Robert Dudley, the ladies’ man? “Aliquando mulierosus, demum supra modum uxorius”, the historian William Camden described him – “much given to women and, finally, a good husband in excess”.1 He certainly always married for love: Amy Robsart on 4 June 1550, three weeks before his 18th birthday; then Lettice Knollys on 21 September 1578, behind the queen’s back. In between came and went Lady Douglas Sheffield, who later claimed to have been his wife too; if so, it was again a love match. It seems, Robert Dudley loved the ladies and the ladies him. Only from the 1580s, however, his enemies and detractors, in pamphlets and libels, invested the earl with a monstrous sexual appetite. As scholars have explained with reference to Leicester, this was a literary topos:
Every late 16th and early 17th-century writer knew in minute detail about the way favourites invariably managed to displace a prince’s real well-wishers, and by what sinful manoeuvres they clung on to their power, and how this exposed the commonwealth to tyranny and ruin … According to this extensive literature, favourites are creatures entirely of surfaces, attracting royal attention by their suspiciously new and fashionable clothes and by trivial accomplishments such as dancing; they are sexually unscrupulous and voracious, sleeping their way to the top and holding the monarch in erotic thrall … On paper, … even if not in life, a favourite must be a tireless and uninhibited sexual athlete.2
And so it happened that in a scurrilous pamphlet, written after Leicester’s death, the deceased earl is trying to get past St. Peter into heaven; thoroughly examined in the process, he fails to pass the test because of his many crimes, but especially because of his insatiable lust:
St. Peter then perceiving his own error, namely that his Dudleyship’s other offences were so heinous and so many that he had forgotten to examine him of his lechery, wherefore he began to examine him anew as well of his feats of arms done in his youth in his Lady Amy’s time and in his widowhood with divers ladies which shall be nameless because they are yet living and may amend, as also of his venerous acts done in his Lady Lettice’s time. Not forgotten his fowling piece in England nor the straight bodied laundresses in the red petticoat during his abode in Flanders beyond the seas, of all the which Dudley denied not one point, hoping that St. Peter because of his bald head had been a goodfellow in times past as well as he himself. But to proceed, St. Peter said unto him, have you repented also of this your lechery as you say you have done of your other faults? No, in very truth, said Robin, for it was so sweet and I accustomed to it even from my youth, that I held it no sin, and therefore could never repent me of it neither in youth nor age.3
In fact, there is very little evidence for Robert Dudley’s supposed womanizing. Until Elizabeth’s accession at leat he seems to have been a good husband, and his wife clearly loved him. His new job as Master of the Horse made him “the only man in England officially allowed to touch the Queen”,4 and Elizabeth expected his constant companionship. On the emotional level he became “practically a surrogate husband” to her, and after Amy’s death “his widower status meant that there was now no other woman competing for his attention”.5
Clearly, having affairs with the ladies of the court under the queen’s nose would have been very impractical. There was, however, Helen Andrews. She was a London prostitute, indicted by the wardmote inquest of Cheapside, and Lord Robert Dudley intervened in her favour.6 It was quite normal for great men to help even humble suitors, but as he seems not to have done anything like this in similar cases, it is tempting to assume a personal interest. If so, this little incident is touching enough. – Other courtiers, like his own brother Ambrose, Earl of Warwick, appear in less romantic contexts: The Puritan earl’s livery was worn by a Holborn brothel keeper, and in the Earl of Worcester’s palace on the Strand the authorities closed down another facility (furious at this interference with his business, Worcester sued the civic culprits in the Court of King’s Bench).
The 1560s passed, Robert Dudley hoping to marry Elizabeth herself, and not just for power but for love as well. To this end he also obstructed as best he could any chances he had to gain the hand of Mary Queen of Scots. Finally, about 1570, he became involved with Lady Douglas Sheffield, this being “the first liaison he is known to have conducted since the death of his wife”.7 A few years before, in May 1567, his trusted political friend Sir Nicholas Throckmorton had added a cryptic comment to a letter between colleagues: “This night a fair lady lodges in your bed.”8 – Sadly, there is no clue who, if real, this lady might have been.
In May 1573 Gilbert Talbot wrote his father, the Earl of Shrewsbury, the latest news about the queen’s favourite:
My Lord Leicester is very much with her majesty and she shows the same great affection to him that she was wont. Of late he has endeavoured to please her more than heretofore. There are two sisters now in the court that are very far in love with him, as they have long been; my Lady Sheffield and Frances Howard. They (of like striving who shall love him better) are at great wars together and the queen thinketh not well of them, and not the better of him. By this means there are spies over him.9
To escape this sort of surveillance, in 1578, the Earl of Leicester secretly married Lettice, the widowed Countess of Essex – to the queen’s extreme anger, when it was told her. Though he suffered both socially and emotionally from Elizabeth’s unrelenting hatred of his wife, he had finally acquired domestic happiness and a family. In late 1585 he went to the Netherlands as the commander-in-chief of the Anglo-Dutch forces, having to leave his countess behind. He started the venture full of enthusiasm (and some ill forebodings), but after nine months alone and in a morass, in every sense, he had enough and longed for his replacement: “Leicester greatly wishes to return, but the Queen will not allow him to do so. He has taken possession of a woman of Orange’s and treats her as his own.”10
This casual and enigmatic piece of gossip was sent on 8 August 1586 by one of Philip II’s spies in England. In August 1586 Leicester was in the field, extremely busy with campaigning, and from his and others’ letters it is hard to imagine him carrying on an affair in his general’s tent. Very interestingly, the Spanish dispatch reports what was talked in London, not Amsterdam, which tells us a lot about the nature of gossip if nothing about the Earl of Leicester’s love life. He did have a Dutch housekeeper, of course, whom he mentioned in a letter written in anticipation of his second stay in the Netherlands in 1587: “Commend me to my old servant Mrs. Madleyn and bid her see all things handsome for me at the Hague against I come”.11 Perhaps Leicester had continued Mrs. Madleyn in service from the late Prince of Orange.
And yet, Robert Dudley held the affections of some of the Dutch ladies. On his departure in late 1586, Madame de Brederode (whose husband’s portrait was hanging in Leicester’s collection) had “sent him a cutting of rose he had asked for, and begged him to command anything in her garden.”12
1 Waldman 1944 p. 157; Jenkins 2002 p. 362
2 Dobson 2006
3 News from Heaven and Hell
4 Whitelock 2013 p. 34
5 Adams 2008
6 Haynes 1997 p. 68
7 Adams 2008
8 HMC Pepys p. 103
9 Wilson 1981 p. 207
10 CSP Span III p. 602
11 Jenkins 2002 p. 339
12 Jenkins 2002 p. 327
Calendar of … State Papers Relating to English Affairs … in … Simancas, 1558–1603. (ed. by Martin Hume, 1892–1899).
Manuscripts of The Marquess of Bath, Volume V: Talbot, Dudley and Devereux Papers 1533–1659. (Historical Manuscripts Commission, 1980).
News from Heaven and Hell (ed. D. C. Peck, 1978) http://www.dpeck.info/write/news.htm
Report on the Pepys Manuscripts Preserved at Magdalen College, Cambridge. (1911) Historical Manuscripts Commission. HMSO.
Adams, Simon (2008): ‟Dudley, Robert, earl of Leicester (1532/3–1588)“. Oxford Dictionary of National Biography. Online edition.
Dobson, Michael (2006): “Mushrooms”. London Review of Books. Vol. 28, No. 9.
Haynes, Alan (1997): “Untam’d Desire”: Sex in Elizabethan England. Sutton.
Jenkins, Elizabeth (2002): Elizabeth and Leicester. The Phoenix Press.
Waldman, Milton (1944): Elizabeth and Leicester. Collins.
Whitelock, Anna (2013): Elizabeth’s Bedfellows: An Intimate History of the Queen’s Court. Bloomsbury.
Wilson, Derek (1981): Sweet Robin: A Biography of Robert Dudley Earl of Leicester 1533–1588. Hamish Hamilton.