T.I.H.: The Death of Robert Dudley


Today in history, September 4, 1588, Robert Dudley died at his home in Oxfordshire. Dudley had been of ill health as of late and was on course to Buxton in Derbyshire to “take the waters” which were said to have healing properties. Despite this, his death still came as a shock to the Queen and likely Robert himself who wrote to Elizabeth just days prior praising “your medicine and find that (it) amends much better than with any other thing that hath been given me.” The death of her court favorite and oldest friend hurt Elizabeth profoundly. While still riding high from the defeat of the Spanish Armada that summer, Elizabeth was distraught at the loss and reportedly locked herself away in her apartments for days. Only the wily Lord Burghley had the power to have her chamber door broken down and her isolation ended. His final letter was found in Elizabeth’s close possessions 15 years later just after her own death speaking to the incredible, non-traditional nature of the two. Yet, let us examine what exactly bound the two together in such a way over their decades together.


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(John Dudley, 1st Duke of Northumberland.)

Robert Dudley was one of thirteen children belonging to John Dudley, the Duke of Northumberland. Contrary to popular belief, the Dudley family were hardly upstarts. Edmund Dudley (Robert’s grandfather) had been Speaker of the House of Commons and President of the King’ s Council under the reign of Henry VII. However, Edmund Dudley was brought up on high treason and executed in what is often referred to as one of Henry VIII’s first acts of King. Edmund, who had been acting strictly on the orders of his King, is often seen historically as a scapegoat. His execution garnered the young King public favor. The populace was glad to see the downfall of the man who they saw responsible for the taxation under the previous regime. Despite this, John Dudley claimed his inheritance and went onto witness many pivotal happenings in the reign of Henry VIII. He served Cardinal Wolsey diplomatically, was knighted by Charles Brandon and served in the 1523 Invasion of France. He was present in the Reformation Parliament, the Pilgrimage of Grace, The Burning of Edinburgh and was elected as one of the 16 members of the regency council under Edward VI. After the execution of Edward Seymour, Duke of Somerset and Lord Protector, he took over as Lord President of the Council. Rejecting the title of Lord Protector unlike his predecessor, John Dudley had a close yet respectful working relationship with the King. Seeking to bring the now teenager more into affairs of state, Edward began to exercise some of his own authority independent of the council and even of John Dudley himself.

Sadly, what we know best about John Dudley is ironically where the paths of Robert and Elizabeth merge forever. Prior to the death of King Edward VI, after a bout of illness which left the young King’s health in question, John Dudley married his second youngest son to Lady Jane Grey. Jane Grey was the daughter of Henry Grey and Frances Brandon. Frances Brandon herself was the daughter of Charles Brandon and Mary Tudor making Jane Grey the great-granddaughter of Henry VII. Fascinatingly enough, Jane Grey’s father Henry was the grandson of Thomas Grey, 1st Marquess of Dorset who was the son of Elizabeth Woodville by her first marriage. Though the bloodline is not royal, I’ve always found this interesting. Though the marriage seemed politically insignificant, that would not stand that way for long.


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(Edward VI’s “Device For The Succession.”)

Prior to Edward’s passing, he had worked ardently to change the act of succession and exclude his half-sisters. Whether it be Edward’s fear of a Catholic England under Mary or the work of his councilors attempting to convince the dying King of the best next step, no one can say for certain. Yet, what we do know is that Edward supervised and worked to have his “Device for Succession” legitimized despite his own father’s act of succession passed prior to Edward’s accession. Surprisingly enough, his unlikely yet Protestant cousin and the daughter-in-law of his main counselor was to take up the helm. After Edward’s death on the 6th of July, 1553, Jane Grey was proclaimed Queen days later. Yet, it wasn’t too last. Mary Tudor rose up through East Anglia. Garnering strength and Dudley was overwhelmed as was the whole of his regime.

Robert Dudley had been arrested and tossed into the Tower of London after attempting to lead a force against Mary in Norfolk. He was condemned to death along with his father and four brothers. Yet, only Guildford and John Dudley were to be executed. It was around this same period of time that Mary’s half-sister Elizabeth had been imprisoned in the Tower as well. Though the two had known one another as children in the court of Elizabeth’s father and may have even shared a tutor, this seemed the period that bonded them together best. Wyatt’s Rebellion was a direct answer to the impending marriage of Mary to Philip II of Spain. Though Elizabeth had never been directly implicated, Mary suspected her involvement and her life was at risk. Both of them narrowly escaped with their lives and the Dudley’s were restored after their support of Philip II’s forces in France in 1558. Needless to say, the circumstances of their initial meeting at such a lowly period of their lives would forge something deeper between them. Elizabeth knew she could trust the man when she was fighting but a subject in the Tower and so she knew she could trust him when she had come to her throne.

With Mary’s death and Elizabeth’s accession, Robert was remembered as was all of the Dudley family. Ambrose Dudley, as heir, received his father’s titles which had been stripped of them. Robert was made Master of the Horse on the very day that Elizabeth received the Great Seal. His rise was quick and alarming to many. As a favorite, he was recognized as one of the few men leading the country and many thought him to be a substantial threat that needed to be eliminated. Foreign suitors came and went but to the naked eye, it was obvious that Robert carried the Queen’s favor and should he not already be married, he could have even become her husband.



(Amy Dudley)

On September 8, 1560, Robert’s wife, Amy Dudley, was found dead at the landing of a flight of stairs. An inquest was opened immediately as the events were suspicious, strange and furthermore scandalous. Robert Dudley was nearly in constant attendance to Elizabeth at this point and for his wife to abruptly be found dead in such a manner raised many eyebrows. Especially when he seemed to be so high in Elizabeth’s favor that marriage between the two seemed not only plausible but likely should he be suddenly a bachelor. The case was reviewed by a coroner and 15 jurors who found Amy Dudley’s death to be an accident as a result of a broken neck. While some suspected suicide, others ruled out the suggestion due to Amy’s pious nature. Through the years, breast cancer has also been suggested. Yet, to this day there is no true explanation and there likely never will be. Regardless, scandal ensued and Robert’s enemies used it as a chance to stunt his political ambitions and his hopes of marrying Elizabeth. At the conclusion of his period of mourning, Robert pursued Elizabeth with complete abandon. Sabotaging all attempts by foreign suitors and limiting his own pursuits between 1561 and 1578. For 17 whole years Robert Dudley fought for the hand of his longtime friend and Queen, announcing that he “could not contemplate the queen’s marriage to anyone else… without great repugnance.”

In 1575, Robert or “Sweet Robin” as Elizabeth knew him, staged the most elaborate, expensive and longest party in Elizabeth’s honor at Kenilworth. This celebration went on for three weeks and reportedly cost £60,000. With emphasis placed on Robert’s dedication and willingness to sacrifice all of himself for his would-be brid. The wine, beer and gifts ran just as wildly as the masquerade. Robert had enlisted the help of Italian painter Federico Zuccaro for two portraits depicting both himself and Elizabeth. Within the portraits, the two were facing one another in a tradition usually held for married couples. Clearly he was laying it on thick in a last and final attempt that would not succeed. By 1578, Robert Dudley had married Elizabeth’s cousin Lettice Knollys in yet another scandal that had Lettice banned permanently from court. It had been suggested that the two had been involved for sometime and only married when Lettice became pregnant. Elizabeth was to never forgive her cousin for the happening and exhibited that infamous Tudor temper of hers. Though the marriage was to never be for one reason or another and the extent of their relationship may never be truly known to be anything more than just this, the two did truly seem to be soulmates. It is thought that Robert was the only suitor that Elizabeth truly ever entertained.


(Though those original portraits by Federico Zuccaro no longer exist, his drawings provide us with a glimpse of the type of symbolism employed. Notice the dog representing fidelity and ermine for purity.)

Their relationship was damaged but managed to mend following the crisis. It is thought that Elizabeth relied heavily on Robert during the proceedings of the execution of Mary Queen of Scots and for sometime after. A happening that no doubt shook the anointed Queen to her very core. Robert was of the essence once more in the coming of the Spanish Armada when he led Elizabeth’s horse during her famous speech at Tilbury. He stood beside her prepared to fight for her safety during the Armada and following her success during the celebrations. Yet, by the fall, her friend and sometimes-sweetheart was gone from this world. Dudley’s stepson Robert Devereux, Earl of Essex, would attempt to fill the void. Maybe even for a moment he did. Yet, Elizabeth was mistaken to think the loyalty and good intention of stepfather laid in stepson. With the execution of Robert Devereux in 1601, Elizabeth would follow not long after with Robert Dudley no doubt in her heart and mind.