Amy Dudley (née Robsart) (7 June 1532 – 8 September 1560) was the first wife of Lord Robert Dudley, favourite of Elizabeth I of England. She is primarily known for her death by falling down a flight of stairs, the circumstances of which have often been regarded as suspicious. Amy Robsart was the only child of a substantial Norfolk gentleman and at nearly 18 married Robert Dudley, a son of John Dudley, 1st Duke of Northumberland. In 1553 Robert Dudley was condemned to death and imprisoned in the Tower of London, where Amy Dudley was allowed to visit him. After his release the couple lived in strait financial circumstances until, with the accession of Elizabeth I in late 1558, Dudley became Master of the Horse, an important court office. The Queen soon fell in love with him and there was talk that Amy Dudley, who did not follow her husband to court, was suffering from an illness, and that Elizabeth would perhaps marry her favourite should his wife die. The rumours grew more sinister when Elizabeth remained single against the common expectation that she would accept one of her many foreign suitors.
Amy Dudley lived with friends in different parts of the country, having her own household and hardly ever seeing her husband. In the morning of 8 September 1560, at Cumnor Place near Oxford, she insisted on sending away her servants and later was found dead at the foot of a flight of stairs with a broken neck and two wounds on her head. The coroner's jury's finding was that she had died of a fall downstairs; the verdict was "misfortune", accidental death.
Amy Dudley's death caused a scandal. Despite the inquest's outcome, Robert Dudley was widely suspected to have orchestrated his wife's demise, a view not shared by most modern historians. He remained Elizabeth's closest favourite, but with respect to her reputation she could not risk a marriage with him. A tradition that Sir Richard Verney, a follower of Robert Dudley, organized Amy Dudley's violent death evolved early, and ''Leicester's Commonwealth'', a notorious and influential libel of 1584 against Robert Dudley, by then Earl of Leicester, perpetuated this version of events. Interest in Amy Robsart's fate was rekindled in the 19th century by Walter Scott's novel, ''Kenilworth''. The most widely accepted modern explanations of her death have been breast cancer and suicide, although a few historians have probed murder scenarios. The medical evidence of the coroner's report, which was found in 2008, is compatible with accident as well as suicide and other violence.
Amy Robsart was born in Norfolk, the heiress of a substantial gentleman-farmer and grazier, Sir John Robsart of Syderstone, and his wife, Elizabeth Scott. Amy Robsart grew up at her mother's house, Stanfield Hall, and, like her future husband, in a firmly Protestant household.〔Skidmore 2010 pp. 15–16〕 She received a good education and wrote in a fine hand.〔Skidmore 2010 p. 17〕 Three days before her 18th birthday she married Robert Dudley, a younger son of John Dudley, Earl of Warwick. Amy and Robert, who were of the same age, probably first met about ten months before their wedding.〔Wilson 1981 pp. 33, 43; Skidmore 2010 p. 15〕 The wedding contract of May 1550 specified that Amy would inherit her father's estate only after both her parents' death,〔Skidmore 2010 p. 23〕 and after the marriage the young couple depended heavily on both their fathers' gifts, especially Robert's.〔Haynes 1987 pp. 20–21; Loades 1996 p. 225〕 It was most probably a love-match, a "carnal marriage", as the wedding guest William Cecil later commented disapprovingly.〔Skidmore 2010 pp. 19–20; Adams 2008〕 The marriage was celebrated on 4 June 1550 at the royal palace of Sheen, with Edward VI in attendance.〔Wilson 1981 p. 44〕
The Earl of Warwick and future Duke of Northumberland was the most powerful man in England, leading the government of the young King Edward VI. The match, though by no means a prize, was acceptable to him as it strengthened his influence in Norfolk.〔Loades 1996 p. 179; Skidmore 2010 pp. 19, 24〕 The young couple dwelt mostly at court or with Amy's parents-in-law at Ely House; in the first half of 1553 they lived at Somerset House, Robert Dudley being keeper of this great Renaissance palace.〔 In May 1553 Lady Jane Grey became Amy Dudley's sister-in-law, and after her rule of a fortnight as England's queen, Robert Dudley was sentenced to death and imprisoned in the Tower of London.〔Loades 2004 pp. 121, 125, 127; Loades 1996 pp. 266, 271〕 He remained there from July 1553 till October 1554; from September 1553 Amy was allowed to visit "and there to tarry with" him at the Tower's Lieutenant's pleasure.〔Skidmore 2010 pp. 38, 393〕
After his release Robert Dudley was, in the words of his brothers, "left with nothing to live by",〔Skidmore 2010 p. 46〕 and he and Amy were helped out financially by both their families.〔 Their lifestyle had to remain modest, though, and Lord Robert (as he was known) was heaping up considerable debts. Sir John Robsart died in 1554; his wife followed him to the grave in the spring of 1557, which meant that the Dudleys could inherit the Robsart estate with the Queen's permission.〔Skidmore 2010 pp. 45–46, 59; Loades 1996 p. 273〕 Lady Amy's ancestral manor house of Syderstone had been uninhabitable for many decades,〔Skidmore 2010 p. 15〕 and the couple were now living in Throcking, Hertfordshire, at the house of William Hyde, when not in London.〔 In August 1557 Robert Dudley went to fight for King Philip II, England's king consort, at the Battle of St. Quentin in France.〔Loades 1996 p. 273〕 From this time a business letter from Amy Dudley survives, settling some debts of her husband's in his absence, "although I forgot to move my lord thereof before his departing, he being sore troubled with weighty affairs, and I not being altogether in quiet for his sudden departing".〔Adams 1995 pp. 380–381〕
In the summer of 1558 Robert and Amy Dudley were looking for a suitable residence of their own in order to settle in Norfolk; nothing came of this, however, before the death of Queen Mary I in November 1558.〔Wilson 1981 pp. 76–77〕 Upon the accession of Elizabeth I Robert Dudley became Master of the Horse and his place was now at court at almost constant attendance on the Queen.〔Wilson 1981 p. 78〕 By April 1559 Queen Elizabeth seemed to be in love with Lord Robert, and several diplomats reported that some at court already speculated that the Queen would marry him, "in case his wife should die",〔Wilson 1981 pp. 95–96〕 as Lady Dudley was very ill in one of her breasts. Very soon court observers noted that Elizabeth never let Robert Dudley from her side.〔Chamberlin 1939 p. 101〕 He visited his wife at Throcking for a couple of days at Easter 1559, and Amy Dudley came to London in May 1559 for about a month.〔Adams 1995 p. 378〕 At this time, on 6 June, the new Spanish ambassador de Quadra wrote that her health had improved, but that she was careful with her food.〔Adams 1995 p. 68〕 She also made a trip to Suffolk; by September she was residing in the house of Sir Richard Verney at Compton Verney in Warwickshire.〔Adams 1995 pp. 382–383〕
By the autumn of 1559 several foreign princes were vying for the Queen's hand; indignant at Elizabeth's little serious interest in their candidate,〔Skidmore 2010 pp. 162, 165〕 the Spanish ambassador de Quadra and his Imperial colleague were informing each other and their superiors that Lord Robert was sending his wife poison and that Elizabeth was only fooling them, "keeping Lord Robert's enemies and the country engaged with words until this wicked deed of killing his wife is consummated".〔Skidmore 2010 pp. 166–168, 356–357〕 Parts of the nobility also held Dudley responsible for Elizabeth's failure to marry, and plots to assassinate him abounded.〔Doran 1996 p. 42〕 In March 1560 de Quadra informed Philip II: "Lord Robert told somebody … that if he live another year he will be in a very different position from now. … They say that he thinks of divorcing his wife."〔Chamberlin 1939 p. 119〕 Lady Amy never saw her husband again after her London visit in 1559. A projected trip of his to visit her and other family never materialized.〔Adams 1995 p. 383; Skidmore 2010 p. 224〕 Queen Elizabeth did not really allow her favourite a wife; according to a contemporary court chronicle, he "was commanded to say that he did nothing with her, when he came to her, as seldom he did".〔
From December 1559 Amy Dudley lived at Cumnor Place, near Abingdon in Berkshire (now Oxfordshire).〔Adams 1995 p. 382〕 The house, an altered 14th century monastic complex, was rented by a friend of the Dudleys and possible relative of Amy's, Sir Anthony Forster.〔Adams 2011〕 He lived there with his wife and Mrs. Odingsells and Mrs. Owen, relations of the house's owner.〔Skidmore 2010 pp. 59, 169, 172〕 Lady Dudley's chamber was a large, sumptuous upper story apartment, the best of the house, with a separate entrance and staircase leading up to it. At the house's rear there were a terrace garden, a pond, and a deer park.〔Skidmore 2010 p. 171〕 Amy Dudley received the proceeds of the Robsart estate directly into her hands and largely paid for her own household,〔Adams 1995 pp. 383–384; Gristwood 2007 p. 101〕 which comprised about 10 servants.〔 She regularly ordered dresses and finery as accounts and a letter from her of as late as 24 August 1560 show. She also received presents from her husband.〔Skidmore 2010 pp. 192, 194, 195〕
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