Written by Naomi Wallace
Content Warning: This piece contains references to suicide.
Amy Dudley (née Robsart) had the unique misfortune of being the wife of Robert Dudley, the favourite of the Queen of England with whom he was mutually infatuated. Largely neglected in her marriage, Amy held little relevance in her husband’s life situated some distance away at court, aside from the major fact that her existence rendered him unable to marry Elizabeth, even though there were many other factors hindering the match. It seemed that Robert Dudley’s position could only grow stronger as his relationship with the Queen intensified, despite his existing marriage.
On 8 September 1560, Amy Dudley’s body was found at the bottom of a staircase at Cumnor Place, Berkshire. The sudden death of the wife of the Queen’s favourite led to considerable speculation –enough so that the scandal that ensued destroyed all chances of marriage between Dudley and Elizabeth. Though rumour ran rife, Amy’s death was ruled an accident. Nevertheless, historians have raised questions about the suspicious circumstances in which she was found.
The facts of the event are as follows: on the day of her death, Amy instructed her servants to leave Cumnor Place to attend the fair in Abingdon. She was not left entirely alone, however, her ladies were in a different part of the house. When her servants returned, they found her body at the bottom of the staircase leading down from her chamber. The coroner reported that she had a broken neck and two head wounds, “one of which was a quarter of an inch deep and the other two inches deep”; but he concluded that “by misfortune [she] came to her death and not otherwise.”
Understandably, this verdict has been challenged ever since, as many aspects of Amy’s death are not compatible with an accidental fall. It seems unlikely that a fall down a staircase could cause an injury as severe as a two-inch-deep head laceration. Granted, Tudor staircases could be uneven and therefore hazardous, however these are still incredibly serious wounds to have been caused by falling. This is further supported by the coroner’s report, which states that Amy was “without any other mark or wound on her body”. Surely a fatal fall down a staircase would leave one with significant bruising or injuries on other parts of the body as well as the head? Foul play is difficult to rule out given the bizarre circumstances. A logical explanation for the lack of bodily harm below the neck was that Amy was murdered, and her body then moved to look like she had fallen.
It is important to note that those who have been accused of murdering Amy are not thought to have killed her themselves; we are instead considering individuals who had the power to employ somebody to carry it out on their behalf and what their motivations for doing so may have been. Those who have been suggested to be guilty were of high enough status to write to Amy telling her to send her servants away, leaving her vulnerable.
As with modern crime, when a wife dies, suspicion turns immediately towards the husband. There was reasonable speculation that Robert Dudley was responsible for Amy’s death; after all, were she to be out of the way, he would legally be free to marry Elizabeth. This was certainly what Sir Walter Scott hinted upon in his 1821 novel Kenilworth. The 1584 libel Leicester’s Commonwealth, in a long list of accusations, claimed that he pushed her – true or not, his enemies were quick to use Amy’s death to discredit him. It admittedly does not look good when the biggest obstacle standing between a man and marriage to the Queen of England is suddenly, and suspiciously, eliminated.
Motivation is not sufficient evidence, however, and primary evidence against Dudley is dubious at best. That same September, William Cecil had told the Spanish ambassador, de Quadra, that Amy “was very well and taking care not to be poisoned,” implying foul play on Dudley’s (and possibly Elizabeth’s) part. But Cecil was one of Dudley’s greatest rivals, and such a comment was likely just an attempt to defame his character. Additionally, Dudley was an intelligent man, and surely would have known that Elizabeth could not marry a man whose name was attached to a scandal in which some accused him of complicity in the murder of his wife. Just because having Amy out of his life may have been convenient for him, does not mean there is even close to ample evidence to suggest he was guilty of murdering her.
More recent scholarship has offered another possible contender for the murder of Amy Dudley – Elizabeth’s Secretary of State, William Cecil. Again, this is a theory based largely on motive rather than evidence, however Cecil’s actions surrounding the event were questionable. He visited Dudley at his home after Amy died – not an inherently suspicious act, but an unusual one considering the staunch rivalry between the two men. In communication with de Quadra, he expressed his concern that Elizabeth and Dudley intended to marry; if (as I will discuss) the rumours that Amy was terminally ill were true, this was an increasingly imminent possibility. Disposing of Amy could ruin Dudley’s reputation and prevent this from ever happening. Perhaps Cecil felt the scandal the death would bring upon his Queen would have been less detrimental than a marriage to Dudley, the idea of which he strongly opposed. Despite this, he denied Amy’s illness to the Spanish ambassador; if he thought Amy was in good health, her existence was preventing the possibility of the match he dreaded and therefore having her killed would be illogical.
The lack of clear evidence pointing towards any perpetrator of Amy’s murder has led many to believe that her death was caused by suicide. The fact that Amy insisted her servants leave the house does support the suggestion that she had planned to kill herself. Susan Doran argued that she may have been depressed due to being abandoned by her husband and that killing herself would have brought a great deal of shame upon Dudley. But the suggestion that a woman would end her own life, a mortal sin under contemporary beliefs, simply to get petty revenge on a negligent husband seems implausible. Many early modern marriages were lacking in affection; it is unlikely this would have caused someone to be suicidal. Furthermore, Amy was ordering new gowns from her tailor just weeks before her death, which is not the behaviour of a woman who planned to end her own life. On a practical level, throwing oneself down a staircase is hardly an infallible suicide plan; it would be far more believable had she fallen from a window or balcony. Based on the evidence, the suggestion that Amy took her own life is very unconvincing.
In 1956, Ian Aird put forward a new theory, combining medical analysis and contemporary source material, that discussed the possibility that Amy was suffering from an illness that led to her death. There were contemporary rumours that Amy was unwell, and following her death, her maid recounted her “desperation” which could refer to the excruciating pain she may have been in. As Aird demonstrated, if Amy had breast cancer that had metastasised to her bones, this could have led to a spontaneous spinal fracture, which would explain her broken neck. This connection was beyond the knowledge of an early modern coroner but is verified by modern science. A letter from 1559 corroborates the idea that Amy had “a malady of the breast”, most likely to be cancer, and de Quadra claimed that Elizabeth and Dudley were waiting for Amy to die from illness.
This theory would certainly explain how a fall down a staircase could have killed Amy, yet two major issues arise in its validity. The wounds in her head are still left unexplained if we believe Aird’s hypothesis, as is her insistence that her servants leave the house that day. Additionally, Cecil claimed she was “very well” in correspondence with de Quadra, and Amy had spent a great deal of time travelling in the time prior to her death which she would likely not have been fit for if she were gravely ill. Nevertheless, cancer can be an invisible disease and can progress rapidly in an otherwise healthy individual. There remains a definite possibility that Amy was unwell, but this does not account for her head injuries, and therefore this is not a wholly believable explanation for her death.
What is so frustrating for the historian examining Amy’s death is that every theory that has been presented can be discredited with relative ease. It seems almost impossible to believe that her death was an accident, suicide, or the result of a deadly illness; consequently, leaving foul play as the only reasonable explanation. Unfortunately, there seems to be no suspect against whom there is sufficient evidence, or logical motivation, to make a sincere accusation. The body of evidence lacks major components that would help to draw a conclusion that one could confidently support, such as how she sustained such severe injuries to the head. Though precisely why or by who remains unclear, I struggle to see how, given the strangeness of the circumstances, many historians are so quick to rule out murder. Ultimately, this case remains a perplexing and inexplicable mystery the solving of which it seems would require the discovery of new and vital evidence that has been missing from the historiography of the topic.
Historic England Archive: Letter from Amy Dudley to her tailor, August 1560. (HT12442)
National Archives: Coroner’s report into the death of Amy Robsart, August 1561 (KB 9/1073/f.80)
Adams, Simon. “Dudley [née Robsart], Amy, Lady Dudley (1532–1560), gentlewoman.” Oxford Dictionary of National Biography. 23 Sep. 2004; Accessed 3 Oct. 2022. https://www.oxforddnb.com/view/10.1093/ref:odnb/9780198614128.001.0001/odnb-9780198614128-e-8144.
Ian Aird. “The Death of Amy Robsart.” The English Historical Review 71, no. 278 (1956): 69–79. http://www.jstor.org/stable/558627.
Paul, Joanne. The House of Dudley. London: Penguin Books Ltd, 2022.
Doran, Susan. Queen Elizabeth I. London: British Library, 2003.
Featured image credit: Yeames, William Frederick. Amy Robsart. 1877. Oil on canvas. Tate Britain, London. https://www.tate.org.uk/art/artworks/yeames-amy-robsart-n01609.