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8 September 1560 – The Death of Amy Dudley

The Death of Amy Robsart, a Victorian painting by William Frederick Yeames

The Death of Amy Robsart, a Victorian painting by William Frederick Yeames

On 8th September 1560, Amy Dudley (née Robsart), wife of Robert Dudley, Earl of Leicester, died at her rented home, Cumnor Place in Oxfordshire.

Her death is rather a mystery. Her body was found at the foot of the stairs when her servants returned from their day out at the Abingdon Fair and although the coroner ruled that Amy, "being alone in a certain chamber... accidentally fell precipitously down", there were rumours and mutterings that her husband, Robert Dudley, and even Queen Elizabeth I, had been poisoning Amy and had arranged her death.

There is still controversy today over Amy's death. The theories include:

  • Accident – Professor Ian Aird (1956) suggests that Amy's death could have been an accident caused by a spontaneous fracture of the vertebrae as she walked down the stairs. Professor Aird based this theory on the fact that breast cancer, which sources suggest Amy was suffering from, can cause a weakening of the bones.
  • Suicide – On the day of her death, Amy ordered all of her servants out of the house, giving them permission to go to the fair for the day. When some of them protested that it was not “fitting” to go to a fair on a Sunday, Amy was said to have been quite sharp with them, asking them to obey her orders. A Mrs Odingsells refused to go, much to Amy's displeasure, but Mrs Odingsells did eventually retire to her room, leaving Amy alone. Did Amy arrange to be alone so that she could commit suicide? After all, she was said to be very depressed. Amy’s maid said that she wondered if Amy “might have an evil toy in her mind”, in other words, suicide.
  • Murder – Some sources believe that Amy's husband, Robert Dudley, arranged her murder so that he could be free to marry Elizabeth I, and others believe that William Cecil orchestrated the murder to blacken Dudley's name and to prevent him from marrying Elizabeth.
  • An aortic aneurism – A modern theory that Amy was killed by the terminal enlargement of one of the arteries from the heart. Symptoms of this include depression, fits of anger, mental aberrations and pain and swelling in the chest.

We will never know the truth of the matter.
Amy was buried at St Mary's, Oxford, but the exact location of her tomb is unknown.

Amy's death is a topic that I have written about at various times on my old site The Elizabeth Files, so here are links to some articles there for you:

Click here to read about the marriage of Robert Dudley and Amy Robsart.

Extract on theories taken from On This Day in Tudor History by Claire Ridgway.

There are 4 comments Go To Comment

  1. melanie taylor /

    All possible – except I don’t think Dudley would have been that stupid to orchestrate Amy’s death. Dudley had too much to lose, so my money is on someone wanting to discredit him so he could never marry the queen. Lots of candidates here too!

    Would he have gone for a divorce – don’t read much about this idea. If he had, would Elizabeth have been tempted to change her mind? It would have divided the country, so probably not – she was way too uncanny.

    Funny how it happened the day after Elizabeth’s birthday. Fact is often much stranger than fiction.

  2. Lorna Wanstall /

    I believe Amy’s death was nothing more than a tragic accident. I concur with Professor Aird.
    Melanie not too certain but I believe Cecil said something in a fit of frustration to the Spanish ambassador, along the lines, that if Elizabeth continues her affair with Dudley it would spell the ruin of all England. Or something like that, needless to say Cecil wasn’t a happy bunny over Elizabeth’s friendship with Dudley.
    Yep I agree strange things do happen. K.P dying 2 days before Elizabeth’s birthday. Not to mention Elizabeth being released from the tower on 19th May 1554 and Henry 8th dying on what was his father’s Birthday Henry 7th 28th January. Poor Elizabeth of york also dying on her birthday February 11 1503

  3. Nancy Volgamore /

    I have always believed that both Elizabeth and Robin were FAR too intelligent not to realize that that type of scandal would completely point blame to them. Based on the political machinations of that court at that time, it is entirely possible that it was a very strong attempt to frame Dudley. Sadly, we will never know, and even if murder most foul were to be proven, no one could at this point be held responsible. Amy’s story is very tragic, however. It seems as though she loved her husband and if he once cared for her any more deeply than obligation mandated, that was lost when he sought his glory amongst Elizabeth’s affections and courtiers. She seems a most sad, forgotten soul. Glad to know that people are still interested in what actually happened to her.

  4. RealTudorLady /

    I remember the TV documentary based on the book by Chris Scidmore who has studied the post mortem documents of Amy Robsart and have read the book based on this, which explored the various theories on the death of this unfortunate young woman. Did she have an accident? Was she ill and her bones brittle? Did she have cancer? Did Amy commit suicide? Did she know that she was dying and how ill was Amy?

    I also feel the three theories of murder, suicide and accident are all possible but the best evidence points to an accident as a result of ill health, such as cancer and brittle bones seems, causing a fatal fall, rather than murder as thought by modern conspiracy theories. Elizabeth and Cecil had no reason to kill the wife of a gentleman and son of a traitor, whom he kept hidden in the country and who was not politically influential. Elizabeth may love the bones of Robert Dudley, he may worship and even love her, but he was hardly a suitable husband for a Queen. His family were recently created nobles, not from a long line of noble blood and his brothers, father and grandfather had tainted blood because of their involvement in treason trials. It doesn’t matter if they were guilty or not, it mattered back then that the Dudley name was associated with treason in a big way. Elizabeth was a woman who would be the ruler and mistress of all and have no master so therefore, marriage to one of her gentlemen was out of the question. If Amy was murdered Robert would be the prime suspect and as Mary Queen of Scots was to find when she married her husband’s killer; if Elizabeth married him under such circumstances, it would be political suicide.

    The evidence seems to indicate that Amy had been ill for some time, possibly from the bone diseases associated with cancer, she was depressed at times and optimistic at times and had said farewell to friends and family. She put on a good face, trying to stay cheerful during her last days as the sweet letters ordering new dresses shows, read by Sarah Grinswood in the documentary. She oddly insisted on the servants going to a fair, which meant she was alone in the house, which was very unusual, but I suspect it was her illness which made her do this. Amy went to bed, she rose and struggling along the landing to the shallow steps, possibly she was looking for help, having forgotten the house was empty and she fell, slipped down the stairs, broke her neck and hit her head on the last step. The experts believe it was an accident and cancer has been suggested.

    Suicide was a grave sin, an immortal sin and Amy would have been buried at a crossroads, her head struck from her dead body and placed at her feet, excluded from heaven, as was the belief in the sixteenth century. Her servants had said she was both depressed and in high spirits, looking forward to seeing her husband who was coming home after a long absence. However, self preservation would possibly have stopped her from killing herself as would her religious faith. Fear of condemnation in the afterlife was very real in the sixteenth century and suicide was seen as not redeeming.

    It would be a bit too obvious if Robert killed his wife and Elizabeth certainly could not marry a man who had killed his wife and arguments that she had Cecil do it are ridiculous. There is no evidence to substantiate such a claim. Robert was very upset when he heard about his wife and his letters ordering the inquest show that. He may have been a suspect but it is very doubtful Robert Dudley had anything to do with his wife’s death.

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8 September 1560 – The Death of Amy Dudley