The Death of Amy Robsart: the Arguments


A romanticised image of the death of Amy Robsart as imagined by Victorian artist William Frederick Yeames.
A romanticised image of the death of Amy Robsart as imagined by Victorian artist William Frederick Yeames.

Amy Robsart was the first wife of Robert Dudley, Earl of Leicester. She was found with a broken neck in 1560. Controversy has raged ever since over the cause of her death.

Background to the Death
* Found dead at the foot of a flight of stairs at Cumnor Place, where she’d been staying.
* Dudley immediately ordered an inquest.
* Amy’s maid, Mrs Picto, said that it would be “chance” rather than “villainy”.
* The jury concluded that it was an accident.
* The coroner’s verdict claimed she had two head injuries, and was pronounced publicly on 1 August 1561.
* Amy was buried at St Mary’s, Oxford, supposedly costing Dudley £2,000.
* Dudley wore mourning for six months and retired to Kew for the first month. The court also wore mourning.
* Dudley knew there would be gossip, particularly about his relationship with Elizabeth.
* There were rumours of poison.

Details of the Death
* Supposedly found with a broken neck at the bottom of a flight of just eight steps.
* Surely couldn’t have broken it falling from that height – not enough velocity.
* Dudley was at court with Elizabeth.
* Robsart had sent all of the servants away for the day – they returned home and found her dead.
* Supposedly Amy’s hood still stood perfectly on her head.

Portrait miniature of an unknown lady, possibly Amy Robsart on the occasion of her wedding, 1550.
Portrait miniature of an unknown lady, possibly Amy Robsart on the occasion of her wedding, 1550.

Murder? Possible Suspects
*Elizabeth I – supposedly she wanted to marry Dudley but he was already married.
* Robert Dudley – rumours of a relationship between him and Elizabeth, supposedly he wanted to marry her. He was already married but he spent time away from Amy, and they had no children.
* William Cecil – Elizabeth’s Secretary who was supposedly jealous of Dudley’s influence and hoped that the death of his wife would halt their marriage plans.
* A supporter of a possible Habsburg match for Elizabeth – a possibility someone wanted to discredit Dudley so Elizabeth wouldn’t marry him, but why not go for Dudley himself? Too obvious?
* Someone jealous of Dudley’s influence at court so sought to decrease it by discrediting him through implication in the death of his wife.

Suicide?
* There were reports of Amy being not quite right in the head, particularly during the later months of her life.
* Did she have a terminal illness? Cancer or a tumour of some sort, and knew she was dying, didn’t want the pain. Also could have been a fainting spell turned nasty. Chris Skidmore goes into the possibility of illness in depth.[i]
* Emotional pain – hadn’t seen her husband in a year by the time of her death. Must have heard at least some rumours about Elizabeth and Dudley.
* Emphatic about sending the household and servants away for the day.
* However, she must have known that if it was found to be suicide, her possessions and inheritance would be forfeit (Dudley’s main source of income) and she wouldn’t be allowed a Christian burial in consecrated ground.

Robert Dudley, 1st Earl of Leicester c.1560
Robert Dudley, 1st Earl of Leicester c.1560

Theories
* 1584 Leicester’s Commonwealth – Richard Verney, a retainer of Dudley’s, forced the servants to go to a local fair then broke Amy’s neck and put her at the bottom of the stairs.
* 19th Century, Kenilworth by Sir Walter Scott – the villain is called Varney.
* James Anthony Froude believed Amy was murdered.[ii]
* Walter Rye 1885 The Murder of Amy Robsart – Amy was poisoned which failed and then gotten rid of by violent means.
* 1870 George Adlard Amy Robsart and the Earl of Leycester – suicide as an explanation.
* A.F. Pollard 1910 – Amy’s murder would make marriage between Elizabeth and Dudley impossible – neither of them to blame.
* 1956 Ian Aird suggested that Amy may have suffered from breast cancer where deposits in the spine could cause strain and falls.[iii]
* Alison Weir suggested that William Cecil was Amy’s murderer.[iv]
* George Bernard and Chris Skidmore supported the idea of Verney being the murderer.
* Most historians now believe that Dudley was innocent of wrongdoing.

Further Reading
* Frederick Chamberlin, Elizabeth and Leycester
* Susan Doran, Monarchy and Matrimony: the Courtships of Elizabeth I
* Sarah Gristwood, Elizabeth and Leicester: Power, Passion, Politics
* Alan Haynes, The White Bear: the Elizabethan Earl of Leicester
* Elizabeth Jenkins, Elizabeth and Leicester
* Chris Skidmore, Death and the Virgin: Elizabeth, Dudley and the Mysterious Death of Amy Robsart
* Alison Weir, Elizabeth the Queen


[i] Chris Skidmore, Death and the Virgin: Elizabeth, Dudley and the Mysterious Fate of Amy Robsart
[ii] History of England from the Fall of Wolsey to the Death of Elizabeth, in 12 volumes (1856–1870)
[iii] Ian Aird, ‘The Death of Amy Robsart’, English Historical Review 71 (1956) pp. 69-79
[iv] Alison Weir, Elizabeth the Queen
Advertisements

Leave a Reply

Please log in using one of these methods to post your comment:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s