Royal Love AffairBoth his father and his grandfather had been executed for treason, but the fortunes of Lord Robert Dudley began to rise with the accession of Elizabeth I to the throne of England on November 17, 1558.
Born on the same day 25 years earlier, the two had been friends since childhood and during the reign of Elizabeth's half-sister, Queen Mary, Dudley had sold property to help support the outcast princess. Now, one of Elizabeth's first acts as queen was to name Dudley her Master of the Horse, a high-ranking court position. When she rode through London I I days later to take possession of the Tower of London, Elizabeth was accompanied by the tall, darkly handsome Dudley - dubbed "the Gypsy" by his detractors.
The queen bestowed further favors on Dudley, awarding him property, a license to export woolen goods duty-free, and the lieutenancy of the castle and forest of Windsor. She never let him far out of her sight, boasting of his good looks and intelligence to all who would listen and defending him against any critics. Given a list of ambassadors proposed for foreign service, Elizabeth quickly crossed off Dudley's name; it was clear that she wanted him to remain at court. By spring the Spanish ambassador was writing home to say that Dudley was in such favor with the queen that he did more or less what he wished; "it is even said that Her Majesty visits him in his chamber day and night," he added.
Among the young queen's most urgent concerns was marriage and producing an heir to the throne. Henry VIII, her father, had scandalized his country and most of Europe with his six marriages and left the kingdom a disputed succession. In the I I years since Henry's death, England had been ruled by his only son, the frail Edward VI, who died at age 16; his unpopular elder daughter, Mary, who reigned only five years and left no heir; and now, Elizabeth, daughter of Henry's unlucky second queen, Anne Boleyn.
European suitors quickly came forward, a Swedish prince, the duke of Saxony, a nephew of the king of Spain. But perhaps Elizabeth would ignore such foreign alliances and instead choose an English bridegroom. Who better than her favorite, Lord Robert Dudley?
The Inconvenient Amy RobsartThere was an impediment to a match between Elizabeth and Dudley: the handsome young cavalier was already married. Nine years earlier, just short of his 17th birthday, Dudley had married Amy Robsart, the only child of a country squire and the heiress to considerable property. Among those attending the wedding was Elizabeth, still a princess and a long way from the throne. Although the couple seemed happy at first, Dudley was more and more drawn to court life at Windsor and left his wife alone in the country for increasingly long periods of time. There were no children born of the union.
By the time Dudley was being whispered about as the young queen's lover and perhaps even future husband, his wife was living on an estate near Oxford, some 50 miles northwest of London. She and her servants occupied a suite in Cumnor Hall, a former monastery inhabited by two other families.
The rural quiet of Cumnor Hall was broken on Sunday, September 8, 1560, by preparations for departure to attend a country fair at the nearby village of Abingdon. Lady Dudley had given her servants the day off to attend the festivities but had decided to stay home in what would be a mostly deserted house. When the servants returned that evening, they were greeted with an appalling sight: their mistress lying dead with a broken neck at the foot of the staircase leading from her rooms to the main hall.
The Long Twilight of the AffairImmediately, there were ugly rumors implicating Dudley in his wife's death, and the queen was forced to banish him from court until an investigation had been completed. "I have no way to purge myself of the malicious talk that I know the wicked world will use, but one, which is the very plain truth to be known," Dudley wrote. But what was the truth? Elizabeth's rival, Mary, Queen of Scots, was heard to say, "The queen of England is going to marry her horse-keeper who has killed his wife to make room for her!"
Elizabeth ordered the court into mourning for Lady Dudley, and two weeks after her death she was buried following services held in the royal chapel. Eventually, Lord Robert Dudley was cleared of all charges in his wife's death and allowed to return to court -still a favorite of the queen's and, no longer burdened with an unwanted wife, still considered by some as her potential consort.
As for the hapless Amy Robsart, was hers an accidental death or was she the victim of foul play? History, like the contemporary inquest, tends to vindicate Lord Robert Dudley. She was known to be suffering from cancer of the breast and had often been heard praying to God for deliverance from her agony. During the advanced stages of the disease, the cancer often moves to the spine, so weakening it that even the slightest shock can break the neck. A slip on the staircase could have resulted in the untimely death.
With Amy Robsart conveniently out of the way, the queen was free to choose between marriage to Dudley and dalliance - and she chose the latter. A few years later she made Dudley the earl of Leicester; yet when he attempted to exert power at court, she sharply rebuked him: "I will have here but one mistress and no master. " Dudley remained in loyal service to the queen through the next three decades, somewhat boldly risking her displeasure by two subsequent marriages.
As for Elizabeth, she kept her kingdom and indeed all of Europe guessing about her marital intentions for most of the 45 years of her reign even after she had passed childbearing age. And, toward the end of the century, she acquired a new favorite, the much younger Robert Devereux, the earl of Essex. But she would not marry Devereux either and, when he attempted to seize power, she had him arrested and executed. The Virgin Queen, as she was called, died in 1603, unmarried and childless.