Death and the Virgin Queen: Elizabeth I and the Dark Scandal That Rocked the Throneby Chris Skidmore
In the tradition of Alison Weir’s New York Times bestselling Mary, Queen of Scots and the Murder of Lord Darnley, comes the most sensational crime story of Tudor England
On the morning of September 8, 1560, at the isolated manor of Cunmor place, the body of a young woman was found at the bottom of a staircase, her neck broken./i>/b>/i>/i>
In the tradition of Alison Weir’s New York Times bestselling Mary, Queen of Scots and the Murder of Lord Darnley, comes the most sensational crime story of Tudor England
On the morning of September 8, 1560, at the isolated manor of Cunmor place, the body of a young woman was found at the bottom of a staircase, her neck broken. But this was no ordinary death. Amy Robsart was the wife of Elizabeth I’s great favorite, Robert Dudley, the man who many believed she would marry, were he free. Immediately people suspected foul play and Elizabeth’s own reputation was in danger of serious damage. Many felt she might even lose her throne. An inquest was begun, witnesses called, and ultimately a verdict of death by accident was reached. But the mystery refused to die and cast a long shadow over Elizabeth’s reign.
Using recently discovered forensic evidence from the original investigation, Skidmore is able to put an end to centuries of speculation as to the true causes of Robsart’s death. This is the story of a treacherous period in Elizabeth’s life: a tale of love, death, and tragedy, exploring the dramatic early life of England’s Virgin Queen.
“It was a scandal that makes Showtime’s “Tudors” look tame: Queen Elizabeth I and the married Earl of Leicester were so close that tongues were wagging across Europe. When the earl’s wife was found dead at the bottom of a staircase in 1560, speculation that the earl had killed his wife and would marry the queen nearly toppled the monarchy. Skidmore, a sitting member of the British Parliament and the author of Edward VI: The Lost King of England, attempts to solve the mystery using a long-lost coroner’s report.”—New York Post
“A valuable and interesting book . . . I must thank Chris Skidmore for a fascinating read, and the chance to look again at one of the darkest crimes on one of the most innocent victims of the Tudor world.”—Philippa Gregory, bestselling author of The Other Boleyn Girl
“The death of Amy Robsart in September 1560 remains one of the fascinating unsolved mysteries of Tudor history . . . Chris Skidmore deftly takes us through the whole scene and in doing so considers a completely new possibility which changed my mind.”—Antonia Fraser, bestselling author of Marie Antoinette: The Journey
“A brilliant study of the greatest unsolved Tudor mystery. . . . Death and the Virgin Queen is a meticulous account of Amy’s death and its aftermath. Skidmore writes brilliantly and his research is impeccable.”—John Guy, author of Queen of Scots: The Life of Mary Stuart
“A nicely fleshed-out portrait of Elizabeth I (1533–1603), with new revelations of the queen in love and the man who sought desperately to marry her. . . . Skidmore moves engagingly back and forth in the story, dwelling on how fresh scrutiny of the evidence may point to the answer of this terrible death. . . . A fresh elucidation of this precarious period of Elizabeth’s reign.”—Kirkus Reviews
“Historian Skidmore reaches back in time to investigate an unsolved mystery steeped in passion, jealousy, and drama. . . . Unearthing new evidence, including the original coroner’s report, Skidmore revisits the case with a scholar’s eye and a detective’s intuition. . . . a gripping read with an abundance of Tudor appeal.”Booklist
“The death of Amy Robsart has always been one of history’s favourite whodunits . . . Chris Skidmore offers a detailed examination of evidence old and, crucially, new—and, along the way, a riveting exemplar of the degree to which it is, and is not, possible to solve a historical mystery.”—Sarah Gristwood, author of Elizabeth and Leicester: The Truth about the Virgin Queen and the Man She Loved
“Skidmore paints wonderful, intimate scenes of Elizabeth and Dudley . . . The romance between Elizabeth and Dudley has often been told, but rarely is anything added to what we knew before. It is here. Skidmore’s most impressive new material is the previously lost coroner’s report, which offers an important revelation about the nature of Amy’s injuries.”—Leanda de Lisle, author of After Elizabeth: The Rise of James of Scotland and the Struggle for the Throne of England
"Drawing extensively on historical documents, including the original coroner's report, only recently uncovered in the UK's National Archives, Skidmore not only examines the various theories surrounding these long-standing questions but also provides an in-depth look at how Amy's death and Elizabeth and Dudley's relationship affected the early years of the Virgin Queen's reign. . . . owing to the wealth of detail, both academics and general readers with an interest in Tudor history will find much of interest.”—Library Journal
A nicely fleshed-out portrait of Elizabeth I (1533–1603), with new revelations of the queen in love and the man who sought desperately to marry her.
Two years into her reign, Elizabeth was besotted with the dark, athletic Lord Robert Dudley, who was eventually beheaded by Queen Mary for his treasonous backing of the short-lived Lady Jane Grey. Elizabeth and Dudley had known each other since childhood, sharing the same tutors, and he was given the plum job of Master of the Queen's Stable, allowing him daily access to her and an assured rise of his fortune and titles. Elizabeth was expected to marry, wooed by all the princes of Europe, while Dudley, of a lower status, was married to Amy Robsart—probably out of love, though their marriage remained childless. In September 1560, just as rumors about the queen and Dudley were rampant, Amy was found dead at the base of a short stairwell at Cumnor Place. Her neck was broken, though the coroner's report noted several "dyntes" in her skull, which could have resulted from the fall. The death caused a scandal, and suspicion fell on Dudley, although he was absolved of wrongdoing. British author Skidmore (History/Bristol Univ.; Edward VI: The Lost King of England, 2007) moves engagingly back and forth in the story, dwelling on how fresh scrutiny of the evidence may point to the answer of this terrible death. Some of the evidence is well-known: Amy had been acting strangely that morning, praying on her knees, and insisted that the entire household attend a nearby fair, as if she had "an evil toy in her mind." Moreover, there were indications in her correspondence that she might have been suffering from breast cancer. On the other hand, there had been rumors at court that Dudley was planning to poison her. Skidmore revisits a libelous tract that appeared in 1584,Leicester's Commonwealth, as well as other accounts, in his thorough sifting of the historical record.
A fresh elucidation of this precarious period of Elizabeth's reign.
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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 PressCopyright © 2010 Chris Skidmore
All rights reserved.
Rites of passage
Time was precious. The rebels had already defeated an expeditionary party of the king's forces sent to crush them. They had taken Norwich, where, under the direction of their leader, a local tanner named Robert Kett, they had demanded that all 'bond men be made free'. It was reported that some 16,000 rebels had now set up camp on Mousehold Heath, just outside the city. Beneath a great oak they called the 'Tree of Reformation' local gentlemen had been rounded up by Kett and his followers, then put on trial and sentenced to imprisonment, even death.
It was August 1549. The boy king Edward VI had succeeded his father Henry VIII only two years previously. As Edward was too young to govern, his uncle, Edward Seymour, Duke of Somerset, had stepped into the vacuum of power. A man of Protestant leanings who championed religious reform, Somerset had promised a new regime and a 'milder climate' in which men might have freedom to speak their minds without fear of execution. But his leniency had backfired. It was an age of rising prices and high inflation; religious changes during the Reformation had seen the very fabric of medieval Catholicism torn down as saints' images were smashed, and altars and centuries-old shrines were destroyed; unrest and disturbance followed. Somerset had been slow to sense it – and now the country was in open rebellion. In Cornwall, Catholic rebels calling for the abolition of the new church service in English were besieging Exeter, while in York, Essex, Oxfordshire, Suffolk and Norfolk, in what became known as the 'commotion time', revolts erupted, driven by religious reformers who demanded an end to the unpopular enclosures of common land by the nobility.
At court, men were horrified at what seemed to be a breakdown in the social order. The common people, one of Edward's advisers lamented, had 'become a king' 'Alas! That ever this day should be seen in this time!' The situation was growing out of control. There were fears that the capital might be under threat, and in the atmosphere of instability, rumours that the young king was dead were only dispelled when Edward showed himself in the streets on horseback. The rebellion needed to be crushed, fast. In desperation, Somerset appointed John Dudley, Earl of Warwick, to defeat the rebels. Travelling up from London with a force of 5,000 men, Warwick was determined to end the rebellion by whatever means necessary.
Both Edward Seymour and John Dudley, better known by their landed titles as simply Somerset and Warwick, had been leading courtiers in the last decade of Henry's reign, but there was now a sense of remarkable transfer in their fortunes. Somerset, the elder brother of Henry's third wife Jane Seymour, had come to be regarded as the more senior, and as uncle of the new king Edward VI, was the natural choice as Protector, the de facto king of the realm. Warwick's background was rather more chequered. His father was Edmund Dudley, a brilliant lawyer who had risen to become one of Henry VII's ministers, and who was deeply unpopular with the nobility as a result of his punitive system of fines and threats. Intending to begin his reign afresh, the young Henry VIII had Edmund executed for treason.
Edmund's son worked hard to restore the family name; his military reputation on land and at sea earned him the king's respect, and by 1542 he had been elevated to the peerage as Viscount Lisle. Both John Dudley and Edward Seymour were proud men, jealous of their reputations. Upon Edward VI's accession to the throne both were given instant promotions, Seymour becoming the Duke of Somerset and the King's Protector, while Dudley was raised to Earl of Warwick and Lord High Chamberlain of England. Almost immediately after Edward's succession, it had become clear they were to be rivals. 'Although they both belong to the same sect they are nevertheless widely different in character,' the Imperial ambassador observed. Warwick, he believed, 'being of high courage will not willingly submit to his colleague. He is, moreover, in higher favour both with the people and with the nobles.' Yet behind his charming and charismatic exterior, Warwick was a ruthless operator. 'He had such a head,' one courtier later recalled, 'that he seldom went about anything but he conceived first three or four purposes beforehand.'
As he marched out of the capital, Warwick understood the burden placed upon him. He had taken two of his sons, Ambrose and Robert, with him on the campaign. Warwick had thirteen children in total, eight sons and five daughters, though two of his sons and three of the daughters died before the age of ten. Henry, the eldest son and heir to the family, had been killed during the Siege of Boulogne, Henry VIII's last military campaign, in 1544. When John Dudley had been elevated to the title of Earl of Warwick in 1547, the title of Viscount Lisle passed to his next eldest surviving son, John. Ambrose and Robert were the second and third surviving sons, and while they might not be expected to inherit the family title and the obligations that went with it, Warwick was a devoted father to all his children ('a few children, which God has sent me,' he later confessed, 'also helps to pluck me on my knees').
Born in June 1532, Robert had only just turned 17. He had spent much of his youth at the royal court, having been brought up in the household of the young Prince Edward as one of the 'young lords attendant' who shared his lessons and acted as companions and playmates to their royal friend. It was a position usually reserved for the sons of the ancient nobility, but Warwick's rapid rise through the ranks at court ensured that his sons would receive some of the best education in all of Europe. When not at their studies, the young lords developed their military skills under expert tuition. They learned how to fight with swords and pikes, and practise the novel art of defence, or 'fencing', of which John Dudley had become a strong patron, with the first English school set up at his London residence, Ely Place. He was keen for his sons to be ready to emulate his own success on the battlefield, and to gain the military training and experience requisite for a young nobleman seeking glory and honour in armed combat. The Norfolk rebellion would prove the perfect opportunity to practise what they had learned, a rite of passage that would allow them to witness first hand the experience of the battlefield.
With a mixture of trepidation and excitement, Robert and Ambrose marched with their father into the West Midlands, where they watched 6,000 foot soldiers and 1,500 horsemen amass outside Warwick Castle. Despite his young age and inexperience, Robert himself had been placed in charge of a company of foot soldiers. Tall, with a strong athletic physique and dark good looks, he was already showing signs of the features that would later mark out his attraction at court. Riding in his armour in front of his troops, he was no doubt eager to prove his valour on the battlefield against the rebels.
There was perhaps another reason why Warwick had decided to take his sons with him into combat. The defeat of the expeditionary force led by the Marquis of Northampton had badly shaken the government, especially the news of the death of Lord Sheffield, clubbed to death by some of Kett's men after falling from his horse. Whereas Northampton had failed to pacify the rebels and had been forced to flee, Warwick was determined to show the necessary courage to succeed. His army was already five times the size of Northampton's, and was soon to be joined by over a thousand troops raised from Lincolnshire. The presence of his sons helped convince his officers and men that their commander had the confidence to defeat the rebels.
Before the royal army reached its destination, it had travelled through Cambridge and on to Newmarket. As it neared where the rebellion was taking place, on the night of 22 August its troops came to rest in the fields outside the town of Wymondham, the home town of Robert Kett. It was here that, as his men bedded down in tents for the evening, Warwick, his sons and their officers lodged in the medieval manor of Stanfield Hall, the home of Sir John Robsart and his wife.CHAPTER 2
Sir John Robsart was a powerful local gentleman, who had been a Justice of the Peace since 1532. Knighted upon Edward's coronation, he was the appointed Sheriff of Norfolk and Suffolk from 1547 to 1548. He was also a substantial landowner, owning three manors in the north-west of Norfolk with enough land to graze 3,000 sheep.
Although Sir John owned the manor of Syderstone, the manor house there lay in ruins and had long been uninhabitable. After marrying Elizabeth Appleyard in 1530, he moved into her house, Stanfield Hall. Elizabeth was the daughter of John Scott of Camberwell and had previously been married to Roger Appleyard, an influential member of the landed gentry. His premature death had left Elizabeth a widow, and the heir to his sizeable estate. It was just what Sir John had been looking for: not only was Elizabeth the member of a distinguished Norfolk family like his own; she brought with her a landed estate and house suitable for his means, a great improvement on his ruined manor house at Syderstone.
Sir John quickly became the adoptive father to Elizabeth's four children by her previous marriage: John, Philip, Anna and Frances. Sir John already had an illegitimate son, Arthur, though naturally he wanted his own heir to inherit his estate. A daughter, Amy, was born to the couple two years later. Any disappointment that the child was not a male quickly evaporated, and Sir John proudly entered her name in his missal:
Amea Robsart generosa filia Johno Robsart Armiger nata fuit in vii die Junij in Anno Dom Angelismo cccccxxxii
Amy Robsart beloved daughter of John Robsart Knight was born on the 7th day of June in the Blessed Year of Our Lord 1532.
If this missal is correct, Amy was almost identical in age to Robert Dudley, who later revealed his own birthday to be on 24 June of the same year.
As a result of his marriage, Sir John Robsart became well entrenched in the Norfolk gentry. He soon married his stepchildren off to other respectable local families: the Bigots, the Huggins and the Sheltons. Frances had recently been betrothed to William, the eldest son of Sir John Flowerdew of Hethersett, a lawyer and landowner who was also steward of Robsart's Norfolk estates. Sir John's wife brought new, now less welcome, connections: her previous husband's sister, Alice Appleyard, was married to the leader of the rebellion, Robert Kett. For more than a decade the Flowerdews and the Ketts had been in conflict over Sir John Flowerdew's decision to enclose some nearby common land, erecting hedges around it. Kett's decision to become involved with the rebellion was influenced by Flowerdew's offer of 3s 4d to an angry mob to pull down Kett's own hedges. When Kett agreed instead to pull them down himself, he offered to lead them into open rebellion against the 'power of great men' and 'importunate lords'. Sir John Robsart found himself caught in the middle of the conflict between his sister-in-law's husband and his stepdaughter's future father-in-law. Potentially more serious consequences were no doubt pressing upon his mind too: among the gentry that had been captured by the rebels and taken up to Mousehold Heath were his own stepsons, John and Philip Appleyard.
Yet Sir John was determined to stand on the side of the king and the law, against the rebels – no matter what family connections persisted. He was a committed Protestant, and a firm believer in royal supremacy as the natural order of things. When Sir John came to draw up his will in October 1535, he referred to his sovereign Henry VIII as being 'within his realme supreame hede of the church immediately under God'. When the preacher Thomas Beacon dedicated his work The Fortresse of the Faithful to him in 1550, he did so in honour of the 'godly affection and christian zeal which both you and ... your wife have borne toward the pure religion of God these many years'. It is likely that Amy was brought up to share her father's religious views, which happened to chime strongly with Robert Dudley's own religious outlook as a committed reformer. 'I never altered my mind or thought from my youth touching my religion,' he later admitted, 'I was ever from my cradle brought up in it'.
It could have been here at Stanfield Hall on their way to meet Kett's rebels that Robert first set eyes upon Sir John's only daughter, Amy, who had recently turned 17. There is a possibility that Amy and Robert had met before: Sir John Robsart had enjoyed favour with the Howards, the dukes of Norfolk, before the Third Duke's downfall and imprisonment in 1546, alongside his son, Henry Howard, Earl of Surrey. It has been suggested that Amy may have ended up as a maid or a companion to the Howard children in their house at Kenninghall, and may even have attended the family on their travels to London after the Duchess of Richmond had gained guardianship of the children in 1548. Amy's surviving letters, written in a fine calligraphic hand, attest to the fact that she must have had a good formal education, perhaps the kind received in a noble household. If this was indeed the case, Amy just might have already met or seen Robert at official functions at court, though the evidence is too slim to know for certain.
What is certain is that Warwick's sudden arrival at Stanfield Hall must have been the most memorable occasion of Amy's life to date. A sea of thousands of men – some estimates put the size of the royal army at over ten thousand – were camped out in the fields adjoining the back garden of her home, while the guest list for dinner that night was far from what a country gentleman like her father was accustomed to: one earl, one marquis and three lords sat around the table in the Great Hall, not to mention the two young sons of the earl. Still, there would have been little occasion for merriment, with the visitors deep in serious discussion about the best tactics for dealing with the growing rebellion. It was later said that while on their journey to Norwich, Warwick and his officers did not once take off their armour, 'remaining still in a readiness, if the enemies should have made any sudden invasion against them'.
Amy might not have spoken to her future husband that night, but she would have noticed him. Clad in a full suit of armour, with his dark hair and features, Robert, the youngest of the earl's sons, would have stood out from his elder brother Ambrose and the rest of the noblemen arguing tactics around the dinner table.
By dawn, however, he was gone, having departed with his company to make the final journey towards Norwich.CHAPTER 3
On the battlefield the rebels barely stood a chance. When routed by Warwick's army, many simply fled, including Kett, who was discovered hiding in a nearby barn. His was one of the many executions that followed; hanged in chains off the wall of Norwich Castle, his body was left dangling there until the flesh fell away from the rotten corpse.
Although the rebellions were all eventually put down, Somerset's reputation had been irreparably damaged and he never recovered his authority. Amidst rumours of a plot to have him arrested, he fled to Windsor Castle, taking Edward with him. For a week it seemed that the nation would descend into civil war, with the nobility on one side and Somerset on the other. Armed conflict was narrowly avoided when Somerset was tricked into giving himself up, but both sides had come too close to civil war for the situation to continue.
Somerset was arrested and stripped of his position; in his place, Warwick soon became the leading figurehead as Lord President of the Council. He skilfully outmanoeuvred his enemies, defeating a Catholic faction who wished to make Edward's sister Princess Mary regent, by drawing himself close to the king and embracing his reformed religion. One reason for Warwick's success was that he had refused to have Somerset executed, knowing that the young King Edward was unwilling for his uncle to die. The following spring, Somerset was released from the Tower, and as part of his reconciliation with Warwick, it was agreed that Somerset's daughter Anne would marry Warwick's eldest surviving son, John Dudley, Lord Lisle. Their marriage was celebrated at the royal palace of Sheen on 3 June 1550, in a weekend of festivities attended by the king. Theirs was not the only marriage that had been arranged, for the next day Robert Dudley married Amy Robsart.
Compared to the lavish festivities that had accompanied his brother John's ceremony, Robert and Amy's wedding was a quiet affair. Taking place in front of the same audience, it must have been something of an anticlimax for those who had attended the sumptuous banquet of the night before and were perhaps now feeling somewhat the worse for wear. The young king recalled in his diary that there had been a 'fair dinner made and dancing' at the former ceremony; afterwards, from a bower of woven branches, Edward watched two teams of six gentlemen take part in a joust. There was no such splendour for Robert and his new bride. The ceremony was once again attended by the king, though the only mention Edward made in his diary refers to the bizarre festivities that had been hastily organised in place of a tournament, in which 'there certain gentlemen that did strive who should first take away a goose's head, which was hanged alive on two cross posts.'
Excerpted from Death and the Virgin Queen by Chris Skidmore. Copyright © 2010 Chris Skidmore. Excerpted by permission of St. Martin's Press.
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Meet the Author
CHRIS SKIDMORE was born in Bristol, England in 1981. His first book was Edward VI: The Lost King of England. He currently teaches history at Bristol University.
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The mysterious death of Amy Robsart, wife of Elizabeth I's court favorite, is explored in this thoroughly researched book. Skidmore has a gift for making this centuries-old scandal seem like the latest headlines, which may nettle some historians but which most readers should enjoy.