Today, as a part of our Death series, we are digging into a particular death, one that scandalized the Elizabethan court, provided fodder for decades of court intrigue and propaganda by Catholic exiles, and launched a literary genre of embellished folklore embraced by many, Jacobean players, and novelist Walter Scott among them. That’s right, Tudorphiles rejoice because 15 luckless men had been summoned by the Berkshire coroner to investigate the suspicious death of Lady Amy Dudley, née Robsart, the wife of Robert Dudley, the childhood friend, purported soulmate, and undisputed favorite of Queen Elizabeth I.

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Transcript for Amy Robsart, Lady Dudley: The Death that Launched a Thousand Rumors

Researched and written by Marissa Rhodes, PhD

Produced by Marissa Rhodes, PhD and Elizabeth Garner Masarik

Marissa: On what was, in all likelihood, a grey and cool September day in the year of 1560, a handful of respectable but ordinary men filed into Cumnor Place in Berkshire County. Once there, they would have witnessed the unmoving, well-dressed body of an affluent young woman, sprawled awkwardly at the bottom of a “pair of stairs”… dead. Her neck would have been twisted grotesquely, obviously broken, but her stylish French hood lay undisturbed, perched atop her head. As more men arrived, they examined the scene, interviewed the servants who had found her, and questioned the women who lived in other apartments within the castle.

Elizabeth: Later, when all fifteen of them had arrived, they would have witnessed the coroner’s examination of her corpse. She would have been laid out respectfully, undressed down to her underclothes, presumably a gruesome task when rigor mortis froze her limbs as they had been at the moment of death. All fifteen men stood and watched as the coroner examined the body, paying special attention to her neck, where her spine had been broken, and her head, which displayed two considerable wounds. The coroner will have used a measuring rod to ascertain the depth of each head wound, which he measured to be “a quarter thumb” and “two thumbs” deep.

We don’t know how they felt about this spectacle. Most had likely served before on juries for the coroner’s inquest. Most of the time, inquest jurors knew their subjects well, having interacted with them in the community, and being privy to their pasts, their hopes, and their dreams. In the 1560s, coroners typically chose jurors who were familiar with the decedent rather than those who knew nothing of their lives. The idea was that the coroner could learn much from men who had intimate knowledge of the decedent’s affairs. In this particular case, few of these men were likely to know this woman well. The dead woman had been Norfolk-born and had, for a decade, maintained no household of her own. She had lived at Cumnor Place for less than a year, inhabiting second floor apartments spanning the castle’s western end.

Marissa: They had other reasons, though, to feel uneasy as they examined her wounds. This was no ordinary woman. They must have felt the pressure of their duty keenly as the inquiry began. The jury foreman, Richard Smith frantically penned a note to the descendant’s husband who had received news of his wife’s death at Windsor Castle and had subsequently retreated to Kew. Smith assured the woman’s husband that this jury of discreet and respectable men were doing their best to ascertain her manner of death but that their initial opinions were that it was a “very misfortune.”

Today, as a part of our Death series, we are digging into a particular death, one that scandalized the Elizabethan court, provided fodder for decades of court intrigue and propaganda by Catholic exiles, and launched a literary genre of embellished folklore embraced by many, Jacobean players, and novelist Walter Scott among them. That’s right, Tudorphiles rejoice. These 15 luckless men had been summoned by the Berkshire coroner to investigate the suspicious death of Lady Amy Dudley, née Robsart, the wife of Robert Dudley, the childhood friend, purported soulmate, and undisputed court favorite of Queen Elizabeth I. 

I’m Marissa

And I’m Elizabeth

Marissa: And we are your historians for this episode of Dig.

The Death of Amy Robsart, as imagined by Victorian artist William Frederick Yeames, 1876 [Public domain]

Marissa: Little Amy Robsart grew up in Norfolk, England in Stanfield Hall, a medieval manor that her mother had inherited from her late first husband, Roger Appleyarde. (Stanfield Hall would go on to be the site of an infamous, Victorian-era double-murder, but that’s a different story.) Her father, Sir John Robsart, was Lord of the Manor of Syderstone, also in Norfolk. As a member of the Norfolk gentry, Sir John served as the Sheriff of Norfolk. The Robsart household was devoutly Protestant and, like many Protestant households in Edward VI’s England, they valued highly-educated daughters. Amy was exceptionally well educated.

Historians believe that Amy met her future husband, Robert Dudley, in the aftermath of Kett’s Rebellion. Kett’s Rebellion was a 1549 uprising of resentful farmers in response to the illegal enclosures of common lands by greedy landlords. After the suppression of the revolt at Mousehold Heath, Amy’s father, as Sheriff, was visited by John Dudley, Earl of Warwick, and his teen son Robert Dudley. We think this is when Amy and Robert first met. They were married less than a year later. Both were only seventeen.

Elizabeth: Contemporaries suspected that the two had fallen in love and perhaps even rushed into matrimony so they could indulge in sexual relations without guilt. William Cecil, future advisor to Elizabeth I, attended the wedding in early June of 1550. He was serving as a minor advisor to the Lord Protector Edward Seymour and was in the process of ingratiating himself with Warwick (Robert’s father). But Cecil did not approve of the marriage, scornfully calling it a “carnal match.” The king, Edward VI, also attended the wedding along with his sister Elizabeth (the future queen) who had been a childhood friend of Robert’s. 

Historians now think that, even if the two teens were in love, the marriage served Warwick’s purposes, cementing a closer relationship with the Norfolk notables from whom he sought an alliance. In any case, the young Dudley couple settled for a short time on a Norfolk estate where Robert Dudley served as Justice of the Peace and a minor Member of Parliament. Robert preferred the life of a courtier, however, so he was often at court, away from Amy.

Marissa: In 1553, King Edward VI died and Robert was swept up on his father’s plan to prevent the throne from going to the Catholic Mary Tudor, installing the Protestant Lady Jane Grey as queen. Of course, he married the new Queen Jane to his youngest son Guildford, thereby making his own son King-consort. After only nine days, Queen Jane was deposed and the throne was given to the rightful heir (according to Henry VIII’s will), the Catholic Mary Tudor. Robert, his father and brothers were charged as traitors and sentenced to death. Robert’s father and brothers were eventually executed as traitors but, thanks to his mother’s friendship with Mary I’s new husband Spanish King Philip, Robert’s life was spared.

Elizabeth: Robert was attainted and confined to The Tower for several months. His imprisonment coincided with the imprisonment of Elizabeth Tudor, the Queen’s younger sister for her suspected participation in Wyatt’s Rebellion. They may have deepened their friendship at this time. During this time, we know that Amy Dudley visited her husband regularly and that the Queen provided Amy with her clothing allowance. An attainder is a legal “corruption of blood” resulting from being convicted of a capital crime. It strips hereditary elites of their property, their titles, and their right to pass either onto their heirs. So they were not exactly destitute but Amy would have had to stay with family or friends, as they would have had no estate of their own until some of their possessions were restored in 1557. Even though Robert was pardoned, he and his family were only welcome to court when Mary’s husband, the Spanish King Philip II, was in residence. During Mary I’s second parliament, the Dudley attainder was lifted, restoring their noble blood.

Marissa: Robert and Amy had been married for eight years and were still in their twenties. By this time, Amy had inherited her father’s estate. Her father had died in 1554, and her mother in 1557. But her father’s manor, Syderstone, was uninhabitable so the couple continued to reside with friends. Though there is no evidence that the couple was unhappy, Amy and Robert were rarely together. Robert spent the second half of 1557 in France, on a military expedition on behalf of King-consort Philip. The couple were looking for a Norfolk estate to purchase so they could settle down but had not yet found one in 1558, when everything changed for the young couple.

Queen Mary died and Elizabeth Tudor ascended to the throne. On the same day she was proclaimed Queen, Elizabeth named Robert Dudley her Master of the Horse. This position required excellent horsemanship, a skill Robert Dudley was known for, but it also required that he be in constant attendance to the Queen. This is where most people believe their romantic relationship began. It is unclear if their relationship was sexual, though many suspected that it was. At the very least, their affair was romantic even if it was chaste.

Elizabeth: The Queen’s infatuation with “her Robin” was apparent to all. The relationship was especially important to English politics because Elizabeth was under tremendous pressure to make an advantageous, diplomatic marriage. Her advisors and courtiers worried that she would marry Robert Dudley instead and destroy England’s standing in Europe. A few monarchs had married subjects in the past, most notably Edward IV of York, who married Elizabeth Woodville. His choice was scandalous but critics were silenced quickly by Woodville’s diplomatic skill and remarkable fertility, though many courtiers accused her of witchcraft and resented her for favoring her kinsmen.

Marissa: Elizabeth, it was believed, did not have this luxury. Her queenship was already on shaky ground. Catholics suggested she was a bastard child, owing to Anne Boleyn’s poor reputation, and did not belong to Henry VIII at all. Moreover, she was a woman. There were few examples of female ruling monarchs and all of them suggested to the English that women rulers were problematic. Mary I, Elizabeth’s elder sister, had purportedly imposed her Catholicism on unwilling subjects and burned over 300 Protestant dissenters at the stake. She married the King of Spain, which had elicited widespread disapproval from the largely anti-Spanish kingdom, and to top it all off, she’d failed to bear an heir. Even more embarrassingly, Mary had suffered from several phantom pregnancies that had made the English monarchy the laughing stock of Europe. Before Mary, the only other example was Empress Matilda, whose cousin Stephen usurped her throne in 1135, launching the civil war known as The Anarchy.

Elizabeth: So, it is understandable (though frighteningly sexist) that Elizabeth’s advisors, her court, and her subjects were nervous about her infatuation with Dudley. Perhaps most importantly for our purposes here, Elizabeth’s love interest was MARRIED. The rumor mill churned away in Elizabeth’s court. The queen was recorded as saying that she would, indeed, marry Robert Dudley “in case his wife should die.” The Spanish ambassador, Don Gomez Suarez de Figueroa, wrote in his correspondence that “Lord Robert has come into so much favor that he does whatever he likes with affairs, and it is even said that her Majesty visits him in his chamber day and night. People talk so freely that they go so far as to say that his wife has a malady in her breasts and the Queen is only waiting for her to die to marry Lord Robert.”

Marissa: Still, there is no evidence that the Dudley marriage was in trouble. Dudley visited her at Throcking in March 1559 and Amy came to London to see him two months later. Those who saw her in London in May 1559 said that she looked well. On June 7, 1559, Robert Dudley was made a Kingsguard and granted the Lieutenancy of Windsor Castle. Windsor was only 30 miles from Cumnor, where Amy went to stay in December 1559. Extant correspondence suggests that Robert arranged for his wife to move to Cumnor so that she’d be closer to Windsor Castle. Robert Dudley inquired about buying land nearby, in Warwickshire, so it is likely that he expected to set up an estate near Windsor for him and his wife.

In the meantime, however, Amy Dudley stayed at Cumnor Place, which was owned by William Owen and rented to Anthony Forster who resided there with his family. (We should take a moment to clarity that Cumnor was part of the land holdings of the dissolved Abingdon Abbey. It sat on the border of what is now Oxford and Berkshire counties so at different times in history, Cumnor belonged to different counties. So whether we say Oxford or Berkshire, we’re talking about the same place. It was Berkshire during Amy’s lifetime but now is part of Oxford.) Anyway… Since the castle contained several living spaces, Forster sublet parts of the house out to acquaintances. Amy and her entourage resided there but so did William Owen’s mother, Mrs. Anne Owen, a middle-aged widow named Mrs. Elizabeth Odingsells, and their servants.

Elizabeth: Amy Dudley lived in the most grandly appointed apartments in Cumnor and maintained a household of 10 servants. Her quarters were sumptuously furnished, with a large picture window overlooking the terraced garden, large pond, and 25-acre deer park. Her apartments had their own private entrance. At the time, wives were not entitled to spend their own inheritances (remember our Coverture episode– all of her property was forfeited to her husband since married women weren’t entitled to own any property). Robert insisted that she use her parent’s inheritance to live in style as the wife of a favored courtier should. He also lavished her with decadent gifts like spices, luxurious textiles, and valuable coins. At the same time, he failed to visit her throughout all of 1560, making her trip to London their last visit together. He planned to come stay during the royal summer progress in 1560 but it was canceled that year and Robert claimed it was difficult for him to get away from court life.

Marissa: Court life was probably quite busy, especially for Robert who was, according to other courtiers, always in the Queen’s demand. Courtiers gossiped about the Queen’s jealous nature. One court chronicler wrote that Elizabeth forbade Robert from visiting his wife and if he did, he “was commanded to say that he did nothing with her, when he came to her, as seldom as he did.” The English nobility and functionaries in the Spanish court resented Robert Dudley for preventing the Queen’s timely marriage. So unsurprisingly, his enemies suspected that he intended to marry the queen once he was free to do so.

In March 1560, another Spanish ambassador, Alvaro de la Quadra, wrote “Lord Robert told somebody… that if he lived another year he will be in a very different position from now… They say he thinks of divorcing his wife.” These were, however, only rumors as far as we can tell. There is no evidence that Robert initiated a divorce or even inquired about doing so. But he was an ambitious man. It does not take much to believe that he was considering splitting up with his wife. Even if he loved Amy, he was made for court life, and even if he did not love the Queen, which he may have, he certainly loved the idea of being King-consort. This sticky situation meant that the events of September 8, 1560 would fall under scrutiny and remain one of England’s oldest and most bitterly contested mysteries to this day, 460 years later.

Elizabeth: On the morning of September 8, 1560 (a Sunday according to the Julian calendar in use at the time), Amy Dudley woke up and suggested that her servants attend Abington market for the day. She was quite insistent on having her apartments to herself that day. Several of her servants corroborated that “she would not that day suffer one of her own sort to tarry at home, and was so earnest to have them gone to the fair, that with any of her own sort that made reason of tarrying at home she was very angry.” She even tried to get Mrs. Odingsells to go as well but she refused, saying that it was unbecoming of a gentlewoman to attend the market on the Sabbath. Though this made Amy angry, she acknowledged Mrs. Odingsell’s right to make her own decisions.

Amy would have taken her morning meal in her rooms and, perhaps, she may have gone to service at Cumnor’s parish church, St. Michaels. Though no one is sure what exactly happened or when exactly it happened, Amy died this morning. Her death was not discovered until sometime that afternoon when her servants returned from their day out at Abingdon Market. They found her body splayed at the bottom of the stairs leading up to her apartments. Her household immediately sprang into action. One message was sent to Berkshire’s coroner and another, carried personally by Amy’s servant Mr. Bowles, was sent to her husband Robert Dudley who was at Windsor with the Queen.

Marissa: By chance, Mr. Bowles passed Robert Dudley’s close associate, Thomas Blount, on the road. Bowles gave Blount the news and continued on his way to Windsor to inform Robert. Blount went about whatever business he had planned before he received a note from Robert, perhaps the next day. Robert had received the news of Amy’s death and he wanted Blount to ensure that the coroner carried out a robust investigation. Robert’s letter read, “The greatness and suddenness of misfortune so perplexes me… how this evil doth light upon me, considering what the malicious world will bruit as I can take no rest.” Dudley also asked that Blount ensure that the coroner chose “the discreetist and most substantial men” to serve on the inquest jury.

Elizabeth: When Blount arrived on September 10, he found the coroner had already summoned the jurors and many of them were at Cumnor. Blount assured Dudley that they all appeared to be honest and upstanding men. We have some evidence that Dudley suspected Anthony Forster of having done something to harm Amy. Blount made a point of telling Dudley that some of the jurors disliked Forster which he thought to be good since this made it less likely they would “conceal any fault, if any be.” Blount performed a cursory investigation of his own, desperate to ascertain or confirm the jury’s verdict. The jury remained tight-lipped. According to Blount, “they be very secret, and yet do I hear a whispering that they can find no presumptions of evil.” Blount went on to admit that the jury seemed relieved that they had uncovered no evidence of foul play and Blount himself admitted that he’d had doubts but that they were quieted by the jury’s hints.

The coroner’s jury of 15 was impaneled in its entirety by September 11 or so. The inquest took several days but it is unclear how many days were dedicated to investigation. Before the jury disbanded, however, they were dates on which they’d be expected to appear before the Queen’s justices and the Court of Assizes Quarter Sessions. Amy Dudley was buried by September 22 so the investigation probably wrapped up before then. It was not until the next year, however, that the coroner read his report (which included the jury’s verdict of misadventure) on Amy’s death. For centuries, the coroner’s report was lost to us. It was discovered in a manuscript collection in 2008 and digitized by the National Archives in 2010.

Lord Robert Dudley, Amy Robsart’s husband c. 1560 [Public Domain]

Marissa: It is written in Latin but it’s been translated by the National Archives so here are the highlights:

“the… jurors say under oath that the aforesaid Lady Amy on 8 September in the aforesaid second year of the reign of the said lady queen, being alone in a certain chamber within the home of a certain Anthony Forster, esq., in the aforesaid Cumnor, and intending to descend the aforesaid chamber by way of certain steps (in English called ‘steyres’) of the aforesaid chamber there and then accidentally fell precipitously down the aforesaid steps to the very bottom of the same steps, through which the same Lady Amy there and then sustained not only two injuries to her head (in English called ‘dyntes’) – one of which was a quarter of an inch deep and the other two inches deep – but truly also, by reason of the accidental injury or of that fall and of Lady Amy’s own body weight falling down the aforesaid stairs, the same Lady Amy there and then broke her own neck, on account of which certain fracture of the neck the same Lady Amy there and then died instantly; and the aforesaid Lady Amy was found there and then without any other mark or wound on her body; and thus the jurors say on their oath that the aforesaid Lady Amy in the manner and form aforesaid by misfortune came to her death and not otherwise, as they are able to agree at present.”

So, translating from 16th-century legalese, the jury found that the most likely cause of death was “misadventure” or accident from a fall down the stairs which broke Amy’s neck. Now, before this coroner’s report was found in 2008, the injuries to Amy’s head had been lost to history. The only information we had about her death was that her neck had been broken and that she’d been found at the bottom of the stairs. This will be important later when I explain how Dudley’s enemies were so convincing in their accusations of murder. Keep in mind that this verdict was not made public until six or seven months after Amy’s death. But in the meantime, the rumor mill was running full time. Something that piqued the interest of Dudley’s enemies was the widely reported fact that the vicar who performed her funeral services mistakenly referred to Amy as having been murdered, rather than killed by a fall. (Some sources say he said “murdered” instead of “slain”- and at the time “slain” could be used to mean died rather than actively murdered; other sources say he accidentally said “slain” instead of “died”.)

Elizabeth: Most of the mourners in attendance agreed that the vicar seemed very nervous. Most felt like his jittery disposition caused him to make those mistakes and that they meant nothing. But this was only the beginning of the circus that ensued after Amy’s death. Ironically, it was Robert Dudley’s ambition to become King-consort that made other suspect him of murder, BUT it was this suspicion of murder that made it impossible for him to EVER be a suitable candidate for Elizabeth’s husband. So what does this mean? How did Amy die? Did Robert Dudley’s ambitions have anything to do with Amy’s death? One thing most people can agree on is that there are four options: murder, suicide, illness, or accidental fall.

Marissa: Before Amy’s death, rumors had circulated that Robert and Elizabeth were conspiring to poison Amy Dudley so they could be together. In a March 1560 letter to the Spanish court, Ambassador de Quadra wrote, that he suspected Lord Robert was “keeping [his] enemies and the country engaged with words until this wicked deed of killing his wife is consummated.” Suspicions of a murder conspiracy revolved around Robert’s unstoppable ambition and the Queen’s inability to accept that he was unavailable. Robert likely did have designs on becoming the King-consort but he need not kill his wife in order to make that happen. Divorce was an option, one that Dudley purportedly mentioned to people at court. Both of his parents, and both of Amy’s parents were dead so there could be no objection from them if the marriage was dissolved.

I want to point out the first part of that statement… “if he lived another year…” To me, that’s key. I don’t think Robert’s relationship with Amy was the biggest hurtle between him and the throne. The larger impediment was surely the bloc of anti-Dudley courtiers, diplomats, and advisors in the Star Chamber. His enemies were so close and so powerful that Dudley saw fit to preface his declaration with “If I’m still alive this time next year.” Why wouldn’t he be? He was 28 years old. It is likely that Dudley knew his place of power within the Queen’s court was a tenuous one. Dudley’s being a subject rather than royalty in his own right was already an impediment to a marriage with the Queen. Being a divorced subject would certainly aggravate matters but not nearly as much as if he were a subject and murderer or subject and suspected murderer.

Elizabeth: In fact, most contemporaries, and historians, agree that Amy’s death was the absolute worst case scenario for Dudley’s ambitions. The Queen became uneasy with Robert upon hearing the news about Amy’s death, suggesting she may have suspected that Robert had something to do with it. Likewise, Robert became suspicious of his friend Anthony Forster, half believing that Forster might have taken it upon himself to do something rash that would advance his patron’s career. In fact, Robert’s behavior after Amy’s death indicate that he was desperate to clear his name and open to any and all avenues to do so. Before the coroner’s report and jury’s verdict was released in 1561, Dudley suggested that “another substantial company of honest men” should be summoned to collect more “knowledge of truth.” He nominated Amy’s half-brothers John Appleyarde and Arthur Robsart to take part in a second inquiry. But this inquiry never happened.

Dudley showed all the signs of someone who was genuinely interested in uncovering the truth of Amy’s death. His enemies saw his persistence as an attempt to interfere with the investigation. Their suspicions were reinforced by his refusal to attend Amy’s funeral. From the historical perspective, however, all signs point to Dudley taking pains not to involve himself in the investigations in any way. He retired to Kew after receiving news of Amy’s death and stayed away from Cumnor during the coroner’s inquest. His refusal to attend her funeral can also be explained by the heightened environment of suspicion. All of Dudley’s outgoing correspondence suggests that he was devastated by Amy’s death, perplexed by its timing, and tortured by the rumors at court that he and the Queen were vicious murderers. 

Marissa: Some contemporaries and some historians today, believe that Amy may have killed herself. We have some evidence that Amy perceived that her marriage was crumbling. Most people suspect that Amy heard news of her husband’s inappropriate relationship with the Queen. She was only 30 miles away. Amy and Robert sent correspondence back and forth quite often. Their messengers would have been well-acquainted with the court gossip which they likely shared with other servants in the Dudley retinue. It is unlikely that Amy was unaware of the dynamics at court. In fact, we have some evidence that Amy was upset shortly before her death. Robert Dudley’s “man,” Thomas Blount, interviewed Amy’s maid, Mrs. Picto. According to Blount, Mrs. Picto said of Amy, “she was a good, virtuous gentlewoman, and daily would pray upon her knees; and divers time she saith that she hath heard her pray to God to deliver her from desperation.” Mrs. Picto’s response was designed to persuade Blount that Amy was religious, and innocent of any intrigue that may have gotten her killed.

Elizabeth: But Blount took this to mean that Amy was behaving particularly melancholy before her death. When he suggested that Lady Dudley’s death was perhaps a suicide, Mrs. Picto, Amy’s maid and intimate confidante, responded, “No, Mr. Blount, do not judge so of my words; if you should so gather, I am sorry I said so much.” Mrs. Picto genuinely believed that Amy’s death was an accident. The only bit of evidence that points toward suicide is the fact that Amy was so insistent that her household leave for the day. Her anger at the refusal of Mrs. Odingsells suggests that Amy wanted Cumnor Place to be as empty as possible. Her strange behavior does make suicide a possibility but an impractical one.

If the coroner is to be believed, Amy’s cause of death was a broken neck. The “pair of stairs” she was suspected to have fallen down contained few stairs. They were called a pair of stairs because the contained an initial flight of four steps, which gave way to a square landing, and then another four-step flight. This is a total of 8 stairs, in a time when steps were wide with short risers. If Amy was intent on taking her own life, this does not seem like to most efficient way to do so. At the same time, when people are convinced they need to end their own lives, they could perhaps be so overwhelmed with the thought of release from this world that they aren’t considering the possibility that their plan won’t work.

Marissa: At the same time, this could also be evidence against an accident theory. Robert’s contemporaries suspected murder for the most party because it seemed so unlikely that a woman would fall down the stairs and land in such a way as to break her neck without disturbing her hood. They reasoned that her neck must have been broken first and that her fall was staged. It seemed impossible to most that a murderer would push her down the stairs knowing that she could possible survive. OK, I get that… but if you’re murdering someone then you’re hardly being rational and reasonable are you?

I haven’t seen this particular theory anywhere but since the coroner did not have the benefit of modern toxicology testing, I wonder if it’s possible that Amy took something that might end her own life- a poison or overdose of some kind. If she had, she may have tried to go downstairs in her intoxicated state, perhaps in a panic. Scenes from suicide deaths tend to have evidence that the victim either regretted their decision or simply panicked and did semi-irrational things. This might explain why Amy had fallen, especially down such a flight of stairs, but it also explains her melancholy, and fits nicely with the situation at court. This circumstance could be modified slightly to work for murder as well. If Amy was dosed with something that might end her life, she might have descended down the stairs to get help when she realized she’d fallen ill.

Elizabeth: Unlike most of the murder theories out there, the poisoning theory is one that circulated at the time of Amy’s death. If you’ll remember back to our reference to the Spanish ambassadors who were writing about Dudley’s marriage in 1559, it’s important for us to point out there three different ambassadors sent letters from the English court expressing concern for Amy Dudley. Two diplomats commented during her visit to court that she seemed to be suffering some kind of ailment that was impacting her ability to eat properly. Later that year, Ambassador de Quadra said that, although she looked well, she was obviously “taking good care as not to be poisoned.” One court chronicler had written earlier in 1559 that Amy was so paranoid that she was going to be poisoned that William Hyde, landlord at Throcking where she’d been staying, had asked her to leave. Her sudden departure from Throcking was, indeed, suspicious. She vacated the residence so quickly that she was forced to stay for two months at Compton Verney, the home of Sir Richard Verney, while she arranged for a more permanent residence.

Marissa: None of these poison-oriented explanations hold up for long, however. The coroner’s jury would have looked for indications over overdose and poisoning. They would have searched Amy’s quarters, her food stores, and her servants. Moreover, when suspicions were aroused decades later, Robert’s political enemies did all they could to prove that Robert had poisoned her or ordered someone to do so. All of the possibilities they uncovered, however, have been exposed as bogus claims. There is, of course, one other option that goes a long way in explaining Amy’s behavior before death, the Queen’s words to ambassadors, and the coroner’s inquest verdict. This theory was established by a Scottish surgeon (and apparently Tudorphile?) named Ian Aird. Remember- Aird would not have been privy to the newly discovered coroner’s report so as far as he knew, Amy had a broken neck and no other marks of violence. Aird published a paper in 1956 calling for the exhumation of Amy Dudley’s body. He argued that Amy likely died from spontaneous spinal fracture, a common enough complication from metastatic breast cancer.

Aird makes one really good point after referring to the breast malady recorded by the Spanish ambassador. Aird writes: “This is surely more than a remarkable coincidence. The only breast malady that would attract this kind of attention would be cancer. It would seem extraordinary that Robert Dudley and the Queen, lacking as they did the necessary pathological knowledge and understanding, should choose one disease out of thousands which, by its natural progression, could be responsible seventeenth months later for a broken neck without any evidence of gross external violence.”

Elizabeth: Aird’s breast cancer argument is quite convincing. It explains the suspicious as court that Amy was being poisoned (because she was not eating well and was sick), and it also explains Elizabeth’s and Robert’s purported morbid projections of her imminent death. It also explains how such an unlikely accident could be rendered entirely likely. Aird also suggests that his thesis explains Amy’s passionate sessions of prayer witnessed by Mrs. Picto, and perhaps even Robert’s guilty avoidance of her company in the year preceding her death. Most notably, Aird claims that his thesis also accounts for Amy’s irritable interactions with her servants and with Mrs. Odingsells the morning of her death. The only thing is that now we know that Amy’s body did exhibit signs of other violence- two injuries to her head that were just as consistent with an accidental fall down the stairs as they were with homicidal blunt-force trauma. Does this change the compelling nature of Aird’s theory… not really… but it doesn’t make it more likely either.

Marissa: I can’t get over the lack of medical records pertaining to Amy’s supposed cancer. And I don’t agree with Aird that only cancer would elicit such attention from Elizabeth’s court. This relationship between Elizabeth and Robert was so important to courtiers’ everyday lives that they would have pounced on any information they were able to get about Dudley’s marriage to Amy. Amy may have mentioned to a maid or even to Robert that she suffered from any number of maladies of the breast: a cyst, mastitis, or even early signs of pregnancy. Any tiny detail about her boobs would have been welcome fodder for court gossip and could have easily been twisted to anyone’s agenda.

Elizabeth: The Dudleys were wealthy, fancy people. They, more than anyone else in Norfolk, could have procured a physician. Breast cancer was typically treated by physicians in this period. Some patients underwent crude surgeries to remove cancerous masses (without anesthesia remember) but most of the time, physicians probably ordered palliative care for suffering patients. There is no record of any visits with a physician, trips to the apothecary, or arrangements for nursing for Amy Dudley. Aside from court rumor, there is not one shred of evidence that Amy was ill.

Marissa: I can tell Aird is my kind of people though… He was eager to have Amy’s remains exhumed to test them for cancer or cancer-related bone decay. As we’ve determined in prior episodes, I’m on board. Dig them up! Dig them all up! No but really, this would be a fascinating exhumation. It is not, however, possible in the least. Aird, committed to doing his due diligence, visited the parish church of St. Mary the Virgin in Oxford to inquire about finding her burial place. Contemporary accounts record her final resting place as somewhere on the eastern end of the church. In 1946 the church experienced a fire that damaged the chancel.

Elizabeth: The reconstruction efforts gave the church opportunity to look for Amy’s grave. They were disappointed to discover that the area that held Amy’s grave had been filled and then dug over again in previous centuries. This process destroyed the older graves that lay beneath the top layer of soil. When they excavated the graves that had been interred after the fill-and-dig, they found the soil layers in disarray, with human bones crushed and scattered all throughout the soil. After hearing of this turn of events, Aird wrote, “There is thus no hope of recovering Amy Robsart’s remains…” Obviously he was writing this before DNA and the mass fatality recovery techniques we have today. I find it hard to believe it wouldn’t be possible nowadays. But I’m no forensic anthropologist so I don’t know. 

Marissa: Throughout this episode, listeners familiar with the story will have noticed that we have refrained from including the lurid, sensational stories that make up the mythology of Amy’s death. That was on purpose. As historians, we love those stories, but we also try to be fair to the lived experience of people from the time and so we’ve tried to convey the story as people would have, at the time, experienced it. But in the decades after Amy’s death, her demise was used by various political groups to attack Robert Dudley (who was, by 1564 created Earl of Leicester). Most of the published attacks in the 1560s bizarrely revolved around Sir Richard Verney, the man who shared his home with Amy for two months before she moved into Cumnor. One 1563 chronicle written by Protestant activist John Hales who regarded the Dudleys as avowed enemies. Even still, Hales presents them as rumors (plausible deniability eh?). He writes:

“the Lord Robert’s wife brake her neck at Forster’s house in Oxfordshire… her gentlewomen being gone forth to a fair. Howbeit it was thought she was slain, for Sire ———- Varney was there that day and whylest the deed was doing was going over the fair and tarried there for his man, who at length came, and he said, ‘thou knave, why tarriest thou?’ He answered, ‘should I come before I had done? Hast thou done?’ Quoth Varney. ‘Yea,’ quoth the man, ‘I have it sure…’. Many times before it was bruited by the Lord Robert his men that she was dead…. This Verney and divers his servants used before her death, to wish her dead, which made the people to suspect the worst.”

Elizabeth: So basically Verney and his servants tried to kill Amy while she stayed with them for those two months. Before they were able to succeed, she moved to Cumnor. So, Verney supposedly sent his servant to go kill Amy. After the deed was done, Verney’s servant confirmed she was dead. Though this does not tell us much about Amy’s actual death, it does tell us what people were saying about it and how complex and winding these rumors had become.

Amy’s death again fed court intrigues in 1567. In the years after her death, Amy’s half-brother John Appleyarde had become convinced that Amy was murdered, but he did not suspect Robert Dudley of having committed the crime. He actually contacted Dudley several times asking that he initiate a new inquest. Appleyard regarded to jury’s verdict as inconclusive in 1561. Dudley purportedly told him that he was satisfied that the coroner and jury had done a thorough job the first time and that it was too painful and politically risky to open her case again. This does sound a little fishy on Dudley’s part but his response is not totally unreasonable. Besides, this is Appleyarde’s side of the story and you’ll soon see why he may not be reliable.

Marissa: In 1567, Appleyarde was approached by representatives of the Duke of Norfolk and the Earl of Sussex and offered a bribe of £1,000 if he accused Robert Dudley of murdering Amy. Appleyarde refused to implicate Dudley because he believed him to be innocent. But he reported the bribery attempt to the authorities. When Robert Dudley, now the Earl of Leicester, heard of this new plot, he summoned Appleyarde and the two argued. The Queen’s Privy Council was compelled to investigate this serious accusation. Appleyarde was imprisoned in the Fleet, a debtor’s prison, for a month while William Cecil and other members of the peerage interrogated him. They demanded that he declare, in writing, what caused him to implicate the Duke of Norfolk and Earl of Sussex. Realizing how serious the Privy Council was taking these accusations, Appleyarde retracted all of his claims about a bribery attempt and requested a copy of the coroner’s report filed by the inquest jury who investigated Amy’s case. After studying the report, Appleyarde told Dudley that he was now satisfied that his sister’s dead was nothing more than an accident.

Elizabeth: Amy’s case continued to capture the English imagination. The most important publication that appeared in Dudley’s lifetime was a satirical libel called Leicester’s Commonwealth which was written by Catholic exiles in France in 1584. In this work, an embellished, or really fictionalized, version of Amy’s death appears to be based on the rumors recorded by Hales. In this version, Richard Verney goes to Cumnor place himself and forces the servants to go to the market. He then breaks Amy’s neck and poses her body at the foot of the stairs. In this version, the jury’s verdict was murder but the verdict was suppressed by Dudley and Amy’s body was buried surreptitiously on the grounds of Cumnor before being exhumed and reburied at St. Mary the Virgin. In an extra dramatic turn, Verney’s servant is murdered in prison by Dudley’s men and Verney, on his death bed, murmurs, “that all the devils in hell” tore him in pieces for what he’d done.

Portrait miniature of an unknown lady, possibly Amy Robsart on the occasion of her wedding, 1550 by Levina Teerlinc [Public Domain]

Marissa: As is common in early modern Europe, Leicester’s Commonwealth was not recognized for what it was- libel- for a long time. I couldn’t find any authors who discredited it until the 1870s. So between the 1580s and the 1870s, almost 300 years, Amy’s death became a favorite topic of English drama, art, and literature. As early as 1608, Jacobean players were performing A Yorkshire Tragedy which has a line about pushing your wife down the stairs as a convenient way to be rid of her, “A politician did it,” they’d say. The antiquarian, Elias Ashmole, reproduced the libel in his county history, Antiquities of Berkshire which he compiled in the 1600s.

Elizabeth: Countless authors, playwrights, and poets read Ashmole’s county history and then used the fictionalized story of Amy Robsart’s death in their work. The embellished version really took off in the Romantic era. It had everything: political intrigue, forbidden love, murder, mystery, history. The story appears in Chapter 5 of Sir Walter Scott’s novel Kenilworth, first published in 1821. Scott wrote in the figure of Varney, keeping alive that dramatic invention of John Hales. Scott’s novel was wildly popular and was adapted into a play by Victor Hugo in 1828, and into an opera by Gaetano Donizetti in 1829. 

Amy and Robert Dudley became the subject of Romantic and Neo-Classical painters. The couple were painted by Richard Parkes Bonington in 1828; by Henri Jean-Baptiste Victoire Fradelle in 1865; and by Edward Matthew Ward in 1866. These paintings typically depict the two as a loving couple. Twenty-first century people may not be automatically familiar with the story so to those people, the paintings appear to depict an Elizabethan couple, or at least how Victorians imagined Elizabethan couples to look. But to people in the know- and many 19th-century people WOULD have been in the know- these paintings would be chilling because you’re looking at a young, loving, carefree couple and you know that before long, one of them will end up dead and the other one will have murdered her, or at least stand accused of her murder.

Marissa: Many painters also painted Amy alone. We have no authenticated portrait of Amy from her life time, but that did not stop European painters from imagining her. Charles Robert Leslie painted her in 1833; Thomas Francis Dicksee in 1895; and William Frederick Yeames in 1870. Most of these imagined portraits show Amy as a conventionally attractive brunette but some depict a plainer looking woman. IN 1877, William Frederick Yeames painted painted Amy again but as a corpse splayed at the bottom of a flight of stairs. She wears luxurious silken night clothes and her long hair is fanned out around her face. Two men, presumably her servants, are in the process of discovering her…. or have they just pushed her to her death? One can’t be sure.

Elizabeth: In 1890, Edward Charles Barnes painted Amy appearing smitten as she beheld a portrait of her husband. To be sure, he meant to depict a naïve woman in love with an ambitious man who would soon murder her to marry his Queen. In 1910 William Quiller Orchardson depicted Amy Robsart wistfully descending a pair of stairs. To be honest, this one is the most creepy to me because it looks so ordinary. It’s a blond, young woman in a stylish but sober outfit descending the first flight in a pair of stairs. The viewer is supposed to know, based on the robust embellished tradition of Amy’s death, that this is the moment before she falls to her death.

In the midst of this artistic interest in Amy’s death, several antiquarians (who were not so much historians as collectors) wrote monographs about the topic. A flourish of publications followed James Anthony Froude’s discovery (and translation) of Ambassador de Quadra’s letters (which we mentioned and quoted from earlier) around 1860. For example, in 1885 Norfolk antiquarian Walter Rye published his Murder of Amy Robsart using Froude’s work and Leicester’s Commonwealth as his main sources. There were 25 works written about Amy Robsart from 1800 to 1850 but between 1850 and 1900, there were 168. This was big business. 

Marissa: In 1870, however, historian and scholar George Adlard published a monograph about Amy and Robert Dudley that included primary sources and well-vetted evidence. Adlard suggested that Amy’s death as a suicide but using euphemisms, as a Victorian gentleman would. Adlard’s publication reinvigorated scholarly interest in the affair. In the 1890s the English Historical Review hosted a spate of contentious articles wherein scholars and amateurs debated the facts of the case. One of these scholars, James Gairdner, came out against James Anthony Froude’s use of Ambassador de Quadra’s letters. He procured a copy of the letter and translated it from Spanish himself, noting any tricky areas and exposing Froude’s use of the letter as erroneous. Froude argued that Elizabeth and Robert had prior knowledge of Amy’s impending death. De Quadra wrote that Elizabeth told him “Lord Robert’s wife is dead, or nearly dead.” Froude dated the letter to September 4, four days before Amy died. But the original is dated September 11, which was two days after news of Amy’s death reached Robert at Windsor but before her passing was announced to the public. Gairdner also found several areas where Froude employed questionable translations to achieve his desired result. Froude had a deep disdain for Henry VIII that carried over to his daughter Elizabeth and her lover Dudley. He pretty obviously wanted to cast Robert in a bad light and expected that no one would take the time to verify his source material and translations. He was wrong.

Elizabeth: After the intense criticisms of Froude, most accounts of Amy’s death that purport to be scholarly do not use Leicester’s Commonwealth or John Hales’s writings as reliable sources. This resulted in a turn toward Dudley’s innocence (and by virtue of their relationship, the Queen’s innocence.) For example, in 1910, A. F. Pollard argued that it is paradoxical to conceive of Dudley’s ambitions to marry the Queen as a motive since “that murder would make the marriage impossible.” Still, there is something romantic about that paradox. Some recent historians have suggested that Amy killed herself knowing it would haunt her husband and keep him from marrying the Queen for the rest of his life. Others suggest that Amy’s fall was accidental and that she inadvertently got her revenge on her unfaithful husband.

Marissa: I don’t mean to suggest that since then, historians have all agreed and that they’ve definitely “gotten it right.” Even today academic historians, amateur historians, biographers and historical fiction writers disagree about what actually happened to Amy on the morning of September 8, 1560. Author Alison Weir suggests that William Cecil orchestrated her murder in an attempt to disgrace Robert Dudley forever. George Bernard and Chris Skidmore are proponents of the Sir Richard Varney theory because his name appeared in two different sources closest to the time of her death. Historian Susan Doran favors the suicide theory, attributing Dudley’s purported interference and refusal to attend Amy’s funeral to the shame of suicide and Dudley’s guilt for having driven her to despair. Most current historians have discounted the possibility that Robert Dudley or Queen Elizabeth orchestrated her death and subsequent cover up.

What do you think?


Article by Peggy Inman of Cumnor History Society

The Antiquities of Berkshire

Leicester’s Commonwealth

Romance and Reality of Amy Robsart

Coroner’s Report on the Death of Amy Robsart

All Things Robert Dudley Blog Entry

Quadra, de, and James Gairdner. 1898. “Bishop De Quadra’s Letter and the Death of Amy Robsart”. The English Historical Review. 13, no. 49: 83-90.

GAIRDNER, JAMES. 1886. “The Death of Amy Robsart”. The English Historical Review. I, no. II: 235-259.

Ian Aird. 1956. “The Death of Amy Robsart”. The English Historical Review. 71, no. 278: 69-79.

Heydt, B. 2004. “AMY ROBSART’S REVENGE?” British Heritage. 25: 28-33.

Adams, Simon, Ian Archer, and G.W. Bernard (eds.) (2003): “A ‘Journall’ of Matters of State happened from time to time as well within and without the Realme from and before the Death of King Edw. the 6th untill the Yere 1562” in Ian Archer (ed.): Religion, Politics, and Society in Sixteenth-Century England pp. 35–122 Cambridge University Press


Skidmore, Chris. Death and the Virgin Queen: Elizabeth I and the Dark Scandal That Rocked the Throne. New York: St. Martin’s Griffin, 2012.


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