The question whether Amy Robsart, Robert Dudley’s first wife, was suffering from a serious illness has permeated the controversy surrounding her “suspicious death” in recent decades. It was in 1956 that an article by Ian Aird, professor of medicine, appeared in the English Historical Review, suggesting that her broken neck might have been caused not simply by a fall downstairs, but by cancerous deposits in the spine, a condition occurring in many breast cancer patients (one of whom Amy Dudley may have been). This would have made the affected bone so brittle that it could break under only slight stress. As Professor Aird wrote, he got his idea when reading a remark from Leicester’s Commonwealth (1584) where it says that “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.” – It was exactly to address this particular point that Aird made his suggestion; still, it has become the standard explanation for what has often been seen as a very odd accident.
Meanwhile, the discovery and publication in 2010 of the coroner’s report has triggered renewed interest in the case, concentrating on the fact that Amy Dudley suffered also two head injuries, one of them penetrating the skull and about two inches deep. While it has been pointed out in both a popular book and a scholarly article that these wounds are compatible with an accident,1 TV documentaries and other media reports claimed that such injuries proved she was murdered. Correspondingly, the idea that she may have been ill, and especially suffering from breast cancer, came under attack (the notion of a dying Amy being difficult to reconcile with the putative killers’ motive). On one TV show the forensic expert flatly dismissed Aird’s cancer theory as speculative,2 while in another TV programme an anthropologist made an experiment with lamb bones which did lend support to Aird’s claims: the animal neck bone, although more robust than that of humans but hollowed out as if affected by cancer cells, did crumble under the amount of stress caused by even a short fall.3
The irony in all this is that for the question of the actual death cause, if it was an accident, her possible illness is, and always was, a red herring. Professor Aird’s suggestion was an ingenious explanation for a claim that is only known through Leicester’s Commonwealth, a singularly vicious and unreliable propaganda pamphlet written 24 years after the events. Almost all the other statements concerning Amy Robsart in that book are so demonstrably false that no historian has ever even mentioned them, so it is definitely odd that the detail of her headdress – unconfirmed as it is – should be repeated again and again, let alone taken seriously.
Of course, if Amy was weakened or drowsy due to an illness, or under the influence of drugs, this may have contributed to her tripping and falling. But comparative forensic studies have shown that fatalities caused by falls downstairs, even short ones,4 are not exceptional and typically involve serious cranial injuries. So, for Amy to have suffered a deadly accident she need not have been ill. Quite apart from this, there is some evidence that she may have been just that.
Was Amy Dudley Ill? The Evidence
1 Skidmore 2010 pp. 230 – 233; Adams 2011
2 Allan Anscombe, Elizabeth I: Killer Queen?
3 Rose Drew, University of York, Mystery Files: The Virgin Queen
4 Skidmore 2010 p. 222. According to a Swedish study, stairs with under ten steps are statistically more dangerous than longer ones. One rumour had it that the stairs Amy fell down was “but eight steps”.
Adams, Simon (2011): “Dudley, Amy, Lady Dudley (1532–1560)”. Oxford Dictionary of National Biography. Online edition, January 2011.
Gristwood, Sarah (2007): Elizabeth and Leicester: Power, Passion, Politics. Viking.
Skidmore, Chris (2010): Death and the Virgin: Elizabeth, Dudley and the Mysterious Fate of Amy Robsart. Weidenfeld & Nicolson.
Elizabeth I: Killer Queen? http://natgeotv.com/uk/elizabeth-i-killer-queen
Mystery Files: The Virgin Queen http://natgeotv.com/uk/mystery-files/about
‟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