The Lovesick Earl, Part I

By 1565, Sir Nicholas Throckmorton, ambassador first to France and then to Scotland, had become Leicester’s “political brain”.1 As will appear, he had also become the chief advisor of the earl’s love life. – For the first time since falling seriously in love with Robert Dudley six years earlier, Queen Elizabeth had paid attention to another man. Sir Thomas Heneage was (as was Throckmorton) an old member of the Dudley affinity and he and Robert had been so far good friends. Diego Guzmán de Silva, Philip II’s ambassador reported:

The real ground for the dispute between Lord Robert and Heneage, I am assured by a person of confidence, who received it from Throgmorton, is the following. This Throgmorton, who rules Lord Robert, advised him to devise some means to find out whether the Queen was really as much attached to him as she appeared to be, as his case [of marrying her] was in danger. If she was, Throgmorton advised him to try to carry his business through quickly, and if not to espouse the cause of the Archduke [Charles], so that in this way he would remain in high position in any case, whereas if neither his own business nor that of the Archduke was carried through all the principal people in the country and particularly his opponents would lay the blame on him, and he would find himself in an awkward fix if he failed in his own suit and yet was accused of hindering the Queen’s marriage to anyone else.

He advised him to do two things, the first pretending to fall in love himself with one of the ladies in the palace and watch how the Queen took it, and the other to ask her leave to go to his own place to stay as other noblemen do. The Earl took his advice and showed attention to the Viscountess of Hereford, who is one of the best-looking ladies of the court and daughter of a first cousin to the Queen, with whom she is a favourite.

This being the state of things the dispute with Heneage took place and Leicester seized this opportunity to ask leave to go. The Queen was in a great temper and upbraided him with what had taken place with Heneage and his flirting with the Viscountess in very bitter words. He went down to his apartments and stayed there for three or four days until the Queen sent for him, the earl of Sussex and Cecil having tried to smooth the business over, although they are no friends of Lord Robert in their hearts. The result of the tiff was that both the Queen and Robert shed tears, and he has returned to his former favour.2

Robert Dudley, Earl of Leicester. In 1565 his relationship with Elizabeth I went through a crisis.

Robert Dudley, Earl of Leicester. In 1565, his emotional relationship with Elizabeth I became engulfed in crisis.

So far, so good. Retha M. Warnicke has argued that this tale by de Silva was “almost certainly a baseless rumour”, communicated to the ambassador by Leicester himself as one of his “little jokes” on the Spaniard.3 The reason for her view is that the Viscountess Hereford – who was none other than Lettice Devereux, née Knollys – was about seven months pregnant on 3 September 1565, the day de Silva wrote his dispatch. She thinks it unlikely that Lettice would have been at the court at that stage of her pregnancy and equally unlikely that Robert Dudley would have flirted with a pregnant woman. Of course it may have been unlikely, but Lettice and her husband had known Robert Dudley for a long time, for almost a lifetime in the case of Lettice, and had met with Leicester and the queen at the earl’s house in July 1565.4 Perhaps any flirting had taken place on that occasion and taken some time to reach the ambassador’s ears. Whatever the exact dates, what is unlikely is that the whole episode was made up: Why should Leicester have invented stories that made a fool out of him, and why do other letters confirm at least part of the story?

Thus, on 16 October 1565 Cecil informed Sir Thomas Smith

that Mr. Hennadg should be in very good favour with her Majestie, and so mislyked by my Lord of Leicester, with such infinite toyes … Sir Nicholas Throkmorton is also much noted by speche to be a director of my Lord of Leicester, but I thynk my Lord well able to judg what is mete or unmete, and doth use Mr. Throgmorton frendly because he doth shew himself carefull and devote to his Lordship.5

So the quarrel went on, Elizabeth even refusing to make Sir Nicholas Throckmorton a privy councillor on Leicester’s recommendation. His brother-in-law, Sir Henry Sidney, who was in Wales where he acted as Lord President, by November had at last heard “of a great reconcilement made with you” and was trusting to be “remembered in the contract.”6 He was remembered and was promoted to Deputy of Ireland.7

The lovers’ wounds were still not healed; this became clear on Twelfth Night, when Sir Thomas Heneage was the gentleman in charge of the court’s entertainment:8

It being the custom in England on the day of the Epiphany to name a King; a gentleman was chosen who had lately found favour with Queen Elizabeth, and a game of questions and answers being proposed, as usual amongst merry-makers, he commanded Lord Robert to ask the Queen, who was present, which was the most difficult to erase from the mind, an evil opinion created by a wicked informer, or jealousy? And Lord Robert, being unable to refuse, obeyed. The Queen replied courteously that both things were difficult to get rid of, but that, in her opinion, it was much more difficult to remove jealousy.

The game being ended, Lord Robert, angry with that gentleman for having put this question to the Queen, and assigning perhaps a sense to this proceeding other than jest, sent to threaten him, through the medium of a friend, that he would castigate him with a stick. The gentleman replied that this was not punishment for equals, and that if Lord Robert came to insult him, he would find whether his sword cut and thrust, and that if Lord Robert had no quarrel with him Lord Robert was to let him know where he was to be found, because he would then go to Lord Robert quite alone; but the only answer Lord Robert gave was that this gentleman was not his equal, and that he would postpone chastising him till he thought it time to do so.

Shortly afterwards the gentleman went to the Queen, and let her know the whole circumstance. Her Majesty was very angry with Lord Robert, and said that if by her favour he had become insolent he should soon reform, and that she would lower him just as she had at first raised him; and she banished from the Court the gentleman who had taken his message. Lord Robert was quite confused by the Queen’s anger, and, placing himself in one of the rooms of the palace in deep melancholy, remained there four consecutive days, and showing by his despair that he could no longer live; so the Queen, moved to pity, restored him again to her favour; yet, as the Ambassador told me, his good fortune, if perhaps not impeded, will at least have been delayed a little, for it had been said that she would shortly proclaim him Duke and marry him.9

continued at:
The Lovesick Earl, Part II

1 Adams 2002 p. 152
2 CSP Span I p. 472
3 Warnicke 2012 pp. 111 – 112
4 Warnicke 2012 p. 111
5 Wright I p. 209
6 Wilson 1981 p. 178
7 MacCaffrey 2008
8 Wilson 1981 p. 178
9 CSP Venetian 19 February 1566

Calendar of … State Papers Relating to English Affairs … in … Simancas, 1558–1603. (ed. by Martin Hume, 1892–1899). HMSO.

Calendar of State Papers Relating to English Affairs in the Archives of Venice, Volume 7 – 1558–1580

Queen Elizabeth and Her Times. (ed. Thomas Wright, 1838)

Adams, Simon (2002): Leicester and the Court: Essays in Elizabethan Politics. Manchester University Press.

MacCaffrey, Wallace (2008): “Sidney, Sir Henry (1529–1586)”, Oxford Dictionary of National Biography. Online edition.

Warnicke, R. M. (2012): Wicked Women of Tudor England: Queens, Aristocrats, Commoners. Palgrave.

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
This entry was posted in Elizabeth I, family & marriage, Lettice Knollys, Robert Dudley, sources & historians and tagged , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

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