Princely pleasures at Kenilworth: Robert Dudley's three-week marriage proposal to Elizabeth I

Described as Elizabeth I’s great love, Robert Dudley came closer than any other suitor to making the queen his wife. Here, historian Elizabeth Goldring explores Dudley’s three-week marriage proposal at Kenilworth – his last-ditch attempt, after nearly 15 years of trying, to win the queen’s hand…

On Saturday 9 July 1575, at about 8pm, Elizabeth I arrived on horseback at Kenilworth Castle, the Warwickshire power base of her long-time favourite Robert Dudley, Earl of Leicester. As the queen passed through the castle gates, along the tiltyard and into the outer courtyard, she was met by actors reciting speeches of welcome and bearing symbolic gifts, including the keys to the castle. Trumpeters saluted her and when, at last, Elizabeth reached the inner courtyard, dismounted her palfrey and made her way to her chamber, there was a peal of guns that could, it was said, be heard for 20 miles.

For nearly three weeks the queen, her ladies-in-waiting and leading courtiers were housed at the castle and entertained by Dudley with diversions ranging from music, masques and dancing to tilting, hunting and bear-baiting. Elaborate banquets at which guests consumed up to 40 barrels of beer and 16 barrels of wine per day were punctuated by fireworks displays and, on at least one occasion, the gyrations of an Italian acrobat. In the words of the French ambassador, nothing “more magnificent” had been seen in England “for a long time”.

The stage upon which these splendours unfolded was Kenilworth itself: Dudley had lavished a reputed £60,000-worth of building works in anticipation of the queen’s visit. Known as the ‘princely pleasures’, the July 1575 festivities have gone down in history as the longest, most expensive party of Elizabeth’s 45-year reign. These revels also constituted Dudley’s last-ditch attempt – after nearly 15 years of trying – to win the queen’s hand in marriage.

 

Dudley and Elizabeth

Contemporaries described Dudley as the man who knew Elizabeth best and exercised the greatest influence over her. The two shared many interests, including riding and hunting. But theirs was also an attraction of opposites: the queen was indecisive; Dudley impulsive. In all probability they never consummated their relationship – though there may have been a sexual component to it. Whatever the case, there was undoubtedly a strong and enduring emotional bond. Elizabeth’s pet name for Dudley was ‘eyes’, and he seems to have been the only one of her many suitors that she seriously contemplated marrying.

The pair met as children at the court of Henry VIII, perhaps as early as c1540, when each would have been about seven. It is unclear when exactly friendship blossomed into romance, though a turning point seems to have occurred between 1550 – when Dudley married Amy Robsart – and November 1558, when Elizabeth ascended the throne. Certainly, the new queen’s decision to appoint Dudley master of the horse raised eyebrows. Not only did the post come with lodgings at court but it also – by requiring its holder to lift the queen on and off her horse – ensured regular, physical contact.

By spring 1559, scandalous rumours were circulating that Elizabeth was in the habit of visiting Dudley “in his chamber day and night” and, moreover, “waiting for [his wife] to die”. When a little more than a year later Amy was found with a broken neck at the foot of a staircase, Dudley’s enemies were quick to accuse him of a murderous plot designed to pave the way for marriage to the queen and kingship in all-but-name. But it was almost certainly a case of misadventure (the verdict of the contemporary coroner’s court) or suicide: there is no evidence of foul play and there is reason to believe Amy was suffering from breast cancer, depression, or both.

As a widower Dudley was in theory free to pursue the queen’s hand, but he faced opposition at court. In 1566, William Cecil advised the queen to choose the Habsburg archduke Charles – a Catholic – over Dudley, noting that Dudley’s paternal grandfather had been “but a solicitor”. More damning was the fact that Dudley’s father, brother and sister-in-law, Lady Jane Grey had been executed as traitors for conspiring, as Edward VI lay dying, to divert the succession.

Nonetheless, Dudley was undeterred in his pursuit of Elizabeth’s hand, confessing that he “could not contemplate the queen’s marriage to anyone else… without great repugnance”. Between 1561, when the mourning for Amy ended, and 1578, when he married the (possibly pregnant) Lettice, Dowager Countess of Essex, Dudley actively wooed Elizabeth while doing his best to undermine the efforts of her foreign, royal suitors. Often – as at Kenilworth in the summer of 1575 – Dudley’s feelings for the queen found expression in the plays and paintings he commissioned for her pleasure.

 

The 1575 Kenilworth festivities

So far as can be determined, the Kenilworth festivities were designed by Dudley as an extended marriage proposal. The elaborate welcome staged for Elizabeth on 9 July 1575 set the tone, with its assertion that “The Lake, the Lodge, the Lord” were hers “for to command”. Over the course of the next 18 or 19 days this message was reiterated in a succession of specially commissioned dramatic entertainments articulating Dudley’s “true love”, together with his desire to give “himselfe and all” to the queen.

At some point during the course of these revels Dudley seems to have unveiled two sets of life-sized portraits of himself and Elizabeth, newly commissioned for the picture collection at the castle. In one set – executed by an unidentified artist or artists – Dudley is depicted wearing a red doublet (then, as now, a colour associated with love); Elizabeth a jewel-encrusted white doublet that had been a gift from Dudley at New Year 1575.


Robert Dudley, Earl of Leicester, by an unknown artist. (© ACTIVE MUSEUM/Alamy Stock Photo)
 

Elizabeth I by an unknown Anglo-Netherlandish artist, c1575, now in Reading Museum. The portrait depicts Elizabeth wearing a jewel-encrusted white doublet given to her as a gift from Dudley at New Year 1575. (Copyright Reading Museum)
 

In the other set – executed by the celebrated Italian painter Federico Zuccaro, who travelled to England at Dudley’s behest in the spring of 1575 – Dudley is depicted in armour; the queen surrounded by a column (representing constancy), a dog (fidelity), and an ermine (purity). Zuccaro’s paintings do not survive, but his preliminary drawings (pictured below) give a sense of what the finished works must have looked like.


Robert Dudley, 1st Earl of Leicester. Drawing by Federico Zuccaro, 1575. (INTERFOTO/Sammlung Rauch/Mary Evans)

 

Elizabeth I, 1575. Crayon drawing by Fredrigo Zuccaro. (Photo by Ann Ronan Pictures/Print Collector/Getty Images)

Significantly, in both sets of portraits Dudley and Elizabeth are shown facing the same direction rather than each other, the latter having been a convention reserved for husbands and wives. But the implicit depiction of them as a couple – and of Dudley as consort manqué – is unmistakable.

Dudley’s proposals of marriage culminated in a speech, delivered at the queen’s departure on 27 (or possibly 28) July:

“Vouchsafe, O comely Queene, yet longer to remaine,
Or still to dwell amongst us here! O Queene commaunde againe
This Castle and the Knight, which keepes the same for you;
… Live here, good Queene, live here; …”

By all accounts, Elizabeth left Kenilworth earlier than expected – perhaps because the weather took a turn for the worse, perhaps because Dudley’s extravagant assertions of devotion struck the wrong note when, just the previous year, he had fathered a “base” son by the much younger Douglas Howard, Lady Sheffield.

 

Abandoned hopes

After the 1575 Kenilworth festivities, Dudley seems to have abandoned any real hope of Elizabeth ever agreeing to marry him. But that was not the end of their relationship: queen and favourite remained close, even after Dudley’s 1578 marriage to the dowager countess of Essex. When, in 1588, Dudley died unexpectedly, Elizabeth was so distraught that she spent several days alone in her chamber. Upon receiving a letter from him thanking her for some medicine, sent just before his death, the queen endorsed it “his last letter” and kept it in a box by her bedside until her own death 15 years later. Dudley may not have won Elizabeth’s hand, but there can be little doubt that he won her heart.

Elizabeth Goldring is an award-winning historian based at the University of Warwick. Her most recent book is Robert Dudley, Earl of Leicester, and the World of Elizabethan Art (Yale University Press, 2014). She also edited John Nichols’s The Progresses and Public Processions of Queen Elizabeth I (Oxford University Press, 2014) and is currently working on a new book on the life and art of Nicholas Hilliard.

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