Robert Dudley’s Health

Robert Dudley was a fit man – an excellent dancer and horseman of athletic built. Even his diet was (according to our standards) reasonably healthy: He abhorred the heavy drinking habits of his time and had a taste for salads and fruit. This preference, however, was somewhat unusual. Fruit was considered a health hazard, while salads were notoriously suspect: Leicester’s enemies were quick to point out that so and so had “suddenly died” after “eating salads” at the earl’s house.

Robert Dudley suffered from malaria

A fit young man, Robert Dudley nevertheless suffered from what may have been malaria

Few people were always in good health, though, and Robert Dudley’s first illness we know about occurred in late spring 1559, when he suffered from a “quartan ague” or “fit”. This may well have been malaria, an illness endemic in East Anglia. His wife Amy hailing from Norfolk, Robert may also have picked it up there. Alternatively, some epidemic may have been haunting the court, as his sister Katherine was suffering from the same disease at the same time. Whatever it was, Robert had fully recovered by June, having paid a surgeon 10s for “letting your lordship’s blodd.”1

Robert Dudley was not, like his father, a known melancholic and possible hypochondriac. He too was health-conscious, though, like most of his contemporaries, and he firmly believed in the healing powers of fresh air, especially outside London. Since these were the first decades of a phenomenon later called “smog”, the harmful combination of the London fog and the smoke from the town’s use of coal (shipped from Newcastle) as fuel, this is not a surprise. A particularly bad “cold” Leicester was suffering from in February 1573 may as likely have been an allergy to smog, as appears from his report to Elizabeth: “I have hitherto so well found myself after my travel as I trust I am clearly delivered of the shrewd cold that so hardly held me at my departing from you.”2

His concern about Elizabeth’s own health and her “over-long stay in that corrupt air about the city”3 never went away, and he repeatedly urged the queen to leave town and enjoy the countryside:

So good a medycyne I have alway found exersise with the open good ayre as yt hath ever byn my best remedye ageynst those dellycate deceases gotten about yor deynty cytty of London, which place but for necessyty Lord he knoweth how sorrey I am to se yor Majesty remayne … Yf when season shall serve yor good determynacion may hold to spend some tyme abroade to finde the difference about and furder of from London, hit shalbe wel begonne now, but I wold God hit had byn long before put in profe, God graunt now that yow may finde much good therof, as yet for yor tyme heareafter yow may reape the benefytt of good contynuance of yor desired health. You se swette Lady with howe weighty matters I trowble yow withal.4

Leicester was “a leading patron of fashionable doctors”,5 among them the Italian Giulio Borgaruccio – whom he allegedly retained to prepare his most subtle poisons – and Dr. Bailey of Oxford University. “Dr. Giulio” and Bailey also entered the queen’s service; Elizabeth apparently had less use for William Turner, who wrote Of the Nature and Properties of Baths and could count on Robert Dudley as a vocal supporter. The baths at Buxton in Derbyshire conveniently belonged to the property of the Earl and Countess of Shrewsbury (Bess of Hardwick); the couple was delighted to welcome their old friend the Earl of Leicester as one of their very first celebrity visitors. In June 1577 he came with his brother Ambrose, Earl of Warwick, and his nephew-by-marriage the Earl of Pembroke.6 He suggested that William Cecil, Lord Burghley, join the party, writing:

I wish your L. with all my heart had been here this goodly seasonable time, wherein our physicians bear us in hand, we shall do more good in a few of these days than a month of such weather as usually they say this country hath, but since our coming I never found it fairer or warmer than I have done here till this day being ye 20th which is a foul day and a stormy. My brother and I both have great cause to like and commend this water … We observe our physicians’ orders very diligently and obediently and to say truth there is no pains or penance in it but great pleasure both in drinking and bathing in the water. Me thinks it must be good for your L., but if you do as we hear you did ye last time it is not possible you should take good of it: you were every day taking great journeys abroad, ten, twelve miles a day and used liberal diet with company dinners and suppers.

Evidently, Burghley’s detox had turned into a retox; not so with Leicester:

We take another way, we dine two or three of us together now my L. of Pembroke is here and have but one dish or two at the most to eat of. We take the air a foot or horseback moderately and yet often times using exercises this way. And hereby we find great benefit already.7

One of the reasons for Leicester’s visits to Buxton was a swelling in his calf. In 1565 he had suffered a serious riding accident which confined him to his bed for weeks. In 1585 he again fell from his horse and could no longer get into his boots, his foot being too swollen. He even employed his own specialist, John Ezard, “your lordship’s bonesetter”, figuring among his staff.8

Robert Dudley was an athletic man with well-shaped legs. However, he once suffered from a swelling in his calf and also suffered bone fractures.

Robert Dudley was of athletic built with well-shaped legs. However, he was periodically molested by a swelling in his calf, and also suffered bone fractures.

Leicester and his colleagues also continued to be plagued by the flu, so much so that in February 1584 the functions of the privy council became seriously hampered by the absence of its principal working staff: Cecil was suffering from the gout, Walsingham and Leicester both lay down with an “ague”.9 In such cases, Robert Dudley could rest assured to be in the best hands. The queen never failed to send him medicines, and his letter of thanks of October 1583 (during another fever) surely testifies to their unique intimacy:

Thanks for your great grace and favour to your poor ôô by your oft and most comfortable messengers, which hath brought best help and remedy to your old patient, that always has from that holy hand been relieved. I have no more to offer again but that which is already my bond and duty – the body and life, to be as ready to yield sacrifice for your service as it has from you received all good things.10

Elizabeth had always been extremely concerned about Robert’s health. She was not even annoyed at instances of diplomatic illness; in fact, especially in those cases she was likely to rush to his bedside if she could make it happen. This was true in the 1560s as it was true after his marriage in the 1570s, or in the last years of his life, when he had fallen into disgrace while in the Netherlands. Elizabeth had been extremely angered by his acceptance of the general-governorship of the United Provinces, and one secure way to mollify her was to mention that his health was not the best. This was what one of Leicester’s emissaries to the queen was doing in March 1586, and it worked:

Uppon Frydaye last, as her majestye walked in the garden, I thowght to tast her affectyon unto your lordship by an nother meanes, and stepped unto her and sayd, that your lordship beynge in dowght of fallynge into a dyssese that Goodrowse dyd once cure you of, your lordship was now an humble sewtor unto her highnesse, that yt wold please her to spare Goodrowse, and to gyve hym leave to comme unto your lordship for soome tyme. I assure your lordship yt moved her much, and shee answered me, that with all her hart you shold have hym, and that shee was sorry that your lordship had that need of hym.11

Unfortunately, Leicester’s health did decline during his stay in the Low Countries. It was there that he first complained of “the stone”, which could mean practically anything from kidney stones to stomach or bowel problems, and which may have been a cause of his final illness in 1588. Malaria is again a possibility, since he suffered from a high fever in his very last days. He had evidently been unwell before his final breakdown at Cornbury, Oxfordshire, on 29 August, however. On his way to the Buxton baths, in the morning he had written what would turn out to be his last message to Elizabeth, again thanking her for her medicine, finding “it amend much better than with any other thing that hath been given me”. He also wrote suggestively of his “own poor case”. Death seems not have come as a total surprise to him.

1 Adams 1995 p. 69
2 Jenkins 2002 p. 172
3 Jenkins 2002 p. 175
4 Adams 2008
5 Adams 1996
6 Jenkins 2002 p. 221
7 Chamberlin 1939 pp. 206 – 207
8 Adams 1995 pp. 218, 469
9 Collinson 1967 p. 255
10 CSP Dom Addenda 1580 – 1626 p. 99
11 Leycester Correspondence p. 174

Calendar of State Papers, Domestic Series, of the Reign of Elizabeth, Addenda 1580-1626. (ed. M. A. E. Green, 1872)

Correspondence of Robert Dudley, Earl of Leycester, during his Government of the Low Countries, in the Years 1585 and 1586. (ed. John Bruce, 1844). Camden Society.

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

Adams, Simon (1996): “At Home and Away. The Earl of Leicester”. History Today. Vol. 46 No. 5.

Adams, Simon (2008): ‟Dudley, Robert, earl of Leicester (1532/3–1588)“. Oxford Dictionary of National Biography. Online edition.

Chamberlin, Frederick (1939): Elizabeth and Leycester. Dodd, Mead & Co.

Collinson, Patrick (1967): The Elizabethan Puritan Movement. Jonathan Cape.

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

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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