“This appears to be a Love Letter”, an 18th century clerk endorsed one of Robert Dudley’s most remarkable writings. The four large pages in his own handwriting to an unknown lady, doubtless his lover Douglas Sheffield, give an inside view into an illicit relationship in the 16th century and are furthermore an interesting testimony to his character. The letter has rightly been described as “unique”.1
Lady Douglas Sheffield, daughter of William, 1st Baron Howard of Effingham and widow of John, 2nd Baron Sheffield, was about 27 or 28 years old when she started an affair with Robert Dudley, Earl of Leicester around 1569. The occasion of the earl putting his thoughts to paper, sometime before 1574, was a recent row at the end of one of their trysts. Leicester had made it clear to Douglas before they embarked on an intimate relationship that he could never marry her, nor would he enter into an engagement, for fear of losing the queen’s favour. Douglas had accepted this initially, but then had taken to quarrelling and complaining. “Leicester wrote the letter in order to make sure that there were no further misunderstandings between him and Douglas”.2 Seriously concerned with his friend’s well-being and future, which he sees jeopardized by their relationship, Dudley ponders the options and makes suggestions to amend the situation:
My good friend, hardly was I brought to write in this sort unto you lest you might conceive otherwise thereof than I mean it, but more loth am I to conceal anything from you that both honesty and true good will doth bind me to impart unto you.
I have, as you well know, long both loved and liked you, and found alway that faithful and earnest affection at your hand again that bound me greatly to you. This good will of mine, whatsoever you have thought, hath not changed from that it was at ye beginning toward you. And I trust, after your widowhood began upon the first occasion of my coming to you, I did plainly and truly open unto you in what sort my good will should and might alway remain to you, and showing you such reasons as then I had for ye performance of mine intent, as well as ever since. It seemed [that] you had fully resolved with yourself to dispose yourself accordingly, without any further expectation or hope of other dealing. From which time you have framed yourself in such sort toward me as was very much to my contentation. And I did with my former mind also continue my good will & determination toward you.
And so without difference or question ever since hath it passed between us, till as you can remember this last year at one time upon a casual doubt you pressed me in a further degree than was our condition, wherein I did plainly and truly deal with you. Some unkindness began and after, a greater strangeness fell out, though, as I have told you since, for other respects, for notwithstanding [that] first unkindness we did often meet in friendly sort and you resolved not to press me more with [that] matter, but so great mislike and grief you took of ye latter strangeness, which continued in deed only on my part for this five or six months till of late I partly showed you the cause, as you thought the good will I bare you had clean been changed & withdrawn, in such sort as you often moved me by letters and otherwise to show you some cause or to deal plainly with you what I intended toward you.
The truth is I did long forbear, as you know, not without great and weighty occasion touching nearly myself, to determine one answer or other till time conveniently for me might issue (and here by the way I must confess the show of your great good will in this time was such as moved me not less to esteem you than before). In the end time brought opportunity meet to let you know ye cause of my long strangeness, which I did open truly and plainly and thereupon a reconciliation was made between us, and were become such friends as we had been before without any new or other condition; which time is not yet long since, for many days are not passed since our first meeting for this last reconciliation.
Notwithstanding, upon occasion of talk which passed from you at ye last being with you of all, it seemed to me that you have ye same mind that you were in this last year, which bred then some difference between us. Whereupon I have since thoroughly weighed and considered both your own and mine estate, and God is my judge that I do it with a most true and honest mind unto you, as one that is bound both in honour and honesty to deal in this sort as I mean to open here unto you; and do protest that my affection was never greater toward you otherwise since my first acquaintance with you than now it is. But I would be loath to live so to deal with such a one as I know you are, and as I must confess you have justly given me cause, that hereafter for lack of true and honest dealing may work you more wrong than shall lie in my power again by all ye ways I can, to make you recompense. God forbid I should any way be found so unthankful. For albeit I have been and yet am a man frail, yet am I not void of conscience toward God, nor honest meaning toward my friend; and having made special choice of you to be one of ye dearest to me, so much ye more care must I have to discharge the office due unto you.
And in this consideration of ye case betwixt you and me, I am to weigh of your mind & my mind, to see as near as may be [that] neither of us be deceived. And finding some doubt by your last speeches that you conceive otherwise now than you have done heretofore, to proceed to some further degree that is possible for me, without mine utter overthrow, to think meet or allow of, as I have both at the first and sundry times since plainly declared to you, I think it my part for honesty and truth’s sake and also for respect of your estate, both to resolve you for ye one, and to put you in remembrance of the other, being as I have said bound in good will, and also knowing what you have and do suffer for my sake only.
And therefore ye first, I must this conclude, that ye same I was at ye beginning the same I am still toward you, and to no other or further end can it be looked for. For you must think it is some marvellous cause, and toucheth my present state very near, that forceth me thus to be cause almost of ye ruin of mine own house; for there is no likelihood that any of our bodies of mankind like to have heirs; 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 partly I have told you ere now, as if I should marry I am sure never to have favour of them that I had rather yet never have wife than lose them, yet is there nothing in the world next that favour that I would not give to be in hope of leaving some children behind me, being now ye last of our house. But yet the cause being as it is I must content myself, and cannot but show my full determination to you that you assuredly may know my mind and resolution as it is, and so may consider thoroughly what is meet and best for you, seeing for mine own part for no respect I can be otherwise than in [that] sort I have been heretofore. This much for myself.
Now for ye second, which concerneth yourself. Your mind I may not judge of. But your case and state I will lay before you as if I were to say for myself, and yet so must I speak against myself in some respect, but I know you can conceive well enough whatsoever I shall forbear. I will leave out here your casual depending on me, for all men be mortal and thereby etc.; but put you in remembrance what yourself hath sometimes remembered, and which is true. Look to your person, your youthful time to be consumed and spent without certainty, who can give it or recover it to you again; the daily accidents [that] hap by grieving and vexing you, both to the hindrance of your body and mind; ye care and cumber of your own causes ungoverned; the subjection you are in to all reports to ye touch of your good name and fame.
These be the respects that be ordinary to your own consideration, and cannot but be thought of when the examination of your case & state comes in question. Now you hear these particularities rehearsed, which is easy to every man, you will ask for remedy. The remedy is to be had according to your disposition, which if I did certainly know then would I adventure further, but I confess therein I am no competent judge. Only this will I say, that for my sake you have and do refuse as good remedies as are presently in our time to be had. The choice falls not oft, and yet I know you may have now of ye best; and as it is not my part to bid you take them, so were it not mine honesty, considering mine own resolution, to bid you refuse them; neither were it well done of me to conceal my mind now from you, perceiving so much as I did by your talk this last time, whereby to abuse you. To carry you away for my pleasure to your more great and further grief hereafter were too great a shame for me, when being too late known the lack could not so easily be supplied as now it may, having both time and occasion offered you, neither should my repentance be excusable when no recompense could be made on my part sufficient to make satisfaction.
Now I have freely and plainly opened my heart unto you, which shall much content and quiet me, being done, God I call to record, upon a sound and most faithful love toward you, as one [that] liketh much to enjoy you and not to betray you. And so I hope you will conceive and accept of my meaning and to consider thoroughly and deeply of this matter, and to examine yourself every way, and then let me know your mind; for when you have made your election you shall find me a most willing and ready friend to perform all good offices toward you, according to my promise at ye beginning of your liberty [widowhood]. And so for this time I commit to ye Almighty who alway preserve & keep you as I would myself.
Yours as much as he was,
I pray you think, and so I do faithfully
assure you, this doth rise upon no other
cause in the world but upon your last speech
with me, by which me thought it seemed you
conceived somewhat; and were not honest
for me to leave you in doubt, being resolved
as I am and ever have been for certain, otherwise
& in all things the same as I was willbe.
Douglas Sheffield chose to continue her affair with Robert Dudley, and in August 1574 they had a son, Robert junior. The queen was happy with it, giving Douglas a gown when she was six months pregnant; what she would not condone was marriage with her favourite. They indeed never seem to have married, despite Douglas’ claims to the contrary 30 years later. Had there been any truth in her claims, she could easily have enlisted the help of her brother, Lord Charles Howard, to enforce her rights when Leicester wanted to marry Lettice Knollys in 1578. Instead, Douglas remarried herself. – It is likely enough that Robert Dudley helped her find her new husband, Sir Edward Stafford. He also kept a portrait of her in a casket until he died. Lady Douglas Sheffield is often portrayed as Leicester’s victim; however, as his letter to her shows, he loved her but still wanted her best, while she knew what she was doing.
1 Rickman 2008 p. 49
2 Rickman 2008 p. 50
Manuscripts of The Marquess of Bath, Volume V: Talbot, Dudley and Devereux Papers 1533–1659. (Historical Manuscripts Commission, 1980).
Adams, Simon (2008a): ‟Dudley, Robert, earl of Leicester (1532/3–1588)“. Oxford Dictionary of National Biography. Online edition.
Adams, Simon (2008b): “Sheffield , Douglas, Lady Sheffield (1542/3–1608)”. Oxford Dictionary of National Biography. Online edition.
Read, Conyers (1936): “A Letter from Robert, Earl of Leicester, to a Lady”. The Huntington Library Bulletin. No. 9. April 1936.
Rickman, Johanna (2008): Love, Lust, and License in Early Modern England: Illicit Sex and the Nobility. Ashgate.
Wilson, Derek (1981): Sweet Robin: A Biography of Robert Dudley Earl of Leicester 1533–1588. Hamish Hamilton.