William Cecil and Amy Robsart: Was He Behind Her Death?

It has always been a popular notion that Lord Robert Dudley’s wife, Amy, was murdered. The theory that this was done on the orders of Sir William Cecil, the queen’s Principal Secretary, is much more recent, but only slightly less popular for that. Cecil was first suggested as a suspect by the best-selling author Alison Weir in 1998:

One man did profit from the death of Amy Dudley, and that was William Cecil. … He was a perceptive man, and he could foresee that if she died in suspicious circumstances, as many people expected her to do, then the finger of suspicion would point inexorably to her husband – as indeed it did. Cecil also knew that Elizabeth … would be unlikely to risk her popularity and her crown to marry a man whose reputation was so tainted.

In September 1560, Cecil had seen Dudley in the ascendant and his own future in ruins; he feared not only for his position, … but also for the future of England and the Anglican Settlement.1

If Amy Dudley was murdered, and there is a big if here, Cecil is an excellent candidate according to the Ciceronian principle of Cui bono? But did he have motive and opportunity? The founder of the Elizabethan secret service, Cecil would have been rightly placed to arrange the crime and to manipulate the Coroner’s jury afterwards. What about his motive? As long as Amy Dudley lived her husband could not marry the queen, but what if she suffered from a serious illness? The evidence for this is inconclusive; yet unlike we, William Cecil would have known the truth. In his speech to the Spanish ambassador (which was utterly disingenuous and occurred around the time of Amy’s death) he claimed that it was “given out” that Lady Dudley was ill, but that this was not so and that she would take great care not to be poisoned. One can only wonder why he broached the subject of her malady at all if she was not ill. As reported by de Quadra, his words almost amount to a proof that she was. If she was dying, however, Cecil would have had a strong motive indeed.

Equally important, though, William Cecil was arguably the only person who was in a position to cover up the deed and obfuscate the facts in the long term. The long term consequences, a key aspect, are strangely overlooked by the proponents of any murder theory. In 1567 a panel of the Privy Council questioned John Appleyard, Amy Dudley’s half-brother, as well as several of Leicester’s servants. After years of having no problem with the jury’s verdict of 1560 (that Amy had died through misfortune, i.e. an accident), Appleyard, who had been present at the proceedings at Cumnor, had decided that his sister had been murdered. Claiming her husband was innocent of the crime, he maintained he knew the culprit and would reveal his identity to the council. Four noblemen – the Earl of Arundel, the Marquess of Northampton, Lord Admiral Clinton, and the Earl of Pembroke – examined him under the nose of William Cecil, who led the whole inquiry. We do not know whether Cecil became nervous when Appleyard opened his mouth; but in a letter to Leicester he informed him of what he thought of Appleyard and his ilk: ‟If William Huggyns be with your Lordship, I pray you let him come with your Lordship that he may be spoken withal upon the sudden, concerning Appleyard, for amongst them they will fall out in their own colours.“2

Appleyard retracted his statements once he was given a copy of the coroner’s verdict (which he had requested) and had opportunity to read it carefully in his cell in the Fleet prison. Since this was not an agreeable place it could be argued that Appleyard was put under pressure in order to silence him, but this does not account for the interesting fact that he was left in peace henceforth. He was even rescued from execution three years later in the aftermath of his own little Norfolk rebellion. Some 800 rebels were executed all over England in early 1570; not so John Appleyard, which undoubtedly had to do with his connections to Robert Dudley, Earl of Leicester.3 Now, if Appleyard really had known the killer of Amy Robsart by name (as he had claimed) it beggars belief that Cecil would not have found means to dispatch this dangerous man once and for all; and the same goes for the Earl of Leicester if he had been the guilty party or involved in his wife’s death.

If Amy Dudley was murdered, why did there never come anything to light during the thirty or forty years after her death? The most likely answer is that there was no murder. The Earl of Leicester had high profile enemies, and people like the 19th Earl of Arundel or the 17th Earl of Oxford were only too happy to compromise him, alas their efforts were all in vain. William Cecil also had his enemies, and some have counted Leicester among them. Would he, could he have lived for decades knowing what Cecil had done to his wife – and his reputation? On one occasion, in September 1578, Dudley wrote to Cecil, complaining about some misunderstandings concerning the Mint and even hinting at some obscure wrong done to him in the past. Murder, though, is clearly far from his mind while there is hopefulness of a friendship renewed:

We began our service with our sovereign together and have long continued hitherto together. And touching your fortune I am sure yourself cannot have a thought that ever I was enemy to it. … What opinion you have indeed of me, I have … somewhat in doubt, though I promise you I know no cause in the world in myself that I have given you other than good. You may suppose this to be a strange humour in me to write thus and in this sort to you, having never done the like before, although I must confess I have had more cause of unkindness (as I have thought) than by this trifling occasion.

Your Lordship is more acquainted by years with the world than I am. And yet, by reason we live in a worse world where more cunning and less fidelity is used, may judge of bad and good dealing as well as an elder man, and the one being so common and the other so scant must make the proof of the better the more precious whenever it is found. And surely, my Lord, where I profess, I will be found both a faithful and a just, honest friend.

See also:
William Cecil and Amy Robsart: Talking to de Quadra
William Cecil and Amy Robsart: Visiting Lord Robert

1 Weir 2008 p. 108
2 HMC Pepys p. 119
3 Wilson 1981 p. 183

The National Archives: State Papers.

Report on the Pepys Manuscripts Preserved at Magdalen College, Cambridge. (1911) Historical Manuscripts Commission. HMSO.

Nelson, Alan (2003): Monstrous Adversary: The Life of Edward de Vere, 17th Earl of Oxford. Liverpool University Press.

Weir, Alison (2008): Elizabeth the Queen. Vintage.

Wilson, Derek (1981): Sweet Robin: A Biography of Robert Dudley Earl of Leicester 1533–1588. Hamish Hamilton.

About Christine Hartweg

Hi, I'm the author of "Amy Robsart: A Life and Its End" and "John Dudley: The Life of Lady Jane Grey's Father-in-Law". I blog at www.allthingsrobertdudley.wordpress.com
This entry was posted in Amy Robsart, friends & foes, letters, Robert Dudley, sources & historians and tagged , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

4 Responses to William Cecil and Amy Robsart: Was He Behind Her Death?

  1. Esther says:

    Great article. There is (IMO) another problem with the “Cecil did it theory”: Cecil’s memo comparing the qualifications of both Archduke Charles and Robert Dudley as potential husbands. This memo indicates to me that Cecil was not certain that Elizabeth would continue refusing to marry Dudley … and without that certainty, he had no motive.


  2. I am a great fan and admirer of the Elizabethan Age but my actual knowlege is limited. My degree was in American History. But this stuff is just so interesting it makes me want to rush out and buy books. Thank you for nifty entertainment.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.