Review: Death and the Virgin

Sarah Gristwood - The Guardian, Saturday 17 April 2010

There is much to admire in a fresh examination of an enduring conundrum says Sarah Gristwood

The death of Amy Robsart has always been one of history's favourite whodunits, a lure for fictional writers from Sir Walter Scott to Philippa Gregory. Months after Elizabeth I acceded to the throne at the end of 1558, ambassadors were reporting her fondness for Robert Dudley, her new Master of the Horse. They declared the queen was preparing to marry Dudley, despite the fact that he was already married to Robsart. When, less than two years into the reign, his wife was found dead at the bottom of a staircase, suspicion was bound to alight on Dudley, and the scandal made a royal marriage out of the question. To many the jury has remained out until this day. Now the historian Chris Skidmore offers a detailed examination of evidence old and, crucially, new – and, along the way, a riveting exemplar of the degree to which it is, and is not, possible to solve a historical mystery.

There have always essentially been four possible causes of Robsart's death: murder by Dudley's agents, to open the way for his marriage to the queen; murder by the agents of a third party, intent on framing Dudley, with his rival William Cecil as the foremost candidate; suicide (Amy's maid reported that her mistress had been praying God to deliver her from desperation); or an accident. Fifty years ago Dr Ian Aird published a paper explaining how untreated breast cancer could have triggered a skeletal collapse, which explains how Amy came to die on what was, by all accounts, a short and shallow "pair" of stairs, but Skidmore's research demolishes that theory, while offering an alternative medical possibility.

The trouble is that every tempting theory has evidence against as well as for it. It is true Amy had herself sent all of her servants away on the day of her death; but would a woman contemplating suicide recently have written to her tailor, ordering a new velvet gown? It is true that Cecil enjoyed a dramatic rise in his fortunes as a result of Amy's death; but would Cecil voluntarily have sparked a scandal that damaged Elizabeth's reputation around Europe? As for Dudley (or Leicester, as he became), among the few pieces of documentary evidence we have always had are the letters he wrote to one of his own officers immediately after Amy's death: letters redolent of shock and bewilderment. They survive only as contemporary copies, but Skidmore clearly accepts them as broadly trustworthy.

His great coup, however, is to add to the paltry body of evidence. Notably, he presents the coroner's report, for centuries believed lost but recently unearthed in the National Archives. Perhaps the report does not itself contain any major revelations – though the information that Amy had two great "dyntes" upon her head may well urge us towards the more violent theories of her death – but it does open up further lines of investigation.

In so far as this is a historical detective story, it would be unfair to give the ending away, and indeed there is no single resolution. The book is about questions rather than answers, and all the stronger for that. The new pieces of evidence Skidmore has unearthed do not all point in one direction, and he is too accurate a historian to place more weight upon them than they can bear. "For the historian, unlike the detective," he writes, "the dead can only reveal so much".

Sarah Gristwood's Elizabeth and Leicester is published by Bantam.

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