Queen Elizabeth I was born on 7th September 1533. To mark the occasion, we delve into a lesser-known tale about the Virgin Queen.
The story begins with Robert Dudley and his marriage to Amy Robsart (portrayed above). The pair had married to consolidate their family fortunes and improve their influence, but it was far from what could be called a happy marriage. By contrast, Elizabeth was very close to Robert and he is often remembered as the Queen’s favourite courtier and possibly a love interest.
When Elizabeth ascended to the throne in 1588, she instantly assigned Robert the position of Master of Horse. This highly privileged position gave Robert permission to physically touch the queen (nobody else was allowed to do so) and he attended to her travel, accommodation, and horses. Robert’s living quarters were directly next to the queen’s, giving him, what many at court felt to be, an inappropriate level of private access to Her Majesty. So, when Robert’s wife Amy died in somewhat unusual circumstances, it didn’t take long before rumours of Robert and Elizabeth’s involvement began to arise.
On the day of her death, Amy gave her servants leave to attend a festival that was taking place that day. On their return they found their mistress dead at the bottom of the stairs with a broken neck and a pair of deep wounds. Despite the incident looking like an accident, people began to speculate that there was a more sinister cause of Amy’s death.
Some believed that Amy had committed suicide. It was known that she was deeply depressed and suffering from “a malady of her breast” (likely breast cancer). But, despite neither of them being anywhere near Amy’s home when she died, others believed that Robert or Elizabeth had played a part in her death. Weeks before, rumours circulated that Amy would be poisoned. In a letter to the Spanish ambassador, the Queen’s secretary, William Cecil, stated that “They were scheming to put Lord Robert’s wife to death” because two days before Amy died, the Queen had informed Cecil that Amy was “dead, or nearly so” despite news of her death not reaching court until the day after she had died.
Besides this rumour, there was other evidence of foul play.
During the inquest into Amy’s death, Elizabeth insisted that a statement of accidental death be released to the public. There is also evidence that Robert may have bribed the jury foreman and that he requested a jury of “discreet men” which included one of his employees. Furthermore, Robert had given a substantial amount of money to the owner of Amy’s home shortly after her body was found. The original coroner’s report made no mention of a broken neck, though it did report the other wounds that were found on her body. A report from the time stated that the stairs which Amy fell down consisted of only eight steps and that a fall from this height would not result in death. One writer at the time commented how odd it was that the fall Amy suffered broke her neck, “without hurting of the hood that stood upon her head”; Amy’s body was found with her bonnet perfectly positioned on her head.
The mysteries surrounding this incident will likely never be solved. If Robert or Elizabeth had planned the murder, it is ironic that the many rumours surrounding Amy’s death meant it was impossible for them to marry without fuelling a huge scandal and appearing guilty of murder. Whether Amy’s death was suicide, murder or unfortunate accident, it certainly had an impact on Elizabeth’s relationship with her beloved Robert Dudley.