The Tudor Society

8 September – The mysterious death of Amy Robsart, wife of Robert Dudley

On this day in Tudor history, 8th September 1560, the body of Amy Dudley (née Robsart), wife of Robert Dudley, Earl of Leicester, was found at the bottom of some stairs in her rented home, Cumnor Place in Oxfordshire.

What had happened to Amy? Was her death a result of "misfortune", as decided by the coroner, or was it suicide or murder? Did Robert Dudley kill his wife? Did William Cecil kill Amy?

In today's talk, Claire Ridgway, founder of the Tudor Society, examines what happened that day and the theories regarding Amy Robsart's mysterious death, an event that definitely put an end to the idea that Elizabeth I could ever marry Robert Dudley.

Book recommendation - "Amy Robsart: A Life and its End" by Christine Hartweg.

Also on this day in history:

  • 1462 – Birth of Henry Medwall, the playwright known as England's first vernacular dramatist. His 1497 play “Fulgens and Lucres” is the first known secular play written in English. He also wrote a play entitled “Nature”.
  • 1475 – Birth of John Stokesley, Bishop of London and Ambassador, at Collyweston, Northamptonshire. Stokesley supported Henry VIII's quest for an annulment of his marriage to Catherine of Aragon, and carried out diplomatic missions for the cause.
  • 1495 – Death of Sir William Hussey, Chief Justice of the King's Bench in Edward IV's reign.
  • 1601 – Burial of John Shakespeare, father of playwright William Shakespeare, at Stratford-upon-Avon.
  • 1603 – Death of George Carey, 2nd Baron Hunsdon, courtier, son of Henry Carey, 1st Baron Hunsdon, and grandson of Mary Carey (née Boleyn). Carey served Elizabeth I as Marshal of the Household, Justice of the Peace, Lord Lieutenant of Hertfordshire, Captain of the Isle of Wight, member of Parliament, Captain of the Gentlemen Pensioners, Lord Chamberlain and Privy Councillor.

There are 3 comments Go To Comment

  1. L

    Thanks Claire! I agree, in that this will always be a controversial topic, since there are many potential theories..

  2. L

    A Tudor whodunnit, brilliant

  3. R

    This was a tragic death of a young woman ignored by her flamboyant husband, but I don’t believe the modern murder theory and I doubt a real coroner today would even judge it as murder. However, we would have known today about her cancer and the effects on her bones and if she was at risk of falls. Pain control would certainly be better and she may even find a treatment. A modern doctor may also be able manage any underlying depression. Her fall would be correctly examined and either put down as an accident or fall due to her condition.

    The mystery of history, though, is interesting because we now have a real Tudor mystery, with four main theories, murder, therefore who done it, the possibility of suicide, an accident or fall due to medical problems. It is a popular theory that Robert Dudley had his wife killed to be free to marry Elizabeth, the murder is also seen to be done on the orders of William Cecil. To me this is nonsense because Elizabeth could not simply marry a man who had killed his wife and Cecil had no motivation as Amy wasn’t politically dangerous. Elizabeth distanced herself from the whole affair in any case and Robert Dudley followed every proper process to find out the truth and clear his name. The autopsy was quite thorough.

    Suicide and accident are both equally possible because Amy knew she was very ill, although she was still taking what pleasure from life she can, she ordered two new dresses, looking forward to her husband coming home and she visited friends. Amy is reported as having been overly pious and constantly praying for deliverance and anxious. However, other reports contradicted this. So her state of mind is uncertain. In Christian Tudor thinking, suicide was a terrible sin, an unforgivable one as the person denied the Creator, so Amy would have been considered to have died without grace and buried at a crossroads, her heart cut out and head cut off, her immortal soul lost. Suicide was potentially out of the question, but if she was an emotionally disturbed person or desperate then it is possible. A fall downstairs may look like an accident and she could hope her death to be ruled as such. Suicide is very risky though in that Amy may survive. (So is murder being made to look accidental). However, other theologians actually did argue that people who were melancholic or disturbed who took their own lives did so because they had lost all reason and some clergy did bury the unfortunate person and commend them to the mercy of God. I think it may be more possible than not that this wasn’t suicide.

    Amy had to have been in a lot of pain, maybe she wanted rest, she took highly potent opioid drugs such as milk of the poppy or opium, something similar, having let the rest of the House to go to the fair, which was very unusual because nobody had any privacy in Tudor England, which is why this death is also suspicious and then waking up, sought help and went to find it, still sleepy from any herbs and rest she had taken. A woman with the risk of falls and fractures due to cancer would be vulnerable alone and it is very possible that she lost her balance, her legs collapsed and she fell downstairs, breaking her neck. It is not impossible for the dints, even a deep one to be from the edge of the stairs. No real evidence concluded she was hit on the head and her wounds were not very deep. One was a quarter of a thumb, which is probably half an inch or so and the others smaller. Murder isn’t an impossibility but the evidence is inconclusive enough to state that Amy was murdered and it is much more consistent with an accident.

    Amy’s grave marking is mostly hidden as well in the church and we don’t have the actual stairs to examine as the manor was lost long ago. Rest in peace Amy Dudley, may the truth emerge some day.

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8 September – The mysterious death of Amy Robsart, wife of Robert Dudley