Review: Death and the Virgin

John Hinton - The Catholic Herald, 9 April 2010

The enduring first love that changed our history

This new book on Elizabeth I reads more like a murder mystery than a historical work, says John Hinton

The curiosity which drives historians to trawl though dusty archives is repaid in academic satisfaction, and often elusive recognition, when they can shed more light on a question which has fascinated people for centuries. And this is certainly the case with this new book by Chris Skidmore. For in his new study we uncover the mystery of why Elizabeth I – an outstanding monarch in so many ways – never married and chose to remain a “virgin” queen.

Using hitherto unexamined Latin documents this fascinating book examines minutely what for more than four centuries has been one of the great unsolved deaths of the Tudor age. Did Amy, wife of Elizabeth’s favourite, Robert Dudley, break her neck after an accidental fall down a flight of stairs, or was she murdered to clear the way for her husband to marry the Queen?

The coroner’s inquest report was discovered in the National Archives when Dr Steven Gunn, a history lecturer at Oxford University, was examining 16th-century court reports. He was interested to notice Amy’s maiden name, Robsart, and copied the document for Skidmore, one of his PhD students.

Doubts began to crowd in, for the report says there were two impacts – using the medieval English word “dyntes” – causing two deep wounds in Amy’s head. And there were no signs of other injuries, which might have been expected from a fall down the stairs at Cumnor Place, Berkshire, where she was a guest.

The coroner’s euphemistic conclusion was that Amy’s death was the result of “misfortune”. But as well as the mysterious wounds, the book provides evidence that her widower – who failed to attend her funeral – may have tried to “nobble” jurors to stop his secret being exposed. “At the very least it casts doubt on the accident theory,” author Skidmore says.

Amy’s death is one of the unsolved riddles in the long relationship of Elizabeth and Dudley, childhood friends who may have become lovers. Their relationship scandalised the Elizabethan court.

Already in her late 20s, the feisty Elizabeth had so far resisted all offers of marriage. Yet while Dudley, her Keeper of Horse, was her clear favourite, he was also a married man. Even so, he was given lodgings close to the Queen and Amy rarely saw him as rumours swirled that he was planning to poison her to free himself for a royal marriage.

In the months before her death, Dudley was usually by the Queen’s side. When Amy died, aged 28, in 1560 after the “accident”, she hadn’t seen her husband for a year and gossip raged at court over whether Dudley had got rid of his wife as an obstacle to his relationship with the monarch. He insisted at the time in letters to friends that he was “much perplexed” and immediately aware of “the malicious talk that I know the wicked world will use”.

Skidmore has discovered that the foreman of the inquest jury was a courtier called Robert Smith. For years after Amy’s death and funeral Dudley maintained that he had no contact with Smith, but his household accounts for May 1566 show he gave “Mr Smith, the Queen’s man”, several yards of valuable black taffeta and velvet as a gift to make clothes.

From other letters from Dudley, who became the first Earl of Leicester in 1564, Skidmore has also found out that Dudley wrote to ask that the coroner’s jury would be “discreet” men. Another member of the jury, whose names are now published for the first time, was John Stevenson, whom Dudley employed.

And as evidence of more skulduggery, within five weeks of Amy’s death Dudley gave the then large sum of £310 – about £65,000 today – to Anthony Forster, who had been renting Cumnor Place at the time of her “fall”.

According to Skidmore and many other historians, Dudley was the only man the Queen ever wanted to marry. Their relationship cooled after Amy’s death, however. Indeed, Amy’s death caused such an uproar that any prospect of a wedding to Elizabeth dissolved.

“You could say that Amy’s death was what really made Elizabeth the Virgin Queen,” Skidmore says.

And even though the coroner’s report does not completely lay to rest the mystery of Amy’s death, its discovery after hundreds of years presents important new evidence and is likely to reopen the debate into Dudley’s culpability and ambitions to be consort.

Poor Amy. Skidmore has also discovered a contemporary journal which states that when Dudley did visit her, “he went all in black and how he was commanded to say that he did nothing with her when he came to her, as he seldom did”.

The tragedy for Amy was that even if she had lived, in both Dudley and Queen Elizabeth’s eyes she was already dead. And when Dudley himself died in 1588, aged 56, Elizabeth was inconsolable and locked herself in her private chamber, refusing to come out for days.

Years later, after Elizabeth’s own death in 1603, a small silver casket was found next to her bed. Inside, bound in silk ribbon, was Dudley’s final letter upon the back of which Elizabeth had simply written: “His last letter.”

The Tudor line, as the author points out, then ran into the sand. It had lasted more than century since Henry VII had won the crown on the battlefield of Bosworth in 1485, through the cruel upheavals of the Catholic Church and the monasteries ordered by Henry VIII.

Meanwhile, the manor house where Amy lost her life later became the subject of Kenilworth, a wholly inaccurate novel by Sir Walter Scott. And as it fell into ruins local began to believe it was haunted.

Certainly, this admirable book is in one sense the story of an impossible, yet enduring, first love which changed the course of history. But we should be reminded of one sour epitaph to Robert Dudley: “Here lies the Earl of Leicester that God and man did hate.”

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