Merry Christmas!! Follow the YouTube link at the end of my post for a festive holiday Flash Mob video.
We left Robert Dudley last week with a wife who had died a suspicious and convenient death at a most auspicious time. With the death of Amy Robsart Dudley in September of 1560, Robert Dudley finally became a widower. Even though he had not seen his wife in more than a year and only visited her twice in the last two years, he sponsored a magnificent funeral for her. Following the custom of the times, he did not attend. He and his household went into mourning for six months while the inquiries into her death were conducted.
When Robert Dudley returned to court, Elizabeth heaped titles, lands, and honors on him but refused his numerous marriage proposals. He, in turn, thwarted anyone else’s chances with Elizabeth and refused several stellar political matches for himself, including marriage to Mary, Queen of Scots. Elizabeth remained enthralled with him, calling him “her eyes,” and often refused to allow him to leave Court. To the horror of the Court and the English people, she moved Dudley into a suite of rooms adjoining hers.
Dudley, now the Earl of Leicester thanks to Elizabeth’s largesse (Did Elizabeth really tickle his neck while he was being invested?), conducted numerous affairs and fathered one child out-of-wedlock with Lady Douglas Sheffield, a member of the powerful Howard clan. In a letter to her regretting his inability to marry he stated: “You must think it is some marvellous cause … that forceth me thus to be cause almost of the ruin of mine own house … my brother you see long married and not like to have children, it resteth so now in myself; and yet such occasions is there … as if I should marry I am sure never to have [the Queen’s] favour.”
Later, he had another long-lasting affair with the beautiful and vivacious Lettice Knowles while her husband, the Earl of Essex, was warring in Ireland. After 18 years and one final proposal to Elizabeth which she turned down, he secretly married the recently-widowed Lettice who was pregnant with his child. (Many wondered whether the Earl died from dysentery or poison.) Dudley evidently loved Lettice—even defended her to the Queen—and desperately needed an heir, but Elizabeth would have none of it. She called him “a cuckold and traitor.” She called Lettice (her own cousin) a “she-wolf” and banned her from Court. Although Dudley eventually returned to her good graces Lettice didn’t return to court until after Elizabeth’s death in 1603.
Dudley was far more than Elizabeth’s boyfriend and dance partner. He was intelligent, well-educated, an excellent horseman, a rabid tennis player and jouster, a supporter of the arts and education, and a forward-thinking economist. A staunch Calvinist who supported Protestant governments, he was a member of the triumvirate—with Francis Walsingham and William Cecil—who ruled England for 20+ years. He supported the execution of Queen Mary of Scotland and gained King James’ tacit approval of his mother’s execution. When Philip of Spain declared war on England in 1588, Dudley assumed command of the Queen’s land forces, despite his ill-health. After accompanying Elizabeth on her triumphant return to London, he left her side to visit the baths of Buxton. On the way, he died suddenly near Oxford on September 4, 1588, most likely of malaria or stomach cancer. He was buried in Beauchamp Chapel in St. Mary’s, Warwick.
Elizabeth, devastated by his death, took to her rooms until Lord Burghley had the door broken. At her death 15 years later, the last letter he’d written to her six days before his death was found in her box of treasures at her bedside. On it, she had written “his last letter.” Their relationship was the subject of numerous books and plays, including Fiennes & Cate Blanchett in Elizabeth in 1998.
Unfortunately Robert, Dudley’s child by Lettice, died when he was three. After Dudley’s death in 1588, his bastard son—also Robert Dudley—who had inherited all his wealth tried, unsuccessfully, to claim his titles based on an allegation of a secret marriage with his mother for which there was no evidence.
Dudley failed to establish or continue a dynasty. His stepson from his marriage to Lettice, the Earl of Essex, suffered for his own arrogance, losing his head for treason on Elizabeth’s order. In the end, Lettice lost both husband and son to Elizabeth but outlived them all. When she died in 1634, she was buried beside the “best and dearest of husbands.”
Until next Moonday when we celebrate a Renaissance Elizabethan Holiday. In the meantime, check out this YouTube holiday treat. (Suggestion: Pop it out when you get to YouTube and maximize the screen before starting it for the best effect.) Rita Bay