Death and the Virgin: Elizabeth, Dudley and the Mysterious Fate of Amy Robsart by Chris Skidmore

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Death and the Virgin: Elizabeth, Dudley and the Mysterious Fate of Amy Robsart by Chris Skidmore

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Category: Biography
Rating: 4.5/5
Reviewer: John Van der Kiste
Reviewed by John Van der Kiste
Summary: An examination of the case of Amy Robsart, wife of Robert Dudley, later Earl of Leicester, who was regarded as the most likely suitor for the hand of Elizabeth I, 'the Virgin Queen', if only he was not married - and Amy's subsequent sudden death.
Buy? Yes Borrow? Yes
Pages: 456 Date: February 2010
Publisher: W&N
ISBN: 978-0297846505

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When Elizabeth I ascended the throne in November 1558, everyone's dominant concern was the matter of her taking an appropriate husband and securing the succession. The man most likely to become her husband was Robert Dudley, whom she made her Master of the Horse and entrusted with considerable responsibility for her coronation festivities. The fact that he was already married to Amy Robsart did little to quell the speculation, especially since she was believed to be dying of breast cancer.

Amy's married life seems to have been a miserable one, with her husband spending so much time at court and with gossips suggesting that monarch and servant were surely lovers. From December 1559 she was sent to lodge with friends at Cumnor Lodge, near Abingdon. In September 1560 her dead body was found there at the foot of a staircase, just eight steps high. Her neck was apparently broken but her headdress remained intact on her head and there was no other mark on her body. At an inquest the jury returned a verdict of accidental death.

However, instead of her demise clearing the way for her widower and their monarch, the resulting suspicion made any thought of such a marriage out of the question.

Was her death suicide? The marriage of Robert and Amy had perhaps been less of an arranged marriage and more a love match than most of those days, and when he took to spending what she considered an inordinate amount of time with his sovereign, giving rise to endless gossip at court, she took it badly. Her maid said after her death that she had heard her mistress praying daily several times a day to God to deliver her from desperation. Whether this was from depression or because she knew she had a fatal disease, nobody will ever know. Skidmore advances the theory that cancerous deposits in her bones, which would result in the equivalent of osteoporosis in a much older person, might have resulted in a spontaneous fracture as she descended the stairs.

Whatever the cause of death, the repercussions continued for a long time. Within a few weeks, it was rumoured throughout the European courts that Amy had been murdered, and the English ambassador to the French court was convinced that the scandal would topple the Queen. (Compare the situation with that of Mary Queen of Scots a few years later, when her husband Darnley was murdered and she married Bothwell, who was implicated in his death). Among the English nobility, it was still believed that Elizabeth would marry Dudley after the fuss had died down, but that it would cause no end of trouble, perhaps even civil war. Less than two years later, a servant of the Spanish ambassador alleged that they were secretly married.

In October 1562, Elizabeth took to her bed with smallpox, and for a moment her life was despaired of. Once she recovered, pressure increased again on her to marry. She believed Dudley was largely responsible, and came up with the extraordinary idea of marrying him to the then-widowed Mary Queen of Scots, much to his horror. Not even the sweetener of an earldom, that of Leicester, could make him change his mind. Soon afterwards a certain coolness developed between them. Dudley had an affair, resulting in an illegitimate son, with one noblewoman, and married another, Laetitia (generally known as Lettice), widow of the Earl of Essex, not long after she had suddenly and rather conveniently lost her husband to an attack, apparently of dysentery. Elizabeth vented her anger on them by calling Dudley a cuckold and a traitor, and by banishing Lady Leicester from court.

Nevertheless, when he died in 1588, she was genuinely grief-stricken, locking herself away in her rooms and refusing to come out for several days.

Not all of this superbly researched, enthralling book is taken up with the 'mystery'. The story begins with Kett's rebellion in 1549 during the reign of Edward VI, and also goes into some detail on Elizabeth's various suitors. After much speculation on Amy Robsart's death and the various accident, suicide and murder theories, Skidmore concludes that her death marked a fundamental change in her widower's relations with the Queen, and suggests that if Amy really had died of natural causes, he might have married Elizabeth one day after all. She was unable to marry the only man she perhaps truly loved; the events of that day in September 1560 were in effect the making of the Virgin Queen.

A coroner's report from the National Archives, hinting at the likely but impossible-to-prove cause of death, is shown and quoted for the first time. What the Princes in the tower mystery was to the 15th century, the incident at Cumnor Lodge was to the 16th. I think we can safely say that, 450 years after the event, this is the closest we are likely to get to the answer.

Our thanks to Weidenfeld & Nicolson for sending Bookbag a review copy.

If you enjoy this, for another study of the monarch you will also like Elizabeth's Women: The Hidden Story of the Virgin Queen by Tracy Borman.

Buy Death and the Virgin: Elizabeth, Dudley and the Mysterious Fate of Amy Robsart by Chris Skidmore at Amazon You can read more book reviews or buy Death and the Virgin: Elizabeth, Dudley and the Mysterious Fate of Amy Robsart by Chris Skidmore at Amazon.co.uk


Buy Death and the Virgin: Elizabeth, Dudley and the Mysterious Fate of Amy Robsart by Chris Skidmore at Amazon You can read more book reviews or buy Death and the Virgin: Elizabeth, Dudley and the Mysterious Fate of Amy Robsart by Chris Skidmore at Amazon.com.

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