Review: Death and the Virgin

Sarah Gristwood - The Guardian, Saturday 17 April 2010

IT MUST have been a wonderful sight, Elizabeth I journeying around the kingdom.

There were 2,500 packhorses carrying the luggage and Master of the Horse was Robert Dudley, the Earl of Leicester. Dudley was Her Majesty’s favourite.

“Through a mixture of charm, wit and flattery,” says Chris Skidmore in this rich tapestry of a book, “Dudley was able to bring out a lighter side in Elizabeth at times when the burdens of state became tedious and depressing.”

Quite possibly, however, his methods of cheering up his monarch may have been a bit too intimate. According to Skidmore, the cavorting of the couple scandalised the court, for Dudley was married. His wife Amy Robsart, daughter of a Norfolk squire, was kept at a distance in a manor in Berkshire.

Dudley did not see his wife for years on end. It is speculated here it had been a teenage alliance, made in haste and later regretted by both parties. Though Skidmore has found Amy’s bills for scarlet petticoats, gowns of russet taffeta and damask, bolts of satin and crimson velvet, little really is known about her, except for the drama of her death.

O n September 8, 1560, Amy’s body was found at the foot of a flight of stone stairs, her neck broken. There was no other mark on her. Was she murdered? Was it a tragic accident? Suicide? Dudley’s enemies immediately accused him of having plotted Amy’s sudden demise. “His wife’s death gave him the freedom and opportunity to marry Elizabeth.”

Elizabeth was someone he had known for many years. Dudley, the fifth son of the Earl of Northumberland, had been a fixture in her father’s court and had organised hunting parties for her brother Edward VI. Because he was involved with the ill-fated scheme to put Lady Jane Grey on the throne Dudley was flung in the Tower by Queen Mary.

Here he had quarters near Elizabeth, who was similarly incarcerated. For many months they both feared imminent execution. Only when Mary died of ovarian cancer, aged 42, were Dudley and Elizabeth safe.Skidmore is not the first to try to unravel the tale but the brilliance of Death And The Virgin is that Skidmore has done his homework.

He has examined the original documentation and sifted through all the surviving evidence and clues. The result is as gripping as an Agatha Christie thriller, complete with autopsy reports, decoded ciphers, clandestine correspondence and floor plans of the scene of crime.

Yet was any crime committed? Skidmore’s solution, while not sensational, is entirely plausible.

Amy seems to have been suffering from a lingering cancer, which made her bones brittle and led to a spontaneous fracture of the spine. Also she had signs of hypocalcaemia, high levels of calcium in the blood because of malfunctioning kidneys, which makes patients feel faint and collapse – hence the “sudden loss of consciousness as she descended the steps”.

It’s easy to see how people assumed she’d been poisoned or pushed. Dudley spent £2,000 on her funeral. A guilty conscience? Well, not necessarily a psychopathic one.

He became rather louche and owing to “constant socialising, gambling and tennis-playing” ran up huge debts and borrowings. “While he held the Queen’s favour Dudley could always find creditors willing to lend a hand to solve his precarious financial situation.”

It is unlikely that Elizabeth would ever have consented to marry him. She never liked his presumptuous behaviour, the way he’d overstep the mark by deciding who could be granted audiences. When Dudley gave up his suit and secretly married Lettice Knollys, Elizabeth didn’t like that either and petulantly “recalled a loan of £5,000 she had made to him three years earlier”.

He died in 1588 aged 56 of a fever contracted after carrying on an “indecisive campaign against some Spaniards”.

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