The Birth of Robert Dudley: Queen Elizabeth I's Favourite
On June 24, 1532 (possibly 1533), Robert Dudley was born. He was the brother-in-law to Lady Jane Grey and extremely lucky to keep his head after the executions of her, his father and his brother, among many other supporters of Jane’s reign. His reputation never recovered properly, although he was extremely close friends with Elizabeth I and “in love” with her.
The Early Life of Robert Dudley
Robert was one of 13 children to John Dudley and Jane Guildford. He was the fifth son and raised as a protestant. Some historians place his date of birth as September 7, 1533 – the same day as Elizabeth I, however, more have now placed it as June 24. The year still remains to be debated but it is more likely 1532. He was a smart young boy, taking to languages and writing very well, exceeding many others.
Very little else is known about the young Robert. Much of his early years are overshadowed by his father’s attempt to remove Mary Tudor from the throne and place Lady Jane Grey and his fourth son, Guildford Dudley, there. John Dudley temporarily succeeded after the death of Edward VI in 1553 but for less than two weeks. Mary had the support of the English people, removed the traitorous Queen and imprisoned all those who were part of the coup.
Robert was one of those arrested and was convicted of treason and sentenced to death. He had led a 300-strong force with his father to stop Mary. He had also proclaimed the reign of Queen Jane on July 18, 1553 in King’s Lynn only to hear that that reign was over the next day. The townspeople seized the young Dudley and sent him back to Mary.
While Robert was in prison, Elizabeth Tudor was also there. She had been placed in the tower because of her suspected involvement in the Wyatt’s Rebellion against Mary I. Robert was released from prison in 1554, along with his other brothers (except Guildford who was executed earlier that year) due to his family befriending King Philip II of Spain, Mary’s husband.
Robert and his siblings often stated that their owed their lives to Philip and fought for him on numerous occasions. They were only allowed at court when Philip was there as there was still suspicion of their attempt to remove Mary from the throne.
Robert Dudley Marries Amy Robsart
On June 4, 1550, Robert married Amy Robsart in King Edward’s presence. She was the daughter of a gentleman-farmer, Sir John Robsart and about the same age as Robert. The marriage was for love and not power, although Robert’s family did hold a lot of power at the time. The couple had to rely on the gifts from their fathers.
Had it not been for the attempt to place Jane Grey on the throne, Robert would have continued in his successful career at court. He had already been made a Member of Parliament and was a gentleman of the court. However, after his imprisonment, many courtiers turned their backs on him and held him with suspicion.
Robert Dudley and Elizabeth I
After meeting her sometime in the Tower of London, Robert and Elizabeth I became close friends; even Philip II acknowledged the friendship between the two just a week before the death of Mary I. Robert was there during the surrender of the Great Seal on November 18, 1558 and was made Master of the House. This position meant that he was always close to the Queen; the perfect place for such a close friend. He was given responsibilities for the coronation, which took place a year later and duties with the transport.
When he was elected as a Knight of the Garter in April 1559, many courtiers became more suspicious of him. They started to suspect that something was happening between him and the Queen. There was talk of visits between himself and Elizabeth in her bedchambers during the day and at night, with rumours that Elizabeth was waiting for the death of Robert’s wife so that she could marry him.
Part of the rumours spread since Elizabeth was never fond of Lady Amy. Amy lived in a different part of the country and during 1559 only saw her husband for four days at Easter and then about a month in the early summer. Amy was found dead on September 8, 1560, at Cumnor Place, Oxford.
After an inquest, pressed by Robert, the death was ruled accidental. They believed she had fallen down the stairs and suffered two injuries to the head and broke her neck. However, many suspected that Robert arranged for his wife to be killed so that he would be able to marry Elizabeth. The scandal meant that many members of Parliament tried to prevent a marriage between the two.
Did Robert Dudley Kill His Wife?
With the rumours of the death, it has led to many historians to search for the answer to whether he did kill her or not – or have her killed. Most have deemed it unlikely. It is possible that she had breast cancer, which had spread into the spine. While she only fell down a short flight of stairs, with the weakening from the cancer, it is possible that her neck could have broken easily.
While it is possible that she was pushed, her headdress was still sitting on her head as normal. This would support that she simply tripped and fell. Had she been pushed, it is probable that the headdress would have dislodged in some way, especially if there was a struggle.
Another opinion was that Amy decided to commit suicide. Her breast cancer would have been terrible in the 16th century and she would have been depressed that her husband was so far away and constantly in the presence of the Queen.
The Noblemen Worry of Robert Dudley Becoming King
After his wife’s death, Robert remained close to Elizabeth. There was much talk of marriage between the two, even between Pope Pius IV and his cardinals when he stated:
“the greater part of the nobility of that island take ill the marriage which the said queen designs to enter with the Lord Robert Dudley…they fear that if he becomes king, he will want to avenge the death of his father, and extirpate the nobility of that kingdom.”
It is true that John Dudley’s actions and treasonous conviction clouded the judgment of many nobles and politicians surrounding Elizabeth I. However, Elizabeth never believed that Robert would attempt to avenge his father’s death. As Robert realised that marriage was not going to happen any time soon, he offered to seek military adventures outside of England in 1561 but Elizabeth would not allow it.
He was, instead, created Protector of the Realm in October of the next year after Elizabeth suffered from smallpox. She feared that her life was in danger but she made a full recovery, which was a relief to the whole country. Dudley was, instead, made a privy councillor.
Elizabeth I Proposes Robert Dudley Marries Mary, Queen of Scots
In 1563, Elizabeth made the proposition that Robert marry her cousin, Mary, Queen of Scots. He was already involved with politics abroad, especially Scotland. It was clear that Robert would never marry the Queen of England and this was to be compensation to that. She then offered that everyone live together at the English court so she would not lose the company of Robert.
Elizabeth also informed Mary that if Robert was her husband, Elizabeth would make her the heir to the English throne. When the Protestant advisors of Mary warmed to the idea, Robert was made Earl of Leicester so that he was more acceptable to the Scottish Queen, with more to follow. Mary informed Thomas Randolph, England ambassador to Scotland, in 1565 that she would marry Robert but Robert didn’t like the idea.
Robert worked with Henry Stuart, Lord Darnley, who became Mary’s husband. He didn’t believe that he was the right choice for her. In March 1565, Elizabeth finally decided that she simply could not make Mary her heir, telling the Spanish ambassador that it was because Robert would not cooperate. It is probable that she just didn’t want to name her Scottish cousin the heir to the English throne.
Marriage Prospects Between Elizabeth I and Lord Robert Dudley
By 1564, Robert realised that he had very small chances of being Elizabeth’s husband, even though she kept telling him that she would like to marry him. He continued to sabotage other marriage prospects still waiting for Elizabeth, including four French and German princesses.
By 1566, he remembered that Elizabeth had said that she would never marry. It is possible that her father’s multiple marriages and the way he treated his wives put her off marriage. It is also possible that her abuse by Thomas Seymour was another reason. However, Robert continued to hold hope that he would be her choice. Philip II had the same view as Robert – that she would not marry but if she did it would be Lord Dudley.
The Death of Lord Robert Dudley
Robert did eventually remarry but not to Elizabeth I. In 1569, he started a relationship with a Howard woman, Lady Douglas Sheffield. While they never married, she had his son, called Robert Dudley. Lord Dudley also flirted with a cousin of the Queen, Lettice Knollys. Lettice was married at the time but her husband died in 1576.
Now that marriage was possible, Robert stop the relationship with Lady Sheffield, agreeing custody with their son. Robert then married Lettice in secret on September 21, 1578. Elizabeth was not aware of the marriage until the enemies of Robert at court told her. She was furious although knew about his plans for marriage the year earlier. Lettice and Robert had one child who died in 1584 when he was just three years old but he did care for his stepchildren.
Up until his death, Robert was humiliated by the Queen. She never accepted or forgave him for the marriage to her cousin. This led to problems for Lettice’s social life as well as his. However, he was made Lieutenant and Captain-General of the Queen’s Armies and Companies in July 1588 at the start of the Spanish Armada.
Robert died on September 4, 1588, on the way to Buxton, Derbyshire, suspected of malaria although a man called Smith claimed that he had bewitched the Earl. Historians believe that stomach cancer may have been the reason but do not rule out malaria. The death his Elizabeth hard and was unexpected, despite ill health for some time. He was buried in Beauchamp Chapel in Collegiate Church of St. Mary in Warwick as he requested.
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