BORN: 1532 • England
DIED: September 4, 1588 • Oxfordshire, England
English statesman; courtier
Robert Dudley, a close friend of Elizabeth I (1533–1603; see entry) since childhood, became the queen's favorite courtier and a trusted advisor. (A courtier is a person who serves or participates in the royal court or household as the king's or queen's advisor, officer, or attendant.) He and Elizabeth felt such affection for one another that some observers believed they might have been lovers. Indeed, Dudley hoped to marry the queen, and even after her persistent rejections he maintained his close bond with her. As the Protestant queen's faithful supporter, Dudley was dedicated to her safety, pursuing ruthless policies against English Catholics whose loyalty he distrusted.
"I knew [Elizabeth I] better than anyone else from when she was eight years old, and from that age she always said that she would never marry."
Though Dudley loved the queen, he did not always serve her well as a statesman. His advice often conflicted with that of Elizabeth's more experienced councilors; her willingness to listen to him caused considerable resentment among many of the queen's advisors. Dudley made many enemies, and he influenced the queen to take some actions that proved costly and unsuccessful, including the support of Protestant rebellions in France and the Netherlands. An advocate of extreme policies that did not always advance England's best interests, Dudley was nevertheless devoted to Elizabeth and remained one of her closest friends.
Robert Dudley was the fifth son and one of thirteen children born to John Dudley (Duke of Northumberland; 1501–1553), the most powerful noble in the government of Edward VI (1537–1553). Edward had taken the throne at age nine after the death of his father, Henry VIII (1491–1547; see entry). Since Edward was too young to make governmental decisions, John Dudley, one of Henry VIII's chief councilors, acted as his regent. This meant, in essence, that John Dudley would rule for the king until the boy reached adulthood. Robert and his siblings, three of whom survived into the 1560s, grew up surrounded by royalty and power. One sister, Mary, became the mother of the famous poet, Philip Sidney (1554–1586; see entry).
Robert first met Edward's half sister, the future Elizabeth I, at age eight, when the two children became good friends. They may have taken lessons together; both were exceptionally bright and interested in academic subjects. Unlike Elizabeth, however, who favored the study of Greek and Latin, Robert preferred mathematics and science. He was also an especially talented horseman.
Though a romantic link between Robert and Elizabeth was widely rumored, he married a Norfolk heiress, Amy Robsart, in 1550. Elizabeth herself attended the lavish wedding. Amy died ten years later after a fall, arousing suspicion that Robert may have caused the accident in order to become available as a marriage candidate for Elizabeth.
When Edward VI died in 1553 England was thrown into turmoil. Henry had named his daughters, Mary I (1516–1558; see entry) and Elizabeth, next in line to succeed Edward, but many nobles were unwilling to see Mary become queen. Not only was she a woman, but she was also a Catholic. Protestantism had become firmly established during Edward VI's rule, largely through the efforts of the Protestant lords who served as his councilors. They had no wish to see Mary try to restore Catholic rule in a country that was still struggling to subdue Catholic resistance to the new religion. John Dudley led an attempt to place Lady Jane Grey (1537–1554), his daughter-in-law and a Protestant great-granddaughter of Henry VII (1457–1547) on the throne. Though Grey did become queen of England for nine days, Mary's supporters defeated Dudley's plot and restored Mary to power. John Dudley and his sons were imprisoned in the Tower of London. (The Tower of London was a fortress on the Thames River in London that was used as a royal residence, treasury, and, most famously, as a prison for the upper class.) John Dudley was beheaded for treason, but Robert and his brothers were released after a year.
A period of struggle followed. Robert and his brother, Henry, went to France to fight on the side of Mary's husband, Philip II (1527–1598; see entry), king of Spain. Henry was killed in battle, and Robert returned to England, where he faced financial difficulties. Not until Elizabeth took the throne in 1558 did his fortunes significantly improve.
The queen's favorite
Elizabeth named Dudley, whom she called her "Sweet Robin," Master of the Queen's Horse, an honor that brought him into frequent personal contact with the queen. He was given charge of organizing her public schedule and her personal entertainments. Handsome, athletic, witty, and flirtatious, he quickly became her favorite courtier. Elizabeth bestowed many lavish gifts on him, including property, money, and titles. In 1562 she made Dudley a member of her Privy Council, despite objections from the other councilors. (The Privy Council was the board of advisors that carried out the administrative function of the government in matters of economy, defense, foreign policy, and law and order, and its members served as the queen's chief advisors.) When she became ill with smallpox that year she requested that, if she were to die, Dudley be made Lord Protector of the Realm. In 1564 she made him earl of Leicester and Baron Denbigh. Many at the royal court began to gossip about a romance between the queen and Dudley. Rumors suggested that they were lovers, and even that the queen was pregnant with Dudley's child.
Those who resented Dudley's influence on Elizabeth grew to hate him. They saw him as an arrogant and ambitious man who held more power over the queen than he deserved. He spent money irresponsibly and was known for his many romantic affairs. He soon became, according to many accounts, one of the most widely detested men in England. Nevertheless, he remained Elizabeth's close friend throughout his life.
When Dudley's wife, Amy Robsart, was found dead of a broken neck at the bottom of a staircase in 1560, Dudley's enemies immediately suspected Dudley of foul play. Dudley was called before a jury and examined, but insufficient evidence existed to convict him of a crime. Nevertheless, the scandal damaged his reputation and stood in the way of any hopes that he might marry the queen. Nevertheless, he actively courted Elizabeth. She rejected him, however, and even suggested that he consider a marriage with her Catholic cousin, Mary Stuart (Queen of Scots; 1542–1587; see entry). Since Mary had powerful Catholic allies who felt that she had a more legitimate claim to the English throne than Elizabeth did, the queen had reason to doubt Mary's loyalty. Marriage to Dudley, whom Elizabeth trusted completely, would help to neutralize any threat that Mary might pose. But Mary was insulted at the idea that she should accept a suitor whom Elizabeth had rejected; she refused to consider the proposal.
Dudley in Literature
Though Dudley was not widely popular during his life, he received some respectful tributes after his death. Some historians believe that the play Endymion, the Man in the Moon, written by John Lyly (1554–1606) and performed for the queen on New Year's Day of 1591, was an allegory, or symbolic representation, of the love between Dudley and Elizabeth. In the play, which is based on a Greek myth, a humble shepherd, Endymion, falls in love with Cynthia, the goddess of the moon. Cynthia has never fallen in love or even kissed a man, but she is so moved by Endymion's youth and beauty that she grants him immortality with a kiss: "When she, whose figure of all is the perfectest and never to be measured, always one yet never the same, still inconstant yet never wavering, shall come and kiss Endymion in his sleep, he shall then rise; else never." (Act III, Scene 4). This scene symbolizes the power of the queen to bestow honors on her beloved that will endure after his life has ended.
The poet Edmund Spenser (1552–1599; see entry), who entered Dudley's service in 1579, honored Elizabeth with a monumental allegorical epic, The Faerie Queene, published between 1590 and 1609. Throughout this work the figure of Arthur, the perfect knight and suitor of Queen Gloriana, appears. Many scholars believe that Spenser intended Arthur to symbolize Dudley, while Gloriana symbolized Elizabeth.
Although it became increasingly clear that Elizabeth would never agree to wed Dudley, he was a jealous man and objected to all other marriage proposals that she received, pressuring her to reject each one. At the same time, though, he conducted numerous scandalous love affairs, including one with Lady Douglas Sheffield (c. 1545–1608) that produced a son, Robert. In 1578, convinced that Elizabeth would never accept him as a husband, he married the queen's cousin, Lettice Devereux (1540–1634), widow of the earl of Essex. This made Dudley the stepfather of her nine-year-old son, Robert Devereux (later Earl of Essex; 1566–1601; see entry), who would in time surpass him as Elizabeth's favorite at court. Lettice gave birth to a son, also named Robert, who died in infancy. Dudley had no other children. His marriage to Lettice caused the queen intense displeasure; from then on, Elizabeth's affection for Dudley was tempered with disappointment.
As a statesman Dudley emphasized the need to strengthen Protestant control in England. He understood that Elizabeth had many powerful enemies both at home and abroad, and he made it his mission to protect her from danger wherever it might be found. He was wary of developments in France and in Spain, both strongly Catholic countries and traditional rivals of England. Some English Catholics had fled to these countries to escape persecution, and they had succeeded in gaining some political support. In France, especially, there was growing interest in the cause of Mary Stuart, who was related to the French nobility and had grown up at the French royal court. Mary's supporters believed that she, as a great-granddaughter of the English King Henry VII (1457–1509), had a better legal claim to the English throne than did Elizabeth, whose mother was Henry VIII's second wife. Because the Catholic Church did not grant Elizabeth's father a divorce from his first wife—he obtained a divorce through the Protestant Church instead—her birth was not considered legitimate under Catholic law. When war broke out between the Catholic majority in France and the small but influential Protestant minority, called Huguenots, in 1562, Dudley urged the queen to assist the Huguenots.
Elizabeth agreed to send troops and money. However, she was motivated not only by religious loyalty but also by the desire to recapture territories in northern France that had once been English possessions. In return for her support she demanded that the Huguenots give her the cities of Dieppe and Le Havre as pledges for the eventual return of Calais, which the French had seized during the reign of Elizabeth's predecessor, Mary I. But the English expedition failed. Once Catherine de Medici (1519–1589; see entry), who ruled France for her adolescent son, Charles IX (1550–1574), discovered that England was gaining a foothold into French territory, she convinced both of the French factions to unite and drive England out of the country. Elizabeth was forced to give up hopes of ever reclaiming Calais for England. The failure of this campaign in France did nothing to improve Dudley's reputation among the Privy Council, where he soon had many enemies, chief among them the queen's most trusted advisor, William Cecil (Lord Burghley; 1520–1598; see entry).
In 1584 Dudley helped to form the Protestant Association, whose members vowed to protect Elizabeth with their lives. He relentlessly pursued the punishment of English Catholics who might pose a threat to Protestant power. He grew increasingly fearful of Spain, a strongly Catholic country that had become associated with various plots to overthrow Elizabeth and install Mary Stuart, who had been forced to flee Scotland and was now living under guard in England, as queen. Dudley became one of the strongest voices on the queen's Privy Council to urge direct intervention against Spain. This extreme position pitted him against the more moderate Cecil, who hoped to avoid open war with Spain.
Dudley's enemies detested him, and in 1584 they published a pamphlet, Leicester's Commonwealth, that attacked his character. Biographer Elizabeth Jenkins, quoted in Shakespeare Oxford Newsletter, described the publication as a "racy piece of journalism" that made Leicester look like a "master criminal, with his tribe of poisoners, bawds [prostitutes] and abortionists…." The pamphlet went on to accuse Dudley of having murdered Amy Robsart and of poisoning the earl of Essex so that Dudley could then marry Essex's widow. Historians believe that this anonymous pamphlet, which presented a distorted picture of Dudley, was probably written in retaliation for Dudley's relentless aggression toward English Catholics.
In 1585 Elizabeth finally agreed to send military support to Protestants in the Netherlands who had launched a rebellion against Spain. She gave Dudley command of six thousand troops. He proved to be a poor military leader. Furthermore, without obtaining the queen's permission, he accepted a Dutch offer making him governor-general of the provinces that had declared themselves independent of Spain. Dudley's assumption of this position infuriated the queen, who worried that it would cause Philip II to believe that she wished to rule the Netherlands. She sent Dudley an angry letter, quoted in Derek Wilson's The Uncrowned Kings of England, expressing surprise and displeasure that "a man raised up by ourself and extraordinarily favoured by us above any other subject of this land, would have in so contemptible a sort broken our commandement." She demanded that he obey her orders to the letter or else face the "uttermost peril." Shocked by the queen's anger, Dudley wrote apologetic letters in return, but his arrogant tactics and lack of military skill caused Elizabeth to call him back to England in 1587.
Despite his failures in the Netherlands, Dudley received another military commission from the queen in 1588, when England was preparing to defend itself from an expected attack by Spain. Elizabeth appointed him lieutenant general of the army at Tilbury. As it turned out, the invasion failed when the mighty Spanish navy, the Armada, was chased into northern waters and then destroyed by devastating storms. Dudley, in charge of a defensive force on land, never saw action in this campaign.
Heavily in debt, Dudley died of a fever on September 4, 1588, at his home in Oxfordshire, and he was buried at St. Mary's Church, Warwick. His enemies said that their great joy at the defeat of the Spanish Armada was nothing compared to their joy in Dudley's death.
Although by the end of his life Dudley had begun to lose some of the queen's favor, he nevertheless remained her close friend to the end of his life. She mourned for him and reportedly refused to see or speak with anyone for several days after he died. Regardless of the wisdom of his political counsel, Dudley provided Elizabeth with unwavering friendship and an intimate affection that she found in no one else.
For More Information
Dersin, Denise, ed. What Life Was Like in the Realm of Elizabeth: England A.D. 1533–1603. Alexandria, VA: Time-Warner Books, 1998.
Wilson, Derek. Sweet Robin: A Biography of Robert Dudley, Earl of Leicester, 1533–1588. London: H. Hamilton, 1981.
―――――. The Uncrowned Kings of England: the Black History of the Dudleys and the Tudor Throne. New York: Carroll & Graf Publishers, 2005.
Moore, Peter R. "Demonography 101: Alan Nelson's Monstrous Adversary. Shakespeare Oxford Newsletter, Winter 2004. http://22.214.171.124/search?q=cache:OxnF52ZYqzsJ:www.shakespeare-oxford.com/demngraf.htm+leicester%27s+commonwealth&hl=en&gl=us&t=clnk&cd=8 (accessed on July 11, 2006).
"Robert Dudley." Elizabeth I. http://www.elizabethi.org/us/queensmen/robertdudley.htm (accessed on July 11, 2006).
"Robert Dudley." Tudor Place. http://www.tudorplace.com.ar/Bios/RobertDudley(1ELeicester).htm (accessed on July 11, 2006).
(b. Sheen House, Surrey, England, 7 August 1573; d. Villa di Castello, Florence, Italy, 6 September 1649)
Dudley was the son of Robert Dudley, earl of Leicester, and Lady Douglas Sheffield. The legitimacy of Dudley’s birth was questioned in his lifetime, yet he was given every advantage commensurate with his father’s position in Elizabethan England. He was a student at Christ Church, Oxford, and at the age of twenty-one sailed in command of two ships to the West Indies. In 1596 he was in the battle of Cádiz with the earl of Essex and was knighted for his bravery. In 1605 Dudley left his wife and children in England and traveled to Italy, accompanied by one of the beauties of the day, Elizabeth Southwell. He established himself in Florence, became a Catholic, married Miss Southwell, and entered the service of the grand duke of Tuscany. He was put in charge of several major engineering projects, including the building of the port of Leghorn, and the beginnings of land reclamation near Pisa. He never returned to England; his assumed titles, earl of Warwick and duke of Northumberland, invalid in England, were confirmed by the Holy Roman Emperor Ferdinand II in recognition of his services.
Dudley’s first work, an account of his voyage to the West Indies, was printed by Hakluyt in the second edition of his Voyages under the title “A Voyage... to the Isle of Trinidad and the Coast of Paria.” He had become interested in navigation while at Oxford, and the interest had been further stimulated by his close association with the great sea captain Thomas Cavendish, brother of his first wife. He continued to work on the pressing problems of navigation, including the determination of longitude; made a collection of the best and most advanced navigational instruments, now in the Florence Museum of Science; and at the age of seventy-three published his great work, Dell’arcano del mare (three volumes, Florence, 1646-1647). It is one of the great sea atlases of all time, magnificently engraved, and may justly be regarded as an encyclopedia of knowledge regarding the sea. It contains a treatise on naval strategy; a manual of shipbuilding; directions on building coastal fortifications; instructions to navigators, including the essential elements of nautical almanacs; and a set of maps of the entire world. It is these maps that give Dudley’s work special significance; Dell’arcano del mare is the first sea atlas with all maps drawn on Mercator’s projections, as modified by Edward Wright. The maps, virtually without ornamentation and restricted to the information essential to the seaman, are, in spite of errors and imperfections, among the milestones of naval cartography.
See G. F. Warner’s biographical sketch and preface to the Hakluyt Society’s edition of Dudley’s Voyage (London, 1899); and Vaughan Thomas, The Italian Biography of Sir Robert Dudley(Oxford, 1861?).
Leicester, Robert Dudley, 1st earl of
Leicester was a controversial figure. He was involved in his father's plan to crown Lady Jane Grey and was sentenced to death in January 1554, but pardoned in October of that year. His reputation as Elizabeth's favourite—an aristocratic and arrogant courtier—has been endorsed by historians but contemporaries were also gripped by rumours that the suspicious death of his first wife Amy Robsart was linked with his marriage designs on Elizabeth. In the ‘factional’ model of Elizabethan politics he has been seen as the rival of Burghley. Burghley certainly produced in 1566–7 a rather damning list of Leicester's qualities (or lack of them), questioning his knowledge (‘meet for a courtier’) and reputation (‘hated of many’). Leicester's career was probably less conspiratorial. He was certainly part of Elizabeth's new court in November 1558 and was appointed to organize the stables the day after her accession. But Burghley and he collaborated in Privy Council business and, judging from their correspondence, had a fairly easy relationship. Like many of the early Elizabethan councillors, courtiers, and diplomats, who made their names at Cambridge in the 1530s and under Edward VI, Leicester had his own Edwardian connections. As master of the horse he emulated his brother Ambrose, earl of Warwick, who had held the office in 1553. He seems also to have used his religious patronage to benefit Edwin Sandys, bishop of Worcester, and John Aylmer, later bishop of London. His parliamentary influence was considerable and he promoted men to the Commons, as a privy counsellor keen on having ‘discreet and wise men’ in the House.