Amy Robsart was the first wife of Robert Dudley, Earl of Leicester. She was found with a broken neck in 1560. Controversy has raged ever since over the cause of her death.
Background to the Death
* Found dead at the foot of a flight of stairs at Cumnor Place, where she’d been staying.
* Dudley immediately ordered an inquest.
* Amy’s maid, Mrs Picto, said that it would be “chance” rather than “villainy”.
* The jury concluded that it was an accident.
* The coroner’s verdict claimed she had two head injuries, and was pronounced publicly on 1 August 1561.
* Amy was buried at St Mary’s, Oxford, supposedly costing Dudley £2,000.
* Dudley wore mourning for six months and retired to Kew for the first month. The court also wore mourning.
* Dudley knew there would be gossip, particularly about his relationship with Elizabeth.
* There were rumours of poison.
Details of the Death
* Supposedly found with a broken neck at the bottom of a flight of just eight steps.
* Surely couldn’t have broken it falling from that height – not enough velocity.
* Dudley was at court with Elizabeth.
* Robsart had sent all of the servants away for the day – they returned home and found her dead.
* Supposedly Amy’s hood still stood perfectly on her head.
Murder? Possible Suspects
*Elizabeth I – supposedly she wanted to marry Dudley but he was already married.
* Robert Dudley – rumours of a relationship between him and Elizabeth, supposedly he wanted to marry her. He was already married but he spent time away from Amy, and they had no children.
* William Cecil – Elizabeth’s Secretary who was supposedly jealous of Dudley’s influence and hoped that the death of his wife would halt their marriage plans.
* A supporter of a possible Habsburg match for Elizabeth – a possibility someone wanted to discredit Dudley so Elizabeth wouldn’t marry him, but why not go for Dudley himself? Too obvious?
* Someone jealous of Dudley’s influence at court so sought to decrease it by discrediting him through implication in the death of his wife.
* There were reports of Amy being not quite right in the head, particularly during the later months of her life.
* Did she have a terminal illness? Cancer or a tumour of some sort, and knew she was dying, didn’t want the pain. Also could have been a fainting spell turned nasty. Chris Skidmore goes into the possibility of illness in depth.[i]
* Emotional pain – hadn’t seen her husband in a year by the time of her death. Must have heard at least some rumours about Elizabeth and Dudley.
* Emphatic about sending the household and servants away for the day.
* However, she must have known that if it was found to be suicide, her possessions and inheritance would be forfeit (Dudley’s main source of income) and she wouldn’t be allowed a Christian burial in consecrated ground.
* 1584 Leicester’s Commonwealth – Richard Verney, a retainer of Dudley’s, forced the servants to go to a local fair then broke Amy’s neck and put her at the bottom of the stairs.
* 19th Century, Kenilworth by Sir Walter Scott – the villain is called Varney.
* James Anthony Froude believed Amy was murdered.[ii]
* Walter Rye 1885 The Murder of Amy Robsart – Amy was poisoned which failed and then gotten rid of by violent means.
* 1870 George Adlard Amy Robsart and the Earl of Leycester – suicide as an explanation.
* A.F. Pollard 1910 – Amy’s murder would make marriage between Elizabeth and Dudley impossible – neither of them to blame.
* 1956 Ian Aird suggested that Amy may have suffered from breast cancer where deposits in the spine could cause strain and falls.[iii]
* Alison Weir suggested that William Cecil was Amy’s murderer.[iv]
* George Bernard and Chris Skidmore supported the idea of Verney being the murderer.
* Most historians now believe that Dudley was innocent of wrongdoing.
* Frederick Chamberlin, Elizabeth and Leycester
* Susan Doran, Monarchy and Matrimony: the Courtships of Elizabeth I
* Sarah Gristwood, Elizabeth and Leicester: Power, Passion, Politics
* Alan Haynes, The White Bear: the Elizabethan Earl of Leicester
* Elizabeth Jenkins, Elizabeth and Leicester
* Chris Skidmore, Death and the Virgin: Elizabeth, Dudley and the Mysterious Death of Amy Robsart
* Alison Weir, Elizabeth the Queen