“Your Majesty! Your Majesty!”
Elizabeth awoke from her slumber to hear her Lady in Waiting knocking at the door to her bed chamber.
“A messenger from Cumnor Place with urgent news”
Elizabeth immediately knew the subject of the news. She knew who lived at Cumnor Place. No one however would wake theQueen unless the message was of utmost importance. “Have the messenger enter the ante-room. I will hear his message from my bed chamber”. No one would see the Queen in her night clothes.
“Your Majesty, I regret to inform you that the Lady Amy Robsart is dead at Cumnor Place”.
Elizabeth was stunned. She knew the message would be about Lady Robsart but didn’t expect she would be dead. Lady Amy was ill with the disease which began with the lump in the breast but the regular reports she received from her informants did not indicate that death was imminent.
“Did she die of the disease?”
“No your Majesty. She was found at the foot of her staircase. It appears she fell down the stairs and incurred two head wounds and a broken neck”
A further question from the Queen indicated that no one outside of the house had yet been told. Elizabeth dismissed the messenger and called to her Lady in Waiting. “Rouse Sir Robert from his bed and bid him attend me!”
Sir Robert Dudley lived in the royal apartments adjacent to hers. Robert Dudley was her “favorite”; the man she kept closely at her side; the man every Prince in Europe knew she would have as husband and no other.
There had always been only one problem. Robert Dudley, Earl of Leicester was married. He was married to the Lady Amy Robsart.
Leicester’s wife was dead but her death was unexpected. Elizabeth briefly mulled whether or not Sir Robert might have had her disposed by one of his loyal retinue. Did he love the Queen enough to kill his wife in order to be free to marry? Or perhaps Lady Amy simply fell down the stairs. She was ill. A light headedness or a swoon could have resulted in her death. Who however, would believe it? Most everyone would believe Sir Robert was guilty.
Their love was well known. Even the Spanish Ambassador wrote in confidence to Phillip of Spain that “Sir Robert knows her better than any man.” They had first met when she was still Princess Elizabeth. Both of them had been locked in the Tower, she for suspicion of rebellion against her half-sister Queen Mary and he because he was the son of the man who had tried to put Lady Jane Grey on the throne of England. Sir Robert’s father had been executed by Mary along with his brother, the husband of the tragic Lady Jane. Elizabeth and Robert met in prison and she had kept him at her side ever since their days in confinement.
He stayed at Court at her command while his wife. who was not welcome at Court, was kept far from him. Elizabeth would let him visit her perhaps every six months for a day or two – at Christmas and high Summer. Elizabeth was miserable when Sir Robert wasn’t near her. She often wondered whether he loved her or loved her not.
The Queen’s informants kept her apprised of Lady Amy’s life and it was these informants who first told Elizabeth that the wife of the man she wanted was gravely ill.
Now she was dead, but under somewhat scandalous circumstances.
“Sir Robert is here Your Majesty” as he entered the bed chamber while the Lady in Waiting discreetly left the room and closed the oaken doors behind her.
Robert looked around to make sure the doors were secure and no one was within hearing distance. “What is it that rouses us at this hour my Lady?”
“I have bad news Robert. Your wife, Lady Amy is dead. A messenger arrived from Cumnor Place just a short time ago”.
Robert was stunned. His hands covered his face as he collapsed into a chair. Shaking his head from side to side he had a look of deepest grief. “How did she die? How can this be? Was she not well?”
“I am told she fell down the staircase and died from her injuries. She was found some time later. She was ill with the breast disease but apparently did not die from it.”.
Robert looked up quickly. He did not know his wife was ill but obviously Elizabeth had been having her watched. He sank into his chair and began to quietly weep. His marriage had been a love match and now it was over.
If Elizabeth had any thoughts that Sir Robert killed his wife she quickly gave them up, seeing his reactions. He clearly had no fore knowledge that her end was near. He seemed to sincerely grieve her loss, no matter that Elizabeth had kept them apart because she wanted him to herself. Now she felt ambivalent; glad that Sir Robert did not dispose of Amy and sad to realize that he would not kill her for the chance to marry the Queen of England. She was jealous of the love he had for another.
Sir Robert gathered himself together and rose slowly from the chair, suddenly glaring at Elizabeth. The Queen, not used to being glared at was about to remind him of his place when it suddenly dawned on her what was going through his mind.
“I assure you Robert that I had nothing to do with Lady Amy’s death!” Yes she was jealous, yes she had her watched, yes she kept them apart, yes she wanted to marry the husband but Elizabeth swore she did not kill her rival for Sir Robert’s affections.
“And who in this kingdom, who in all the kingdom’s of Europe will believe us? Half will think I am guilty, half will think it you. Others will speculate someone in our pay, perhaps thinking they heard one of us say “Will no one rid me of this woman?”
Elizabeth was stunned to come to the realization that, considering her relationship with Robert, no one would believe Lady Amy’s death was an accident. Especially if they married. Now that Robert was free to marry her, the door had been closed forever.
Elizabeth held back her feelings of anguish, jealousy and loss. It was time to act like the Queen.
“Tomorrow I will announce the death of your wife and I will banish you from Court. You will order a complete investigation of Amy’s death to determine the cause. Her family will conduct the investigation. You will not go to the place where she died until the investigation is over. If you are innocent of any wrongdoing I will call you back. Now leave me”.
Robert left Court and complied completely with the Queen’s wishes. Within days his political enemies were whispering that he had arranged for the death of his wife so he could marry the Queen.
Judgement was eventually rendered that Lady Amy had died in a tragic accident. Robert was called back to the side of Queen Elizabeth. They never married.
Some 18 years later Robert Dudley would marry Lettice Knollys, the Lady Essex in a secret ceremony in front of a few friends and family. Sir Robert didn’t dare tell the Queen. The marriage was kept a secret from Elizabeth for the better part of a year when Leicester’s enemies at Court made the Queen aware.
Elizabeth was both enraged and deeply hurt by the marriage of her favorite and she never accepted it, humiliating Leicester in public, calling his new wife a “she wolf”. Lettice’s social life was greatly curtailed as Elizabeth would not have her at Court, her presence conveying “great offence”.
Ten years after his marriage, Sir Robert would lead the defense of London against the coming of the Spanish Armada, inviting the Queen to address her troops. Elizabeth “with the body of a weak and feeble woman” called on her soldiers to follow their General “in my stead” for “no Prince has commanded a more noble and worthy subject”. Sir Robert walked along side her as she rode through the ranks, holding her horse, his head bare.
After the Armada, Sir Robert was seen riding gloriously in London “as if a King”. He was invited to dine with the Queen on several occasions, considered a symbol of “great love and affection.”
Leicester died suddenly on September 4, 1588 probably from malaria or stomach cancer. He was 55 years old and his health had been in decline for some time. His passing however was unexpected and the Queen in her grief shut herself in her rooms until finally they had to be broken down to ensure her safety and well being.
She kept his last letter, written a week earlier, in a treasure box by her bed, marked in her own hand “his last letter” until the day she died.