This article first appeared in BBC History Magazine’s ‘Royal Dynasties’ bookazine
Elizabeth I is remembered in history as the Virgin Queen. She was the daughter of Henry VIII by his second wife Anne Boleyn and in stark contrast to her much-married father, she famously declared: “I will have but one mistress here, and no master.” During the course of her long reign, she was besieged by many suitors but gave each one nothing more than “fair words but no promises”. Yet it is generally accepted that there was one man who, more than any other, tempted Elizabeth to relinquish her single state.
Robert Dudley (1532/33–88), was the fifth son of John Dudley, 1st Duke of Northumberland. The duke had wrested power during the minority of Edward VI (who became king aged nine on Henry VIII’s death), but was executed for putting his daughter-in-law, Lady Jane Grey, on the throne after the young king’s death in 1553. His son Robert led troops in support of the coup, but was swiftly defeated by Queen Mary I and was thrown into the Tower of London.
Robert Dudley’s sojourn in the Tower coincided with that of the new queen’s half-sister, Elizabeth (who Mary suspected of plotting against her). They had been friends since childhood, Dudley having been among her brother Edward’s companions. Close in age, Elizabeth and Dudley had shared the same tutor, Roger Ascham, who had been greatly impressed by his precocious young pupils.
It was in Dudley that the eight-year-old Elizabeth had confided upon the execution of her third stepmother, Catherine Howard, in 1541, vowing: “I will never marry.” He would always remember the conversation, and it may have been the reason he decided to marry Amy Robsart nine years later. During the years that followed, Robert kept his wife away from court – mindful, perhaps, that it might damage his relationship with Elizabeth.
The years of uncertainty during Mary Tudor’s reign (1553–58), when Elizabeth lived in constant fear for her life, brought her ever closer to Dudley. He remained loyal to her throughout, even when it risked his own safety. They spent many hours together and had a great deal in common, sharing a love of hunting, dancing and lively conversation. This sparked endless gossip among the princess’s household, particularly given that Dudley was a married man.
His loyalty was rewarded when Elizabeth became queen in 1558, at the age of 25. She immediately appointed Dudley to be her Master of Horse, a prestigious position that involved regular attendance upon his royal mistress. But it was no longer easy for the couple to meet in private. As queen, Elizabeth’s every move was scrutinised not just by her people, but by the whole of Europe. “A thousand eyes see all I do,” she once complained.
Nevertheless, Elizabeth made it clear that she had no intention of giving up her favourite. If anything, she found ways to spend even more time with him. A year after her accession, she had Dudley’s bedchamber moved next to her private rooms in order to facilitate their clandestine meetings. Before long, their relationship was causing a scandal not just in England, but in courts across Europe.
The obvious intimacy between them provoked endless speculation about just how close their relationship was. Elizabeth’s chief rival, Mary, Queen of Scots, was in no doubt that Elizabeth and Dudley were lovers, and later told the noblewoman Bess of Hardwick that he had visited the queen’s bed numerous times. It is unlikely that Elizabeth, who had seen so many powerful examples of the perils of sex and childbirth, would have risked the throne she had fought so hard for by sleeping with her favourite. But their friendship probably charted a careful course between platonic and sexual.
The rumours flared up again in 1587, when a young man going by the name of Arthur Dudley arrived at Philip II’s court in Madrid, Spain, claiming to be the illegitimate child of the English queen and her favourite, Robert Dudley. His age placed his conception at 1561, which coincided with Elizabeth being bedridden with a mysterious illness that caused her body to swell. The account therefore had an air of credibility, made more so by the fact that Arthur was able to name a servant who had allegedly spirited him away from the royal palace of Hampton Court (near London) as soon as he was born and raised him as his own, only confessing the truth on his deathbed in 1583. There is no firm evidence to corroborate the story, but it suited King Philip’s interests to discredit the English queen.
Ironically, the death of Dudley’s wife in 1560, at her residence Cumnor Place, removed any hope that Elizabeth may have privately cherished of one day marrying him. The circumstances were suspicious. Amy insisted that all her servants attend a local fair. When they returned, they found her at the bottom of a short flight of stairs, her neck broken. Whether it was an accident, suicide or murder has never been resolved beyond doubt.
The finger of suspicion pointed at Dudley, whom his enemies claimed would not have flinched from having his own wife put to death so that he could realise his ambitions of marrying the queen. Mary, Queen of Scots quipped that the queen of England was about to marry her “horsekeeper” who had killed his wife in order to make way for her. Elizabeth was also in the frame: many believed that her passion for Dudley had driven her to have his wife murdered so that she could have him at last.
Yet it is extremely unlikely that Dudley or Elizabeth had any hand in Amy’s death. They would hardly have taken such a risk, especially as they would have known that it would prove counterproductive to any plans they may have had to marry. The scandal reverberated not just around the kingdom but across the courts of Europe, so that Elizabeth was obliged to distance herself from Dudley in order to avoid being implicated any further.
But in private, the queen refused to give up her favourite. Now that the scrutiny of the court was even more intense, she was obliged to go to even greater lengths to conceal their meetings. In November 1561, for example, she disguised herself as the maid of Katherine Howard (later Countess of Nottingham) in order to enjoy the secret pleasure of watching Dudley shoot near Windsor Castle. Another attempt at discretion was less successful. When her close friend and attendant Lady Fiennes de Clinton helped Elizabeth escape court in disguise to meet Dudley at his house for dinner, Philip II of Spain’s envoy heard of it and immediately reported it to his master.
In the letters that Queen Elizabeth and Dudley exchanged, they used the symbol ‘ôô’ as code for the nickname of ‘Eyes’ that she had given him. Elizabeth kept her favourite’s letters, along with his portrait, in a locked desk next to her bed. On a visit to court in 1564, the Scottish ambassador Sir James Melville spied the portrait as Elizabeth was searching for one of his own royal mistress. When he asked if he could borrow it to show the Scottish queen, Elizabeth immediately refused, “alleging that she had but that one picture of his”. Spying Robert Dudley in a corner of the bedchamber, Melville slyly observed that she should not cling so to the portrait, since “she had the original.”
As her reign progressed and the pressure to marry grew ever more intense, Elizabeth pretended to consider numerous potential suitors. But she would never commit to any of them. The Venetian ambassador shrewdly observed: “She has many suitors for her hand, and by protracting any decision keeps them all in hope.”
Meanwhile, now that the scandal of his wife’s death had faded, Robert Dudley stepped up his campaign to make Queen Elizabeth his wife. He besieged her with protestations of his undying affection, all of which his royal mistress received with obvious pleasure but with no firm promises.
By 1575, Dudley was growing desperate and decided to make one last, spectacular attempt to persuade Elizabeth to marry him. Pulling out all the stops, he invited her to his Warwickshire estate, Kenilworth Castle, and staged several days of extraordinarily lavish entertainments at a huge cost. The queen loved every minute of her visit there, but would not be dazzled into acquiescence. Genuine though her affection for Robert was, she knew that marrying him would court disaster in her kingdom, sparking such intense opposition from Dudley’s rivals that it might even spill out into civil war.
For all his desperation to marry the queen, Dudley had been secretly courting one of her ladies-in-waiting, Lettice Knollys. Described as being one of the best-looking women of the court, she was of royal blood, being the great-niece of Elizabeth’s mother, Anne Boleyn. This no doubt added to her attraction for Dudley, who had enjoyed a flirtation with Lettice for the previous 10 years. Now that his last-ditch attempt to persuade Elizabeth to marry him had failed, he took Lettice as his mistress.
For a time, Elizabeth was blissfully unaware that her favourite was betraying her. But three years into the affair, Lettice became pregnant. She was not a woman to be set aside and insisted that Dudley marry her. Fearing the inevitable backlash from his royal mistress, he agreed only to a secret ceremony, which took place in 1578. The bride was said to have worn “a loose gown” – a coded reference to her pregnant state. It was not long before the secret leaked out at court.
When Elizabeth learned that her cousin had stolen the only man she had truly loved, she flew into a jealous rage, boxing Lettice’s ears and screaming that “as but one sun lightened the earth, she would have but one queen in England”. She then banished this “flouting wench” from her presence, vowing never to set eyes on her again. Although she eventually forgave Dudley, their relationship had lost the intimacy that had defined it for so many years.
But towards the end of Dudley’s life, they grew close once more. In 1586, he went to command her forces in the Netherlands. Missing him, she wrote an affectionate letter, which she signed: “As you know, ever the same. ER.” “Ever the same” or “semper eadem” was her motto, but she and Dudley knew how much more it signified in their relationship.
The following year, the execution of Mary, Queen of Scots at Elizabeth’s orders threw her into turmoil and it was to her old favourite that she turned for comfort. Dudley was also by Elizabeth’s side through the Armada crisis of 1588 (the Spanish navy’s failed attempt to invade England, thwarted by the English fleet). By now he was gravely ill but did not hesitate to accept the post of ‘Lieutenant and Captain-General of the Queen’s Armies and Companies’.
He walked beside her horse as his royal mistress delivered her famous speech at Tilbury on 8 August 1588, while inspecting the troops that had been assembled to defend the Thames Estuary against any incursion up-river towards London: “I know I have the body but of a weak and feeble woman, but I have the heart and stomach of a king and of a king of England too.”
He stayed with the queen in the immediate aftermath of the Armada, wishing to be certain that the danger had passed. One of the last recorded sightings of the pair together was at a palace window, watching a celebratory parade staged by his stepson, the Earl of Essex. By now in poor health, Dudley took his leave of Elizabeth. He, at least, must have known that it would be for the last time.
A few days later, he wrote to Elizabeth from Rycote in Oxfordshire, ending the letter: “I humbly kiss your foot… by Your Majesty’s most faithful and obedient servant.” These were probably the last words ever written by Robert Dudley. Five days later, on 4 September 1588, he breathed his last. Elizabeth was inconsolable at the loss of “sweet Robin”, the only man whom she had ever truly loved. Their relationship had survived almost 50 years of trials and tribulations, and Elizabeth was lost without him.
In the days immediately after his death, she kept to her room, unable to face her court or council. The brief note that he had sent her from Rycote now became her most treasured possession. She inscribed it “His last letter”, and kept it in a locked casket by her bed for the rest of her life. For years afterwards if anyone mentioned Robert Dudley’s name her eyes filled with tears.
Elizabeth’s other men
As well as Dudley, the Virgin Queen had several other contenders for her heart
Eric XIV of Sweden (1533–77)
Realising that marrying a home-grown candidate was fraught with difficulty, Elizabeth’s ministers focused upon suitors from overseas for most of her reign. One of the earliest was King Eric XIV of Sweden, who had started to make overtures towards Elizabeth before she was queen. He continued to pursue her for several years and even made plans to visit her. Horrified, she wrote him a polite but firm letter, telling him to stay away and assuring him: “We have never yet conceived a feeling of that kind of affection towards anyone.”
Philip II of Spain (1527–98)
Even while he had been married to her sister Mary I, Philip II of Spain had made overtures towards Elizabeth, beguiled by her youthful charms. When Mary died, Philip – who had been styled ‘King of England’ for his wife’s lifetime only – was reluctant to give up his English kingdom and so sent a proposal of marriage to Elizabeth. He urged the new queen to consider the advantages of having the protection of Spain. Elizabeth employed what would become her customary tactic of delaying, but eventually told Philip that she could not marry her sister’s widower, and that his Catholicism would not be acceptable to her people. Thenceforth, they were enemies.
François, Duke of Alençon and Anjou (1555–84)
Elizabeth’s last serious suitor was François, the Duke of Alençon and Anjou, and the youngest son of King Henry II of France. He had first been proposed as a husband in 1578, when he was 23 and Elizabeth 45. Despite the considerable age gap, the pair became very close, aided by the fact that the duke was the only one of the queen’s many suitors to court her in person. Calling him her “frog”, Queen Elizabeth showered the young duke with affection, and he gave every appearance of returning her love. But it all came to nothing, and François eventually returned to France in 1581.
Robert Devereux, Earl of Essex (1565–1601)
Robert was the son of Elizabeth’s rival Lettice Knollys with her first husband Walter Devereux, 1st Earl of Essex. He was 30 years younger than Elizabeth but gave every appearance of being passionately in love with her. She was beguiled by his darkly handsome looks and swaggering self-confidence, which made him take greater liberties with the queen than anyone else dared. Painfully aware that age had ravished her looks, she was fiercely possessive of his attentions. But Essex had already proved false. In 1590, he had incurred her wrath by secretly marrying Frances Walsingham, daughter of the secretary of state. He later led a rebellion against Elizabeth’s regime and was executed in 1601.
Dr Tracy Borman is joint chief curator of Historic Royal Palaces and an expert on the Tudor period. You can follow Tracy on Twitter @BormanTracy or visit her website www.tracyborman.co.uk.