On 8 September 1560,
the aforesaid Lady Amy … being alone in a certain chamber within the home of a certain Anthony Forster, in the aforesaid Cumnor, and intending to descend the aforesaid chamber by way of certain steps (in English called “steyres”) … there and then accidentally fell precipitously down the aforesaid steps to the very bottom of the same steps, through which the same Lady Amy there and then sustained not only two injuries to her head … but truly also … there and then broke her own neck, on account of which fracture of the neck the same Lady Amy then and there died instantly; … and thus the jurors say on their oath that the aforesaid Lady Amy in the manner and form aforesaid by misfortune came to her death and not otherwise1
So far the conclusion of the coroner’s inquest that investigated the death of Amy Dudley, née Robsart, the first wife of Lord Robert Dudley. Not impressed, several historians have cast doubt on the propriety of the inquest’s proceedings. They suspect that the jury of 15 men of Cumnor (near Abingdon in Berkshire, now Oxfordshire) might have been rigged, by the agency of Lord Robert.
The jury’s foreman seems to have been a former servant of Elizabeth I, ‟one Smith … who was the Queen’s man being Lady Eliz.“ This was probably Richard Smythe, a “burgess of Abingdon”.2 A few days into the inquest at Cumnor (which had started almost immediately after Amy was found), Robert Dudley was informed by him about the likely outcome:
I have received a letter from one Smythe, one that seemeth to be the foreman of the jury. I perceive by his letters that he and the rest have and do travail very diligently and circumspectly for the trial of that matter which they have charge of, and for any thing that he or they by any search or examination can make in the world hitherto it doth plainly appear, he saith, a very misfortune; which for mine own part … doth much satisfy and quiet me.3
Corresponding with jury members has been criticized as irregular behaviour, of course, but one may ask what harm could come from reading Mr. Smith’s letter. The harbinger of welcome news, Mr. Smith without doubt wanted to make sure he acquired a thankful patron, and he may well have succeeded.
Even more suspiciously, in May 1566 Robert Dudley, by then Earl of Leicester, gave ‟four ells of black taffeta for a short gown and three yards of black velvet to guard the same … to Mr. Smith the Queen’s man“.4 It has been claimed that this Smith was the same man as Smith the foreman – and that the black taffeta and black velvet was a sort of belated bribe for services at the jury six years earlier.5 However, it has also been admitted that Smith is a very common name,6 and there was probably more than one Smith in Elizabeth’s service. The Smith of the jury, by 1566, was no longer in her service; but the previous year he had served as mayor of Abingdon.7 1566 was also the year that Leicester invited the queen to Oxford University, where he was chancellor. The former mayor of Abingdon would have been the sort of person invited to grace the assembly with their presence, and of course he would have needed the right outfit for the occasion. A gift of valuable stuffs was a fairly common occurrence, anyway, and it seems rather far-fetched to read a sinister meaning into it.
If Robert Dudley came to know Mr. Smith by letter, it has been criticized that he “knew another juror personally”.8 The name of this supposed acquaintance is John Stevenson.9 John Stevenson, from Southwell near Cumnor, had possessions worth £9, according to the tax authorities. Importantly, his brother, Edward Stevenson, also served as juror (and, also from Southwell, was assessed with the equal amount).10 John Stevenson is also alleged to have been in Robert Dudley’s service, listed as a “ferrier” in a 1559 wages list, between grooms of the stable and riders. His yearly salary was £4 and he lived in Dudley’s household, which cost Dudley an extra £16 10s p. a. (and he also received a cap from Dudley’s haberdasher on one occasion).11 I believe there were two John Stevensons.
On hearing of his wife’s demise, Robert Dudley had sent his steward and kinsman, Thomas Blount, to Cumnor. The next day he had also sent him instructions, to be imparted to the assembled jury. Though these were harmless exhortations to do their duty with “no respect to any living person”,12 this message to the jury has been catalogued as another attempt at influencing them. And Blount and Dudley were not done yet: Blount is said to have dined with two jury members on his way home; allegedly before the verdict was reached.13 Below is what Blount wrote to his master before he left Cumnor, in his last letter from the scene; it will be noted that he planned “to meet with one or two of the jury”, that we do not know for certain that he did so, and that we do not know the exact number of possible dinner guests.
It has to be added that the letters between Dudley and Blount survive only as copies, though Elizabethan ones. Presumably Robert Dudley himself commissioned them in 1567, to be presented to the privy council during another investigation into the case. Historians might suspect that the text has been tampered with on this occasion, although none seems to have done so in earnest; perhaps because the set of letters constitutes the principal source for the circumstances of Amy Dudley’s death. Another reason to take them at face value is that many potentially incriminating details (like hints at suicide or even dinners with jurors) are mentioned and that the tone appears genuine. If the letters had been edited for consumption by a hostile audience in the privy council, a passage like the this would not have survived:
I have done your lordship’s message unto the jury. You need not to bid them to be careful, whether equity of the cause or malice to Forster do forbid it, I know not. They take great pains to learn a truth, to-morrow I will wait upon your L. and as I come I will break my fast at Abingdon; and there I shall meet with one or two of the jury. And what I can I will bring; they be very secret, and yet do I hear a whispering that they can find no presumptions of evil. And if I may say to your Lordship my conscience, I think some of them may be sorry for it, God forgive me. And, if I judge amiss [sic], mine own opinion is much quieted, the more I search of it, the more free it doth appear unto me. I have almost nothing that can make me so much to think that any man should be the doer thereof as when I think your L.’s wife before all other women should have such a chance. The circumstances and as many things as I can learn doth persuade me that only misfortune hath done it, and nothing else. Myself will wait upon your Lordship to-morrow, and say what I know.14
1 Skidmore 2010 p. 378
2 Adams, Archer, Bernard 2003 p. 66; Skidmore 2010 p. 210
3 Skidmore 2010 pp.384 – 385
4 Skidmore 2010 p. 369
5 Skidmore 2010 pp. 369 – 370; Bernard 2000 pp. 170 – 171
6 Doran 1996 p. 228; Bernard 2000 p. 171
7 Adams, Archer, Bernard 2003 p. 66
8 Guy 2013 p. 189; Doran 2015 p. 124
9 Skidmore 2010 p. 369
10 Skidmore 2010 p. 210
11 Adams 1995 pp. 414, 422
12 Skidmore 2010 p. 379
13 Guy 2013 p. 189; Doran 2015 p. 124
14 Skidmore 2010 p. 384
Adams, Simon (ed.) (1995): Household Accounts and Disbursement Books of Robert Dudley, Earl of Leicester, 1558–1561, 1584–1586. Cambridge University Press.
Adams, Simon; Archer, Ian; Bernard, G. W. (eds.) (2003): ‟A ‘Journall’ of Matters of State happened from time to time as well within and without the Realme from and before the Death of King Edw. the 6th untill the Yere 1562“ in: Ian Archer (ed.): Religion, Politics, and Society in Sixteenth-Century England. Cambridge University Press.
Bernard, G. W. (2000): Power and Politics in Tudor England. Ashgate.
Doran, Susan (1996): Monarchy and Matrimony: The Courtships of Elizabeth I. Routledge.
Doran, Susan (2015): Elizabeth I and Her Circle. Oxford University Press.
Guy, John (2013): The Children of Henry VIII. Oxford University Press.
Skidmore, Chris (2010): Death and the Virgin: Elizabeth, Dudley and the Mysterious Fate of Amy Robsart. Weidenfeld & Nicolson.