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Robsart, Amy (c. 1532–1560)

Robsart, Amy (c. 1532–1560)

English noblewoman who died under mysterious circumstances. Name variations: Lady Amy Dudley; Lady Amye Dudley. Born Amye Robsart around 1532 (some sources cite 1535) in Norfolk, England; died on September 8, 1560, at Cumnor Hall, North Berkshire, England; daughter of Sir John Robsart; married Robert Dudley (c. 1532–1588), earl of Leicester (r. 1563–1588), on June 4, 1550; no children.

The life and death of Amy Robsart has been the subject of fiction by many writers, including Sir Walter Scott. She was born around 1532 into the minor English nobility of Norfolk, her father's only legitimate child. Growing up in the northern English countryside, Robsart was not well educated and probably could not write. Nevertheless, her beauty and her large inheritance from her father brought her a marriage into one of England's most prominent families, the Dudleys, hereditary dukes of Northumberland. In June 1550, about age 15, Amy married Robert Dudley, whom she had met only briefly. His father John Dudley was the duke of Northumberland. The wedding took place at the royal palace of Sheen, with the young King Edward VI as host. At first, the marriage was a success, and the couple lived happily enough on Amy's inherited estates in Syderstone, Norfolk. But Dudley began to spend more time at court as he gained the king's favor, visiting his wife less and less often.

When Edward VI died in 1553, Dudley and his family supported the claims of the Protestant Lady Jane Grey over those of Edward's Catholic half-sister Mary (I) . After Mary came to the throne, Robert Dudley and his brothers were imprisoned as traitors in the Tower of London for over a year; their father was executed. Amy, Lady Dudley, was allowed to visit Dudley occasionally, but even after he was released in October 1554 they still spent little time together.

When Elizabeth I succeeded Mary in 1558, Robert Dudley quickly rose to a position of prominence at court. Although she gave him some minor offices but few real responsibilities, Elizabeth clearly favored Dudley over her many courtiers, and they were constantly together. Coupled with Elizabeth's refusal to marry any of her suitors, her obvious fondness for Dudley led to widespread rumors of a love affair. Soon it was being said that Dudley had ordered the poisoning of his wife so he himself could marry Elizabeth, and that Elizabeth refused to marry anyone but Dudley.

Robsart was aware of the rumors, despite her distance from the intrigues and gossip of the London court. Throughout the years Robert was serving at court, Amy rarely appeared there herself. Instead, she moved frequently between the Dudley and Robsart rural estates and homes in London, seeing her husband only every few months. Lady Dudley managed their estates and finances, even down to details such as the selling of wool produced on the Syderstone lands. She also led an active social life, and enjoyed riding, hunting, and boating. However, she suffered from very poor health, possibly from breast cancer. Her ill health only encouraged the rumors of a plot by her husband and the queen to poison her. Stories were also set about to the effect that she was suffering from cancer and would soon die. Quadra, the Spanish ambassador, reported to the king of Spain that the queen had repeated this rumor to him.

In 1560, at her husband's bidding, Robsart set up residence at Cumnor Hall, a house near Oxford rented by his agent Anthony Forster or Forrester, a member of Parliament for Abingdon. On September 8, Lady Dudley's servants, returning from the Abingdon Fair, found her dead at the foot of the staircase at Cumnor Hall. Queen Elizabeth had Robert Dudley confined as soon as word reached London. Amy's sudden death understandably caused a major scandal. Many suspected that Dudley and Elizabeth had ordered her death; others believed that she died naturally but that Dudley had been waiting for news of her death to pursue marriage with the queen. A coroner's jury, which Robert Dudley did his best to pack and influence, concluded that she died from an accidental fall down the stairs. There were no witnesses, but her maid reported that Amy had been depressed and had often prayed for an end to her desperation. Whether this desperation was caused by her cancer or her bad marriage is unclear. However, the statement led to a widespread conjecture of suicide, caused by Dudley's neglect of his wife.

No evidence ever surfaced linking Dudley or Elizabeth to Robsart's death, except a vaguely worded diplomatic letter suggesting that the queen had spoken of Amy's death a day before it happened. Yet the decision the queen and Dudley

made to cut short the inquiry into her death caused further suspicion. Of course Dudley and Elizabeth did not marry, nor is it likely that the queen ever seriously considered him as a possible husband. But when news of Amy's death reached the foreign courts, the queen's enemies eagerly tried to use the accusation of a murder plot against her to alienate her allies and justify claims that she was unfit to govern England.

Lady Dudley was buried after an elaborate funeral at Worcester College, Oxford. Lord Dudley was created earl of Leicester in 1563 and eventually married Lettice Knollys (c. 1541–1634).

sources:

Jenkins, Elizabeth. Elizabeth and Leicester. NY: Coward-McCann, 1961.

Richardson, Aubrey. The Lover of Queen Elizabeth: Being the Life and Character of Robert Dudley, Earl of Leicester, 1533–1588. NY: Appleton, 1908.

Laura York , Riverside, California

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