By the 10 Nov 1558 it was clear that Elizabeth would be queen and when a week later her sister Mary died, Elizabeth became the first English monarch to bear that name. The following day the Great Seal was surrendered into her hands and she made Robert Dudley her master of horse which meant that he was the only man in the kingdom legally allowed to lay hands on her for the purposes of helping her on and off her horse. Now, an unmarried queen was an asset in diplomatic terms but fears for the nation and the queen’s health were compounded by the fact that Elizabeth had known “Sweet Robin” Dudley since she was a child and rather like a child allowed out of school for the summer Elizabeth rather enjoyed the freedom that being queen now gave her. It wasn’t long before there was speculation about Elizabeth and her Master of Horse. It wasn’t much longer until there were rumours that Elizabeth was pregnant or had even had a child by Dudley. Nicholas Throckmorton the English Ambassador in Paris wrote home expressing the view that these rumours needed to be scotched.
Eighteen months later things became even worse when on the 9th September 1560 Amy Robsart was found laying dead at the bottom of a flight of stairs at Cumnor. Once again it wasn’t long before the rumour mill suggested that Dudley had disposed of his wife so that he could marry the queen. Amy’s marriage had been a love match but even at the wedding one of the guests – William Cecil no less- had expressed the view that it would not end well. He perhaps guessed that the groom would tire of his country mouse.
Dudley now found himself in a situation where he might have hoped to have married Elizabeth but Elizabeth was more politically savvy than he guessed. She kept him dangling on a thread- rather like the lap dog she once accused him of being. meanwhile rumours about the death of Amy Robert would haunt him his entire life. You have to admire the man’s optimism because he didn’t marry again for the next eighteen years. In all fairness his hopes had reason to be high – for example in 1562 when Elizabeth had smallpox she named Dudley regent in the event of her death.
The following year however, Elizabeth suggested that her cousin, Mary Queen of Scots should marry Dudley. It was on the strength of this suggestion that Elizabeth made him the Earl of Leicester. Let’s not get into the discussion about whether she actually intended it or not, that she was trying to insult Mary or that it was a canny stratagem to make Dudley an earl. By March 1565 the idea was dead in the water with both the proposed bride and groom being in opposition to the suggestion.
It is usually suggested that Dudley was a serious contender for Elizabeth’s hand throughout the 1560s but realistically the death of Amy and Elizabeth’s suggestion that he marry Mary make it an unlikely suggestion beyond 1564. In 1565 Dudley showed some serious courtly attention to the queen’s cousin Lettice Knollys. It didn’t go down very well. Nor did it probably help that Lettice looked very like her cousin. By the end of the decade Dudley gained a mistress in the person of Douglas Sheffield:
I have, as you well know, long both loved and liked you, and found alway that faithful and earnest affection at your hand again that bound me greatly to you. This good will of mine, whatsoever you have thought, hath not changed from that it was at ye beginning toward you. And I trust, after your widowhood began upon the first occasion of my coming to you, I did plainly and truly open unto you in what sort my good will should and might alway remain to you, and showing you such reasons as then I had for ye performance of mine intent, as well as ever since. It seemed [that] you had fully resolved with yourself to dispose yourself accordingly, without any further expectation or hope of other dealing. From which time you have framed yourself in such sort toward me as was very much to my contentation. And I did with my former mind also continue my good will & determination toward you.
You can’t say that Dudley didn’t lay his cards on the table. In 1574 Douglas had a son called Robert but by then Dudley’s attentions had turned back to Lettice Knollys who was married to the 1st Earl of Essex. Walter Devereux was sent to Ireland in 1573. Let’s just say that when the earl returned home in 1575 that Dudley wasn’t his most favourite person. The earl went back to Ireland in 1576 and promptly expired of dysentery. Dudley who was in England was very soon accused of having poisoned the earl.
In July 1575 Elizabeth arrived to visit Dudley in Kenilworth. Dudley made yet another marriage proposal – it was very elaborate and very expensive. He’d also commissioned two full length portraits one of himself and one of Elizabeth. The queen enjoyed the party and the flattery but did not take the bait.
On 21 September 1578 Dudley married Lettice at Wanstead – in secret. Nine months later the queen found out and there was rathe ra lot of wailing and gnashing of teeth. Elizabeth did not forgive and forget. Lettice was never welcome back at court and in 1583 she was still sniping at Dudley’s treachery.
In the great scheme of things Dudley actually seems fairly subdued on the woman front – but when in pursuit of a queen its perhaps best not to have too many floozies on the go. In later years Robert’s son by Douglas would claim that the pair were married but it was never proven – and had more to do with inheritance than truth.
Just a fortnight to go until the History Jar day school – there are still places available – was Amy murdered? Did Dudley marry Douglas Howard in a secret ceremony? What was Elizabeth’s relationship with Lettice? Who needs a soap opera when there’s the reality of Tudor court life?
Thursday 27th September 2018 10.00 am – 3.30pm
The story of Robert Dudley, Amy Robsart,
Lettice Knollys and Elizabeth I
The Orange Box, Halifax.