Dean Traylor is a freelance writer and teacher who writes about various subjects, including education and creative writing.
A Mysterious Death
Amy Dudley was a rising star among the royals. She was an heiress married to a powerful lord and was increasingly becoming a court favorite of Queen Elizabeth I. During England’s Golden Age, Lady Dudley appeared destined for something great.
But that was not to be. The woman who once thrilled the Elizabethan era is best known for her mysterious death at the foot of a flight of stairs. Lingering questions remain:
- Did she die of natural causes?
- Was she murdered?
- And if she was murdered, why?
Whatever happened to Lady Dudley is not an easy one to answer. Still, her infamous death set off a scandal that nearly destroyed a queen’s reputation, and may have damaged the political career of her husband, Lord Robert Dudley, the earl of Leicester.
The Lady Named Amy
In her short life, Lady Amy Robsart (her maiden name) appeared to have it all. She was a wealthy heiress from Norfolk, England who got married at the age of eighteen to the son of John Dudley, the 1st Duke of Northumberland. Her husband, Lord Robert Dudley, would eventually become part of Queen Elizabeth’s court. Her brother-in-law – Robert’s younger brother - Guilford, had married Lady Jane Grey who would eventually become queen for nine days.
Although it appeared she was living a life of wealth and privilege, she was also a pawn in one man’s quest for power. The Duke was looking to consolidate his influences in Norfolk. The marriage of his son to the daughter of a wealthy landowner in the area, Sir John Robsart, helped him accomplish this task. By all accounts, the marriage between Lord Robert and Lady Amy was an arranged marriage that only benefited the Duke.
Happier Ever After Doesn’t Last
The couple was married June 4, 1550 with the young King Edward VI in attendance. Thing, however, soon took a turn for the worst. King Edward VI died, and Robert was imprisoned in the Tower of London for fifteen months. This came as a result of his father’s action to place Lady Jane Grey on the throne.
The incoming queen, Elizabeth I, tried to do away with Lady Jane, Guilford, the Duke and Robert. Robert was condemned to death, but King Phillip II of Spain and England’s king consort interceded and spared his life. Through this crisis, Lady Amy stood by her man, visiting him – with the help of the Privy Council – during his period.
By all accounts, Lady Amy and Lord Robert had every reason to despise the new queen. And, the Queen had reasons to not trust the couple. However, events soon took a different turn.
Lord Robert became part of the queen’s court. On top of that, rumors swirled that he and the Queen were lovers. In fact, in 1559, several diplomats reported that some members of the court believed that the Queen would marry him, “in case his wife should die”.
At the time, Lord Robert was in Windsor with the Queen. Upon receiving the news, he sent his friends to investigate her death
While her husband was sparking a romance with the Queen, Lady Amy was in the midst of a health crisis; she contracted an “illness of the breast”, the name breast cancer was given back then.
About this time, Lady Amy did not reside in London. She had lived in various places, and by 1560, she was living in the manor house of Cumnor Place, near Abingdon in Berkshire (now known as Oxfordshire). Lord Robert spent most of his time in London.
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Still, she managed to join her husband on occasions despite being ill. She came to London and to Windsor for Robert’s inauguration as a Knight of the Garter in 1559. Whether she knew about her husband’s relation with the Queen was never reported.
The year 1560 was Lady Amy’s last. She was still ill but seemed – by eye-witness account -- to be recovering. On September 8 at Cumnor Place, Lady Amy gave her servants permission to attend Our Lady’s Fair at Abingdon. All but one servant, Mrs. Odingsells, and the elderly mother of the manor’s previous owner, Mrs. Owens, left for the festivities. When the servants returned, they found Lady Amy lying dead at the foot of a flight of stairs.
At the time, Lord Robert was in Windsor with the Queen. Upon receiving the news, he sent his friends to investigate her death. An inquest took place and Lord Amy’s death was ruled an accident.
Immediately, rumors and speculation arose that Lady Amy’s death was the result of foul play. Many suspected it was Lord Robert Dudley. Rumors had it that he ordered the murder of his wife in order to marry the Queen.
Another accusation was that the Queen ordered her death. Evidence to this was a conversation Elizabeth had with the Spanish ambassador de Quadra in which she commented that Dudley’s wife was “dead or nearly so.”
Thus, Cecil may have spread rumors about the murder in order to prevent the two from marrying.
The accusations that Dudley and the Queen had arranged the murder of Lady Amy may have come from a jealous court official. William Cecil, the 1st Baron Burgley and the Queen’s secretary. He was wary of Dudley’s ascension to power as a possible king consort. He feared his own power would be diminished by this young upstart. Thus, Cecil may have spread rumors about the murder in order to prevent the two from marrying.
Apparently, the rumors worked to some degree. Lord Robert Dudley and Queen Elizabeth never married. Despite the coroner’s jury’s verdict that Lady Amy died of an accidental fall, he was haunted for the rest of his life by accusations that he had her killed.
He’d never reach the status of king consort, but he’d later obtain the title of 1st Earl of Leicester and one of Queen Elizabeth’s most important statesman until he decided to take on a new wife in 1578. Ten years later, Robert died. Queen Elizabeth also survived the scandal, becoming one of the most powerful monarchs of her era.
Little is known about Lady Amy’s death. However, most of the evidence points to an unfortunate accident. Even if she didn’t die from the fall, the cancer would surely have taken her. Whatever the case may be, her sudden death at age 32 could’ve had serious implication at the highest level of royalty and politics.
- Coroner’s Report - The National Archives
- The Order of the Garter | The Royal Family
In medieval times, King Edward III was so inspired by tales of King Arthur and the chivalry of the Knights of the Round Table that he set up his own group of honourable knights, called the Order of the Garter.
- Robert Dudley: Who Was Queen Elizabeth I's Great Love? - HistoryExtra
The 'Virgin Queen' never married, but one suitor came closer to her than any other. Explore the complex relationship between Elizabeth I and Robert Dudley.
- Amy Robsart, Lady Dudley: The Death that Launched a Thousand Rumors | DIG
- Renaissance for Kids: Elizabethan Era
Kids learn about the Elizabethan Era including the English Renaissance, theatre, arts, clothing, fashion, and fun facts.
- William Cecil, 1st Baron Burghley summary | Britannica
William Cecil, 1st Baron Burghley, (born Sept. 13, 1520, Bourne, Lincolnshire, Eng.—died Aug. 5, 1598, London), English statesman, principal adviser to Elizabeth I through most of her reign and a master of Renaissance statecraft.
This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and is not meant to substitute for formal and individualized advice from a qualified professional.
© 2016 Dean Traylor
CJ Kelly from the PNW on April 21, 2016:
I recently watched something on Queen Elizabeth and that's why your hub caught my hub. Fascinating time. Great hub. Shared HP, Twitter & FB.