Amy Robsart Suffers an Unfortunate Accident
When Amy Robsart and Robert Dudley married in 1550, it was unquestionably a love match. Both were a few days shy of their 18th birthdays and apparently on the randy side, according to Baron William Cecil, who described their union as
“a carnal marriage, begun for pleasure”
Not that there’s anything wrong with that.
But there had always been another woman in Robert’s life, his childhood friend, Queen Elizabeth I. They met while imprisoned in the Tower during the reign of Queen(Bloody)Mary, and the shared trauma drew them ever closer.
After Elizabeth ascended the throne in 1558, she appointed Dudley as her Master of the Horse. This position conveniently allowed them daily contact. From that point on, poor Amy was on the shelf. Her husband sent her the occasional gift, but other than that he ghosted her.
It didn’t take long for the rumor mill to titter about the young Queen’s obvious favor for Robert Dudley – wife or no wife.
The Count of Feria wrote on April 19, 1559:
During the last few days, Lord Robert has come so much into favour that he does whatever he likes with affairs. It is even said that Her Majesty visits him in his chamber day and night. People talk of this freely that they go so far as to say that his wife has a malady in one of her breasts (breast cancer) and that the Queen is only waiting for her to die to marry Lord Robert.
This brings us to September 8, 1560, when Amy Robsart Dudley was found dead at the foot of a staircase at home in Oxfordshire, England. Robert was not in residence at the time.
When Robert learned of Amy’s fall, he ordered an immediate inquest. The cause of her death was ruled as accidental. But considering the players and the high stakes involved, this pronouncement did nothing to keep suspicions from growing and rumors from spreading.
Dudley had suspected this might be the case, so he requested that the matter be re-investigated. He wanted this new investigation conducted by a panel that included some of Amy’s friends and her half-brothers to remove any hint of bias.
His request was not granted.
The Queen’s Council despised Dudley, and that didn’t help his cause. The Council was quite content to see his chances of marrying Elizabeth go down the shit chute — whether it was justified or not hardly mattered.
After all, Dudley did want to marry the Queen, and he obviously couldn’t do that with Amy still in the picture. Despite the evidence and ruling supporting Robert’s innocence and Dudley’s genuine distress (although his distress probably had more to do with avoiding any further scandal, given his aspirations to marry the Queen) his enemies continued to shit stir.
Even though Dudley was at Windsor with the Queen at the time, that didn’t deter some at Court from still believing he was behind Amy’s death. They surmised he paid off his squire, Sir Richard Varney, to give wifey a wee push.
Or maybe it was William Cecil, Queen Elizabeth’s ever-devoted courtier. Did he arrange Amy’s murder to get back in his Queen’s good graces at Dudley’s expense, a man he completely despised? Talk about killing two birds with one stone. But it’s hard to imagine him risking his beloved Elizabeth’s reputation with such a scandal.
It is interesting to note that Amy ordered all of her servants to leave the manor on the day of her death. She told them to attend “Our Lady’s Fair” for the day. When they protested, Thomas Blount, Robert Dudley’s steward, was sent to investigate the matter. He reported that Amy was:
was so earnest to have them gone to the fair, that with any of her own sort that made reason of tarrying at home she was very angry, and came to Mrs. Odingsells … who refused that day to go to the fair, and was very angry with her also. Because [Mrs. Odingsells] said it was no day for gentlewomen to go … Whereunto my lady answered and said that she might choose and go at her pleasure, but all hers should go; and was very angry. They asked who should keep her company if all they went; she said Mrs. Owen should keep her company at dinner; the same tale doth Picto, who doth dearly love her, confirm. Certainly, my Lord, as little while as I have been here, I have heard divers tales of her that maketh me judge her to be a strange woman of mind.
Did Amy take the opportunity to commit suicide? She was reportedly deeply depressed. But in those days, taking one’s life was a guarantee of eternal hellfire. Is this what Amy believed? Or was she so depressed she didn’t care?
Let’s get back to that “malady of the breast.” Judging by contemporary accounts, it seems likely Amy was suffering from advanced breast cancer. This was certainly enough to inspire some serious melancholy. And Amy may have known her husband and Liz were waiting for her to run the clock out so they could marry.
Some speculate that Amy’s illness gives credence to the theory her death was an accident resulting from the fall. Metastatic breast cancer can cause weakening of the bones and spontaneous fractures. The cancer may have spread to her spine, causing her neck to snap like a dry twig upon impact. So, Amy’s demise could have been the result of her “malady of the breast.”
That would tie everything together nicely, except the coroner also noted two head wounds, one “of the depth of a quarter of a thumb”, and the other “of the depth of two thumbs.” These types of injuries could indicate Amy was attacked. It’s more likely they resulted from her fall, as believed at the time.
The jury ruled her death accidental in the end. But that hasn’t stopped people from analyzing the case centuries later, still hoping to discover if there was more to Amy’s death than an unfortunate tumble down the stairs. It was always worth a raised eyebrow when someone connected to the Tudor Court ended up inexplicably dead.