thus the jurors say on their oath that the aforesaid Lady Amy in the manner and form aforesaid by misfortune came to her death and not otherwise, as they are able to agree at present; in testimony of which fact for this inquest both the aforesaid coroner and also the aforesaid jurors have in turn affixed their seals.17
1 Bellamy 2005 pp. 1, 2
2 Bellamy 2005 pp. 1, 11, 13, 14
3 Skidmore 2010 p. 386
4 Skidmore 2010 p. 387
5 See The Death of Amy Robsart: Accident? Or Suicide? as well as medical studies listed there. Recently a German politician fell down the stairs in his cellar, sustaining no less than six skull fractures; he survived with the help of modern medical treatment.
6 Adams 2011
7 Chris Skidmore: Death and the Virgin. Elizabeth, Dudley and the Mysterious Fate of Amy Robsart
8 Skidmore 2010 pp. 230 – 233
9 Bellamy 2005 p. 32
10 Nelson 2003 pp. 47, 152
11 Williams 1964 p. 33
12 Skidmore 2010 pp. 209 – 210
13 Adams 1995 pp. 414, 422
14 Bellamy 2005 pp. 16, 24
15 Loar 2010
16 Adams 2011
17 Skidmore 2010 pp. 377 – 379, 232
Adams, Simon (ed.) (1995): Household Accounts and Disbursement Books of Robert Dudley, Earl of Leicester, 1558–1561, 1584–1586. Cambridge University Press.
Adams, Simon (2011): “Dudley, Amy, Lady Dudley (1532–1560)”. Oxford Dictionary of National Biography. Online edition, January 2011.
Bellamy, John (2005): Strange, Inhuman Deaths: Murder in Tudor England. Sutton.
Bossy, John (2006): “Trust the Coroner”. London Review of Books. Vol. 28, No. 24.
Loar, Carol (2010): “Medical Knowledge and the Early Modern English Coroner’s Inquest”. Social History of Medicine. Vol. 23, No. 3. http://shm.oxfordjournals.org/content/23/3/475.short
Nelson, Alan (2003): Monstrous Adversary: The Life of Edward de Vere, 17th Earl of Oxford. Liverpool University Press.
Skidmore, Chris (2010): Death and the Virgin: Elizabeth, Dudley and the Mysterious Fate of Amy Robsart. Weidenfeld & Nicolson.
Williams, Neville (1964): Thomas Howard, Fourth Duke of Norfolk. Barrie & Rockliff.
‟Discrimination of falls and blows in blunt head trauma: systematic study of the hat brim line rule in relation to skull fractures“. Journal of Forensic Sciences. 2008. May. 53(3):716-9. http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/18471221
‟Discrimination of falls and blows in blunt head trauma: a multi-criteria approach“. Journal of Forensic Sciences. 2010. Mar 1. 55(2):423-7. Epub 2010 Feb 5. http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/20141554
‟External injury marks (wounds) on the head in different types of blunt trauma in an autopsy series“. Medicine and Law. 2002. 21(4):773-82. http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/15796004
‟Site, number and depth of wounds of the scalp in falls and blows – a contribution to the validity of the so-called hat brim rule“. Archiv für Kriminologie. 2000. Mar-Apr. 205(3-4):82-91. http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/10829237