Elizabethan Mysteries - Was Amy Robsart Pushed Or Did She Fall?
Who was Amy Robsart?
Amy Robsart was born on 7th June 1532 at the manor of Stanfield in Norfolk. She was to be the only daughter and legitimate heir of landowner Sir John Robsart and his wife Elizabeth Scott, and would inherit her father’s estates on his death.
It was her mother Elizabeth’s second marriage; she had previously been married to Roger Appleyard and had four children by him named John, Philip, Anne and Frances.
Amy was raised in a prosperous, upper class Tudor household and was married at the age of eighteen on 4th June 1550. Her bridegroom was Lord Robert Dudley, a younger son of John Dudley, Duke of Northumberland and it seems to have been a love match.
They had met some ten months before the wedding and William Cecil later referred to their marriage disparagingly as ‘this carnal marriage’. Moreover, their marriage contract made reference to the fact that they would only be wed if they did ‘condescend and agree’ to the match. The wedding was a lavish affair held at Sheen Palace and attended by King Edward VI.
In the early years of their marriage, the young Dudley’s appear to have lived in Norfolk, and Robert became heavily involved in local affairs. However, Robert’s father drew him more and more into the web of affairs at Court, and Robert and Amy spent long periods apart, as she remained in the country. In 1553 Edward VI died, aged only 15, and Robert found himself embroiled in the ensuing scramble for the crown.
His younger brother Guildford Dudley had married Lady Jane Grey, who was the granddaughter of the Princess Mary who was the sister of King Henry VIII, and thus a cousin of Edward VI. He therefore supported Lady Jane in her claim to the throne and she became the Queen of England for less than two weeks.
When Mary Tudor successfully reclaimed the throne, she threw the Duke of Northumberland and his sons into the Tower of London, and Guilford and their father were executed. Amy petitioned the Privy Council to visit her husband during his two year sojourn in the Tower.
Rumours and Scandal
Robert Dudley had been acquainted with the Princess Elizabeth all his life, and they were said to have met up while he was imprisoned in the Tower, as she had also been incarcerated there by her sister, Mary Tudor.
When Elizabeth ascended the throne in 1558, Dudley spent most of his time at court and was soon appointed Master of the Horse. Elizabeth and Dudley were clearly infatuated with each other, and rumours soon started to fly that they were having an affair. Amy Dudley was not present at court, although she travelled to London and Windsor for Dudley’s investiture as a Knight of the Garter.
Rumours also started to fly about Amy’s health. She and Dudley were childless and in April 1559 it was ‘said that she had a malady in one of her breasts’ and it is believed that she may have had breast cancer. There were also speculations that Elizabeth I would marry him ‘in case his wife should die’.
Mysterious Death of Amy Robsart
So what makes Amy Robsart a ‘Mystery Person of History’? The uncertainty is built around her premature death on 8th September 1560 in mysterious circumstances. She was found at the bottom of a flight of stairs with her neck broken.
Her death occurred at Cumnor Place near Abingdon, which was a house owned by friends of Dudley and where she had been staying during 1560. She died on a Sunday and it was the day of ‘Our Lady’s Fair’ in Abingdon. Very unusually she gave all of her servants’ permission to visit the fair, and even got angry with some who asked permission that they remain at the house and insisted that they went.
Therefore, she was alone in the house with the exception of Mrs Odingsells her companion, who refused to leave the house on the basis that it was unseemly to mingle with a crowd on a Sunday, and the elderly mother of the previous owner of the house, a Mrs Owen and a few of her attendants. When the rest of the household returned from the fair later that day, they found Amy dead at the bottom of the stairs.
At the time of the tragedy, her husband Robert was with the Queen at Court in Windsor and he dispatched his friend and distant relative, Sir Thomas Blount, to Cumnor Place to investigate. Dudley pushed for an inquest into his wife’s death and also started corresponding with the foreman of the investigating jury. A verdict of mischance or accidental death was returned, and Dudley seemed to have pushed for a second inquiry to be held but nothing came of it.
Amy’s body was transported to Oxford and was given a sumptuous burial at St Mary’s. Her husband did not attend, as it was the custom of the time only to have chief mourners who were of the same sex as the deceased. The Court went into mourning and Queen Elizabeth was furious.
Any plans that she and Dudley may have had to get married were well and truly buried alongside Amy Robsart. The court was buzzing with rumours that Amy had been done away with by her husband to pave the way for his future ambitions; her death had caused a terrible scandal.
A clergyman of Sherburn, Thomas Lever, wrote to the Privy Council in September 1560 of ‘the grievous and dangerous suspicion and muttering’ about Lady Dudley’s death, and even Dr Francis Babington, one of Dudley’s chaplains, was said to have slipped up during the funeral service and described Amy as ‘pitifully slain’.
Murder, Suicide or Accident?
But would Robert Dudley have been so naïve as to think he could plot his wife’s death and still marry the Queen? He had been at court and engaged in public lifelong enough to know that any breath of scandal around him would effectively end any plans he had for a marriage with Elizabeth.
It was said that Elizabeth had been privy to the plan and maybe had even ordered that it had been carried out. It is known that she had said to de Quadra, the Spanish Ambassador, that Amy was ‘dead or nearly so’, although this comment was most likely to have been made between the actual time of Amy’s death and the official announcement at court and not before.
If Amy Robsart was indeed murdered, were the any other likely suspects? One that stands out is William Cecil, the powerful and mighty Queen’s Secretary. The rise of Dudley had threatened his power base, and if Dudley had achieved his goal of becoming King Consort he might have been totally eclipsed and forced to resign.
He was a very experienced politician and was clearly astute and perceptive enough to realise what the suspicious death of Amy would do to Dudley’s ambitions. He was believed to have been spreading rumours that Dudley and the Queen were planning to have Amy killed, when he already knew that she was dead but it had not been officially announced.
So was he the one who had arranged to have the deed done? As late as 1566, when Cecil was giving reasons to the Privy Council for why the Queen was not marrying Dudley he stated that Dudley’s reputation had been soiled by the death of his wife.
There was also the suggestion that poor Amy had committed suicide. Her maid, Mrs Pinto, had reported that she prayed ‘to God to deliver her from desperation’. Was this because she had heard the rumours from the Royal Court of her husband’s dalliance with Elizabeth?
Or was it because she was in extreme pain from her possible breast cancer? Was the desire to do away with herself behind her odd decision to send her servants away on the day of her death? On a more prosaic note, it could be that she did just fall down the stairs, and maybe, because of her illness, she had some condition like osteoporosis which enabled the bones in her neck to break more easily?
The Mystery of Amy Robsart Lives On
However, even as time passed the rumours about her death just would not go away. Her widower, Dudley continued to grow in power and was created Earl of Leicester in 1572. In 1583 a tract was published called ‘Leycesters Commonwealth’ which was a piece of propaganda against the new earl.
In it, it was alleged that Amy Robsart had been locked up in her house with one Sir Richard Verney who first tried to poison her and then, having dismissed her servants, broke her neck. In order to keep Elizabeth happy, Dudley did not remarry again until eighteen years after Amy’s death, and when he did remarry, his new bride Lettice Knollys was promptly banished from court for life.
The tragedy of Amy’s fall down the stairs continued to capture the public imagination. In 1608 a domestic tragedy named the ‘Yorkshire Tragedy’ alluded to Amy Robsart's accident as an easy way to get rid of your wife: ‘a politician did it’. In 1770 a gentleman called Julius Mickle wrote the ‘Ballad of Cumnor Hall about the incident, and this poem inspired Sir Walter Scott to write his famous novel ‘Kenilworth’ in 1820.
In the novel, Scott portrayed Amy Robsart as a tragic heroine; the victim of her callous husband’s ambitions. The novel triggered a lot of academic debate about her ‘murder’ and also paintings of the historicism school. It also encouraged many tourists to try to visit Cumnor Place, but the ruins had been demolished in 1810.
Amy’s ghost was supposed to have walked at Cumnor Place after her tragic demise and it was said that nine parsons came from Oxford to lay her ghost in a pond and that forever after that pond never froze over again in winter. Certainly the owners of Cumnor Place chose never to live there, letting it to tenants until it eventually went to rack and ruin.
So what do you believe happened to Amy Robsart? Was she murdered, and if so, who by? Did she commit suicide, racked with anguish at her husband’s betrayal of her with the Queen or to escape the agony of her illness? Or was it simply a tragic accident?
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