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Sheffield [née Howard], Douglas, Lady Sheffield (1542/3–1608), noblewoman, was born in 1542 or 1543 (she was seventeen when she married in 1560), the eldest of the three daughters of , naval commander, and his second wife, Margaret (d. 1581), third daughter of Sir Thomas Gamage of Coety, Glamorgan, and his wife, Margaret. Her elder brother was . The best explanation for her unusual Christian name is that her godmother was probably Margaret Stewart, née Douglas, countess of Lennox.

Early years and relationship with Leicester, 1542/3–1579

In the absence of any family papers the circumstances of Douglas Howard's childhood are unknown, but although she has left no other evidence of serious intellectual pursuits (there were only four books dedicated to her), she spoke and wrote French with some fluency. Her father protected her cousin in 1554–5, despite being lord high admiral to Mary I. For this service he was appointed lord chamberlain of the household at Elizabeth's accession, and Douglas Howard and her sister Mary (d. 1600) maids of honour by the time of her coronation. In autumn 1560, however, she vacated her place on her marriage to John Sheffield, second Baron Sheffield (c.1538–1568), nobleman, of Butterwick, Lincolnshire, only son and heir of Edmund Sheffield, first Baron Sheffield, and his wife, Anne. According to Robert Kenny, her dowry amounted to a miserly £800. The queen, however, provided a wedding gift on 27 October 1560 (BL, Add. MS 5751A, fol. 57r). The couple had two surviving children, , and Elizabeth (d. 1600), who married , in 1583. Lord Sheffield died on 10 December 1568 and his widow returned to court as an extraordinary gentlewoman of the privy chamber.

In the early 1570s Douglas Sheffield began an affair with , courtier and magnate, the fifth son of John Dudley, duke of Northumberland, and his wife, Jane, that came to dominate the rest of her life. There is only one item of reliable evidence for the affair, apart from the circumstances of the birth of their son, , on 7 August 1574, and gossip at court in May 1573 that Sheffield and her sister Frances (1553/4–1598) were both ‘very far in love’ with Leicester (LPL, MS 3197, fol. 79). This is the long undated letter Leicester wrote to her at some point before 1574, defending his refusal to marry for fear of Elizabeth's displeasure (‘Letter … to a lady’, 14–26). However, in 1584–5 the tract Leicester's Commonwealth broadcast round Europe details of what had been the discreet knowledge of the court. More controversial still were the two depositions Sheffield supplied on 6–7 June 1604 in ‘the great cause of Sir Robert Dudley’, the court of Star Chamber case arising from his claim to be Leicester's legitimate son, in which she declared under oath that Leicester had formally married her (CKS, U 1475/L 2/3, items 12–13).

The story originating in Leicester's Commonwealth and embellished in the seventeenth century that their affair began at Belvoir Castle, Leicestershire, during the royal progress in 1568 and that Leicester had Lord Sheffield poisoned to expedite their adultery is a myth, not least because Elizabeth never visited Belvoir. In his letter Leicester specifically mentions that his relationship with Douglas Sheffield began ‘after yor wydowed beganne uppon the first occasione of my cominge to you’ (‘Letter … to a lady’, 21). According to Leicester's Commonwealth, she gave birth to a daughter by Leicester about 1572 at Dudley Castle, Staffordshire, the home of her sister Mary, who married Edward Sutton (known as Dudley), fourth Baron Dudley, in early 1571, but the child was stillborn and buried secretly.

In 1604 Sheffield vehemently denied she had any children by Leicester other than Robert Dudley. She claimed that she married Leicester at her family's house at Esher, Surrey, between 11 November and 25 December 1573, having persuaded him to agree to a contract of marriage in 1571 because she believed then that she was pregnant. Although her testimony was central to her son's case, she could supply no supporting evidence and claimed that servants had stolen all the records of her marriage, apparently at Leicester's behest. She did, however, state that the principal mover of the marriage was her cousin , and it is possible that he encouraged the affair to solidify an alliance with Leicester for his own rehabilitation in 1570–71. Equally obscure are the circumstances under which Leicester abandoned her. She deposed that at some point before his marriage to Lettice Devereux, dowager countess of Essex, in 1578, he offered her £700 a year for life to disclaim their marriage. When she refused, ‘he departed from her with protestation not to come any more to her’ (CKS, U 1475/L 2/3, item 13, fol. 12).

Marriage to Sir Edward Stafford, 1579–1584

On 28 November 1579 Sheffield secretly married at her house at Blackfriars, London, the gentleman pensioner , diplomat, of London, first son of Sir William Stafford of Chebsey, Staffordshire, and his second wife, Dorothy. This marriage was in its own way as controversial as her affair with Leicester. Most of what is known of the circumstances comes from Stafford's own lengthy deposition in 1604, which was testimony against Sheffield, for if she had been married to Leicester she had committed bigamy in marrying him (CKS, U 1475/L/2/4, item 3). Stafford stated that he had courted her in the summer of 1579 after his first wife died. On 1 November 1579 Sheffield agreed to marry him and told him then that she had contracted marriage with Leicester and had borne him a son.

Immediately after his marriage, Stafford left for France as Elizabeth's envoy to François, duc d'Anjou. He finally returned to England on 16 February 1580, when he was summoned to a dramatic interview with the queen. After forcing him to admit that he had married Sheffield, Elizabeth claimed to have evidence that she was already married to Leicester. With a mixture of bribery and cajolery she tried through Stafford and others to persuade Sheffield to testify to this effect. Sheffield—almost hysterical—refused to concede any more than breach of contract. Her refusal, Stafford considered, was crucial evidence against the marriage. There is some external confirmation of this phase of the saga. On 8 February the French ambassador, Castelnau de Mauvissière, reported that Elizabeth was angry because Stafford had secretly married a cousin of hers.

When the discrepancy between her testimony and her husband's was put to Sheffield in 1604 she claimed that she had believed that since Leicester had remarried she was free to do so as well. Thanks to intimidation by Leicester—and after his death by his widow and her son, Robert Devereux, second earl of Essex—she had been afraid ever to mention their marriage again. This, however, is not the only unresolved question. How did Elizabeth find out about Sheffield's marriages? It is possible that the famous revelation to her by Jean de Simier, Anjou's agent, was not just that Leicester was married to the dowager countess of Essex, but that he was already married to Sheffield as well. A second issue is whether Leicester actually arranged Sheffield's marriage to Stafford, as Mauvissière was informed. She and Stafford vehemently denied this and made much of their hatred of Leicester when questioned at length on the subject in 1604. In his opening statement Sir Robert Dudley described Stafford as ‘a man very adverse’ to Leicester (Hawarde, 199). Yet Stafford and Leicester were on good terms before 1579. Last there is the issue of the young Robert Dudley himself. Sheffield deposed in 1604 that Leicester offered her £1000 for the custody of their son, but she refused. In fact custody appears to have been settled quite amicably. By 1580 Robert Dudley was ‘being then brought upp at the Lord Northes’—with Leicester's close friend Roger North, second Baron North—yet he also had ‘leave to see the said ladie [Sheffield]’ (CKS, U 1475/L/2/4, item 3, fol. 36).

By autumn 1580 Sheffield was ‘great with child’ and ultimately she and Stafford had two sons, but both predeceased their parents and little is known about them (CKS, U 1475/L2/4. item 3, fol. 33). Marriage brought her no financial advantages, for Stafford was notoriously poor and admitted in 1583 that he was dependent on her jointure income from the Sheffield estate. In October of that year he was appointed ambassador to the French court and she accompanied him. 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. At the beginning of 1585 Henri III promulgated a new series of household ordinances intended to give him greater privacy. These, Jacques de Thou later recorded, were based on discussions he had had with Sheffield about Elizabeth's practice.

Leicester's Commonwealth, 1584–1588

Sheffield was equally involved in the more controversial aspects of Stafford's embassy. In December 1583 her cousin Charles Arundel arrived in Paris following his implication in the Throckmorton plot, and she and Stafford entertained him, unaware (so they said) of the reasons for his departure from England. At the same time Stafford proposed that his wife should disguise herself as a Catholic in order to gain greater access to the French court and penetrate the English exile circles. This plan was firmly quashed. During spring and summer 1584 Arundel and his friends compiled Leicester's Commonwealth, and Sheffield's affair with Leicester was high among its juicier contents. Stafford was relatively relaxed about the publication of the first (English) edition in the autumn of 1584, but was seriously alarmed by the preparation of a French edition with an ‘addition’ supplied from England in the spring of 1585. He then reported that embarrassment caused by the first edition had made his wife ill and he was worried about the possible effects of the new one. She may have contemplated retiring to England at this point, but he persuaded her to ‘pluck up a good heart’ and stay with him (CSP for., 1584–5, 400).

What is particularly interesting is that while Sheffield was identified in the first edition, Stafford was sufficiently close to the compilers to be assured by them that she would not be in the French edition. This was in fact the case, but the ‘addition’ was another matter. It included a deliberately obscene libel, the story that Leicester tried to seduce a lady of honour with an aphrodisiac containing his own semen. Although the lady was not identified, the fact that she was described as still living made Sheffield an obvious candidate. The extent of Stafford and Sheffield's involvement with the compilers of Leicester's Commonwealth remains a perplexing issue. Neither of them would appear to have wanted her personal affairs exposed in this manner, but they were close to Arundel and how else could the work have contained so much detail? The editor of the modern edition leaves the question open, but then he does not consider the references to Sheffield to be more than a ‘jest or two’, which is undoubtedly an understatement (Peck, 29–31). The case against her involvement rests primarily on her later denial of the stillborn daughter.

Even more puzzling is the fact that the publication of Leicester's Commonwealth did not terminate Stafford and Sheffield's relations with Arundel. Arundel advised the Spanish agent in Paris in 1584 that Stafford could be bribed, and he was the intermediary between Stafford and Bernardino de Mendoza when Stafford's ‘treason’ began in earnest in 1587. The extent of Sheffield's involvement in this is unknown, but one of Stafford's attractions to the Spaniards was that her brother was lord high admiral and Arundel's friends claimed to have received political information from her.

Final years, 1588–1608

Stafford remained as ambassador in France until 1591, but he sent his wife home in August 1588 for her own protection. Sheffield arrived at Dover the day Leicester died (4 September), and was gratified to learn that he had named her son heir to his estates after his brother Ambrose Dudley, earl of Warwick, and that ‘the Queen had assured her that shee would take great care of him’. To this Stafford replied ‘with his acustomed humour … that whensoever that the Queene did the said Sir Robert good the next newes the said Lady Sheffield should heare would be that he [Stafford] was chosen Pope’ (CKS, U 1475/L/2/4, item 3, fols. 76–9). Sheffield returned to service at court during the next decade, although there are only a few references to her. She was certainly there in July 1592, when she participated in a scheme to persuade Henri of Navarre to retain a portrait that Elizabeth was sending to his sister, Catherine of Bourbon. Her letter to the French ambassador, Beauvoir la Nocle, is the one known example of her French composition. It includes an apology for her ‘movez escritur, qui est desaprins [sic] depuis que suis en Engleterre’ (Egerton, 415).

Sheffield's involvement in Sir Robert Dudley's case is the final mystery of her life. Dudley filed suit for defamation over his bastardy at the commissary court at Lichfield, Staffordshire, in September 1603. Stafford heard about the suit shortly afterwards and was ‘as much amased as ever he was at any thinge in his life’. Angry at having his own marriage called into question, he went to see his wife at Sudeley Castle, Gloucestershire. After a stormy encounter he was convinced that she had been browbeaten by her son into supporting his case, though only under the condition that Dudley would not use her evidence until she was dead. Stafford claimed he had persuaded her not to ‘medle nor entre with the matter any more’, but, after he left, Dudley came to see her and ‘did so terrifye her … tellinge her that shee was soe far gone that theare was noe torninge back’ (CKS, U 1475/L/2/4, item 3, fols. 44, 55, 58, 64). Sheffield claimed that she was not involved in the Lichfield case and only agreed to acknowledge her marriage to Leicester after it, ‘althogh she hath been often moved by her son for such purpose’ (CKS, U 1475/L 2/3, item 13, fol. 1). She denied she had delayed in order to ensure that her testimony confirmed that of her son's other witnesses. Yet, however important her depositions were to her son's case, they were ignored in the Star Chamber judgment, which was concerned specifically with the ‘conspiracy’ behind the Lichfield suit. Many, both at the time and since, have noted that the substantive issue of her marriage to Leicester was never addressed at the trial, let alone resolved, but the inconclusive result also saved her from a possible charge of perjury.

Sheffield tried to maintain contact with Dudley in his self-imposed exile in Florence through the Tuscan agent in London, but in her last years she drew closer to her elder son, Lord Sheffield. She made her will on 14 September 1608, though still ‘in health of body and mind’. She requested burial either in Reigate, Surrey, with her parents or in St Margaret's, Westminster, ‘by my sister’, Lady Dudley, not mentioning that Stafford, who had died on 5 February 1605, was buried there as well (Greenfield, 368–70). Her executor was ‘my friend’ William Crashaw, a puritan preacher then closely associated with Lord Sheffield (Adams, ‘Protestant cause’, 434). She died in Westminster at the beginning of December 1608, and was buried in St Margaret's on the 11th. No monument to her or to Stafford was erected.

Sheffield has either attracted sympathy as a betrayed woman or been dismissed as insubstantial. Neither verdict is justified. It should not be forgotten that her sister Frances, who became first the mistress and then the second wife of , enjoyed almost as colourful a love life as she did. She was clearly a woman of intelligence, though also of stormy temper and powerful mood swings. For all Stafford's claims of a happy marriage, there were frictions there as well: he referred to jars with his wife in 1586, and admitted that she was annoyed by his joke about the queen in 1588. Sheffield's claim in 1604 that she had been married to Leicester can no longer be credited, for there are simply too many discrepancies in her account. The Tuscan agent, who investigated her son's claims in 1621, neatly put his finger on it: ‘his friends maintain that his father married Lady Sheffield, but they are unable to account for her marriage during his lifetime, an act so injurious to the alleged legitimacy of her son’ (Skrine MSS, 183).

Simon Adams

Sources  

exchequer wardrobe account, coronation of Elizabeth, TNA: PRO, E 101/429/3 · BL, Add. MS 5751A [miscellaneous warrants] · R. W. Kenny, Elizabeth's admiral: the political career of Charles Howard, earl of Nottingham, 1536–1624 (Baltimore, MD, 1970) · The manuscripts of his grace the duke of Rutland, 4 vols., HMC, 24 (1888–1905), vol. 1 · ‘A letter from Robert, earl of Leicester, to a lady’, ed. C. Read, Huntington Library Bulletin, 9 (1936), 14–26 · CKS, Penshurst papers, U1475 · D. C. Peck, ed., Leicester's commonwealth: the copy of a letter written by a master of art of Cambridge (1584) and related documents (1985) · G. Holles, Memorials of the Holles family, 1493–1656, ed. A. C. Wood, CS, 3rd ser., 55 (1937) · Les reportes del cases in camera stellata, 1593 to 1609, from the original ms. of John Hawarde, ed. W. P. Baildon (privately printed, London, 1894) · S. Adams, ‘The papers of Robert Dudley, earl of Leicester, pt 3, the countess of Leicester's collection’, Archives, 22 (1996), 1–26 · Shrewsbury papers, LPL · Calendar of the manuscripts of the most hon. the marquis of Salisbury, 24 vols., HMC, 9 (1883–1976) · Bibliothèque Nationale de France, Paris, MS français 15793, registre de Michel de Castelnau, seigneur de Mauvissière, 1578–81 · D. Wilson, Sweet Robin: a biography of Robert Dudley, earl of Leicester, 1533–1588 (1981) · A. M. Mimardière, ‘Stafford, Edward II’, HoP, Commons, 1558–1603, 3.430–32 · CSP for., 1558–89 · A. Chéruel, Marie Stuart et Catherine de Médicis (Paris, 1858) · BL, Cotton MS Galba E. vi [Stafford correspondence] · D. Potter and P. R. Roberts, ‘An Englishman's view of the court of Henri III, 1584–5: Richard Cook's “Description of the court of France”’, French History (1988), 312–44 · M. Leimon and G. Parker, ‘Treason and plot in Elizabethan diplomacy: the “fame of Sir Edward Stafford” reconsidered’, EngHR, 111 (1996), 1134–58 · L. Hicks, An Elizabethan problem: some aspects of the careers of two exile adventurers (1964) · J. K. Laughton, ed., State papers relating to the defeat of the Spanish Armada, anno 1588, 2 vols., Navy RS, 1–2 (1894); facs. edn (1987) · F. H. Egerton, The life of Thomas Egerton, lord chancellor of England (Paris, 1828) · R. B. Wernham, ed., List and analysis of state papers, foreign series, Elizabeth I, 7 vols. (1964–2000) · R. Strong, The portraits of Queen Elizabeth I (1963) · J. Temple-Leader, Life of Sir Robert Dudley (Florence, 1895); repr. (Amsterdam, 1977) · [B. W. Greenfield], ‘Abstract of the last will of Lady Douglas Sheffield, the repudiated wife of Robert Dudley, earl of Leicester’, Miscellanea Genealogica et Heraldica, new ser., 3 (1880), 368–70 · A. Gould Lee, The son of Leicester: the story of Sir Robert Dudley (1964) · S. L. Adams, ‘The protestant cause: religious alliance with the west European Calvinist communities as a political issue in England, 1585–1630’, DPhil diss., U. Oxf., 1973 · A. Somerset, Elizabeth I (1991) · The manuscripts of Henry Duncan Skrine, esq. Salvetti correspondence, HMC, 16 (1887) · GEC, Peerage

Likenesses  

portrait, 18th cent. · engraving (after unknown artist), repro. in V. Thomas, The Italian biography of Sir Robert Dudley (privately printed, Oxford, 1849), facing p. 55 · portraits; known to be at Leicester House in 1580–82