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Dudley [née Robsart], Amy, Lady Dudley (1532–1560), gentlewoman, was born on 7 June 1532, probably at Stanfield Hall, Norfolk, the only child and heir of Sir John Robsart (d. 1554), landowner, of Syderstone, Norfolk, and his wife, Elizabeth (d. 1557), daughter of John Scott of Camberwell, Surrey. Elizabeth Robsart was the widow of Roger Appleyard (d. 1528), of Stanfield, Norfolk, and mother of four children including John Appleyard (b. 1529, d. in or after 1574). Sir John Robsart held three manors near King's Lynn, as well as one in Suffolk, and was a substantial grazier, leaving over 3000 sheep at his death in 1554 (there were 4900 on the estate in 1563). However, his seat, Syderstone Hall, was uninhabitable and he may have lived outside Norfolk until he married Elizabeth Appleyard between 1528 and 1531, for he is not among the resident gentry in the subsidy lists of the 1520s. Thereafter he resided at the Appleyard house, Stanfield Hall, and from 1532 he was a Norfolk JP.

A printed missal, Missale adusum insignis ac preclare ecclesie Sarum (1512), now known as the ‘Robsart missal’, contains the inscription ‘Amea Robsart generosa filia Johno Robsart Armiger nata fuit in vij die Junij in Anno Dom Angelismo cccccxxxii’ (Durham University Library, Bamburgh Select 15, p. 4). Robsart's inquisition post mortem of 16 October 1554 gives his daughter's age as twenty-three, making her a year older, but if the missal is correct she was almost exactly the same age as , courtier and magnate, fifth son of , and his wife, [see under ]. The missal also contains anti-papal marginalia, which suggests that its owner was someone of strong reformist views. Further evidence of Sir John Robsart's allegiances are found in the precocious reference in his will of 6 October 1535 to Henry VIII as ‘within his realme supreame hede of the church immediately under God’ and in the dedication to him by Thomas Becon of The Fortresse of the Faithful (1550), in honour of the ‘godly affection and christian zeal which both you and … your wife have borne toward the pure religion of God these many years’ (Norwich commissary court, Walpoole, fol. 77r; Becon, 592). His wife shared his views. He is said to have been a receiver for Thomas Howard, third duke of Norfolk, but significantly it was only after the fall of the Howards in 1546 that he became prominent in county government. He was made KB at Edward VI's coronation on 20 February 1547 and appointed sheriff of Norfolk and Suffolk for 1547–8.

Nothing else is known of Amy Robsart herself until her marriage to Robert Dudley at Sheen on 4 June 1550. Robsart had named her his sole heir in his will, although he also had an illegitimate son, Arthur. Under the marriage contract he made with Warwick on 24 May he granted Amy and her husband an annuity of £20 per annum until they inherited the Robsart estate after his and his wife's death. Warwick for his part obtained for them the lands of Coxford Priory, which were adjacent to Robsart's own. The two estates combined would make the couple major figures in the county. How they met is unknown, but it was presumably during the campaign against Ket's rebellion in 1549, when Warwick and his sons stayed near Stanfield. Sir William Cecil's sardonic observation on Dudley's marriage in 1565 that ‘nuptii carnales a laetitia incipiunt et in luctu terminantur’ (‘carnal marriages begin in joy and end in weeping’), suggests that it was a romantic one (Hatfield House, Cecil MS 155, art. 29).

Although Robsart and his son-in-law were active in Norfolk local government between 1550 and 1553, the Dudleys do not appear to have lived in the county. Dudley was knighted in 1551. On the eve of Edward's death the couple were residing at Somerset House, where Dudley was keeper. Amy appears to have remained in London during her husband's imprisonment in 1553–4, for she was given permission to visit him in the Tower of London. Robsart died on 8 June 1554 (without revising his 1535 will), but Lady Elizabeth lived on until June 1557. It was not until then that the Dudleys inherited the Robsart estate. In the years immediately after Dudley's release in October 1554 they were technically landless (he had lost the Coxford lands in his attainder), but the Robsarts appear to have given them financial assistance and he received help from his brothers in 1556.

Amy Dudley's earliest surviving letter is dated simply from Mr Hyde's, 7 August, and was written to John Flowerdew. Hyde has been identified recently as William Hyde of Throcking, Hertfordshire, rather than one of the Berkshire Hydes as previously thought. The letter can also be dated to 1557, when Dudley left for the St Quentin campaign: ‘he beyng sore trubeled with wayty affars and I not beyng altogether in quyet for his soden departyng’ (BL, Harley MS 4712, fol. 275r). She was still living at Throcking in the spring of 1559, but this may have been a prolonged temporary arrangement, while the couple found a residence. On 22 July 1558 Dudley was negotiating the purchase of the manor of Flitcham, Norfolk, as, given the unsuitability of Syderstone, ‘I must if to dwell in that countrey take some house other than my none [own]’ (BL, Harley MS 4712, fol. 273r).

Amy Dudley did not follow her husband to court on Elizabeth I's accession, but remained at Throcking until he visited her there immediately after Easter 1559. Six weeks later (mid-May) she went to London, where she shopped and then went on to Camberwell. In the middle of June Dudley left on the royal progress into Kent and she departed from Camberwell. Thereafter her movements are difficult to trace, but in September she may have been staying at Sir Richard Verney's house at Compton Verney, Warwickshire, and by December had moved to Cumnor Place in Berkshire, 3 miles from Oxford. This was a former house of the abbot of Abingdon, recently leased by Anthony Foster. Foster later became keeper of Dudley's wardrobe, but their association was not of long standing in 1559, and it is just possible that he was a relative of Amy's. At Cumnor she had a household of some ten servants and there were other gentlewomen living in the house as well. Up to the eve of her death she was ordering gowns and other clothes from London. Berkshire was a novel part of the country for her, but her residence there may have been a consequence of Dudley's appointment as lieutenant of Windsor Castle in November 1559.

Amy Dudley was found dead at Cumnor in the evening of 8 September 1560. Dudley was then with the court at Windsor, which was on its return from the progress in Hampshire. All that is known about the immediate circumstances comes from a correspondence of five letters between him and his household officer Thomas Blount of Kidderminster, Worcestershire, between 9 and 15 September. Amy Dudley was alone at the time (although the other women were elsewhere in the house) and no obvious cause of death could be discovered. Blount learned that she had rather emotionally and suddenly ordered her servants to go to a fair at Abingdon, which makes it difficult to credit a murder planned in advance. He worried initially about suicide, but this was denied strongly by her servants. In early 1567 John Appleyard tried to reopen the case, claiming that his half-sister had been murdered, though not by Dudley. He received short shrift from the privy council.

Amy Dudley was buried at St Mary's, Oxford, on 22 September with the full dignities of her rank. Her husband appeared in mourning for the next six months, but his absence from the funeral (although this was within convention) and his failure to erect any memorial to her have been held to his discredit. The main literary source for a murder plot is the famous libel, Leicester's Commonwealth, published in 1584. It claimed that Dudley ‘when his lordship was in full hope to marry her Majesty … did but set her [his wife] aside to the house of his servant Foster of Cumnor by Oxford’. Having failed to poison her, he had her murder arranged by Verney, disguising it as a broken neck from a fall down a flight of stairs (Peck, 81–2, 90–92). In recent years a near contemporary version of this account including the role played by Verney has come to light, possibly written by John Hales, which suggests that it was in circulation immediately after Amy's death (BL, Add. MS 48023, fols. 353r–353v).

In the nineteenth century the murder theory was sustained by the discovery of the contemporary Spanish ambassadorial correspondence. This repeated rumours that Amy Dudley was ill and that Dudley was trying to poison or divorce her as early as the spring of 1559. The only report to survive from the period immediately following her death, dated 11 September 1560, suggests that Cecil believed that Dudley was intending to murder his wife. In 1956 Ian Aird advanced a challenging alternative. On the basis of a reference in a Spanish report of April 1559 to her suffering from a malady in one of her breasts, he suggested that the cause of her death was advanced breast cancer. This theory accounts for a number of the known circumstances, but a serious illness in April 1559 is difficult to reconcile with her extensive travelling in the following months.

The Dudleys' domestic life presents as many mysteries as Amy Dudley's death. There is not a hint of pregnancy or even miscarriage during the ten years of their marriage. It is also clear that after the summer of 1559 Dudley never saw his wife again. He was clearly shocked by her death, but possibly more by the political damage it might cause. The key role was possibly played by Elizabeth, as hinted at in the ‘Journal of matters of state’: ‘when the Lord Rob. went to his wife he wentt all in black, and howe he was commanded to saye that he did nothing with her, when he cam to her, as seldom he did’ (BL, Add. MS 48023, fol. 353r). Although the tradition that Amy Dudley was incarcerated or secluded at Cumnor has been disproved, Elizabeth's favour to Dudley clearly did not extend to his wife.

In 2008 the Tudor historian S. J. Gunn discovered the verdict of the Berkshire coroner's inquest (TNA: PRO, KB 9/1073, art. 80, transcribed and translated in C. Skidmore, Death and the Virgin: Elizabeth, Dudley and the Mysterious Fate of Amy Robsart, 2010, 377–9). The jury inspected Amy Dudley's body at Cumnor on 9 September, but then was progressively adjourned in order to record its verdict before the justices of assize. This finally took place on 1 August 1561. As was standard procedure, the justices then lodged the verdict, sealed by the jurors, with the court of king's bench, but it is filed under 1561 and as a result had eluded earlier searches. The verdict states that alone in a chamber, intending to descend certain stairs, she accidentally (casualiter) fell to the bottom of the stairs, suffering two head wounds (‘dyntes’), and died instantly from a broken neck caused by her own body weight. There was no other mark or wound on her body and she came to her death by misfortune (per infortunam). The head wounds add a new twist, but they are compatible with either accident or foul play.

Simon Adams

Sources  

C. E. Moreton, The Townshends and their world: gentry, law and land in Norfolk, c.1450–1551 (1992) · D. MacCulloch, Suffolk and the Tudors: politics and religion in an English county, 1500–1600 (1986) · Longleat House, Wiltshire, Dudley MSS · Bamburgh Select 15, U. Durham L. · TNA: PRO, E 150/650 · TNA: PRO, E 315/37 · register Walpoole, Norfolk RO, Norwich commissary court · T. Becon, Works, Parker Society (1844) · The chronicle and political papers of King Edward VI, ed. W. K. Jordan (1966) · Hatfield House, Hertfordshire, Cecil MSS · BL, Harley MS 4712 · S. Adams, Leicester and the court: essays on Elizabethan politics (2002) · S. Adams, ed., Household accounts and disbursement books of Robert Dudley, earl of Leicester, 1558–1561, 1584–1586, CS, 6 (1995) · S. Adams, ‘The papers of Robert Dudley, earl of Leicester: III, the countess of Leicester's collection’, Archives, 22 (1996), 1–26 · letters of state II, Magd. Cam. · 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) · I. Aird, ‘The death of Amy Robsart: accident, suicide, or murder—or disease?’, EngHR, 71 (1956), 69–79

Archives  

Longleat House, Wiltshire, Dudley papers IV |  Library of Birmingham, Hagley Hall MSS