On the afternoon of Sunday 8th December 1560 Amy Robsart, the wife of Robert Dudley was found dead at the bottom of a flight of stairs at Cumnor Place – the home of Sir Anthony Forster. It could, have course, been a tragic accident. At the time there was some suggestion that Amy committed suicide; it has also been suggested that she was suffering from advanced breast cancer and the final and most appealing for lovers of the conspiracy theory is that she was murdered by one of the following – Robert Dudley Elizabeth I or William Cecil.
Mrs Picto, Amy’s maid, when questioned by Sir Thomas Blount said that she believed that Amy’s death was “chance.” She went on to explain that Amy was a virtuous soul who prayed every day on her knees to be delivered from desperation but was adamant that her mistress would not have taken her own life. Blount questioned the locals to find out what they thought and half of them thought it was an accident whilst the other half thought that something suspicious had happened. Blount himself noted that he thought that Amy “had a strange mind in her.” His letter states that he will tell more when he next sees Dudley – rather frustratingly we don’t know what other information he had to tell his master. We know that Amy was unhappy, after all her husband was the subject of gossip in relation to the queen whilst she didn’t even have a home to call her own. Yet, would a woman contemplating suicide order a new dress? She had ordered a new velvet dress and a collar for a rose coloured gown?
The problem is that people can act irrationally when distressed or in pain and she had ordered her entire household to go to the fair in Abingdon that day. She had become cross when Mrs Odingsells, one of her household, had sought to disagree with her. Did she want to be alone simply because she was fed up of being surrounded by her household, was she feeling unwell, was she contemplating ending it all or – was she going to meet with someone who isn’t part of the historical record? The answer is that we can’t know for sure. The inquest found that her death was accidental but Robert Dudley’s reputation was tarnished. It was now impossible for him to marry Elizabeth, even if he did withdraw to Kew and hope that the rumours would go away.
If it wasn’t suicide – could it have been an accident. This was what the coroner’s jury decided:
Inquisition as indenture held at Cumnor in the aforesaid county [Oxfordshire] on 9 September in the second year of the reign of the most dread Lady Elizabeth, by the grace of God queen of England, France, and Ireland, defend of the faith, etc., before John Pudsey, gent, a coroner of the said lady queen in the aforesaid county, on inspection of the body of Lady Amy Dudley, late wife of Robert Dudley, knight of the most noble order of the garter, there lying dead: by oath of Richard Smith, gent., Humphrey Lewis, gent., Thomas Moulder, gent., Richard Knight, Thomas Spyre, Edward Stevenson, John Stevenson, Richard Hughes, William Cantrell, William Noble, John Buck, John Keene, Henry Lanlgey, Stephen Ruffyn, and John Sire: which certain jurors, sworn to tell the truth at our request, were adjourned from the aforesaid ninth day onwards day by day very often; and finally various several days were given to them by the selfsame coroner to appear both before the justices of the aforesaid lady queen at the assizes assigned to be held in the aforesaid county and before the same coroner in order there to return their verdict truthfully and speedily, until 1 August in the third year of the reign of the said lady queen; on which day the same jurors say under oath that the aforesaid Lady Amy on 8 September in the aforesaid second year of the reign of the said lady queen, being alone in a certain chamber within the home of a certain Anthony Forster, esq., in the aforesaid Cumnor, and intending to descend the aforesaid chamber by way of certain steps (in English called ‘steyres’) of the aforesaid chamber 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 (in English called ‘dyntes’) – one of which was a quarter of an inch deep and the other two inches deep – but truly also, by reason of the accidental injury or of that fall and of Lady Amy’s own body weight falling down the aforesaid stairs, the same Lady Amy there and then broke her own neck, on account of which certain fracture of the neck the same Lady Amy there and then died instantly; and the aforesaid Lady Amy was found there and then without any other mark or wound on her body; 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 otherwise, as they are able to agree at present; in testimony of which fact for this inquest both the aforesaid coroner and also the aforesaid jurors have in turn affixed their seals on the day.
Questions are often asked about the nature of the steps – which appear to have been shallow and few in number causing conspiracy theorists to raise their eyebrows. Another source mentions a pair of steps suggesting a turn – which might account for the head wounds. Cumnor Place was demolished during the Victorian period so we cannot know for sure. It has even been hypothesised that Amy had become disorientated about her location and taken a tumble not realising that there were steps.
It doesn’t help that Dudley anxious to quell rumour asked for “discreet men,” that one of his own men was on the jury and that in later years he paid the foreman of the jury in lengths of taffeta and velvet which smacks of nobbling the jury – which doesn’t look good, if we’re honest. Weighed against that was the fact that Dudley insisted that the jury was composed of local men and that it didn’t matter if they were hostile to him or not. He also wrote asking that Amy’s half brother go to Cumnor to oversee things – at most he could be accused of being guilty of trying to look after his reputation. Amy’s brother, Appleyard, came forward in 1567 saying that he knew who killed Amy and he didn’t blame Dudley – he also ended up retracting his statement when he found himself locked up in the Fleet Prison by William Cecil.
In 1956 Dr Ian Aird published a medical paper explaining how untreated breast cancer can cause skeletal collapse which would explain how an accidental tumble could have caused a broken neck. As the previous post in this series noted assorted ambassadors commented on Amy’s poor health – in particular the malady of her breast. The Venetian ambassador stated that she had been ailing for some time. Poor health or not, falling the wrong way can cause a broken neck. Of course poor health or an accident is not nearly as marketable or dramatic as being murdered.
Amy did believe she was being poisoned – it was why she left Throcking in the spring of 1559. It could have cause have been her illness which she mistook for poisoning or maybe she was being slowly poisoned by her husband’s retainers who thought they were doing Dudley a favour. Chris Skidmore leans towards this explanation – think Thomas Becket and apply to an inconvenient wife. Skidmore isn’t convinced either that the two head wounds mentioned in the coroner’s report could have been caused by a tumble.
Elizabeth didn’t marry Robert, perhaps she never had any intention of marrying her favourite, having Henry VIII for a parent would put any sensible woman off matrimony and then there was the unfortunate episode with Admiral Seymour not to mention the experience of her half-sister’s unhappy marriage. The scandal was a sufficient reason for her not to marry Robert. Her reputation as a virtuous monarch was damaged but it wouldn’t be long before in Scotland Mary Queen of Scots ended up with an all too obviously murdered spouse and then went on to marry the man implicated in Darnley’s untimely demise. Mary would lose her kingdom – Elizabeth raised in more dangerous circumstances was much too canny to make that sort of mistake despite what William Cecil and most of the Privy Council seemed to have feared as Elizabeth spent the first year of her reign hunting and hawking with her childhood friend. Yes, she was a Tudor and the Tudors like most medieval and early modern monarchs may have done the odd deeply unpleasant thing or two but let’s not go down the avenue of the Game of Thrones style killer queen – that’s not history that’s speculation.
The person who gained from Amy’s untimely demise was William Cecil who certainly spread rumours about his political opponent – but rumours are not the same as giving an order to topple a young woman down the stairs! There is absolutely no evidence that he was involved. But there again he was good at what he did so would hardly have left a lengthy paper trail for hapless historians. He was also a man of strong religious leanings. Accusation and counter-claim turn into a metaphorical game of ping pong which all come back to the same thing – these is no evidence.
And there you have it – did Amy fall, was she pushed or was it an accident – the Historical truth is that no one knows and to say otherwise without further evidence is opinion not fact.