Happy Valentine’s Day, everyone. It felt appropriate to mark the holiday here with a post on one of the most famous – if debatable – love stories from royal history: Elizabeth I and Robert Dudley, Earl of Leicester. Fans of the 1998 film and/or readers of any of dozens of historical novels on the subject may well have a sense for the general trajectory, but while the real story is certainly bittersweet, it is decidedly less neat and tidy.
While most of us are familiar with Elizabeth I, for the uninitiated she is perhaps England’s most famous monarch. Her father was Henry VIII and her mother was Anne Boleyn, the King’s second wife and the one who helped inspire England’s break from Rome. When she was two-and-a-half her father had her mother executed on trumped up charges of adultery, but not before annulling their marriage and declaring Elizabeth a bastard.
For the country’s noble families, survival meant acknowledging Henry as the head of the English Church, but not veering so far into the reformed faith as to be branded a heretic. It also meant navigating the rise and fall of other noble families attached to Henry’s subsequent wives, from the Seymours to the Howards to the Parrs. Once Henry’s third wife, Queen Jane, delivered a healthy son and Henry’s health began to falter in the 1540s, a new sort of political positioning began: preparing for the reality of a minority government.
Robert Dudley belonged to a family doing exactly that. Born in June 1533 (just three months before Elizabeth), Robert was the son of John Dudley and Jane Guildford, while his grandfather, Edmund Dudley, had been one of the first executions of Henry’s reign for his role in Henry VII’s government. The faint air of treason hung over the Dudley name, though John showed himself to be a courtier through and through and scraped his way back into respectability.
Both John and Jane embraced the reformed faith – indeed, Jane served both Anne Boleyn and Anne of Cleves as a lady-in-waiting, while John’s beliefs veered further into the extreme, bordering on evangelicalism. John befriended the Seymours, whose position at court seemed assured even after the Queen’s death in 1537 thanks to Prince Edward. He was named Viscount Lisle in 1542 and he and Jane were active members of the court during Henry’s marriage to Katherine Parr.
It was during these years that Robert and Elizabeth first met, as children. It’s unclear when exactly they crossed paths, but given that her last two stepmothers – Katherine Howard and Katherine Parr – took active steps to reunite Henry with all three of his children, Elizabeth spent more time at court and with her father in the 1540s then she did in her formative years. Given the influence of John and Jane, Robert and an assortment of his siblings were chosen as playfellows for Prince Edward, and when Elizabeth was in residence she would have joined them.
Robert and Elizabeth grew close quickly – or, as he would write much later in life, “I have known her better than any man alive since she was eight years old.” Elizabeth turned eight in September 1541, which adds further weight to another anecdote shared by Robert that it was around this time she declared to him: “I will never marry.” The story is almost too perfect to be true, but it’s worth mentioning that it would be this same year that Elizabeth watched her stepmother, Katherine Howard, be accused of sexual impropriety and adultery by her father and sent to the block. She would have been well-aware of her mother’s fate by then and it’s difficult not to play armchair psychologist for how those events formed her ideas of marriage and gender.
When Henry died in January 1547, Prince Edward became King Edward VI and his government was run in his name by his maternal uncle, Edward Seymour, now Duke of Somerset. John Dudley was right by his side and was soon named the Earl of Warwick, a lofty and historic title that displayed how far he had risen. But for the children, not too much changed, though all would have been old enough by then to have a better sense of how important it was to keep the nine-year-old king happy.
Elizabeth, now an orphan, was absorbed into Katherine Parr’s household soon after the woman’s hasty marriage to Edward’s other maternal uncle, Thomas Seymour. While there, an inappropriate relationship began that seems to have been premised on Thomas’s desire to eventually marry the young princess. Today, of course, we would call this child molestation, but that’s certainly not how it was seen then. When Katherine Parr found out what was going on, Elizabeth was removed from the household, though the two were on good terms by the time Katherine died in childbirth in 1548.
Thomas’s actions in the following months indicate he was once again contemplating marrying Elizabeth, though his brother made it clear he would never condone it as Lord Protector. The dynamics within the Parr/Seymour household came to light, Elizabeth was hauled in for questioning and given Thomas’s increasingly erratic behavior at court as he sought to gain control of Edward, he was executed in March 1549. Elizabeth was let go, having learned another unfortunate lesson about men and marriage at just 15.
Robert and Elizabeth likely didn’t spend considerable amounts of time together in these years, though they would have seen each other fleetingly when Elizabeth was at court. Robert, however, was soon wrapped up in his own love affair with Amy Robsart, the daughter of a Norfolk-based farmer and knight. Amy stood to inherit the entirety of her father’s estate, which would eventually equip Robert with the funds he needed to support a court career. Even so, the marriage was reportedly based on love, a fact supported by William Cecil, who would eventually become Elizabeth’s most powerful councilor.
But Amy wouldn’t inherit until after both her parents died, meaning that the young couple’s first years together were made possible by family loans, especially from John. The wedding took place at Sheen in June 1550 in the presence of King Edward. By then, John had staged a coup of his own. The Duke of Somerset was ousted from power in the autumn of 1549 following Kent’s rebellion and not helped by the behavior of his brother. John was made Lord Protector in February 1550 and was named Duke of Northumberland in October 1551. Four months later, Somerset was executed.
While Robert had been allowed to marry for love, no doubt helped by the wealth of Amy’s father, his brothers wouldn’t be so fortunate. The eldest of his brothers, another John, was married to Somerset’s eldest daughter the same month Robert married Amy. Guildford was married to Lady Jane Grey, however this match was by far more political and ambitious in nature. King Edward fell ill in February 1553 and over the next months failed to recover. He was 15, unmarried and childless. The succession, as laid out by his father in 1546, named his elder sister, Mary, a Catholic in her mid-30s, his heir.
John, horrified by the idea of losing power and the return of Catholicism, arranged for the King to name his cousin, Jane Grey, his heir on the grounds that Mary and Elizabeth had both at one point been deemed illegitimate by their father. Jane, on the other hand, was the granddaughter of Henry VIII’s younger sister, Mary, via her second marriage to Charles Brandon. Placing Jane on the throne with Guildford as her husband ensured that John kept his power by setting up an effective puppet monarchy that he could control.
At least, that was the idea. When Edward died in July Jane was declared queen, but she only “reigned” for a brief nine days. She was completely unknown to the English people, whereas Mary held considerable hold over public sympathy. Mary wrested back control of the capitol, John capitulated and all the “traitors” were rounded up and placed in the Tower. I’m simplifying matters considerably, but you can read about the event in more detail here.
Among those arrested were John and his five sons: Robert, Guildford, John, Henry and Ambrose. The adolescent Jane was also kept in the Tower, but her mother, Mary’s first cousin, was never arrested and was able to secure the release of her husband. The Dudley men were tried on August 18, found guilty and condemned to death. John’s execution was to be carried out first, on the 21st, but at the last minute it was cancelled and he was instead given the opportunity to embrace Catholicism. Apparently, it was only a move meant to humiliate for him – once he capitulated and took mass, he was swiftly executed anyway on the 22nd. A forgiving read of Mary in this was that she was giving him the opportunity to save his soul before death.
His five sons and Jane remained under lock and key, their fates undetermined. So, where was Elizabeth in all of this? She stayed far away from the machinations of the Dudley coup. Not yet 20, her political instincts were sharp enough that she knew better than to gamble and instead waited for the chips to fall where they may. When Mary rode into London triumphant on August 3, Elizabeth was at her side playing the part of the loyal sister. No doubt she had some personal misgivings given that her childhood friends were held in the Tower – indeed, she likely steeled herself for their deaths.
But though Mary would eventually be bestowed the moniker “Bloody Mary” by history, she didn’t seek bloodshed at the start of her reign. John’s death was a necessity, but his accomplices were left alone for the next several months as Mary was crowned, opened her first Parliament and began planning her marriage to Philip of Spain. It was news of this match which prompted the next wave of turmoil, for the general feeling was that the presence of a foreign king would force England to bend its knee to Spain and the eventual inheritance of their child would ensure that England was continually subjugated to remote, continental rule.
Wyatt’s Rebellion began in January 1554 with the end goal of placing replacing Mary with Elizabeth and Elizabeth marrying her cousin, William Courtenay, a Plantagenet descendant via Katherine of York, daughter of Edward IV and Elizabeth Woodville. What’s less clear is how involved Elizabeth was – indeed, it’s still debated by historians today. What is clear is that there was no credible evidence linking her to the rebellion, which was quickly quashed, and she maintained her innocence during intensive questioning. Nevertheless, Elizabeth was arrested and placed in the Tower.
In the middle of the rebellion, Mary’s councilors warned her to have the remaining accomplices to the Dudley coup executed for the Queen was now facing two Protestant alternatives that would continue to inspire treason. She agreed. On the morning of February 12, Guildford was put to death, followed by Jane that afternoon. It was as much about Elizabeth as it was about Jane, for it served as an effective warning shot across the bow for how far Mary was willing to go to protect her crown.
Over the next several months, both Robert and Elizabeth were prisoners in the Tower living with the very real expectation they could be executed at any time. Many have hypothesized that their romance began then, however it’s unclear whether they ever interacted. Elizabeth, particularly, was closely guarded. What it did do, however, was give them a shared experience over which they would later bond. Elizabeth often referred to this period of her life as the most traumatic and she would allude to it even years later as a sign of God’s will to place her on the throne by sparing her the block.
As for Amy, those months were dicey and she was reliant on the charity of her in-laws. Jane Guildford managed to worm her way back into the good graces of Mary despite her husband, and she and her son-in-law, Henry Sidney, (married to Robert’s sister, Mary) served as good lobbyists by flattering the Spaniards who arrived in the summer of 1554 for Philip’s wedding to Mary. Their efforts paid off and by the autumn, Robert, John and Henry were freed. John died soon after from illness and the family heir became Ambrose, who would eventually be let go by the end of the year.
Elizabeth, meanwhile, was moved from the Tower in May 1554 to house arrest at Woodstock. She remained there until April 1555 when Mary called her to court. Her relief came from the fact that Mary believed herself pregnant, thus making Elizabeth’s claim obsolete. Here she likely encountered Robert, who was playing the part of dutiful courtier alongside his brothers now that they were pardoned. Unfortunately, it was only the Spanish who liked them. When it became clear that Mary wasn’t in fact pregnant and Philip returned to Spain, the Dudleys were dismissed. This would be their last meeting until Elizabeth’s accession. She retired to Hatfield in the country to lay low.
In January 1557, Robert and Amy were allowed to take back their land and later that year it was Robert who delivered Mary the welcome news that Philip, after skipping out on his wife for the better part of two years to take control of Spain after his father’s abdication, was returning. In August, Robert and Henry fought for Philip at the Battle of St. Quentin and Henry was killed by a cannon ball before Robert’s very eyes. Fortunately for the Dudleys, these were the last of Mary’s days. After once again believing herself pregnant, it became apparent that she was in fact dying. She passed away in London that November and the throne passed – finally – to the 25-year-old Elizabeth.
Neither Robert nor Elizabeth had forgotten their friendship. In the last year of Mary’s reign, Robert lived with Amy in Norfolk while Elizabeth remained at Hatfield, but at one point he sold a piece of his land to help her financially. When news came that she was queen, Robert immediately rode to Hatfield to offer her his devotion. And his loyalty was rewarded: Elizabeth swiftly named him Master of the Horse, which granted him a powerful position at court and an annual salary of £1,500 (more than a quarter million in today’s money). The position suited him – Robert was an excellent rider and jouster and under his management, the state of the royal stables improved considerably.
As such, from the moment Elizabeth ascended the throne, she and Robert were in constant contact. When she rode, his place in the procession was immediately behind her. The two met and conversed daily, and soon they began riding out together regularly, Robert becoming seen as one of the men closest to the young queen. Alison Weir writes in her biography of Elizabeth:
“He [Robert] was cultivated, witty, charming and attractive: in fact, a stimulating companion. Elizabeth could relax in his company, and he, sharing the same mischievous sense of humor, knew well how to amuse her. He alone had the gift of teasing her without giving any offense, and it was later said of him, by one of his friends, that he knew her ‘better than any man.'”
“When she was with him, she was anything but discreet, making no secret of her affection for him. She spoke of him often and never missed a chance to praise his talents as a horseman or as an arranger of tournaments and courtly entertainments. She openly danced spirited galliards with him, leaping into the air ‘after the Florentine style, with a high magnificence that astonished beholders.’
“For someone who normally set a high value on the good opinion of her people, she appeared to care not a jot what they were thinking.”
Almost immediately the topic of Elizabeth’s marriage prompted furious political speculation. Mary’s widower, Philip II, hoped to continue his role as “King of England,” but it was never a serious proposition to Elizabeth and he eventually married Elizabeth of Valois, daughter of Henry II of France and Katherine de’Medici. Two of the English contenders were Sir William Pickering and Henry FitzAlan, Earl of Arundel. The third was Robert. The only catch was that he was already married.
Amy didn’t follow Robert to court, and Robert rarely visited her, a fact noted by just about everyone. Her health by the early days of 1559 was poor, and Robert was swept up in the coronation, so their separation made a certain amount of logistical sense. But then there was the fact that Elizabeth didn’t like Robert to be apart from her, so much so that his visit to see his wife at Easter was notable. Amy followed him to court in May when she was feeling a bit better, but by then nearly everyone was convinced her husband and the Queen were in love.
The Spanish Ambassador wrote to Philip II in April 1559:
“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 so freely that they go so far as t say that his wife has a malady in one of her breasts, and that the Queen is only waiting for her to die to marry Lord Robert. I can assure Your Majesty that matters have reached such a pass that I have been brought to consider whether it would be well to approach Lord Robert on Your Majesty’s behalf, promising him your help and favour and coming to terms with him.”
Such was the influence of Robert. Elizabeth turned to him for much more than horses, seeking his counsel on matters of state and the clergy – by some estimates, he was responsible for the advancement of 27 members of the higher clergy in the first years of the Elizabethan reign. One man very much not a fan of the unfolding situation was William Cecil, who served as Secretary of State and leader of the Privy Council. On April 23, Elizabeth bestowed on Robert the Order of the Garter alongside the Duke of Norfolk (grandson of the more famous Thomas Howard, 3rd Duke of Norfolk) and the Earl of Rutland. The disparity between Robert and these men, him being the son and grandson of executed traitors, only highlighted that his primary qualification was the affection of the Queen.
It’s safe to say that the two were indeed in love. Their personalities were both mercurial and prone to arrogance, but changed radically when in each other’s company. Their surviving letters to one another show warmth and keen personal regard – she referred to him as “Bonny sweet Robin” and “Eyes,” to which he alluded with two lines over two circles in his personal cipher. But Elizabeth was not lovesick, nor did she have any intention of being ruled by anyone. While Robert’s advice was sought, it was never valued as highly as that of her ministers.
In many ways, their relationship may well have been possible because Robert was married, for Elizabeth could safely play with the situation and still fall back on the defense that marriage to him was impossible. Amy was away, Robert was attentive and Elizabeth was having fun with seemingly little risk. In the background, of course, she was still dangling her unmarried hand before foreign ambassadors, demurring at their formal offers on behalf of their masters and bestowing enough favor to keep them on their toes.
That summer Elizabeth embarked on a progress through the country, Robert at her side. Their relationship appeared to intensify alongside a growing need for her to secure the Protestant succession. She still kept the hopes of men like Arundel alive, while engaging the Austrians and the Swedish, but the full thrust of her attention was aimed solely on Robert. In the background, Henry II of France died and was succeeded by his son, Francis II, married to none other than Elizabeth’s cousin, Mary Stuart, Queen of Scotland. During his lifetime, Henry II had declared his daughter-in-law the rightful queen of England on the grounds of Elizabeth’s illegitimacy, while Mary’s Catholicism made her an figurehead for English Catholics. It seemed imperative, then, that Elizabeth, like her cousin, take a husband and get around to the business of providing an heir.
The more favor she bestowed on Robert, the more hated he became, but in a way that only added another layer of safety for Elizabeth. Robert was unpopular – if she dropped him tomorrow, he would lose all of his power and influence. He was beholden to her and not the other way around, a dynamic that worked for the Queen even as she amusedly tolerated his hauteur towards other.
By August rumors spread that Elizabeth was pregnant with Robert’s child, a lie hotly denied. Her former governess and now lady, Kat Ashley, took it upon herself to urge her to marry one of the available appropriate princes, which Elizabeth refused to do. Then, Ashley protested, did it not make sense to put Robert away knowing the trouble it was causing? But she couldn’t, Elizabeth replied with emotion, “in this world she had so much sorrow and tribulation and so little joy.”
Robert did nothing to help himself, openly favoring the French over the Spanish and arguing that England should be at the forefront of the religious wars, ushering in a universal wave of Protestantism (over the years he would oscillate between the French and the Spanish). As such, he alienated as many traditionalists and Catholics as he attracted reformers. That autumn, the Duke of Norfolk accused him of meddling in affairs above his station, prompting a heated public exchange between the two men. But while Norfolk secretly had the backing of Cecil, Robert still had Elizabeth – the Duke was swiftly dispatched to the Scottish border.
One Ambassador wrote at the end of the year that she had grown so prideful as to become blinded by the reality of the situation. “But here she errs,” he wrote, “For if she took my Lord Robert, she will incur so much enmity that may one evening lay herself down as Queen of England, and rise the next morning as plain Mistress Elizabeth.”
By March 1560, new rumors spread that Robert was seeking to annul his marriage. Bishop de Quadra, the Spanish Ambassador, wrote home that he overheard Robert boasting:
“…[I]f he lives another year, he will be in a very different position from now. He is laying in a good stock of arms and is every day assuming a more masterful part in affairs. Every day he presumes more and more, and it is now said that he means to divorce his wife.”
Perhaps, but there is no evidence to support Robert taking tangible steps to legally separate from his wife. More damaging, concurrent rumors spread that Elizabeth had already given birth to Robert’s child, gossip which was believed by many as late as the 1570s. Soon, Robert’s unpopularity began to spread to Elizabeth, particularly when Cecil left court for long periods of time in 1560 to address strife with Scotland. De Quadra wrote that summer:
“The cry is, that they [the English] do not want any more women rules, and this woman may therefore find herself and her faovrites in prison any morning.”
As for Amy, she continued to live away from court and infrequently saw her husband. If he visited her rarely in 1559, it was even less in 1560. Nor did Robert keep a permanent house, thus Amy was forced to love nomadically in the homes of various friends and family. Robert looked after his wife financially, sending her frequent gifts of money and other material things. When she traveled she did so with servants and companions. In the summer of 1560, as rumors about her husband reached fever pitch, she moved to Cumnor Place owned by William Owen, son of Henry VIII’s physician. By the end of the season, it’s unclear what the state of Amy’s physical health was despite the words of ambassadors noting a “malady in one of her breasts.” There is, however, indication she was severely depressed, though these came from one of her maids and a written attack on her husband made over two decades later – both sources leave room for debate over their veracity.
Back at court, Cecil unburdened himself to De Quadra, who soon wrote:
“After my conversation with the Queen I met with Secretary Cecil, whom I knew to be in disgrace. Lord Robert, I was aware, was endeavoring to deprive him of his place. With little difficulty I led him to the subject, and after my many protestations that I would keep secret what he was about to tell me, he said that the Queen was conducting herself in such a way that he was about to withdraw from her service. It was a paid sailor, he said, who did not make for port when he saw a storm coming, and for himself he perceived the manifest ruin impending over the Queen through her intimacy with Lord Robert. The Lord Robert had made himself master of the business of the state, and of the person of the Queen, to the extreme injury of the realm, with the intention of marrying her, and she herself was shutting herself up in the palace to the peril of her health and life.”
Worse, Cecil noted that “They had given out that she was ill.” The “she” in question being Amy, implying that the couple were plotting against her.
On September 8, Amy gave all of her servants permission to leave and attend a local fair. When some protested it was unseemly to do so on a Sunday, she rebuked them for defying her orders and they left. One of her companions, who didn’t have to obey her, remained home and stayed in her room. Around 11 am, Amy took lunch with the mistress of the house, Mrs. Owen. Afterwards, everyone appears to have departed for their private rooms and the house was quiet. In the late afternoon, the servants returned and found Amy dead at the foot of a flight of stairs with a broken neck.
On September 9, a manservant from the household arrived at court, found Robert with Elizabeth and delivered the news to them together. Both appeared shocked to the point of speechlessness and Robert learned that a man in his employ, Thomas Blount, who had met the servant on his way to court, was already traveling to Cumnor. He wrote to him:
“Cousin Blount, the greatest and suddenness of the misfortune doth so perplex me until I do hear from you how the matter standeth, or how this evil should light upon me, considering what the malicious world will bruit, as I can take no rest. And, because I have no way to purge myself of the malicious talk that I know the wicked world will use, but one which is the very plain truth to be known, I do pray you, as you have loved me, and do tender me and my quietness, and as now my special trust is in you, that you will use all the devices and means you can possibly for learning of the truth, wherein have no respect to any living person.”
Two days later, Elizabeth ordered the news to be made public and, knowing how her court would respond, concurrently ordered a formal inquest. In the meantime, she ordered Robert to leave for his house at Kew until the coroner’s report was final. As the various investigations unfolded at Cumnor and Amy’s servants and friends were questioned, Blount wrote to Robert:
“Certainly, my lord, as little while as I have been here, I have heard divers tales of her that maketh me to judge her to be a strange woman of mind.”
The insinuation, of course, was suicide, while Robert believed she was murdered and the whole of England was certain she was not only murdered, but at the hands of her husband. Robert’s removal ushered Cecil back into Elizabeth’s good graces, and a few days after Amy’s death Cecil visited him at Kew – likely this wasn’t out of sincere sympathy, but rather a way of gauging Robert’s reaction for himself and keeping him, even if temporarily, on his good side.
The limbo was short-lived and the coroner’s final verdict was that Amy’s death was an accident, a judgment taken as gospel by Elizabeth, Cecil and many others. Robert, on the other hand, still believed she had been murdered and that so long as a killer wasn’t named it left room for speculation that it was him. Elizabeth ignored his protestations and invited him to join her at Windsor while ordering that the court go into full mourning for Amy.
Robert’s instincts were correct when it came to perception – even if a number of the nobility assumed his innocence, his enemies certainly didn’t, nor did the majority of the public or European courts. We can’t say for certain that Robert didn’t kill her based on the evidence – which is scarce – but it would have been incredibly stupid. Given that his first instinct was horror that he would be accused of murder, he had to have known that doing so would have made it impossible for him to marry Elizabeth. Suicide and accident are both possible, though it’s worth noting the act of suicide was considered a mortal sin in Tudor England. Sill further, we can’t rule out that she was murdered by a third party, though it raises the question, who would kill Amy and what was their motive? You could make the argument that it was someone who wanted Robert free and clear to marry Elizabeth, but such a person would undoubtedly have understood what it would do to his reputation.
While the situation did nothing to cool the relationship between the two, the reality of the situation was clearly seen by the Queen. Elizabeth, as she listened to the gossip and heard word of what was being said by her across the continent, struggled to hold her head up high. According to Cecil, she told him in October that she wouldn’t marry Robert. The next month it was announced that Elizabeth meant to raise her favorite into the peerage after months of nagging from him. Yet in the middle of the investiture ceremony Elizabeth held out the papers and cut them with a knife stating that she would not so elevate a man who had three generations of traitors in his family.
Robert was horrified, but Elizabeth was making a public declaration. When he asked her not to abuse him publicly she responded by patting his cheek and saying, “No, no, the bear and ragged staff are not so soon overthrown” in reference to the crests worn by his father and eldest brother. The spectacle cooled the gossip and though Robert remained at her side, powerful and favored, the immediate crisis was over.
A year later, another ambassador at Elizabeth’s court wrote to his master:
“[Elizabeth said] that she had never thought of contracting a marriage with my Lord Robert, but she was more attached to him than to any of the others, because when she was deserted by everybody in the reign of her sister, not only did he never lessen in any degree his kindness and humble attention to her, but he even sold his possessions that he might assist her with money, and therefore she thought it was just that she should make some return for his good faith and consistency.”
But Robert hadn’t given up hope. In January 1562, he approached Bishop de Quadra and asked that he petition Philip to endorse his marriage to Elizabeth, but the Ambassador declined and instead offered to raise the subject with the Queen herself. When he did, Elizabeth requested the written endorsement of European princes, but de Quadra was skeptical, having learned her ways by now, and sidestepped the matter. Around the same time, Elizabeth restored the Dudley land to Robert, providing him with extra income. Once again, gossip spread that she finally meant to marry him – aided on by Robert stating Elizabeth had promised it at some future date – but nothing came of it. Robert’s words may very well have been true, but by now he was one of the few from court who believed Elizabeth’s word.
A few months later, Elizabeth fell deathly ill with smallpox. Unmarried and childless, her government went into crisis mode over who would succeed her to the throne and who would safeguard the country in the interim. Her cousin, Mary Stuart, was now widowed and had departed France for Scotland – she was young, beautiful, Catholic and actively seeking a husband. Her other cousin, Margaret Douglas, Countess of Lennox, stood in the wings, married with two sons. Nevertheless, on what was presumed to be her deathbed, Elizabeth named Robert as Lord Protector, swearing that nothing inappropriate had ever transpired between them. Elizabeth recovered and Robert came out of the entire ordeal with a place – finally – on the Privy Council. As always, he remained loyal – from then until his death, he was a reliable council member and attended the majority of meetings. His life, after all, was Elizabeth.
By early 1563, the tides in public opinion were turning as the Elizabeth’s single status became more and more of an issue. She was due to turn 30 that year and her most likely successor was Mary Stuart, horrifying Protestants. Robert, though he was loathed, could for the first time be tolerated so long as he helped ensure a child. And Robert, believing his moment had finally arrived, was one of the members of Parliament to apply political pressure on her, begging her to marry for the good of the country.
Elizabeth was enraged, declaring that the matter of her marriage was none of her subjects’ business, and in retaliation she offered up Robert as a possible husband for Mary. Her reasoning, supported by Cecil, was that since his loyalty was unwavering he would ensure Scotland remained peaceful towards England and would never allow a foreign alliance to work against English interest. As for Cecil, it finally removed Robert from court. A few months later, she bestowed on him Kenilworth Castle, while he maintained apartments next to Elizabeth’s in all of her residences and acted as host at court events. The Scottish, like the English, hardly knew what do with Elizabeth’s offer of Robert, but offer him she did.
As for Mary, once queen of France, the idea of marrying an English subject without any actual title was offensive. She entertained it only officially to gauge whether Elizabeth would be willing to name her heir. In this Mary was at least aligned with Robert, who was horrified by the idea of going to Scotland and firmly against the match.
Even so, a Scottish envoy, James Melville, arrived at the English court in 1564 and was warmly greeted by Elizabeth. So as to make Robert more palatable, she finally raised him to the peerage and invested him as the Earl of Leicester. Yet, as she did, she tickled his neck as he knelt before her so she could lay the collar and mantle of his new position around his shoulders. Understandably, Melville didn’t know what to do with this. Later on, she invited him with Robert and Cecil to her bedchamber where she made a great show of taking a miniature of her cousin from her cabinet and kissing it. Also in the cabinet was a package wrapped in paper with “My Lord’s picture” written on it. When prompted to show him, Elizabeth displayed to Melville a miniature of Robert himself. Melville suggested it would be a fitting gift for Mary, but Elizabeth refused on the grounds she had only one. Needless to say, no one was convinced of the Queen’s sincerity.
In the end, of course, Mary married Margaret Douglas’s son, Henry Stuart, Lord Darnley. And we know how that turned out...
The following year was a difficult one for Elizabeth; nor was it made easier by rumors that Robert was flirting with a young woman at court, Lettice Knollys. Lettice was hardly an obscure figure – for the last four years she had been married to Walter Devereux, Viscount Hereford. More importantly, she was the daughter of Katherine Carey, herself a daughter of Mary Boleyn, sister to Elizabeth’s mother. At the very least, this made Lettice Elizabeth’s cousin, but decades-old rumors still held on that Katherine had been Mary’s illegitimate daughter from her affair with Henry VIII, making her Elizabeth’s half-sister and Lettice her niece. Regardless, Lettice was a beautiful redhead, 10 years younger than the Queen. Naturally, Elizabeth hated her.
To even the playing field she began flirting with Robert’s friend, Thomas Heneage, a gentleman of the Privy Chamber, which predictably inspired jealousy. Angrily, Robert asked for leave “to go to stay at my own place as other men,” an allusion to how close Elizabeth kept him. Three days later, she summoned him to Windsor and they fought, both accusing the other of the same crime, with Elizabeth adding the stinging rebuke that she was sorry she had wasted so much time on him. In front of others, she shouted, “God’s death, my Lord, I have wished you well, but my favor is not so locked up for you that others shall not participate thereof. And if you think to rule here, I will take a course to see you forthcoming. I will have but one mistress and no master.”
It marked a pivotal moment in their relationship. Both still loved the other, but it had become increasingly clear to Robert that she didn’t intend to marry him. Even so, he still occasionally held out hope. In a way, their relationship became to establish itself like an open marriage – they were theirs emotionally, but both carried on affairs with others, hers of the mental variety while he was free to pursue the physical.
But that dynamic took years to shift into place. At Christmas 1565, Robert outright proposed marriage and though Elizabeth promised him an answer by Candlemas (in February), none would be given. They fought and came back together. Such was the pattern.
In many ways Elizabeth’s behavior towards Robert was abusive. It would be too far to say that it was akin to Henry VIII’s treatment of women, for Elizabeth never sought violence against any of the men in her life and, indeed, she showed more loyalty towards Robert than Henry did towards any of his wives. Nevertheless, she held all of the power. She wanted Robert to be available to her in every sense, and therefore he was. He wanted marriage and children and knew that if Elizabeth wouldn’t give them to him, then he was out of luck, for his career depended on his accessibility and steadiness.
Even so, other women could turn his head. In 1573 he began an affair with a young widow, Douglas Howard, Lady Sheffield. When she requested marriage, he demurred on the grounds he simply couldn’t because of Elizabeth. He offered her an honest deal: they could continue as they were or he could help her find a suitable husband. He wrote:
“I have, as you know, long both liked and loved you. Albeit I have been and yet am a man frail, yet am I not void of conscience towards God, nor honest meaning toward my friend, and having made special choice of you to be one of the dearest to me, so much the more care must I have to discharge the office due to you.”
Finally, in May of that year, Robert gave in to Douglas’s demands and they were privately wed at Esher in front of three witnesses. The legality of the ceremony was later disputed, but the bride at least seems to have entered the union in good faith. Immediately after the ceremony, Robert began splitting his time between court to be with Elizabeth and Esher and Leicester House where Douglas lived. But despite their marriage, he still forced his wife to live in secret, even going so far as to insist that she not be attended by their servants as a countess and refusing to let her style her name as such. God help Robert (or Douglas), but this went on for years.
In the summer of 1575, Elizabeth came to Kenilworth during her summer progress and Robert sent Douglas away so as to entertain his sovereign in style. He went into massive amounts of debt to kit the castle up as though it were still in its Medieval glory days, building pavilions, adding landscaping and hosting any number of entertainments. When Elizabeth commented that she could not see the beautiful new garden from her window, he ordered a new one built within her view overnight so that it was there when she woke up. One night, he arranged for a “floating island” to be built on the nearby lake lit up by torches and featuring the Lady of the Lake and two nymphs who offered the castle to the Queen. Her response was typical, though likely meant in jest, that she thought she owned it already.
It’s possible that once again Robert was trying to show himself a worthy bridegroom, but by then the dance was getting a bit old for all parties. Elizabeth was past 40 and Robert once again spotted the lovely Lettice Knollys, now Countess of Essex. Apparently, he had tired of Douglas and seemed to decide, unilaterally, that their marriage was invalid. Douglas had given birth to Robert’s son the previous August, but because he was insistent on keeping the true nature of their relationship a secret, he only ever acknowledged the boy, named for him, as his bastard. Elizabeth likely knew of the child’s existence early on, but doesn’t seem to have responded to it – quite possibly her lack of public anger stemmed from not knowing the full details of Robert’s relationship with the boy’s mother.
Lettice, on the other hand, still presented an obstacle thanks to her marriage. Thirty-five and mother to five children, her marriage was an unhappy one and Walter had spent the last two years in Ireland garnering himself a reputation as a capable military commander. By the time he returned to England in 1576 all of court knew his wife was sleeping with Robert. He and Robert fought publicly and then the man set about changing his will to remove his children from their mother’s custody in the event of his death before promptly falling ill with dysentery and passing way. Walter and Lettice’s eldest son, Robert Devereux, became the ward of Elizabeth, who promptly placed him in Cecil’s household to be educated.
Early in 1578 Lettice found out she was pregnant. Now a widow – and one with growing debt – she insisted that Robert marry her and so he did, seemingly forgetting all about Douglas. The wedding took place secretly in the spring at Kenilworth. Afterwards the two lived at Leicester House, with Robert pleading illness to explain his absence at court. Even so, Elizabeth found out about the union on April 28. The new Spanish ambassador, Bernardino de Mendoza, reported:
“The Queen had fixed the 28th for my audience with her, but as she was walking in the garden that morning she found a letter which had been thrown in the doorway, which she took and read, and immediately came secretly to the house of the Earl of Leicester, who is ill here. She stayed there until ten o’clock at night, and sent word that she would not see me that day as she was unwell. I have not been able to learn the contents of the letter, and only know that it caused her to go to Leicester’s at once.”
The reason was almost certainly Robert’s marriage to Lettice, though sadly what confrontation was had is unknown. Robert then moved up north for two months, marking the longest separation between him and Elizabeth since her accession. Elizabeth remained a court, heartbroken and in a foul mood. By the end of June, Robert wrote a series of letters and when he returned he was a welcome guest, but her councilors noted that she seemed depressed (and short-tempered) for months. Perhaps Elizabeth realized that life without Robert at all wasn’t sustainable, but even if so the tacit understanding between them was that his marriage was to be ignored. Elizabeth and Robert continued their friendship, even if only a pale version of what it had once been, but Lettice was hardly acknowledged and the Queen’s enmity for her never died. Once, when Lettice dared to appear at court dressed in finery and followed by a flock of ladies, Elizabeth confronted her, struck her, and shouted, “As but one sun lights the East, so I shall have but one queen in England.”
It was around this time that Robert arranged to meet with Douglas in the gardens at Greenwich Palace. In front of two witnesses, he offered her a generous annuity if she promised to deny they had ever been married and give him custody of their son. According to Douglas, she responded by bursting into tears and he grew angry, shouting that their union had never been legal. If it was illegal then he apparently knew something Douglas didn’t. To further solidify his new marriage, he and Lettice participated in a second ceremony on September 21. Though the bride was heavily pregnant, the child born a few months later was stillborn.
Even as Robert built himself a personal life for the first time in decades, he still couldn’t tolerate Elizabeth flirting with men, much less contemplating marriage to another. By the end of 1578 she was entertaining the idea of marrying the French Duke of Anjou, and when one of his men arrived in England in January 1579 Robert was beside himself. The situation only worsened when the Duke himself arrived that summer and Elizabeth acted like a lovesick school girl instead of a seasoned queen regnant in her 40s. Finally, Robert had enough and demanded a private audience with Elizabeth. When he emerged he did so with tears in his eyes and that evening, at a dinner with his sister and brother-in-law, the Sidneys, he said she had finally broken him, he was done and he left court for several weeks, not on speaking terms with Elizabeth even after he returned that autumn.
Robert had his revenge a few months later when Lettice delivered a son and heir named for him. Elizabeth was beside herself and the two remained at odds into the new year. Indeed, the two didn’t resume their former friendliness until the end of 1583, at which point their once tumultuous chemistry had cooled into a warm and relaxed friendship. Robert had a wife and Elizabeth had her 20-something young courtiers who pretended she was the most beautiful woman in England. Once again, there are shades of Henry Tudor in that.
In 1584, Robert and Lettice’s young son died and Robert never recovered. He began to take longer absences from court, his health faltered and he began to look and feel his age. He accepted a military post in the Netherlands when Elizabeth considered becoming their queen and was pleased with the honor it signified, which also mercifully meant he was out of the country as of when Mary Stuart, Queen of Scotland – then having resided in England as a prisoner for 19 years – was executed on Elizabeth’s orders. Afraid for Elizabeth’s safety, he wrote a number of long screeds urging Mary’s death from abroad.
By 1588, Robert’s influence and friendship with Elizabeth were once again on the upswing, but he was fading fast. He wrote to her on August 29:
“I most humbly beseech Your Majesty to pardon your old servant to be thus bold in sending to know how my gracious lady doth, and what ease of her late pain she finds, being the chiefest thing in the world I do pray for, for her to have good health and long life. For my own poor case, I continue still your medicine, and it amends much better than any other thing that hath been given me. Thus hoping to find a perfect cure at the bath, with the continuance of my wonted prayer for Your Majesty’s most happy preservation, I humbly kiss your foot.
“From your old lodgings at Rycote this Thursday morning, by Your Majesty’s most faithful and obedient servant, R. Leicester.
“P.S. Even as I had written this much, I received Your Majesty’s token by young Tracy.”
It would be the last letter he ever wrote to her. Robert passed away on September 4, 1588 near Woodstock and was buried beside his son in Warwick.
Elizabeth plunged into deep mourning, locking herself away for days and refusing to see or speak to anyone. Even after she returned to her duties, her grief remained in plain view. Unfortunately, the height of her mourning came just as England was caught up in celebrating victory over the Spanish Armada, thus prompting Elizabeth to fake her way through the festivities. When she sat for the famous Armada portrait, she wore Leicester’s pearls. Indeed, she continued to wear them for many subsequent portraits after his death, perhaps symbolizing the closest thing she ever had to a wedding ring.
She had not, however, forgotten her hatred for Lettice – Robert borrowed heavily from Elizabeth over the years without much expectation of those debts being called in. Lettice was not so lucky and the crown forced her to sell off the contents of no less than three estates. Throughout it all, Elizabeth refused to acknowledge her existence.
Irony of ironies, but the next chief royal favorite was none other than Robert Devereux, Earl of Essex – Robert’s stepson and Lettice’s son via her first marriage. It was Robert himself who introduced the 18-year-old to Elizabeth in 1584, but it wasn’t until after his death that Essex moved to the more intimate position of professional flirt and flatterer. Unlike his stepfather, he lacked the patience or humility to duck and weave so as to accommodate Elizabeth’s moods. Indeed, he would eventually be found guilty of treason and executed on February 25, 1601.
Elizabeth herself passed away on March 24, 1603 at the age of 69. As her apartments were turned over for the new reign and her last wishes fulfilled, a small coffer that always remained by her bed was opened. Among the contents was the letter Robert had written from Rycote in August 1588 inscribed in Elizabeth hand with, “his last letter.”
For those of you who made it through this marathon of a read, congratulations! This officially marks the longest post I’ve written here. You may have noted we did not address the question of whether or not Elizabeth was in fact the “Virgin Queen” in light of this relationship, but due to the sheer volume of information to sift through I thought it best to save that for another day. We’ll return to the theme someday soon!