The arch-villain in Sir Walter Scott’s novel Kenilworth (1821) is called Richard Varney. So he is in at least two operas based on Kenilworth, by Aubert (1823) and by Donizetti (1829). Directly or indirectly, Scott took his tale about the murder of Amy Robsart from Leicester’s Commonwealth, the notorious libel against Robert Dudley, Earl of Leicester, published by Catholic exiles in 1584. According to this book, Amy Dudley did not really fall down the stairs but rather had a visit from Sir Richard Varney,
who by commandment remained with her that day alone, with one man only, and had sent away perforce all her servants from her to a market two miles off, he (I say) with his man can tell how she died, which man, being taken afterward for a felony in the marches of Wales and offering to publish the manner of the said murder, was made away privily in the prison. And Sir Richard himself, dying about the same time in London, cried piteously and blasphemed God, and said to a gentleman of worship of mine acquaintance not long before his death that all the devils in hell did tear him in pieces.1
Only very few assertions in Leicester’s Commonwealth – a work of fiction in form and of propaganda, not historiography, in content – could be described as having a basis in fact, and the account of Amy Dudley’s death is extremely fanciful indeed. Sir Richard Varney/Verney, however, also features in an unfinished “journal”, or draft chronicle, jotted down in 1562 and 1563,2 only a few years after the fateful events of September 1560:
How the Lord Robert’s wife brake her neck at Forster’s house in Oxfordshire … her gentlewomen being gone forth to a fair. Howbeit it was thought she was slain, for Sir ——– Verney was there that day and whylest the deed was doing was going over the fair and tarried there for his man, who at length came, and he said, thou knave, why tarriest thou? He answered, should I come before I had done? Hast thou done? quoth Verney. Yeah, quoth the man, I have made it sure. So Verney came to the court.3
The accounts of Amy Dudley’s death in the “journal” and in Leicester’s Commonwealth have not much in common, except for the crucial role played by Sir Richard Verney as organizer and overseer of her alleged murder. So, who was Sir Richard Verney, of Compton Verney in Warwickshire? His year of birth is unknown, but by the 1560s he was already a veteran member of the Dudley affinity. He had served in the household of Robert Dudley’s father in the 1540s and 1550s and so may have his wife, for in 1553 a “Mrs. Verney” was listed among six salaried gentlewomen of the Duke of Northumberland.4 From Lord Lisle (Robert Dudley’s elder brother) he had received velvet shoes and “a Spanish jerkin guarded with velvet” in 1549; and there was also “a dagger that Sir Richard Verney gave my lord [Lisle], the same was stolen out of the chamber at Westminster.”5
John Dudley, the father of Robert Dudley, had been the leading landowner and patron in the West Midlands from the late 1530s until 1553. With the accession of Elizabeth I in 1558, his former clientele began to “re-form” under the leadership of his son, Robert. Sir Richard Verney was among the gentlemen who could hope for advancement.6 In 1559–1560 Lord Robert jointly held the lord-lieutenantship of Warwickshire and Worcestershire with Sir Ambrose Cave. The latter suggested Richard Verney to Dudley as deputy, as “a gentleman meet to serve in that behalf [who] would willingly endeavour himself for Warwickshire if it please you to appoint him or require him by your letters to take the charge upon him.”7
As it turned out, Lord Robert decided that John Fisher of Packington was the right man for the deputy job, but he still thought Verney to be a good host for his wife, Amy. Amy Dudley had lived in the house of William Hyde in Hertfordshire for about two years when she moved to Compton Verney in Warwickshire, in the summer of 1559. In September 1559 Robert Dudley’s account book recorded “two pair of hose sent to my lady by Sir Richard Verney’s servant.”8
The author of the “journal” claimed that she had complained about being poisoned at Hyde’s, “and for that cause he desired, she might no longer tarry in his house. From thence she was removed to Verney’s house in Warwickshire, and so at length to Forster’s house.”9 Her arrival at Cumnor in Anthony Forster’s house by December 1559 is once again suggested by things sent to her by his servant, Forster being Robert Dudley’s treasurer and possibly a kinsman of Amy’s.10 It was of course at Cumnor, then Berkshire, today Oxfordshire, that she met her death nine months later.
A recent theory has proposed that Amy Dudley was indeed being poisoned by Robert Dudley’s men for many months before her death, though without her husband’s knowledge or connivance.11 The grammar of the “journal” is unclear, however, and while the text may signify that Dudley wanted to rescue his wife from Mr. Hyde it more probably says that it was on Hyde’s initiative that Amy left his house (which would nullify his supposed efforts to poison her). On the other hand, her move to Warwickshire fits well with Robert Dudley’s endeavours to settle in that county by the acquisition of lands and his appointment as lord lieutenant, and Amy’s further move to Cumnor towards the end of 1559 coincided with his appointment as lieutenant of Windsor Castle, only about 30 miles away from her new residence.12
The anonymous author of the “journal” was clearly no friend of the Dudleys.13 A good case has been made that he was John Hales, MP, who had been a prominent “commonwealth man” under Protector Somerset and one of his closest advisors. He had also been very active in Warwickshire at the time of John Dudley’s ascendancy in county affairs, and in 1548 the two men had clashed over Hales’ (unrealistic) reform plans. The “journal’s” author’s personal hostility is evident throughout his text, but is most striking in his remarks about Robert Dudley and his circle after Amy’s death:
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.
Other than has been claimed,14 the person who wrote this cannot have been an eyewitness to the goings-on at Kew, having never met Robert Dudley until he saw him return to court from there in October 1560: “And I for myself knew him not, for I never saw him before, nor knew not it was he till he was past.”15
Lord Robert being an extremely well-known figure, it says a lot about Hales’ (or any other writer’s) familiarity with the court if he did not recognize him.16 Even though the writer had good London based sources, he would hardly have been in a position to have intimate knowledge about the proceedings in Berkshire on 8 September 1560, the day of the tragedy at Cumnor. It is quite possible, on the other hand, that Hales knew Sir Richard Verney from his Warwickshire days, and it is equally possible that he harboured some grudge against him, for he certainly did not like the man: “Many times before it was bruited by the L. Rob. his men that she was dead. … This Verney and divers his servants used before her death, to wish her death, which made the people to suspect the worse.”17
Unless one believes that Verney and other of Lord Robert’s men were bragging about a planned murder, this statement can only indicate that they expected Amy Dudley to die; other sources, like Spanish and Venetian diplomats, indeed say that she was suffering from some serious illness, or at least had been so in 1559. This was also the year she moved out of Hyde’s house, allegedly because she believed herself to be poisoned there. If this was her reason, it would have coincided with the Spanish ambassador’s report in June 1559 that her health had improved, but that she had been ‟advised not to eat anything that is not very safe“.18 This statement most probably indicates medical advice or else some (extremely common) hysteria about being poisoned on Lady Amy’s part, which in itself might have mirrored a real ailment and which would also explain her suspicions against Hyde.
If Sir Richard Verney was, for the time being, unsuccessful in his bid for a major office in county administration, did he try to advance himself by more sinister means? Did he really go to Abingdon or even Cumnor in order to ingratiate himself with his master by ridding him of a cumbersome wife? Would he have been so stupid not to see the consequences, the ensuing scandal that ruined any chances of Lord Robert marrying the queen? Would he have risked to be seen entering and leaving Cumnor Place in broad daylight – the largest house in the village whose front and sides opened to a wide public square, next the parish church? Or was Sir Richard merely travelling through Abingdon on the day of Amy Dudley’s death, the “journal” saying that he came to London afterwards? Such a coincidence could well explain his subsequent association with the events at Cumnor, and Verney’s presence in London would likely have been noticed, for he was not a frequent visitor of the court. – On 20 April 1560, about five months before the Cumnor tragedy, he wrote his only surviving letter, to Robert Dudley, from Warwick:
I am very sorry that I cannot, according to your Lordship’s expectation and my duty, make my repair presently towards you for two principal causes. The one health, which I possess not as I could wish. The other wealth, which doth not abound in me as perhaps is thought. But as it is both I and all things else mine are and always shall be to my best power advanced in any your affair or commandment when opportunity offereth. I am sorry also to write unto your Lordship the late mishap and loss by death of one cast of hawks which my cousin Davers whom I preferred to your Lordship’s service had in keeping. But like as I know your Lordship can best consider that casual things have many times such casual end, so I have good hope you will please to let them pass, and to think no wilful negligence in your man, who I assure you taketh the mischance marvellous grievously. Except your Lordship by your letters seem something to comfort him, I believe it will do him hurt. He grieveth a great deal the more that they should miscarry in his guiding considering that he hath had knowledge and long experience of the keeping of hawks.19
Would a man so anxious over the embarrassing fact of a few deceased hawks risk to murder his patron’s wife? In her own house, so that suspicion would immediately fall on Lord Robert and “his men”, men like Verney? Sir Richard Verney was never arrested or otherwise molested by the authorities – which seems odd if his crime was common knowledge – nor was he ever mentioned by foreign ambassadors, all keenly interested in rumours relating to Lord Robert and his wife. And Verney was evidently scandal-free enough to serve as Sheriff of Warwickshire in 1562.20
Robert Dudley was shocked by his wife’s death when it came – his correspondence with his steward Thomas Blount but also with William Cecil shows this much. Had he suspected Verney of killing Amy, he would doubtlessly have sought to prosecute him, not only but also to clear himself of any suspicion. Instead he seems to have remained on friendly terms with Verney until the latter’s death sometime in 1567–1569, and in the 1570s he was personally committed to secure Verney’s orphaned little grandson his patrimony. Meanwhile, in 1567, Queen Elizabeth’s privy council undertook a fresh investigation into the death of Amy Dudley, and William Cecil questioned a considerable number of Dudley’s servants. Richard Verney was not among them, nor was he apparently mentioned in the proceedings.
1 Skidmore 2010 p. 386
2 Adams, Archer, Bernard 2003 pp. 40 – 41
3 Adams, Archer, Bernard 2003 p. 66
4 Loades 1996 p. 305
5 HMC Second Report pp. 102, 101
6 Adams 2002 pp. 163 – 164
7 HMC Bath V p. 142
8 Adams 1995 pp. 92, 381 – 383
9 Adams, Archer, Bernard 2003 p. 66
10 Adams 1995 p. 382; Adams 2011
11 Skidmore 2010
12 Adams 1995 p. 383
13 Adams, Archer, Bernard 2003 p. 41
14 Skidmore 2010 p. 212
15 Adams, Archer, Bernard 2003 pp. 66 – 67
16 Adams 1995 pp. 34 – 35
17 Adams, Archer, Bernard 2003 p. 66
18 Adams 1995 p. 68
19 HMC Bath V p. 156
20 Adlard 1870 p. 87
Manuscripts of The Marquess of Bath Volume V: Talbot, Dudley and Devereux Papers 1533–1659. (1980) Historical Manuscripts Commission. HMSO.
Second Report of the Royal Commission on Historical Manuscripts. (ed. 1874).
Adams, Simon (ed.) (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 (2011): “Dudley, Amy, Lady Dudley (1532–1560)”. Oxford Dictionary of National Biography. Online edition, January 2011.
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.
Adlard, George (1870): Amye Robsart and the Earl of Leycester. John Russell Smith.
Loades, David (1996): John Dudley, Duke of Northumberland 1504–1553. Clarendon Press.
Skidmore, Chris (2010): Death and the Virgin: Elizabeth, Dudley and the Mysterious Fate of Amy Robsart. Weidenfeld & Nicolson.
Wilson, Derek (2005): The Uncrowned Kings of England: The Black History of the Dudleys and the Tudor Throne. Carroll & Graf.