On this day in history, 11th December 1608, one of Queen Elizabeth I’s former ladies and a lover of Robert Dudley, Earl of Leicester, was buried at St Margaret's Church, Westminster. Her name was Douglas Sheffield (née Howard), Lady Sheffield, and she was the mother of Leicester's illegitimate son, Sir Robert Dudley.
Find out more about Douglas Sheffield, who claimed to be Leicester's legal wife, in today's talk.
Also on this day in history:
- 1577 – Burial of Benjamin Gonson, Treasurer of the Navy and son of William Gonson, Vice-Admiral of Norfolk and Suffolk from 1536 until 1543. Gonson was buried at St Dunstan's Church.
- 1589 – Death of Patrick Lindsay, 6th Lord Lindsay of the Byres, at Struthers Castle in Fife, Scotland. Lindsay was a supporter of the Protestant Reformation, and one of the lords of the congregation. He was one of Mary, Queen of Scots' guardians when she was imprisoned at Lochleven and was a Privy Councillor after she was deposed as queen.
- 1607 – Death of Roger Manners, member of Parliament and Constable of Nottingham Castle. He was buried at Uffington Church in Rutland.
On this day in history, 11th December 1608, one of Queen Elizabeth I’s former ladies and a lover of Robert Dudley, Earl of Leicester, was buried at St Margaret's Church, Westminster. Her name was Douglas Sheffield (née Howard), Lady Sheffield.
Douglas was born in around 1542/1543, and was the eldest daughter of famous naval commander William Howard, 1st Baron Howard of Effingham, and his second wife, Margaret Gamage. Yes, you heard that right, Douglas was a girl! Her biographer, Simon Adams, wonders if the name came from Lady Margaret Douglas, Countess of Lennox, who may have been her godmother.
On Elizabeth I’s accession, her father, who had served Mary I as Lord High Admiral, was made Lord Chamberlain of the household and Douglas, along with her sister, Mary, were appointed as maids of honour to the new queen.
In 1560, at the age of around 17/18, Douglas married John Sheffield, 2nd Baron Sheffield, son and heir of Edmund Sheffield, 1st Baron Sheffield. They had two surviving children, Edmund and Elizabeth, before John died in December 1568. His son inherited his title.
After her husband’s death, Douglas returned to court and became a gentlewoman of the privy chamber (extraordinary), meaning that her position was unsalaried. In the early 1570s, Douglas became Robert Dudley, Earl of Leicester’s lover, and, on 7th August 1574, she gave birth to their son, Sir Robert Dudley, the explorer and cartographer. Douglas declared under oath that she and Dudley had married in secret at Esher, her family’s home, when she was pregnant in late 1573, but she could not provide any evidence to support this when her son sought to claim his father's and uncle's titles in 1604, after Elizabeth I's death.
According to the tract Leicester's Commonwealth, Douglas and Leicester had begun their romance in 1568, at Belvoir Castle while on royal progress and that Leicester had even had Douglas’s husband poisoned. However, there is no evidence to back this up and there wasn’t even a visit to Belvoir.
On 28th November 1579, Douglas secretly married diplomat Sir Edward Stafford, son of William Stafford, widower of Mary Boleyn, and his second wife, Dorothy. If Douglas had indeed been married to Leicester, this marriage would have been bigamous, but Douglas later claimed that she felt free to remarry as Leicester had married Lettice Devereux. Douglas and Edward had two sons together but they died young. Douglas accompanied her husband to the French court after he was appointed ambassador there. Her biographer, Simon Adams, writes that “Thanks to her place at Elizabeth's court and her command of French, Sheffield was the most socially successful of all the wives of the Elizabethan ambassadors in France. Not only did she get on famously with Catherine de' Medici, but she also made a significant contribution to the administration of the Valois court”.
Douglas returned to England in 1588, arriving just after her former lover the Earl of Leicester’s death. Her son, Robert, had been named by Leicester as heir to his estates after his brother, Ambrose. She returned to the Queen’s employment.
Douglas’s husband died in 1605, and on 14th September 1608, Douglas made her will, requesting to be buried with her parents at Reigate or by her sister in St Margaret’s, Westminster, which was also Stafford’s resting place. She died in December 1608 and was buried on this day, 11th December 1608, at St Margaret’s.
While there is no evidence that Douglas and Leicester were ever married, Leicester did recognise Douglas’s son, Robert, as his.