Tudor of the month: Lord Robert Dudley

Lord Robert Dudley
Lord Robert Dudley, earl of Leicester. Credit: GeorgiosArt

Lord Robert Dudley had a passionate affair with Elizabeth I. Melita Thomas of Tudor Times explores why the queen didn’t marry him and what happened to their relationship

Lord Robert Dudley was the love of Elizabeth I’s life. Although their relationship was probably not consummated physically, it was the closest she ever came to an affair, and like many lovers, they evolved from tempestuous passion, marked by violent quarrels and loving reconciliation, to the comfortable companionship of a long-established couple.

While Elizabeth’s other suitors and courtiers played the game of courtly love, praising her extravagantly, likening her to a goddess and affecting to worship her, Robert’s letters, although effusive, have a level of sincerity and genuine affection behind them that can still be felt.

But who was Robert? Why couldn’t Elizabeth marry him? And how did it play out?

Robert’s father, John, climbed the greasy pole of the Tudor court to become Lord Admiral and a privy councillor under Henry VIII, then the most powerful man in the country as Lord President of the Council and Duke of Northumberland in the reign of Edward VI. The third of the duke’s numerous children, Robert was born around 1533 and knew Elizabeth from childhood, being brought up with her half-brother, the young Prince Edward.

In 1549, Robert accompanied his father to Norfolk to suppress Kett’s rebellion. After the culminating battle of Mousehold Heath, they visited Sir John Robsart, a Norfolk landowner. Within 18 months, Robert had married Sir John’s daughter, Amy, in a lavish wedding at court. Amy, although wealthy, was not of the aristocratic background of the spouses of Robert’s siblings, so it is likely that there was an element of personal attraction in the arrangement.

The most aristocratic marriage of all was arranged for Robert’s younger brother, with the king’s cousin, Lady Jane Grey. Jane, like the Dudleys and King Edward, was a radical Protestant, and when it became apparent that Edward was dying, a scheme was developed to put Jane on the throne instead of Edward’s Catholic half-sister, Mary.

Master of the Horse

Robert’s role was to capture Mary before she could be proclaimed queen. He failed, and the coup was defeated. Northumberland was executed, and Robert and his brothers languished in prison for some time. Once released, Robert redeemed himself by service to Queen Mary’s husband, King Philip, and played a noble part at the Anglo-Spanish victory of St Quentin.

Robert had remained in contact with Elizabeth, and, at her accession on 17 November 1558, almost her first act was to appoint him as Master of the Horse. This prestigious role gave him responsibility not just for the provision of riding and hunting horses, but also for ceremonial, such as the coronation, and the numerous progresses that Elizabeth made over the years.

A terrible accident

Elizabeth I
Elizabeth I and Lord Robert Dudley were seen flirting © VisitBritain / Britain on View

Within weeks, rumours were circulating that Robert and Elizabeth were lovers. They were everywhere together, dancing, laughing, hunting and physically affectionate. Elizabeth’s councillors, led by Sir William Cecil, were appalled. The queen must marry, but which European prince would want a wife who was shamelessly flirting, if nothing more, with the son of an executed traitor? And a married man at that. They remonstrated with her, but to no avail. Stories spread – that Amy was sick of a malady of the breast; that Amy was not sick at all, but Robert was sowing an expectation of her death; that Elizabeth had had a child by Robert; that the two were planning to poison Amy, and so forth.

Then came shocking news that Amy was indeed dead – of a fall down stairs. Elizabeth immediately banished Robert until an inquest could establish the truth. The verdict was accidental death, but the cloud hung over Robert for the rest of his life. Elizabeth resumed her flirtation with him, and whenever she wanted to fend off foreign suitors, she would parade her affection for Robert publicly, but she could never marry him – son of a traitor, with a wife dead in suspicious circumstances.

In 1564, Elizabeth suggested that Mary, Queen of Scots might marry Robert, now promoted to Earl of Leicester. Elizabeth would then nominate Mary as heir to the English throne. Whether Elizabeth was serious is questionable. Robert was aghast at the notion – he did not want to leave England, he wanted to marry Elizabeth, not Mary, and he no doubt feared that the Scots would not look kindly on an Englishman with traitors in his family tree aspiring to marry their queen.

The scheme came to nothing and Elizabeth kept Robert by her side. Now a privy councillor, he was diligent in his duties, and, together with Cecil, and later Sir Francis Walsingham, worked closely with the queen in the government of the country.

Lavish proposal

By the late 1560s, Robert was emotionally frustrated by his relationship with Elizabeth, and had an affair with the widowed Douglass Howard, Lady Sheffield, by whom he had a son, although he refused to marry her. In 1575, Robert made a last concerted effort to persuade Elizabeth to marry him. He staged an enormous festival at his castle of Kenilworth where Elizabeth was feted for 18 days; but it was fruitless, Elizabeth remained resolutely single.

Secret marriage

Robert began a relationship with the widowed Countess of Essex, Lettice Knollys, and married her in 1578. They tried to keep the wedding a secret – a hopeless task. When Elizabeth discovered it, she was incandescent with rage, and threatened to send both Robert and his wife to the Tower. Reluctantly persuaded that Robert had not committed any crime, she had to content herself with banishing them both from court.  She relented in the case of Robert, but felt an implacable resentment toward Lettice.

By 1583, Robert was back on good terms with the queen. Politically, he had always advocated English support for the Protestant Dutch who sought to throw off Spanish rule in the Netherlands. Elizabeth had been reluctant to involve herself, but by 1585, she felt she had no choice and agreed to support the Dutch, sending Robert to lead them as her lieutenant. This caused another serious quarrel between them when Robert, contrary to her explicit orders, accepted the title of Governor-General, which the queen believed to be a direct provocation to Spain.

Lovers’ resolution

Elizabeth’s love for Robert survived even this act of disobedience, and she was glad to recall him to her side when it proved that he did not have either the political or military capability to defeat the Spanish. With the Spanish planning an invasion, Robert was appointed Lieutenant-Governor of the queen’s forces. He held her horse as she made her famous speech to troops at Tilbury, and they celebrated the defeat of the Armada together.

Elizabeth’s joy was short-lived. Robert was in failing health, and requested permission to visit the spa at Buxton. He travelled there slowly, along with Lettice, but died en route.

Elizabeth treasured his final letter to her, marking it ‘His Last Letter’, in her own handwriting, and keeping it in a casket by her bed for the rest of her life: the last memento of an enduring love.

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