In November 1579, on a Tuesday afternoon, Robert Dudley, Earl of Leicester, wrote one of his most personal letters; addressed to William Cecil, Lord Burghley, it speaks about his relationship with the queen like no other. A couple of months before, Elizabeth had been told that the Earl of Leicester had secretly remarried, after 18 years as a widower. Her reaction had been fury and despair, coupled with an intensified wooing of Francois Duke of Anjou, the French royal prince whom she called her “frog”. Leicester was seriously against this foreign match with the heir to the French throne, while Burghley favoured it. Implicitly equating Leicester’s former role with Anjou’s future one, he reminded Elizabeth that (as he hoped) with her favourite out of the way, who was there to share the pleasures of life with? Who was there “that your majesty may love and esteem above the rest? Or lives the man and speaks he English that you highly esteem and love at this day?”1
Although Elizabeth had sought Leicester’s solace and advice only days after being told the “news” of his marriage,2 by the autumn of 1579 he was still very much in disgrace – for his political stance against the Anjou marriage as much as for having wedded the queen’s cousin Lettice Knollys. And Elizabeth had developed a habit of delivering foul speeches about him in public:
My lord, I have desired my Lord of Pembroke to excuse me to you, and to pray your lordship to helpe to excuse my not coming this day. I perceave by my brother of Warwyke your lordship hath found the like bitterness in her Majesty toward me that others (too many) have acquainted me lately withall. I must confess it greveth me not a lyttle, having so faythfully, carefully, and chargeably served her Majesty this twenty yeres, as I have done. Your Lordship is witness, I trust, that in all her services I have bene a direct servant unto her, her state, and crown, that I have not more sought myne owne particular proffyt than her honor.
This last point has been called into question by writers hostile to Dudley who then typically go into listing all the material benefits Leicester received from the crown over the years, entirely missing the point he is making about his personal sacrifice:
Her Majesty, I see, is grown into a very strange humour all things considered toward me, howsoever it were trew or false as she is informed, the state whereof I will not dyspute. Albeit I cannot confess a greater bondage in those cases than my dewty of allegiance oweth, your lordship hath bene best acquainted next myself to all my proceedings with her Majesty and I have ere now broken my very hart with you, and have offered for avoyding of such blame as I have generally in the realme, myne own exyle, that I might not be suspected a hinderer of that matter, which all the world desired and were sutors for.
Here Leicester, after alluding to his marriage, is speaking of the French match and his own unpopularity caused by his resistance to it. He indeed considered exile (in Germany) in case that Elizabeth should marry the Duke of Anjou, convinced there would no longer be a place for him at the English court once the queen was married.3 Given his closeness, including his physical closeness, to her this is not a surprise; even though Henry III of France himself had assured him in a letter that he had nothing to fear should Anjou become King of England and that his career should prosper.4 Robert Dudley was not prepared to take chances. And he thought it necessary to clarify things to Burghley: that he was not bound to Elizabeth by anything else than his oath of allegiance (such as a secret engagement). His words are somewhat contradictory in places, but William Cecil, while not Leicester’s greatest friend was his oldest correspondent, and he would have been the one to guess the earl’s true meaning. (Did Leicester say the contrary of what he was writing?)
I ever had a very honourable mynd in all my actions as neare as my capacity might dyrect me (and with modesty be it spoken) toward her servyce in my pore calling. Even so was it never abased in any slavish manner, to be tyed in more than unequall and unreasonable bonds. And as I caryed myself almost more than a bondman many a yere together, so long as one dropp of comfort was left of any hope, as you yourself my lord doth well know, so being acquitted and delyvered of that hope and by both open and pryvate protestations and declarations dyscharged, methinks it is more than hard to take such an occasion to beare so great dyspleasure for. But the old proverbe saythe, they that wyll beat a dogge shall want no weapon.
This is a farr fetched matter to pyck to me. The cause is some other, I must suppose, or ells my lyfe is very wretched and unhappie. But why do I trouble your lordship with this matter? I meant only to thank you for that you have done, and to friend me as in truth I shall be found to deserve. For her manner toward me, I may not find lacke, I know what I have bene and am to her in all humble dewty. She may perhaps forthink her benefitts bestowed. So may I say, I have lost both youth, liberty and all my fortune reposed in her; and my Lord by that tyme I have made an even reckoning with the world your lordship wyll not give me much for the remainder of my twenty yeres’ service; but I trust styll she that hath been so gracious to all wyll not only be grievous to me.
1 Gristwood 2007 p. 276
2 CSP Span II p. 682
3 Jenkins 2002 pp. 247, 269
4 Jenkins 2002 p. 241
Calendar of … State Papers Relating to English Affairs … in … Simancas, 1558–1603. (ed. by Martin Hume, 1892–1899).
Adams, Simon (2002): Leicester and the Court: Essays in Elizabethan Politics. Manchester University Press.
Gristwood, Sarah (2007): Elizabeth and Leicester: Power, Passion, Politics. Viking.
Jenkins, Elizabeth (2002): Elizabeth and Leicester. The Phoenix Press.
Wright, Thomas (1838) (ed.): Queen Elizabeth and Her Times: A Series of Original Letters. Volume II. Henry Colburn.