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May the Devil Be His Companion

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Death and the Virgin Queen: Elizabeth I and the Dark Scandal That Rocked the Throne

By Chris Skidmore
St. Martin’s Press, 2010

It was good to be Robert Dudley in 1559. He was 27 years old, muscular and vibrantly good-looking (the Venetian ambassador’s term bellissimo required no translating, then or now), as skilled at conversation as he was at jousting. And best of all, the young woman he had known for years, Princess Elizabeth, had ascended to the throne as Queen Elizabeth I and proceeded to shower affection (“I cannot live without seeing you every day” she would say only a few years later) and preferments – Lord Lieutenant of Windsor Castle and Park, Constable of Windsor Castle, Knight of the Garter, Privy Councilor, Master of the Horse – on the man for whom she had half a dozen pet-names, all of which were irksome to the many older courtiers who viewed the Dudleys as crass parvenus and Robert Dudley himself as an arrogant popinjay. Baron Bruener, envoy of Archduke Charles, spoke for the majority:

I really do believe that he will follow in the footsteps of his parents, and may the Devil be his companion, for he causes me and all those who are active on behalf of his Princely Highness a world of trouble. He is so hated by the Knights and Commoners that it is a marvel that he has not been slain long ere this …

Dudley’s family history was as tangled and spotty as Elizabeth’s own. She had been declared a bastard by her own kingly father; he had grown up the ward of courtiers since his father had be executed for treason against Queen Mary. The two young people had spent their childhoods surviving the most dangerous pair of Tudor monarchs, and it had cemented a bond between them that would have been intensely intimate even without erotic overtones. But they were both energetic and attractive, so the erotic overtones were there – rumors sparked immediately and accrued with time.

Foreign ambassadors were treated almost daily to a wide array of those rumors about Robert Dudley, and every one of the many suitors for the new queen’s hand in marriage had understandable questions about this handsome young bravo whose apartments directly adjoined hers and who seemed to be always in her presence. The Earl of Arran, the Duke of Holstein, brother of the King of Denmark, Prince Eric of Sweden – these and many other contestants wondered if the game had been rigged before they even came to court. Wearing their finery and presenting their best wooing gifts, they had expected to be the center of all attention. But the center belonged to this traitor’s son who’d been there all along. It was a magnificent spotlight to inhabit – and a costly one, as Chris Skidmore notices more than once in his sparkling new book Death and the Virgin Queen:

No expense was spared; new clothes were ordered, furnishings for his rooms at court and his new house at Kew fitted, his men rewarded, noblemen sent gifts; as the queen’s favourite, Dudley was at the centre of court life, and he was expected to live the part.

Skidmore, who was elected to the British Parliament in 2010, is the author of a biography of Elizabeth’s half-brother Edward VI that was prodigiously researched and quite well presented. That facility for research is here amply in evidence again, and Skidmore’s prose is if anything stronger in the present book, no doubt sharpened by what British critics of an earlier generation once referred to as “a rattling good yarn.”

Queen Elizabeth I

The good yarn in this case is not Robert Dudley’s rise to power and careful negotiation of the deadly intricacies of Elizabeth’s court – that’s a good yarn, no doubt about it, but in the life of Robert Dudley there’s an even better one, for not only was Dudley a married man while he was paying such assiduous court to the Virgin Queen, but right when his fame and prosperity seemed to be at their peak – right when a good-looking young man, sped by vanity and ambition, might have thought a crown was within his reach – Dudley’s wife Amy was found dead on 8 September 1560 at Cumnor Place, the Berkshire home of Dudley’s associate Anthony Forster.

Amy had been Dudley’s wife for almost ten years; they were the same age, and had married on 4 June 1550. She was the daughter of the prosperous and powerful Norfolk landowner Sir John Robsart, distinctly below Dudley’s social rank. By the somewhat mercantile standards of Tudor England, it was a love match. William Cecil, Dudley’s implacable rival and soon to be Chief Secretary of Elizabeths’ Privy Council, remarked presciently that such matches began in passion and ended in despair.

Dudley had no country seat of his own. He’d inherited mostly debts and ruins, and his constant attendance at court left him no time for the purchasing and renovating of a proper home for Amy and himself. While he rose in favor in the Queen’s close orbit, Amy found herself housed in the manors of various servants of her husband; it was thus she came to be staying under Forster’s roof that autumn. She most likely embarked on such a life with high hopes – her husband was the dashing Earl of Leicester, after all, and such men provided for their future by spending their present in close proximity to royalty, where favors fell thickest. And Skidmore is shrewd in understanding the variety of uses Dudley could be to his old friend the Queen:

Dudley became a useful shield to protect the queen from the unwelcome suits for her hand that would continue throughout the rest of the 1560s. Whenever it seemed as if ambassadors and envoys were pressing her for an answer or decision, she suddenly revived her interest in her Master of the Horse, paying him just enough attention as to unnerve foreign dignitaries from pursuing their cause too closely.

It was a delicate game, and out of sympathy we must hope Amy herself understood it. There’s ample evidence to suggest her husband didn’t – caught in the brilliant glare of the Tudor attention, he clearly began to entertain impossible hopes. Those hopes were impossible because Elizabeth was not a princess anymore but a queen – she was England, and England must marry politically, not personally. That Elizabeth would make the most daring decision of all – that she would embody island neutrality by not marrying anybody – might have been beyond Dudley’s comprehension (she seems to have been beyond the comprehension of most of her peers, sometimes including herself), but he had lived near the Tudor court long enough to know the rest. He was the court favorite, however, and ambition may have made him forget.

If ambition drove him, it had one inevitable obstacle: his pretty young wife. The Venetian ambassador saw this as clearly as anybody and duly reported it in 1599:

Robert Dudley was ‘a very handsome young man towards whom in various ways the Queen evinces such affection and inclination that many persons believe that if his wife, who has been ailing for some time, were perchance to die, the Queen might easily take him for her husband.’

Rumors were already circulating that he meant to poison his wife – and even that the Queen was waiting impatiently for that ultimate show of his devotion. That he was widely disliked seemed not to matter; people thought she was heedless of it, prompting one ambassador to remark that if she chose him, “she will incur so much enmity that she may one evening lay herself down as Queen of England and rise the next morning as plain Mistress Elizabeth.” Only a couple of days before the fatal incident at Cumnor Place, William Cecil allegedly told the Spanish ambassador that “they intend to kill the wife of Robert.”

It was Elizabeth herself who told that same ambassador that Amy was dead – as she put it, Que se ha rotto il collo, she had broken her neck. When the news finally broke, it spread like fire through the court and then through the courts of Europe. Even had Dudley’s matrimonial hopes not been delusional all along, the scandal of his wife’s death would have dashed them, but the young man was a fighter and quick on his feet: he got the news and immediately set to work on damage control. Skidmore contends throughout his book that Dudley felt genuine shock and grief over the sudden loss of Amy, but it’s impossible to see it in the evidence. He sends trusted servants down to Cumnor Place mainly to look out that his good name be preserved.

Robert Dudley

According to local Berkshire lore, those servants had Amy buried before the outcry even began. Hale old Sir John Robsart rode down to the country and insisted his daughter be dug up and given a proper coroner’s inquest, and by then Dudley was hastily agreeing, loudly proclaiming that all possible justice should be done, that good men should be empaneled to discover the truth of his wife’s death. The story was that she had fallen down a few steps of stairs and broken her neck, and Dudley’s man on the spot, Richard Verney, popularized a version in which – in the mysterious way of household accidents – the fall that had been sufficient to break her neck hadn’t even torn the hood she wore over her hair. By far the most enjoyable part of Skidmore’s thoroughly enjoyable book is the way he delightedly grapples with just such hypotheticals, reminding us that the first three steps of any staircase are statistically the most dangerous:

Let us imagine the scene. Amy is in the Long Gallery, on the first floor in the north wing of Cumnor Place. As she begins to descend the stairs, of which there are four straight steps before the stairs begin to curve on an angle to Amy’s left-hand side, she loses her footing as she attempts to place her foot upon the first stair, misses and stumbles. Perhaps the steps, already two hundred years old, were worn and uneven; perhaps beneath her heavy dresses of damask and her petticoats she could not see her feet to place them accurately on a step. As she attempts to correct her balance, already she is falling too fast and too far forward, clipping another stair and sending her body flying down the rest of the descent, landing upon her head, breaking her neck instantly. If later accounts are to be believed, she was found dead ‘without hurting of her hood that stood upon her head’, nor any other wound. Medical evidence suggests that this might have been perfectly possible: one study of patients involved in falls and who sustained an acute cervical spine fracture revealed that 46 per cent suffered no facial or head injuries.

What we know of the physical layout of Cumnor Place (the building itself was demolished in the early 19th century) argues against this kind of scenario, however, as Skidmore knows. The staircase Amy would have used was a dog-leg affair of short flights and wide landings, and our author has done his research on that as well:

The fact that Amy was found at the bottom of a staircase only eight steps high led many to query whether it would have been possible for her to break her neck falling down so few stairs. Compared to a straight flight of stairs, dog-leg stairs (stairs curved around a landing) are also often seen as a safer design, limiting the distance that a victim can tumble as a result of their angles breaking a fall. Research conducted in Scandinavia and Japan in the 1970s on serious falls from staircases has shown that whereas dog-leg stairs accounted for 63 percent of all stairs in the study, only 37 percent of all accidents occurred on them.

If she didn’t fall, then, the reader naturally wonders if she jumped. In September of 1599 she hadn’t seen her husband in over a year, and she’d had no home of her own in all that time, and she wasn’t so far removed from the court that rumors didn’t reach her. When questioned after the tragic day, her maids attested that she often prayed for God to deliver her from her miseries, and one later report even hints that she was depressed specifically because she knew her life was in danger, quite possibly from her own husband.

Dudley’s men got to work on that angle too. They let it be known that on the day in question Amy had ordered her staff to go to the fair at nearby Abingdon, that she’d insisted “all hers should go” and overrode the objections of her chief housekeeper on the point. One of her maids, Mrs. Picto, when asked whether she thought her mistress had died by accident, let slip a damning possibility even while denying it, saying, “by her faith she doth judge very chance, and neither done by man nor by herself.” One of Dudley’s henchmen wrote, “… truly the tales I do hear of her maketh me think that she had a strange mind in her.”

The accident happened the day after Elizabeth’s birthday, and perhaps it’s tempting to think of it as the only gesture Amy thought she could make – a terrible one, if so, as Skidmore reminds us:

Suicide victims were guilty of the criminal offence of felonia de seipso, in its shortened version, felo de se – a vile crime against oneself. Suicides were tried posthumously by the coroner’s jury, and if convicted the punishment was harsh. Any movable goods, household items, money and land in their possession was forfeited to the Crown.

Or maybe she felt a different kind of despair – we remember that glancing mention by the Venetian ambassador that she’d been ill for some time, and Skidmore finds corroborating evidence elsewhere. The Spanish ambassador even dealt in specifics, writing that Amy esta muy mala de un pecho – that she was very ill in one of her breasts. A later chronicle has her husband suborning a young Oxford doctor to prescribe her a potion for whatever was ailing her – something that the doctor refused to prescribe and that Amy refused in any case to take, her suspicions already aroused. Remembering that she was only 28 going through all this is heart-breaking, especially when we realize what the only alternative is to fell and jumped.

The pleasure of watching Skidmore unfold his tale is that he has the knack of the true historian: he gives full and researched time and attention to every legitimate possibility involved in this notorious case. Death and the Virgin Queen is remarkably enjoyable because it takes that dullest of all adjectives – fair – and makes it fun. Our author tells us that without the original report of the coroner’s inquest, we are left to do the same speculating on the mystery of Cumnor Place that all previous books have done … and then he quietly informs us that fortunately, we have that original coroner’s report – it was just misfiled for the last 450 years. And its contents are deeply disturbing: it turns out Amy suffered two injuries to her head – ‘dyntes’ (a dueling term) – one a quarter-inch deep, the other two inches deep. Falls, Skidmore tells us, are the second largest cause of accidental deaths in the United States every year – but that coroner’s report describes a murder.

Our author has his theories about that murder – including a culprit, a catspaw, and method that would be right at home in a Sherlock Holmes mystery. He may be right about all of it – after reading this subtly impressive book, I’d bet on him over anybody else – and he may be wrong. Good mysteries are immortal in any case, and this one has never had a finer treatment.

A.C. Childers was born in Chippenham, England and works as a freelance writer and editor in London.

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