Imagine, if you will, the sort of bright sunny day with nothing going wrong as in the opening of an episode of Law and Order: SUV. It’s early fall in 1560 at the estate of Sir Anthony Forster, which looks sort of like Downton Abbey in the sense of it may be a “country home” but he’s also super rich and it’s basically a mansion. A stressed-out looking woman in her mid-20s is yelling at two older women. This is our heroine, AMY ROBSART DUDLEY. “I insist you must all go to the fair!” she screams. “But madam,” protest the women, “It is unseemly for gentlewomen to go the fair on a Sunday.” “Well this Sunday, YOU’RE GOING!!” Amy yells, and, cowed, the other women rush off. Amy watched them, her lovely face inscrutable, then she strides off purposefully.
CUT TO: the ladies return home, hours later, from the fair. There is a crowd of household staff gathering at a staircase near the back of the house. “What is it?” demand the ladies, suddenly scared. The male servants, the only ones left behind during the trip to the fair, stop them before they can get any closer.
And then the camera swoops around them to the bottom of a short flight of stairs. AMY is lying there, still in her same gorgeous gown, blood trailing from two head wounds, neck broken. She is dead. An accident… OR MURDER??
Cue: the opening credits.
Who Was Amy Robsart?
Twenty-eight years before she was found dead at the bottom of the stairs, Amy Robsart was born in Norfolk to gentleman-farmer Sir John Robsart of Syderstone and his wife, Elizabeth Scott. She was their only child, and as such, the heir to John’s fortune and estate. She was well educated for a girl for the time, as evidenced by what remain of her letters. She wrote with neat handwriting, displaying intelligence and thoughtfulness. She would have understood the importance of her role as heiress, knowing that her choice of husband would be decided by her father and should, in some way, elevate their family’s position. Which is why it’s such a surprise twist to her life story when she suddenly got married, three days before her eighteenth birthday, for love-related reasons.
As much as the stereotype exists that women in olden times got married as young teens, the average age of marriage was usually at least in the mid-20s for a woman. Her husband, Robert Dudley, was also young for a groom at eighteen. Despite his family’s wealth and influence, he was also the fourth son and nobody expected much from him. Amy and Robert had likely met about a year before their marriage, when Robert and his family had briefly stayed in the Robsarts’ home on their way back from a military battle. Clearly the two had taken notice of one another during this brief visit, and why wouldn’t they? From what we know about Robert later in life (when he became infamous as Queen Elizabeth I’s #1 crush), he was tall, handsome, and charismatic. Amy has been described as “very beautiful” and is known to have been clever and very interested in fashion so likely looked amazing in very cute outfits. Throw in teenage hormones and the general Renaissance feeling that you could die at any moment from plague, and the two were all in.
Robert had grown up alongside King Henry VIII’s son Edward. When Edward inherited the throne as Edward VI, Robert stayed on as one of his gentlemen — and Robert’s father became an influential advisor to the boy king. His father agreed to the teen marriage, likely because an alliance with the Robsarts meant access to their lands in Norfolk. my’s father also consented to the match, and the two fathers hashed out a prenuptial agreement noting that Amy wouldn’t inherit the land until after both of her parents had died. One cute detail: Amy and Robert’s wedding ceremony had a charming bohemian vibe, as they cut costs by piggybacking on another marriage, re-using the flowers and re-inviting most of the guests from the previous ceremony. Among the attendees was King Edward VI (Henry VIII’s teenage son).
Basically right away, their marriage was marked by a lack of anywhere to live. They initially lived with Robert’s parents, then moved onto Sometset House, for which Robert was the keeper. Both of them were wealthy, but it was in a real estate sort of way — their families owned property, but not actually a house for these two teen lovebirds to live in. They also didn’t have children right away, which may have surprised some who’d assumed theirs was a shotgun marriage-type scenario. But soon enough, Amy had more to worry about than her own fertility of lack of a permanent home because: Robert, his father, and brothers were all arrested and thrown in the Tower of London! Why? Oh just for the Lady Jane Grey Scenario/treason.
The Lady Jane Grey Scenario
You can learn about Lady Jane Grey here to get a fuller picture, but if you just need a quick recap: buckle up. So, boy King Edward VI became quite sick all of a sudden with something like measles followed by tuberculosis. This was wildly inconvenient for just about everyone because the King was fifteen years old and didn’t have an heir. Robert’s father, unwilling to give up the power he’d enjoyed as the King’s advisor, hurriedly schemed to figure out a way he could retain his influence over the crown. A major crisis was that, without an obvious heir, the throne seems like it may be handed over to Edward’s older sister, Mary. But she was a Catholic, and England had basically spent the past several decades being Very Protestant. Edward’s other sister, Elizabeth, was Protestant but there wasn’t a way to legally bypass Mary to get to her. And so — still not dead, but very sick and on his deathbed — Edward authorized a document removing both of his sisters from succession, and naming his cousin Lady Jane Grey as the next monarch.
And what did Robert’s father do? Well, he got Robert’s brother Guildford Dudley married to Lady Jane Grey to ensure that the Dudley family would be able to puppetmaster Jane as a pawn/queen. This plan worked great for exactly nine days, until Mary stormed into town with the support of literally everybody, and took over and became Queen Mary I. And she, rather understandably, threw the whole Dudley family (and Jane) into jail for scheming against her. Although Robert wasn’t directly involved in the scheme (i.e. he wasn’t the one married to Jane Grey), he was sentenced to death along with his brothers and father because he probably at least knew what they’d been planning. Where did this leave Amy? Well, like the other Dudley spouses (other than Jane), she was left to sit around and wait to see if she was about to become a widow or not.
Amy and the other wives were permitted conjugal visits with their husbands during the year that the Dudley men were imprisoned. Do you know who was in jail at around the same time? Oh, just the Queen’s half-sister Elizabeth, who was also around the same age as Robert. Rumour has it that it was during this stressful time in jail, not knowing if they would live or die, that Robert and Elizabeth began to form a meaningful connection. They likely knew each other already, from both having grown up around Edward VI, but to paraphrase the first Harry Potter book: there are some experiences that just bond you for life, and being thrown in jail to be potentially executed is one of those things. This may not have been the case but just note: everything after this suggests that Elizabeth loved Robert and Robert loved Elizabeth and Amy’s just totally out of the picture.
After about a year, Robert’s father and brother Guildford, along with Jane, were executed. But Robert himself was freed, and was able to reunite with Amy (although he may or may not have been in love with Elizabeth already). It turns out that having your family disgraced and executed for treason makes an already frugal lifestyle even more challenging, and Amy and Robert found themselves even shorter on funds than they’d been before. They depended largely on gifts of money from Amy’s father, and basically crossing their fingers and hoping for the best. Well, that’s what Amy was doing but guess what Robert was up to? Oh just making up for lost time away from royal court by racking up debts on gambling and fancy clothes. Ugh, Robert, could you think about someone else for five seconds?? (Spoiler: he cannot, will not, and does not, for the rest of his life). Was he spending all of this money, perhaps, to buy impressive outfits to impress Elizabeth? I’m not saying he was, but I’m not saying he wasn’t. Bear in mind, though, that Mary was still Queen at this point and Elizabeth was just a gorgeous, athletic Princess with whom Robert had shared some very intense experiences in prison.
The Couch-Surfing Years
In 1554, Amy’s father died. But as per her marriage contract, she and Robert wouldn’t inherit any of his property until after her mother also died. And as her mother was still alive, this inheritance was no help to the increasingly strained Robsart-Dudley marital finances. But!! Three years later, Amy’s mother died, which was obviously super distressing for her but also likely brought a sense of relief because at least now she had some finances coming in. Unfortunately, her ancestral home was uninhabitable (i.e. it was falling apart and gross), so Amy and Robert had to continue on with their couch-surfing lifestyle. Later this same year, Robert headed off with the armed forces to fight a battle in France on behalf of Mary I (and her dirtbag husband, Philip). With him away, Amy took over running the household and it’s from here that we have some remaining examples of her letters. We see that she very capably stepped up to run things, very able tracking their finances and doing her best to get some of Robert’s debts paid down.
Robert survived the battle, and returned home to Amy. His time in the army did lots to fix the Dudley family reputation, as Mary I’s husband Philip spoke well of Robert and so the Queen was now a fan. With their fortunes looking a bit better, Amy and Robert were now determined to finally figure out some sort of permanent home for themselves. This episode of House Hunters International: Renaissance Norfolk was interrupted by the sudden death of Queen Mary I; meaning that the Dudley family’s hard work winning over the new Queen became pointless. HOWEVER, Robert’s #1 crush Elizabeth then became Queen Liz I and Robert’s fortunes suddenly got a whole lot better. So, it’s clear that these two were already on very good terms, because she seems to have used her influence to get Robert assigned the very prestigious job of Master of the Horse. This job involved arranging all of Elizabeth’s business trips (which, being in the 16th century, involved a lot of horses and carriages) as well as tending to the Queen’s other whims on a very regular basis. And so, Robert headed off to live in London at royal court… leaving Amy behind.
If absence makes the heart grow fonder, the opposite of that was happening vis-a-vis Robert and Elizabeth as their continued closeness seemed to bring them even closer. By 1599, diplomats were reporting back to their home countries that the Queen was in love with Robert — to the point that she was spending too much time horseback riding and hunting than she was doing actual Queen-related jobs. If Robert had been single, this would have led to potential concerns that the Queen was going to marry him. As he was married, this led to concerns that the Queen was in love with a married man. Neither situation was very good for anyone, least of which all of the ambitious and gross men who were always running around like Varys and Littlefinger on Game of Thrones, figuring out ways to gain more and more power. It didn’t help out that Robert’s room was basically around the corner from Elizabeth’s, meaning he could rush to her side at any time of day or night.
So the thing is that Queens in this time and place couldn’t just marry anyone. Marriages of princesses and minor noblewomen were closely monitored so that they’d have the best possible political outcomes. As a single woman, Elizabeth was like The Bachelorette: Renaissance, with every single King and Prince and noble constantly sending her marriage proposals. It wasn’t just that they thought she was gorgeous and genius-level intelligent (both of which she was), but these men also likely assumed if they married her, they’d get to be in charge of England. After all, when Elizabeth’s sister Mary had married Philip, he wound up King of England, right? So Elizabeth’s advisors were panicking over who she should marry; the option that she marry someone like Robert, who was basically a commoner, was about the worst case scenario for any of them. The only thing seemingly keeping that marriage from happening was that Amy was still alive and still married to Robert… but rumours started circulating that maybe she was dying.
These rumours really took off because Amy was not invited to spend much time at all at royal court, so nobody really knew what she was like. Robert visited her for a few days in 1559, and Amy stayed in London for about a month later that year. But other than that, Robert was living in a connecting room to Elizabeth in the royal palace while Amy was couch surfing in the home of yet another of their royal friends. And then the rumours got even weirded, as word started to spread that Robert was SECRETLY POISONING AMY so she’d die and he could marry Elizabeth. These rumours weren’t really about Amy, they were mostly meant to discredit Robert. We know now that Elizabeth’s unwillingness to marry was her superpower; but at the time, her councillors were freaking out and blamed Robert for her lack of marrying anyone else. Which is why they (the coucillors) began plotting to ASSASSINATE ROBERT. And meanwhile, allegedly, Elizabeth forbade Robert from seeing Amy or having anything to do with her.
Amy’s Final Days
So whither Amy??? Well, she kept bopping around from house to house, relying on the kindness of other wealthy people. She eventually wound up in a place called Cumnor Hall, in Berkshire. The house was — like Downton Abbey — a renovated 14th century abbey, and was being rented out by a man named Sir Anthony Forster (no relation to me; potentially he was a relative of Amy’s). The other occupants of this sort of island of misfit toys were Anthony’s wife and two women named Mrs. Odingsells and Mrs. Owen, who were relatives of the abbey’s owner. It sounds like a super nice place to stay, and the grounds included a pond, a deer park, and a terrace garden. Amy may have been a houseguest, but she got the nicest apartment of anyone. She had her own separate entrance with a staircase (foreshadowing) leading up to it.
Amy paid for her own lifestyle out of her inheritance, including paying for ten of her own servants. She may have been abandoned by her husband, but she didn’t mope around but rather is recorded as continuing to spend money having new dresses made (bear in mind, one fancy dress back then cost about as much as a good car nowadays). She had now been married to Robert for just over ten years, was twenty-eight years old, and seemingly doing her best to make lemonade out of an incredibly strange situation. She ordered a dress on August 24, 1560, perhaps because Robert had been making noises about potentially coming by for a visit and she maybe wanted to show him what he was missing.
On Saturday, September 7, 1560, Queen Elizabeth turned twenty-seven years old. The following day, a fair was held in the town of Abingdon, near where Amy was staying at the abbey. While it was not the usual practice for gentlewomen to attend fairs on Sunday, Amy apparently insisted that Mrs. Odingsells and Mrs. Owens went to the fair, leaving her in the house with just a handful of staff. When the household returned home from the fair, Amy was laying dead at the bottom of the stairs leading up to her apartment, her neck broken, with two gauge-like holes in her skull.
Robert, who had been at Windsor Castle with the Queen this whole time (alibi?) was informed of his wife’s death one day after her body had been found. He is said to have reacted with shock and surprise, and he rushed off to Cumnor Hall to see what all was going on. He was prepared to demand on an inquest into her death, but found one was already in process. Here’s how that worked: the coroner pulled together a group of fifteen gentlemen in a sort of jury, who were brought in to view Amy’s body and poke around to see what clues they could find in and around her body (from which they removed the clothes, in order to look for bruises, etc., on her body).
The investigators spoke with other members of the household, from whom they learned about Amy’s angry insistence that everyone go to the fair, as well as her habit of apparently praying that God would deliver her of her desperation. This second note came from Amy’s maid, Mrs. Picto, who seems to have been the first to suggest her death may have been suicide. A possible clue against that was Amy’s ordering of a dress just over a week before her fatal fall; would a suicidal woman have been making plans like this? But then again, the date of her death seems more than a coincidence: why would she die one day after the Queen’s birthday? Had the thought of her husband off celebrating with his new love driven her to kill herself? More than one of Amy’s former acquaintances at Cumnor Hall noted that she had a “strange mind” — she was prone to angry mood swings. While there had been rumours she was quite ill, no illness was mentioned during the time of this investigation.
Ultimately, the jury found that Amy’s death and fall had been accidental. Her neck broke as she fell, and the other head wounds were likely from hitting her head against the stone stairs. Her fall had only been of a short distance, eight steps. Their conclusion was that she had merely fallen in an unlucky position. When Robert heard their findings, he was relieved but also suggested that another jury may want to investigate, just to truly clear his name. Oh, because obviously as soon as news of Amy’s death came out, everybody assumed Robert had done it so that he’d be freed up to marry Elizabeth. And Robert knew that, as long as he was a suspected wife-killer, he’d never be able to marry her. He paid the full cost of an ornate burial for Amy, and left royal court to spend his mourning time away. He wore mourning colours for six months; the royal court did the same for one month.
Yet, even at the time, rumours ran rampant that Amy’s death was far too conveniently timed to truly be an accident. Rumours that she had, perhaps… been MURDERED!
Scenario 1: Amy Tripped And Fell (And Died)
In 1910, the historian A.F. Pollard supported the theory that Amy’s death was merely an unlucky accident. In 2008, The National Archives released the coroner’s report from Amy’s death. Its details support — unsurprisingly — what the coroner had announced at the time: that Amy had an extraordinarily unlucky fall. How could someone break their neck falling just eight steps, though? Well, in 1956 a medical professor named Ian Aird suggested that Amy may have had breast cancer (supported by a note in contemporaneous documents that she had a malady of the breast) which may have led to cancerous deposits in her spine that would weaken her neck enough that even a slight fall could have killed her.
Also of note: there are theories that Amy had been the victim of unknowing poisoning for some time, which may have also led to whatever symptoms of illness she may or may not have been displaying.
Scenario 2: Amy Killed Herself
People who support this theory base it on Amy’s maid’s description of Amy’s mood swings and having prayed to be delivered from her current troubles. In addition, combined with the breast cancer possibility (and the ensuing lack of pain management or effective cancer treatments in the 16th century), she may have been living in chronic pain which could have added to her depression. This theory explains why she was so adament about sending away most of the household to the fair: she wanted to be alone when she killed herself. Her depression may have been exacerbated by her husband’s cruelty, by knowledge that the day beforehand Robert had been off partying with Elizabeth for her birthday, and potentially by the medical effects of either her illness or her being long-term poisoned.
This theory first came to prominence in 1870, when the historian George Adlard printed letters between Amy and Robert which he felt supported the theory of Amy’s suicidal depression. Yet, if she really wanted to kill herself, why wouldn’t she use a steeper set of stairs to be more sure she’d die? Throwing oneself down eight stairs doesn’t seem like a particularly effective method of killing oneself, unless one had calcified bones from cancer (see above) but why would she know she had that if she had that?
Scenario 3: Robert Dudley Did It (Or Hired Someone To Do It)
The coroner’s report notes not just that Amy’s neck had broken, but also that she had two “dyntes” in her skull — two wounds, one 1/4-inch deep and the other 2-inches deep. These seem to suggest injuries other than what may be sustained by a fall down eight stairs.
Robert Dudley and Queen Elizabeth I were both at Windsor Castle at the time that Amy died at Cumnor Hall, so if either or both were involved they almost certainly would have hired someone else to do the actual killing. Now, this isn’t evidence, but it’s incredibly juicy gossip so get ready. In 1584 (twenty-four years after Amy’s death), an anonymous book called Leicester’s Commonwealth began circulating around London (note: by then, Robert had made Earl of Leicester). Though the author’s identity is unknown, this book was almost definitely the work of Catholics who opposed Elizabeth’s Protestantism and Robert’s influence over the Queen. It’s basically a laundry list of every terrible thing Robert had ever been alleged of doing, including (according to this bonkers book) arranging Amy’s death as well as the deaths of some other inconvenient spouses of some other people.
It’s from this book that some details, now often assumed to be factual, were first invented, such as: that Amy’s body still wore her headdress, undisturbed (suggesting that she hadn’t fallen down the stairs at all). The popularity of this book kept the rumours about Robert’s potential wife-murdering alive. In 1608, a play called A Yorkshire Tragedy included a line noting that falling down the stairs was an easy way to get rid of an inconvenient wife. In 1821, Sir Walter Scott published a novel called Kenilworth, which re-told the death of Amy using much of the scandalous made-up detail from Leicester’s Commonwealth. The Scott novel was a huge hit, and inspired a whole craze of artists using Amy’s death as inspiration for new paintings.
Later in the 19th century, two more historians consulted contemporaneous correspondence that they felt proved Robert had been poisoning Amy and, therefore, must have been responsible for hiring the person who killed her. The thing is, the correspondence both of these historians used to base their theories had been written by Bishop de la Quadra, a Spanish ambassador who hated Robert Dudley. It’s from de Quadra’s papers that we get details such as the rumours that Amy was being poisoned, as well as a recounting of de Quadra’s conversation with Cecil, allegedly taking place before Amy’s death, in which Cecil confides his suspicions that Robert and Elizabeth may be planning to kill Amy.
While it’s the most dramatically satisfying solution, the concept of Robert as Amy’s murder have been mostly discredited based on available information. The main thing is that Robert’s letters from just after Amy’s death suggest a man who is in shock and distraught and who is wholly unprepared to deal with this situation. Robert was also clever, so if he had decided to kill his wife he likely wouldn’t have done it in such a suspicious manner. After all, her death and the ensuing scandal were what prevented him from being able to pursue marriage with Elizabeth.
That being said, there is more evidence that Robert may have influenced the findings of the coroner’s inquest into Amy’s death. The jury foreman was potentially a former household servant of Elizabeth’s, connecting him to both the Queen as well as to Robert. Yet, Robert’s suggestion of a second inquest seems to negate thoughts that he’d unduly influenced the first one. And also, as noted by historian Susan Doran, if Robert did lean on the jury to find the death an accident he could have been covering up for Amy’s suicide rather than for a murder.
Scenario 4: William Cecil
So, historians including Alison Weir (and the novelist Fiona Buckley) have suggested that Elizabeth’s trusted secretary (and notoriously cutthroat schemer) William Cecil may have been the mastermind behind Amy’s murder. At the time of her death, he was noted to be extremely agitated by the possibility that Elizabeth may marry Robert. And certainly, the odd and vaguely suspicious manner of Amy’s death did have the result of ruining any chance of Elizabeth taking Robert as her husband. So this scenario theorizes that Amy’s death wasn’t about her at all, but was a small piece in a larger plan to ruin Robert’s reputation. Whether Cecil was responsible or not, he certainly leaned into the tragedy in order to increase his badmouthing of Robert around town.
For instance: remember above, the Spanish Ambassador’s letters relating Cecil worrying that Robert might be about to kill Amy? So it seems very likely that Cecil had found out before anyone else that Amy was dead. As such, he rushed over to gossip with the Spanish Ambassador like, “Oh wow, rumour has it Robert Dudley may be trying to kill his wife like, if Amy shows up dead, chances are it’s Robert who killed her.” And lo and behold: Amy was dead. So the Spanish Ambassador was like, “OMG Dudley is the killer!!” but actually, Cecil is just the ultimate puppet-master.
That being said, this doesn’t necessarily mean that Cecil was involved in Amy’s death; it could just mean tha the took advantage of the situation for his own gain. But it also shows how he was playing 3-D chess against a bunch of people who were very bad at Checkers, so framing Robert for Amy’s death is not not Cecil’s style. Plus he super hated Robert Dudley and would do anything to prevent him from marrying Elizabeth.
Scenario 5: Sir Richard Verney (Who?) Did It
The name Sir Richard Verney appears in a 1563 chronicle about Amy’s death, as well as in the 1584 mostly made-up propaganda book, Leicester’s Commonwealth. the assassin is identified as a servant of Robert’s named Sir Richard Verney. In that work, Verney is shown to be working on orders of Robert to first attempt to poison Amy to death until he eventually breaks her neck. In Kenilworth, Scott suggests that Verney acted on his own volition and killed Amy to help our Robert — but that Robert had never assigned the task to him. first poison, then kill
Rather than freeing up Robert and Elizabeth to marry, the suspicious circumstances of Amy’s death made their union impossible. The jury may have cleared Robert of responsibility, but he’d made so many enemies at court that nobody was ready to believe him innocent as it was to everyone else’s advantage to continue to treat him as a murderer. It took a bit for Elizabeth to realize the PR nightmare that had overtaken her favourite, but once she did, she accepted that to marry a suspected wife-killer would destroy her own reputation. She kept Robert around for the rest of his life (including as he married and had children with two other women, including Elizabeth’s much-younger doppelganger!) but never married him, nor anyone.
References And Further Reading
The main book I used in preparing this essay was Chris Skidmore’s Death and the Virgin Queen: Elizabeth I and the Dark Scandal That Rocked the Throne, which really gets into all of the pros and cons of all the various suspects and scenarios.