The handsome young man in the image has been on my mind rather a lot in the past year. During lockdown I wrote a historical biography about him for Pen and Sword which is due to be released in July and which can now be pre-ordered.
Robert Dudley was related to Queen Elizabeth I via his mother Lady Douglas Howard (yes she was a girl). His uncle was Lord Howard of Effingham and his father was the queen’s own favourite Robert Dudley Earl of Leicester – which is why the circumstances of his birth and upbringing are rather sketchy.
Douglas was eventually discarded – complete with conspiracy theory- in favour of Lettice Knollys who was the widow of the Earl of Essex not to mention the queen’s beautiful younger cousin. Whereas Douglas had been content to live a life in the shadows, Lettice was not – there was an awful lot of screaming, swearing and boxing of ears when the queen discovered that her favourite was married. Lettice unlike Douglas was never forgiven nor permitted to return to court. Young Robert came to hold a special place in Elizabeth’s heart reminding her as he did of the earl. Lettice was not so sentimental and tried to prevent Robert from entering into his inheritance.
Dudley loved the sea and he wanted nothing more than to be an explorer – his boarding school was close to the sea and his father and Uncle the Earl of Warwick were investors in foreign exploration as well as having vessels of their own. Robert was at Tilbury with his father and heard the queen’s famous speech as well as being introduced to her there. After the earl’s death Robert came to court in the hope that he would be permitted to go a voyage of exploration. Elizabeth wasn’t so keen on letting the son of her favourite run the risk of drowning but he sailed the Caribbean and went in search of El Dorado a few months before the rather better publicised adventures of Sir Walter Raleigh; he was at Cadiz with his step-brother the Earl of Essex and was knighted in the street in Plymouth. He also took a small part in the Earl of Essex’s rebellion against the queen.
The problem for Robert was that he came to believe that he was legitimate and more than anything else he wanted his father and uncle’s titles. When it came to a show down with James I he found that he was the son of the wrong father- James held Leicester conveniently responsible for his mother’s execution. Nor did it help that he was something of a sea dog with a reputation for privateering and gallantry which ran counter to James’ need for peace with Spain.
Dudley left England with his young beautiful cousin and started afresh in Florence leaving a wife and a family of daughters at home to fend for themselves. He carved a career working for the Dukes of Tuscany and had a large family (who had their own adventures.) His life was a tale of treachery, skullduggery, piracy, exploration and love – he was beloved by his cousin, his wife and by Queen Elizabeth I. By the end of his life gentleman were ticking him off their list of things to see whilst on the grand tour. His enduring achievement was a six volume sea atlas containing many beautiful engravings as well as charts using mercator projections which took twelve years to write and have printed. The sea and mathematics were his passion. When he died he left his collection of navigational instruments to the Duke of Tuscany.
He even had a small part to play in the English Civil War thanks to a pamphlet he wrote for King James when he was trying to charm his way back into favour so that he could return home – not sure how his two families would have coped with that particular scenario!
He deserves to be so much more than an unremembered footnote.
The book can be pre-ordered from Pen and Sword here: