The Earl of Leicester Goes Fishing

Robert Dudley, Earl of Leicester, liked salads, artichokes (from his own garden), and fish. Unlike King Philip II, who loved to go fishing1 but did not eat fish. (He secured a papal dispensation to eat meat on Fridays). For Robert Dudley the only option to escape court or social life for a few hours was to go fishing. This is mirrored in his account books: The earl did not carry cash money on his own person; he only received it from his treasurer to go fishing, on rare occasions.

Delivered to your lordship the same day to put in your lordship’s pocket when your lordship went a fishing to Benington    ix s.

Further entries confirm that a sum of about ten shillings was the suitable amount for an aristocrat to pass a day on his own. For his fishing outfit Leicester wore a woollen cap, a “thrum hat”.2 He passed this 28 April 1585 at Benington, a country house in Hertfordshire that belonged to his wife Lettice’s jointure from her first marriage. Since the day before Leicester had been with the court (at Croydon) and returned there next day, we can be sure that he was not accompanied by his wife. Benington, apparently, was excellent for fishing, as the account book records that Leicester “fed fishe” there and also had trouts delivered from there to Croydon.3

The Zuiderzee by  Abraham Ortelius, c.1570

The Zuiderzee on a map by Abraham Ortelius, c.1570

But Robert Dudley did not just plunder his own fish ponds. In July 1569, the Duke of Norfolk found him fishing in the Thames, near his house at Kew.4 It had been given to Robert in 1558 by Queen Elizabeth, shortly after her accession. By the summer of 1569, the earl and England’s only duke were friends, plotting Norfolk’s marriage to Mary Queen of Scots. Previously they had been almost hereditary enemies, which however did not deter them from playing tennis. One match before the queen was said to have ended when Leicester wiped himself with Elizabeth’s napkin and the scandalized duke swore “that he would lay his racket upon his face”.

Even the Thames was not the biggest water Leicester tried for fishing, though. In March 1586 he chilled out on the Zuiderzee,5 Holland’s historic inland sea. Amid Elizabeth’s displeasure and nerve-racking political intrigue this outing must have been particularly refreshing.

1 Kamen 1998 pp. 184, 197
2 Jenkins 2002 p. 284
3 Adams 1995 pp. 246, 247, 26
4 Williams 1964 p. 156
5 Strong and van Dorsten 1964 p. 67

Adams, Simon (1995): Household Accounts and Disbursement Books of Robert Dudley, Earl of Leicester, 1558–1561, 1584–1586. Cambridge University Press.

Gristwood, Sarah (2007): Elizabeth and Leicester: Power, Passion, Politics. Viking.

Jenkins, Elizabeth (2002): Elizabeth and Leicester. The Phoenix Press.

Kamen, Henry (1998): Philip of Spain. Yale University Press.

Pfandl, Ludwig (1938): Philipp II. von Spanien. Gemälde eines Lebens und einer Zeit. Callwey.

Strong, R. C. and van Dorsten, J. A. (1964): Leicester’s Triumph. Oxford University Press.

Williams, Neville (1964): Thomas Howard, Fourth Duke of Norfolk. Barrie & Rockliff.

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
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