In Luctu Terminantur or To End in Grief

William Cecil, Principal Secretary to the queen, loved to write memoranda

William Cecil, Elizabeth I’s chief minister, had a habit of preparing memoranda for his own later use. He would make lists of things and arguments he found worth remembering. Two of these lists concern Robert Dudley and his role as a possible husband for Elizabeth. Though undated, they were apparently written in 1565. Cecil listed everything he could think of that spoke against such a marriage. Alongside he listed everything in favour of the Archduke Charles of Austria as a husband of the queen.

Thus, under “In likelihood to love his wife”, Cecil wrote “His father, Ferdinando, ut supra“, meaning that Charles’ father, the Emperor Ferdinand had loved his wife very much. (He could not write anything about the archduke himself, as Charles had never been married so far). Turning to Robert, Cecil noted, “Nuptiae carnales a laetitia incipiunt et in luctu terminantur. Hated of many. His wife’s death”.1

The damning sentence at the end of Cecil’s remark has been eagerly cited by all who believe that Robert Dudley killed his wife. We will however turn now to Cecil’s Latin phrase at the start: Nuptiae carnales translates to “carnal marriage”, and it is from these two words that we know that Robert’s and Amy’s marriage must have been a sort of love match, apart from circumstantial evidence.

Robert Dudley, a suitor for the queen’s hand and a widower

What Cecil wanted to remind himself of was that marriages of love were to be avoided at all cost. Robert’s marriage was just another example, having started in bliss or happiness (laetitia) and having ended in grief, sorrow, or mourning (luctu[s]). One scholar, Dr. Simon Adams, has translated luctu as “weeping”.

Unfortunately, Antonia Fraser in her classic biography of Mary Queen of Scots has given this phrase a sinister meaning. She translated the sentence as “Carnal marriages begin in happiness and end in strife“, placing it as a motto at the beginning of Chapter Thirteen. Mary Queen of Scots being an international bestseller, many people will have read this wrong and misleading translation and some have cited it in works of their own.

Unfortunately, though perhaps naturally, there has been a tendency in Mary’s biographers to show Elizabeth in as bad light as possible, including ill-suited comparisons between the death of Amy Robsart and the murder of Lord Darnley. The first, however, though a scandal, was likely an accident or a suicide, while the second was a political assassination never doubted even by its contemporaries.

1 Adams 2002 p. 150
2 Wilson 1981 p. 189

Adams, Simon (2002): Leicester and the Court: Essays in Elizabethan Politics. Manchester University Press.
Adams, Simon (2008): ‟Dudley, Robert, earl of Leicester (1532/3–1588)“. Oxford Dictionary of National Biography. Online edition.
Fraser, Antonia (1970): Mary Queen of Scots. Panther.
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 Amy Robsart, Elizabeth I, errors & myths, Robert Dudley, sources & historians, strange facts from popular books and tagged , . Bookmark the permalink.

3 Responses to In Luctu Terminantur or To End in Grief

  1. Esther Sorkin says:

    Interesting post. I’m curious though — if Cecil wanted to remind himself that love matches were to be avoided, whey would he note that Charles’s father loved his wife a great deal?

    • Well, I guess he wouldn’t have seen them as love matches but rather as giving way to carnal lust … most importantly he didn’t want to see Elizabeth married with the person she loved.

    • Hans van Felius says:

      one was not meant to rush of and marry without considering the consequences. But once married mutual love and respect between man and wife meant that the marriage would be a success. Some husbands became notorious for the way they treated their wife… so, Cecil noted the way Charles’s father treated his wife as a good sign for the marriage of his son.

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