Dudley was for long considered the front runner for any possible marriage; but there was a long list of suitors. And Elizabeth was under pressure from the badgers of the House of Commons.
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Last time we got onto the subject of the queen’s marriage and her romance with Robert Dudley. Honestly, I sought to wrap things up last week, but got my pacing wrong so you are going to suffer for it now. Rather tangentially, we left with Amy Robsart, otherwise known as Mrs Dudley, sending all her staff out to the local fair on 8th September 1560. We do not know an awful lot about Amy; she and Robert were married in June 1550, and they lived in London at Somerset House for a while, and Amy stayed in London while her hub was defacing the walls of Beauchamp tower. The couple were then apart rather a lot over the next few years; the Dudleys had been attainted, and Robert needed support from Amy’s folks for a while, and Amy stayed in Hertfordshire when Robert was at court. Then they moved together to Cumnor near Oxford, but again Amy was mainly on her own – as far as we know it has to be said; there are relatively few records on her whereabouts. But it’s quite possible she did not see her husband at all in 1559. So, you know, fires of passion don’t appear to be burning terribly high – but then another couple’s marriage is a foreign country.
So, on 8th September 1560 Amy insisted that many of her staff go to Abingdon fair. Some of them didn’t want to go, but she shoo’d them out, which seemed mighty odd. Later that day, Amy was found lying dead at the bottom of the stairs. The inquest found that she had two marks on her head, but cause of death was a broken neck.
Dudley was at court with the Queen when news reached him; in all ways he appeared to be shocked and distressed. The journal of State mentioned that
when the Lord Rob. went to his wife he went all in black, and howe he was commanded to saye that he did nothing with her, when he cam to her, as seldom he did
Now, it took until 1567 for Amy’s half brother to approach the PC with a claim she’d been murdered – a claim swiftly and comprehensively kicked into touch. The 19th century saw a rash of murder theories appear, but it’s very difficult to see how Dudley could have known Any was going to be unaccompanied since she only dismissed her staff that morning, and anyway he was a way away at Windsor. All very strange.
However. It has been rightly observed that there is no smoke without fire. Probably not true in this case as it happens, but there was a lot of smoke. The Protestant preacher Thomas Lever wrote to Cecil from Coventry that ‘here in these parts seemeth unto me to be a grievous and dangerous suspicion and muttering on the death of her which was the wife of my Lord Robert Dudley’. There was great display of mourning at court on behalf of Dudley and his friends, but it was viewed with a certain amount of cynicism. One courtier described it as ‘a great hypocrisy’. The smoke drifted across the channel, where the English Ambassador, Nicholas Throckmorton was roasted by French courtiers laughing to him – because surely Dudley had killed his wife and now would marry the queen. Throckmorton was quite desperate
my heart bleedeth to think upon the slanderous bruits I hear, which if they be not slaked or that they prove true, our reputation is gone forever,
and he wrote letter after letter to his friends at the English court asking for information; some of it was not encouraging – Thomas Killigrew writing
that ‘rumours . . . have been very rife, but the Queen says she will make them false’.
Dudley was well aware what this sort of malicious gossip could do to him. He was desperate from the coroner’s investigation to inquire into the manner of her death, and identify any foul play – and so clear his name. When the Jury returned and decided that death was accidental, that helped – but didn’t stop the gossip and rumour. It didn’t help that Dudley was aware that Cecil was very much agin the idea of Dudley and the queen marrying. Cecil was much given to lists, a feature he shared with my father, as it happens. If he had a problem – that’s Cecil, not my father – he’d do two columns – pro’s and cons. As regards the possibility Dudley’s marriage to the Queen, his conclusion was not positive. Here we go:
Nothing is increased by marriage to him either in riches, estimation, power.
It will be thought that the slanderous speeches of the Queen with the Earl have been true.
He shall study nothing but to enhance his own particular friends: to wealth, to offices, to lands and to offend others.
He is infamed by the death of his wife.
He is far in debt.
He is like to prove unkind or jealous of the Queen’s majesty.
So, not keen, in summary. Some others did not share this view; the Earl of Sussex, for example wrote to Cecil to argue that look, the main thing is that the Queen produces an heir, and that was far more important that whether that came from Dudley or not. But many others were not so keen. They disdained the Dudley name – 3 generations ennobled, and 2 of those traitors, and the third one’s not under the ground yet. But many also feared that if Dudley became King Robert, there would be retribution for those failing to support his father the Duke of Northumberland in the days of Lady Jane Grey. Tensions became so intense, that a brawl erupted at court between Dudley’s retainers and those of the Earl of Pembroke – one of those signal deserters of Jane Grey.
However, the Queen continued to receive him most positively, and Dudley continued to hope. It may be that Elizabeth simply refused to see or hear the rumours zipping around; and certainly nobody marched up to her, slapped her on the back and told there that loads of her court thought that she or Dudley had done in Amy Robsart so she could marry Dudley. It would not be surprising if the Queen was the last to know such as thing. But news certainly reached her through one of her suitors, the Duke of Holstein who wrote to her that he was ‘anxious about her honour’ – by which he meant he’d heard the rumours that she and Dudley had got it on, and found it difficult not to believe them. The letter seems to have horrified Elizabeth, and in terms of chat up lines it can hardly be accounted much better than the standard disco romantic gambit, ‘you don’t sweat much for a fat lass’.
There are various theories about the death of Amy Robsart, since there was clearly a motive for Dudley, Queen, probably Cecil to discredit Dudley. Or it’s been suggested that she had cancer, or was depressed, and this was suicide. The very strong balance of probability is that it was just what it seemed – a tragic accident.
But, accident or not, Amy Dudley’s death comprehensively and finally nixed there being any chance that the Queen could marry Dudley. Robert clearly didn’t believe it, and Elizabeth fought against believing it too; but a change in her was noticed
‘The Queen’s Majesty looketh not so hearty and well as she did, by a great deal; and surely the matter of my Lord Robert doth greatly perplex her and is never like to take place, and the talk is somewhat slack, as generally misliked.’
At the same time Elizabeth cancelled plans to make Dudley an earl – a move that would have been necessary to give Dudley the status he needed to marry her. Although both of them continued to dream of the possibility of marriage, Elizabeth probably never came as close again as she had done before Amy’s death in 1560. That did not mean that she was prepared to give up her favourite, far from it – Dudley’s apartments stayed next to the queens, she continued in her favour and intimacy; Dudley continued to enlist help where ever he could find it to press his suit. Many in court would think they were close to marrying in 1562. But the reality was that the death of Amy hung over them both, and ended their chance of what would anyway have been a controversial marriage. But their friendship and indeed flirtation would remain a feature of the court.
Before we move on the other plans for Elizabeth to marry, we should probably produce some guess in answer to the question my mate Timmy asked me – ‘so did they have sex then?’. According to Tim everyone is desperate to know, hanging on my every word to know – which I doubt I have to say. But just for Timmy’s sake, what do we think? As I think I have said, Elizabeth was indignant at the very idea – a thousand eyes were on her, she was never alone, even at night in her bedchamber. Painfully conscious of wagging tongues, Elizabeth paid £500 a year to a groom called Tamworth to be in Robert’s bedchamber constantly, as a sort of chaperone.
Elizabeth was very conscious of her honour and her reputation. Now it’s possible that she and Robert managed to find some time alone together; those of suspicious minds have wondered at the annuity for life and other gifts given to said Tamworth – so it’s possible that he was told to make himself scarce for an hour or so – though if so, he kept quiet about it. But it is possible to contemplate some kind of sexual activity if that’s the appropriately euphemistic phrase; there’s no doubt both were interested. Personally I doubt it, but it’s possible.
What I refuse to believe though, is that the dashboard lights encouraged them to go all the way. Think about the impact if they were discovered – any other marriage alliance would become a no no, confusion about any heir Elizabeth did produce would muddy the succession irretrievably, the impact on Elizabeth’s reputation would be disastrously damaged; court politics would go wild, and Elizabeth’s ability to govern damaged. I don’t believe it. One snippet of evidence to support this view came in 1562, when Elizabeth contracted small pox. For a while she looked set to die, and everyone went potty with worry about the succession. With the prospect of meeting her maker, Elizabeth was clear. According to one report
‘The Queen protested at the time that although she loved and always loved Lord Robert dearly, as God was her witness, nothing improper had ever passed between them.
I think that’s good enough for me.
In 1559, though, the air at Elizabeth’s court sounded like a hot summer’s day, with the humming of bees all around her, as suitors flew to the honeypot that was the most eligible bachelorette in the history of stag parties. Even Penelope would have been impressed. I say suitors, but for the main part it was of course the Ambassadors of the foreign potentates – there wasn’t much point in Philip II of Spain, for example, coming all the way from Madrid just to find that Elizabeth was washing her hair. I mention Philip because he was first into the lists. It’s an interesting one because of course Phillip would become England’s implacable enemy, for whom the cause of religion trumped dynasty, and who would pour treasure unimaginable into the attempt to bring the Netherlands and England back to Rome. But in January 1559 Elizabeth had not yet declared herself religiously, and Phillip was still fixed on the traditional rivalry with the Valois of France.
Now, I’m not going to lie to you; what follows will not appear on a list of the great romances of all time, and Phillips chat up technique appears to have been modelled on Darcy’s first attempt at Elizabeth. Phillip knew Elizabeth of course, but this would not be a love match, but a business arrangement. His principal adviser in England, Count Feria, was convinced of the importance of Elizabeth’s marriage
‘The more I think over this business, the more certain I am that everything depends upon the husband this woman may take.’
Feria developed a strategy, of running down the idea of Elizabeth’s marriage to an Englishman, pshaw to the very thought. But to his hurt astonishment, do you know that Feria was not welcomed by the new court?
‘They are glad to be free from your Majesty as though you had done them harm instead of good.’ ‘I am so isolated from them that I am much embarrassed and puzzled to get the means of what is going on, for truly they run away from me as if I were the devil.’
Well who’d have believed it, eh? Rotten old English Xenophobes. It just so happens, though, that Phillip himself was not terribly keen, his bit remained unchamped. He worried about the difficulties that stood in the way, of the distance and the calls of his prodigious other responsibilities. When he thought of the costs of the various knees-ups in which he’d need to invest, it made him put his head in his hands. But, the cause of religion called.
I am resolved to render this service to God, and offer to marry the queen of England.
He concluded. Well thank you so much, noble of you. It was a decidedly gloomy Phillip who ordered Feria to present his suit to the queen; he wrote that he felt like
‘a condemned man, awaiting his fate’. ‘If it were not to serve God, believe me, I should not have got into this.
He might have better to tell Elizabeth that she appeared not to sweat much for a fat lass.
Meanwhile there remained a badger in the house, in the form of the HoC who petitioned Elizabeth to marry, and marry an Englishman. Elizabeth was politic; in her heart of hearts she was probably deeply irritated by this presumptuous involvement by her subjects in what was surely a private matter. But she was gracious, and gave a reply so evasive that any modern politician would have been proud
‘Yea, to satisfy you, I have already joined myself in marriage to an Husband, namely, the Kingdom of England. And behold, which I marvel ye have forgotten, the pledge of this my wedlock and marriage with my kingdom.’
Over the next few months Feria met repeatedly with Elizabeth, but rather than advancing, the suit rather got worse and worse – because Elizabeth was becoming clearer and clearer in her religious direction; on one occasion she roundly dismissed the authority of the pope, and Feria’s chin wobbled with fury all the way home, and is probably still wobbling to his day. On another, she said that
‘several persons had told her that your Majesty would come here and then go off to Spain directly’.
An observation so acute that Feria wondered if she’d been reading his letters to and from Phillip. She also laughed heartily when she said it which would have been irritating for Philip. Elizabeth played around naughtily with this theme. On another occasion Feria wrote to Phillip that she said
‘that she could not marry your Majesty as she was a heretic
You can’t help feeling that Elizabeth was having fun, teasing Philip and his envoy. In the end it ended by the end of March with Elizabeth and Feria blaming each other. But by this stage Philip had already moved on. He’d got married to Elizabeth of Valois by proxy the little tinker. The proxy was the Duke of Alba, who rather delightfully also stood in for his master for the evening putting to bed ceremony. Such dedication – is there no end to the length’s the man would go to?
Quite apart from really not wanting to get married at all, Elizabeth gambled that Phillip would for some time remain suspicious of France as his most powerful enemy – and she calculated correctly. It would be a while before Phillip was prepared to break with England.
‘Banish any shadow of doubt she may have that because she did not marry me and I have entered the French alliance I shall take any less interest in her affairs.’
Philip ordered Feria to say. Anyway, a bit like a relay team, other Hapsburg’s took over the baton from Phillip’s hand. When Emperor Charles had abdicated in 1556, the title of Emperor and his German lands had been given to Ferdinand, Phillip’s brother, while Phillip took Spain, the Netherlands, Naples and Milan. So now Ferdinand advanced the idea that one of his sons, Charles or Ferdinand, might be of interest to Elizabeth. The rolling stone that was the queen’s marriage competition was now shedding substantial moss as it gathered pace thundering down the Hillside. Prince Eric of Sweden, who had the benefit of being a prot, threw his hat into the ring; the Duke of Holstein, the brother of the King of Denmark, sent in his application form too. Though he’d rather spoil it by asking if the Queen’s honour was intact as we said. Then there was William, Duke of Savoy.
Elizabeth was in heaven, playing them like fish; one moment she was reminding Ambassadors that she was not minded to marry, the next that she’d never said she’d never marry…so who this next chap then? It drove the Ambassador’s potty. But they scrapped away, talking up the delights of their candidates, while diss’ing the competition; someone told the Queen that Archduke Ferdinand
‘had a bigger head than that of the earl of Bedford, and was unfit to govern’.
Which is disrespectful to the Earl of Bedford too, poor thing, and to all big headed men who I am sure are fit to govern despite their hat size..
Meanwhile there were English candidates to boot – the Earl of Arundel, and a man called William Pickering, who had for a while been stranded in France but was now back at court. And the gossip flowered and thrived and spread like a rash, with confident assertion laid on confident assertion. Oh, she’s very fond of Robert Dudley and most intimate with him, one moment. Or the next, the Venetian Ambassador confidently writing
‘she will marry an individual who till now has been in France on account of his religion, though he has not yet made his appearance, it being known how much she loved and loves him’.
This latter was William Pickering. He had a powerful reputation for a varied and active sex life did William, and interestingly enough was one of the brash young men in company with Henry Howard Earl of Surry in 1543 on their famous night out on the town, which led them to being incarcerated in the Tower at his majesty Henry VIII’s pleasure. Pickering was welcomed enthusiastically by the queen who spent 4 or 5 hours with him, a significant show of favour. This had yet another suitor chewing his lip with rage – the Earl of Arundel, one of the nobles who betrayed Jane Grey. It’s a toss up as to whether or not Arundel was motivated by love of the queen or desire to spike the Pickering guns since he was reported to be
‘thinking to flee out of the realm because he could not abide in England, if Mr Pickering should marry the Queen, for that they were enemies’.
At 47 Arundel was no doubt kidding himself; although he was honoured with the Queen’s presence at his palace of Nonsuch in the summer of 1559, it became clear she would not consider his suit.
All of this dragged on. Often, Elizabeth appeared to enter detailed and seemingly serious negotiations; particularly with Archduke Charles. It is reasonably unlikely at this stage though, that Elizabeth seriously considered marriage. All the objections we’ve discussed to a marriage both personally and politically were unresolved. So why did she keep so many hanging on. Poor old Eric kept going ‘til 1561. Partly as I’ve said Elizabeth was having a hoot. Partly, some would simply not take no for an answer – Eric falls into that category. Then again from the Queen’s point of view it enriched her court, it kept the parliament and Privy Council at bay while she argued she was considering the proposition. And it all fed into that tradition of courtly love that oiled the wheels of court, the convenient fiction that everyone was in love with the queen.
The queen was driving more than her suitors up the proverbial wall, however. Her loyal servant William Cecil was practically on the ceiling. Cecil’s concern was the succession, and he did not share his mistress’ view that the succession was better left open, and by so doing would discourage political instability and plotting behind the nominated heir. As far as Cecil was concerned, England was one fatal illness or one bullet away from the chaos of a disputed succession, with Catholic powers looking hungrily at England’s green and pleasant land, and advancing the cause of the Catholic Mary QoS. He was a very worried man; his brow was furrowed.
It didn’t help that Elizabeth, with her dynastic view of life rather favoured the Stuart claim. As far as Cecil was concerned, Mary Stuart was Catholic and that was that – he would pretty much literally do anything he could to keep her off the English throne. And anyway Henry’s act of 1544 had forbidden Stuarts the succession – though to Elizabeth’s mind, primogeniture was supreme whatever parliament said, and therefore she favoured the Stuart claim, not the claim of the Greys.
The Grey in question was Katherine Grey, Jane Grey’s sister, a maid of honour in Elizabeth’s household, and 21 years old in 1561.Given her position as the legal heir to the throne, Katherine Grey was also a honeypot for the ambitious; there was a rumour that Philip of Spain’s agents were trying to encourage her to flee England and marry Phillip’s son; the Earl of Pembroke was chasing her for marriage to his son, despite having deserted Katherine’s sister. The Scottish Earl of Arran, a nobleman of royal Scottish blood and in line for the Scottish throne should Mary have an unfortunate run in with a bus, he was advancing his suit also.
Katherine, however, had other ideas. She wanted to marry Edward Seymour, the Earl of Hertford, and her mother promised to intervene, to try and persuade the Queen that this would be a really good idea – but sadly her mum’s death intervened before she could do so. Why, I hear you ask, did they need to persuade the queen? Well, that is because a law of 1536 made it treason for anyone with royal blood to marry without the monarch’s permission. This was the succession, and part of the monarch’s prerogative. Katherine knew this. Hertford knew this. But like a disreputable developer in south oxfordshire, they figured that when presented with a fait accompli what could be done? Afterall the craven planning departments of District Council almost always give retrospective planning permission whatever the iniquity of said developer – so what could Elizabeth do? I should probably apologise here for trying to use a 21st century construction outrage to illustrate the 16th century succession. Sorry for that. Complaints to South Oxfordshire District Council…And anyway, Katherine and Hertford were to find out that Elizabeth I was made of sterner stuff than said council.
Katherine and Hertford essentially got married secretly, and hoped that if and when the news got out, Elizabeth might shrug her shoulders and say ‘oh well poppets you’ve done it now, never mind’. Love’s young dream being what it is, Katherine was soon pregnant, Hertford was then sent by the queen on diplomatic missions to France, and Katherine was left all alone as her pregnancy began to showr. So in August 1561 she told Robert Dudley. And Dudley did the only thing he could do really – and told the Queen.
There was the distant ‘crump’ as the queen’s head exploded and one of the onion domes from Richmond palace went into orbit as Soyuz 1. Katherine was sent to the tower. Hertford was recalled from Paris – and he was sent to the Tower. The queen set up a commission to see if the marriage was legal, while Edward Seymour Junior was born in September 1561. Hertford and Katherine now needed to play everything very cleverly, hope the queen’s fury cooled. Do nothing wrong kids. So what they did was to talk the warder into allowing them to meet, observed the habits of the birds and the bees and hey Presto! Katherine was pregnant again. A small crump could be heard from London, as the Queen exploded and a further onion dome left Richmond Palace and went into orbit as Soyuz 2.Thomas was born in February 1563, He cost £15,000, the price of the fine levied on Hartford and Katherine for being plonkers. By then, or by May 1562, the commission had reported. Since the marriage had been conducted in secret there was no paperwork, and the officiating Minister could not be found. It was declared there had been no legal marriage, and Edward and Thomas were declared to be illegitimate.
It is, I suppose, a tragic story. Katherine continued to be held in custody and became very ill. She was allowed to live in Warwickshire with her jailer in comfort – just the two children and 17 attendants, and I know from personal experience just how hard it is to get by with only 17 attendants. But by 1568, Katherine had died, probably of anorexia.
The affair of Katherine Grey and the violence of Elizabeth’s reaction to it has been cited on occasion as an example of an Elizabeth unbalanced in her attitude to marriage; ‘if I can’t get married, then neither can you’ sort of thing. It’s been seen as vindictive brutality toward Katherine. Well in my humble opinion it is evidence of no such thing. Katherine and Hertford knew full well the risks they took. Katherine’s marriage and children were a matter of state in a 16th century society and could not be messed about with; over the next decade more than one political campaign started in support of the Grey claim to the throne, heightened by the fact that they had heirs now their marriage affected the succession. Whatever emotions they experienced at Elizabeth’s reaction, surprise should not have been one of them.
Cecil on this occasion tried to moderate Elizabeth’s wrath, but his concern over the succession was of course accentuated by the occasion. with the Grey heirs declared illegitimate, Mary QoS’s claim was further strengthened. Cecil was the kind of man who did not accept easily any situation where his advice or opinion was not followed. So he tried another route.
At the 1563 parliament, the HoC decided to debate the queen’s marriage and succession. It cannot have escaped the notice of the good members of parliament that Elizabeth did not feel this was an appropriate subject of parliamentary debate, so why? Well, there was genuine concern of course. But that genuine concern of its members was given secret leadership and direction by the invisible hand of Cecil. One Alexander Nowell preached before the queen on the subject of the succession and the danger of ignoring advice before parliament met. Spookily Alexander’s kinsmen were in Cecil’s household. At parliament, a group of 24 MPs met the PC – and Cecil among others helped them draft the articles of their petition to the queen. The petition was read formally to the queen by Thomas North, a man with close links to Cecil.
Elizabeth listened passively, and then shelved the petition under b1n, telling parliament that she would respond at some future time. But the HoL had a hack at the issue next – but once again Elizabeth listened graciously – and did nothing. So far Cecil’s attempt to pressurise Elizabeth into marriage or into resolving the succession had failed. But he was nothing if not tenacious our Cecil. Cecil’s panic was that a monarch was crucial to a European state at the time; without an undisputed monarch Elizabeth’s subjects feared chaos. So Cecil had a colleague introduce a bill to the commons – a genuinely radical Bill. The most radical part of it was that it described in detail what would happen if Elizabeth died without direct issue and heir. If this came to pass, it was proposed that her authority was transferred to the PC. While the interregnum lasted, England would effectively be a republic. Now Cecil was no republican – the role of the PC would be to find a successor, but that in itself was a radical concept, the people choosing a successor.
So look, a feature of Elizabeth’s long rule will be the constant attempts by Cecil to get his way. Elizabeth was his equal – sometimes Cecil would win, more often Elizabeth would have her way. On this occasion, the Queen refused to be bounced into a course of action, and the bill also was quietly shelved by the Queen.
 Skidmore, Chris. Death and the Virgin: Elizabeth, Dudley and the Mysterious Fate of Amy Robsart (p. 127). Orion. Kindle Edition.
 Alford, S: ‘Burghly’p 124