On this day in Tudor history, 8th September 1560, in the reign of Elizabeth I, the dead body of Amy Robsart, wife of Elizabeth I’s favourite, Robert Dudley, was discovered.
Amy was found at the bottom of some stairs in her rented home, Cumnor Place, in Oxfordshire.
But what had happened to her? Had she been murdered? Was it suicide? Or was it “misfortune”?
Let me tell you more about the day and the theories regarding her death…
Book recommendation – “Amy Robsart: A Life and its End” by Christine Hartweg.
On this day in Tudor history, 8th September 1560, Amy Dudley (née Robsart), wife of Robert Dudley, Earl of Leicester, died at her rented home, Cumnor Place in Oxfordshire.
Amy and Dudley had been married since 4th June 1550 and William Cicil had described their marriage as “a carnal marriage”, i.e. a love match rather than an arranged marriage. The marriage wouldn’t be the easiest of relationships. Just three years into it, Dudley was imprisoned in the Tower of London for his involvement in the brief reign of his sister-in-law Lady Jane Grey. Amy was allowed to visit him, but he was imprisoned until October 1554. When he was released, the couple’s financial position was precarious and they had to go to their families for help. Amy and Dudley were again parted in 1557, when Dudley went to fight for King Philip II of Spain, in France.
In the summer of 1558, they were looking for a home together in Norfolk, but events soon conspired against them. In November 1558, Mary I died and Elizabeth I, Dudley’s childhood friend, became Queen of England. Elizabeth soon rewarded Dudley for his friendship and support by making him Master of the Horse. This role required him to be at court and to spend most of his time with the queen, and away from Amy. Just five months later, ambassadors and diplomats were repeating the gossip that the queen was in love with Dudley and that they were planning to marry after Amy’s death. It was said that Amy had some kind of malady in one of her breasts, perhaps breast cancer.
Although Amy’s health had improved enough for her to visit London in May 1559, she never saw her husband again.
On 8th September 1560, Amy’s servants found her body at the bottom of the stairs when they returned from “Our Lady’s Fair” at Abingdon. It appeared that she had fallen down the stairs.
At the inquest into Amy’s death, the coroner ruled that her death was the result of “misfortune”, an accident, but there is still controversy today over Amy’s death. The theories include:
- Accident – Professor Ian Aird (1956) suggests that Amy’s death could have been an accident caused by a spontaneous fracture of the vertebrae as she walked down the stairs. Professor Aird based this theory on the fact that breast cancer, which sources suggest Amy was suffering from, can cause a weakening of the bones.
- Suicide – On the day of her death, Amy ordered all of her servants out of the house, giving them permission to go to the fair for the day. When some of them protested that it was not “fitting” to go to a fair on a Sunday, Amy was said to have been quite sharp with them, asking them to obey her orders. Mrs Odingsells refused to go, much to Amy’s displeasure, but then did eventually retire to her room, leaving Amy alone. Did Amy arrange to be alone so that she could commit suicide? After all, she was said to be very depressed. Amy’s maid said that she wondered if Amy “might have an evil toy in her mind”, in other words, suicide.
- Murder – Some sources believe that Amy’s husband, Robert Dudley, arranged her murder so that he could be free to marry Elizabeth I, and others believe that William Cecil orchestrated the murder to blacken Dudley’s name and to prevent him from marrying Elizabeth.
- An aortic aneurism – A modern theory that Amy was killed by the terminal enlargement of one of the arteries from the heart. Symptoms of this include depression, fits of anger, mental aberrations and pain and swelling in the chest.
In 2008, historian Steven Gunn found the coroner’s report in the National Archives while searching through 16th century accident records. According to the report, Amy had fallen down the stairs and sustained two head injuries, one a quarter of a thumb deep and the other two thumbs deep, and that she had also broken her neck in the fall, dying instantly. Chris Skidmore, in his book “Death and the Virgin”, used this report to suggest that Amy’s death could not be accidental, and that Dudley may have had his wife murdered. However, in her book “Amy Robsart: A Life and Its End”, Christine Hartweg successfully challenges this view, pointing out, amongst other factors, that Dudley’s fellow courtiers and statesmen did not believe him to be guilty, that he wouldn’t have been stupid enough to do something that laid him open to scandal, a scandal that wrecked his chances of ever marrying the queen never mind one that could have brought him down completely and seen him executed. Dudley also kept in touch with Thomas Blount, his steward and cousin, regarding his wife’s death and the investigation into it, and his letters show just how important it was to him for his wife’s death to be investigated properly. He also wanted to ensure that Amy’s body was examined and searched by the jury. Those don’t seem like the actions of a guilty man.
It is impossible to know what happened to Amy on that fateful day, but to me, an accident or suicide are the most logical conclusions. I would urge you to read Christine Hartweg’s book for a detailed examination of all of the theories, as well as an examination of all of the contemporary sources.
Amy was buried in the chancel of St Mary’s Church, Oxford, but her grave has been lost. A memorial tile, however, pays tribute to her:
“In a vault of brick, at the upper end of this quire, was buried Amy Robsart on Sunday 22nd September AD 1560.”