On a day in September 1560 Sir William Cecil, Principal Secretary to the Queen, had a talk with Bishop de la Quadra, the Spanish ambassador. Cecil had recently returned from Scotland, where he had concluded the Treaty of Edinburgh, a triumph of diplomacy which guaranteed not only continued English influence in Scottish affairs, but also Elizabeth I’s right to her own throne. Cecil was frustrated. He felt that his achievement went underappreciated while the queen was preoccupied with Lord Robert. Back in Scotland rumours had come to his ears, detailing how Elizabeth spent whole days with the favourite, “without coming abroad”.1 Now, some six month later, de Quadra reported once again the same thing:
I met the Secretary Cecil, whom I know to be in disgrace. Lord Robert, I was aware, was endeavouring to deprive him of his place. With little difficulty I led him to the subject, and after my many protestations and entreaties that I would keep secret what he was about to tell me, he said that the Queen was going on so strangely that he was about to withdraw from her service. It was a bad sailor, he said, who did not make for port when he saw a storm coming, and for himself he perceived the most manifest ruin impending over the Queen through her intimacy with Lord Robert. The Lord Robert had made himself master of the business of the state and of the person of the Queen, to the extreme injury of the realm, with the intention of marrying her, and she herself was shutting herself up in the palace to the peril of her health and life. That the realm would tolerate the marriage, he said he did not believe. He was, therefore, determined to retire into the country although he supposed they would send him to the Tower before they would let him go. He implored me for the love of God to remonstrate with the Queen, to persuade her not utterly to throw herself away as she was doing, and to remember what she owed to herself and her subjects. Of Lord Robert he said twice that he would be better in paradise than here. …
Last of all, he said that they were thinking of destroying Lord Robert’s wife. They had given out that she was ill, but she was not ill at all; she was very well and taking care not to be poisoned. God, he trusted, would never permit such a crime to be accomplished or so wretched a conspiracy to prosper.2
If Cecil wanted to baffle de Quadra, he has certainly startled a number of historians. Especially the Victorians; the translator of the materials in the Spanish calendar, Martin Hume, was so shocked that he falsified the text. Instead of the original grammatical construction, “pensavan hazer morir a su muger”,3 which can only be translated as “they were thinking of killing his wife”, Hume wrote “Robert was thinking of killing his wife”.4 The question, of course, is who were “they”; the traditional interpretation is Robert and Elizabeth, and that is also the reason for Hume taking liberties – clearly the queen had to be edited out. Not so with James Anthony Froude, who had made his own transcriptions at Simancas and remained faithful to what he saw there. It has recently been suggested that “they” stood for Robert Dudley’s henchmen.5 The unabridged Spanish original, however, remains vague as to who is referred to by “they” – and thus who, in Cecil’s view, was planning Amy Dudley’s death.
This may well have been intentional on Cecil’s part, though it is as likely a result of de Quadra’s somewhat confusing composition. Did William Cecil really believe what he was saying? And, crucially, when did he speak to Philip II’s agent? Many, especially older, books claim he met de Quadra on 6 September or certainly before Amy’s death, on the 8th of the month. This is not because de Quadra’s report would reveal a precise date, but because most Victorian and 20th century scholars could not imagine that Cecil was speaking anything but the truth. De Quadra was a much more likely suspect; Alfred Leslie Pollard made out his “deft economy of dates” and that he “was in the pay of the Guises”6 (the anti-English, anti-Spanish faction at the French court).
Indeed, all that can be established from de Quadra’s text is that it reports events occurring a few days before 11 September 1560. Amy Dudley died on 8 September and the first news of her death reached her husband on 9 September, perhaps still in the morning.
After describing his meeting with Cecil, de Quadra wrote yet more explosive news, in the eyes of Victorian historians at least:
The next day the Queen told me as she returned from hunting that Robert’s wife was dead or nearly so, and asked me not to say anything about it.
And he finally added:
Since writing the above I hear the Queen has published the death of Robert’s wife, and said in Italian, “She broke her neck.” She must have fallen down a staircase. – London, 11 September 1560.7
From de Quadra’s own words it is clear that Queen Elizabeth spoke to him the day after his conversation with Cecil. He finished his letter on 11 September with a postscript, after having heard the official news of Amy Dudley’s death as given out by Elizabeth. It seems reasonable to assume that the official pronouncement would have followed hard on the queen’s casual announcement to the ambassador, perhaps on the next day. Thus, a very plausible date for Cecil’s talk would be 9 September, the day the news reached the court’s inner circle.
It is not likely that Cecil had prophetic gifts; it is much more plausible that he spoke to the ambassador after having gained knowledge of Amy’s death before it was made public. No matter whether he felt as frustrated about Elizabeth and her favourite as he claimed, it was in his interest to encourage the scandal. Cecil did not want Robert Dudley as consort, not in 1560 and not later; in months and years ahead he would ruthlessly intrigue to hinder Robert’s suit, at home and abroad – by the way of confidential letters and, perhaps, talks.8
Lady Dudley alive and well suited him best. Her death, on the other hand, would make her widower free to marry the queen, at least in theory. Once Amy was no more, Cecil’s best option was to add fuel to the fire of the incipient scandal. In his view, and he was probably right, only a huge scandal could deter the queen from marrying the man she loved. Choosing de Quadra was the obvious thing to do – the Habsburg ambassadors had been the only ones who all along had suspected Robert and Elizabeth of intended foul play.
Some might, of course, believe that William Cecil really had knowledge in advance of a crime in the making and that, via de Quadra, he honestly wished to warn Elizabeth of her impending ruin. This was the view taken by de Quadra himself, who in the same letter prides himself on how the political players in England “would all confide in me if I mixed myself up in their affairs”. Most probably Cecil exploited the bishop’s vanity here, though. If he would have had sensitive information touching Elizabeth he would surely have remembered her words to him on his appointment as Principal Secretary: “if yow shall knowe any thinge necessarye to bee declared to me of secresye yow shall show it to my self only and assure your self I will not fayle to keepe taciturnitye therin.”9 – He would never have shared it with de Quadra, the representative of a potentially hostile power.
1 Williams 1964 p. 60
2 Wilson 1981 pp. 115 – 116. Translation by J. A. Froude.
3 Lettenhove II p. 531
4 CSP Span I p. 175
5 Skidmore 2010 p. 357 – 358
6 Chamberlin 1939 p. 40
7 CSP Span I pp. 175 – 176
8 Skidmore 2010 pp. 243, 249, 255 – 256; Laoutaris 2014 pp. 79 – 80
9 Doran 2013 p. 5
Calendar of … State Papers Relating to English Affairs … in … Simancas, 1558–1603. (ed. by Martin Hume, 1892–1899). HMSO.
Relations politiques de Pays-Bas et de l’Angleterre sous règne de Philippe II. (ed. Kervyn de Lettenhove, 1882 – 1900)
Chamberlin, Frederick (1939): Elizabeth and Leycester. Dodd, Mead & Co.
Doran, Susan (2013): “Queen Elizabeth I of England: Monarchical Leadership in Action”. In: Peter Ivar Kaufmann: Leadership and Elizabethan Culture. Palgrave Macmillan.
Gristwood, Sarah (2007): Elizabeth and Leicester: Power, Passion, Politics. Viking.
Laoutaris, Chris (2014): Shakespeare and the Countess: The Battle that Gave Birth to the Globe. Fig Tree.
Skidmore, Chris (2010): Death and the Virgin: Elizabeth, Dudley and the Mysterious Fate of Amy Robsart. Weidenfeld & Nicolson.
Williams, Neville (1964): Thomas Howard, Fourth Duke of Norfolk. Barrie & Rockliff.
Wilson, Derek (1981): Sweet Robin: A Biography of Robert Dudley Earl of Leicester 1533–1588. Hamish Hamilton.