Did they or didn’t they? Elizabeth I and Robert Dudley, the Earl of Leicester.
Bess and her Robin’s love story is a tangled puzzle, one which I’ve attempted to unravel in years of research and two novels. In the first, The Virgin’s Daughters:In the court of Elizabeth I, NAL, August, 2009, I’ve viewed their lives through the eyes of two of Elizabeth’s ladies-of-the-bedchamber. In the novel I’m currently writing, His Last Letter: Elizabeth I and the Earl of Leicester, NAL, August 2010, I write from their viewpoints, getting inside their hearts.
Robin’s last letter to Elizabeth survives. He says her medicine has made him feel better and he kisses her foot. But is that all? Was there another page to the letter that Elizabeth could not allow to survive? Did she carry a romantic secret to her grave, a secret that answers one of the continuing puzzles of her life?
Elizabeth, the iconic Virgin Queen, Gloriana, Good Queen Bess, Diana the Huntress and all the other grand titles she was known by, was obviously and forever in love with Robert Dudley, her Sweet Robin. For thirty years she could not allow him to leave her side without great pain, their love outlasting her endless flirtations with other courtiers and on-going marriage negotiations with most of the foreign princes of Europe.
Yet, Robert was so unpopular with many jealous courtiers and much of the English population that for several centuries after his death he was treated by historians as a greedy, not too bright failure with little to recommend him but his looks and ability to dance the galliard. In his lifetime many believed he murdered his first wife, Amy Robsart He was also suspected of poisoning every man who opposed him and who died suddenly.
We know better today. Although I believe that Elizabeth might have married him in the beginning of her reign, Amy’s suspicious death made that forever impossible. Did he kill his wife? No, I don’t believe so. Dudley was no fool. If there was one thing that would put the queen forever beyond his reach, it was a murder…a murder in which she, too, would obviously be implicated.
Amy had advanced breast cancer when she fell down two short flights of stairs at Cumnor Manor in 1560 and broke her neck. Modern medicine tells us that cancer can cause brittle bones. It would take a very short fall by a woman in great pain to break a fragile neck. She could also have committed suicide, but the possibility of that was immediately hushed because it meant that she could not be buried in consecrated ground. Two juries judged Amy’s death was caused by “misadventure,” in modern meaning an accident, but many Englishmen never accepted that judgment.
Any number of theories about Amy’s death have come down to us. I even found an accusation against William Cecil, Elizabeth’s Secretary of State. Could he have had Amy killed in order to implicate Dudley, since Cecil feared Elizabeth would marry him instead of a foreign prince? I’ll leave that one to the conspiracy theorists.
As for Robert Dudley, his love for Elizabeth survived his two marriages and many affairs, remaining the one constant and supremely important love of his life.
There are numerous guesses about why Elizabeth never married. Marriage put a wife in Tudor times under her husband’s total control. Her father’s marriages taught her well. Besides, Elizabeth liked to rule. Perhaps she was afraid of childbirth, which killed many women. Most of all, she liked to play the marriage game keeping half of Europe guessing and her country free from attacks while there was a possibility of acquiring England without bloodshed or expense.
The first question asked of any writer of Elizabeth and Dudley: Did they have a consumated love affair or was she truly a virgin? One answer could be that the the definition of virgin has changed over the centuries. In Tudor times it meant a “maid,” in other words an unmarried woman. Another answer: Elizabeth willed herself to be a virgin and that was that! No one will ever know for sure, which is a good thing for writers who want to weave a tale.
Cecil, himself, thought they were lovers as late as 1572 or 14 years after Elizabeth ascended the throne. In the early years of her reign, it was remarked in letters by ambassadors and other unofficial communications that they were very physical…she, touching him (she tickled his neck when he knelt to be made a garter knight) and he, having access to her chamber whenever he liked. When they were young, they had adjoining chambers.
If you have read much of this queen’s reign, you know that she was shrewd and a good judge of men. Would she have kept Dudley so close if he were an idiot? She put him on her council. She twice named him head of her armies and even contemplated naming him Captain-General of England, which would have put him second in command of the realm. Cecil talked her out of it.
Early in her reign when she thought she was dying of smallpox, she named Dudley Protector and demanded that her council give him twenty thousand pounds a year (an unheard of sum). England was her most precious possession; she refused to ever name an heir in her lifetime. Would she have left her realm, her most precious posession to someone she thought unworthy?
One of my greatest pleasures in writing about them is to imagine them in their castles and riding madly through the countryside all those years, always together yet forever apart.
This was written exclusively for The Elizabeth Files by novelist Jeane Westin Author of “The Virgin’s Daughters: In the Court of Elizabeth I”.