In August 1563, Robert Dudley found himself in quarantine. In theory this meant he had to stay away from court (and in his case, from home) for at least 40 days. The word “quarantine” originated in Venice, from the Italian quaranta for “forty”. The English army the queen had sent to France in October 1562 to help the French Protestants (the Huguenots) against the government of Catherine de Medici returned in late July 1563. The expedition had not been a success; it had ended in failure due to an outbreak of the plague, and they now brought the plague with them. Some 4,000 people died in England, one of the victims being Bishop Álvaro de la Quadra, the Spanish ambassador.
The commander of Elizabeth’s troops was none other than Ambrose Dudley, Earl of Warwick, Robert Dudley’s elder brother. Robert and Ambrose were the only sons of the Duke of Northumberland still alive when Elizabeth came to the throne, and she had been very generous to them from the start. Originally, Robert wanted to lead the English contingent, but Elizabeth would not have that. Apart from the fact that this would have guaranteed failure from the start, the queen was most unwilling to part with her favourite. She was not even prepared to let him visit his estates, and she would certainly not allow him to risk his life in a military adventure.
On 31 July 1563 Ambrose Dudley returned from Le Havre to Portsmouth, very ill from an injury he had suffered on his leg. Elizabeth sent Ambrose a letter for which he thanked her:
My most dear Queen and gracious Mistress. I have received your letter by which I, with the rest of us, have well perceived that great care your Majesty hath of us all, and that in respect of our lives and safeties, you do not regard the loss of this town [Le Havre].1
Ambrose also wrote to Robert, that he was happy “rather to end my life upon the breach than in any sickness. … Farewell my dear and loving brother, a thousand times”.2 Ambrose and Robert had always been close, and on hearing that his brother was in danger of his life, Robert immediately left court and travelled to see him at Mr. White’s house at Southwick, where Ambrose had been transferred.3
Soon, Robert also received a letter from the queen, written in her own hand. She complained that he was unnecessarily exposing himself to danger by visiting his brother. Robert on 7 August replied, at pains to explain why he had left the court so suddenly, without thinking that if he went to see his brother so soon he would also have to observe the quarantine. By 1 September, Ambrose Dudley had been cleared. On this day the Spanish ambassador’s secretary (de Quadra having died) witnessed his formal entry into London. Robert, at Mr. White’s house at Southwick, had to wait a little longer.
1 Elizabeth Jenkins, Elizabeth and Leicester, 1961, p. 96
2 Elizabeth Jenkins, Elizabeth and Leicester, 1961, p. 96
3 Derek Wilson, Robert Dudley Earl of Leicester 1533-1588, 1981, p. 137