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Portrait of Robert Dudley, Earl of Leicester.

Robert Dudley, Earl of Leicester (c.1531-1588)

ROBERT DUDLEY, EARL OF LEICESTER. This favourite of Queen Elizabeth came of an ambitious family. They were not, indeed, such mere upstarts as their enemies loved to represent them; for Leicester's grandfather — the notorious Edmund Dudley who was one of the chief instruments of Henry VII's extortions — was descended from a younger branch of the barons of Dudley. But the love of power was a passion which seems to have increased in them with each succeeding generation, and though the grandfather was beheaded by Henry VIII for his too devoted services in the preceding reign, the father grew powerful enough in the days of Edward VI to trouble the succession to the crown. This was that John Dudley, Duke of Northumberland, who contrived the marriage of Lady Jane Grey with his own son Guildford Dudley, and involved both her and her husband in a common ruin with himself.

Robert Dudley, the subject of this article, was an elder brother of Guildford, and shared at that time in the misfortunes of the whole family. Having taken up arms with them against Queen Mary, he was sent to the Tower, and was sentenced to death; but the Queen not only pardoned and restored him to liberty, but appointed him master of the ordnance. On the accession of Elizabeth he was also made master of the horse. He was then, perhaps, about seven-and-twenty, and was evidently rising rapidly in the Queen's favour.

At an early age he had been married to Amy, daughter of Sir John Robsart. The match had been arranged by his father, who was very studious to provide in this way for the future fortunes of his children, and the wedding was graced by the presence of King Edward. But if it was not a love match, there seems to have been no positive estrangement between the couple. Amy visited her husband in the Tower during his imprisonment; but afterwards when, under the new Queen, he was much at court, she lived a good deal apart from him. He visited her, however, at times, in different parts of the country, and his expenses show that he treated her liberally. In September 1560 she was staying at Cumnor Hall in Berkshire, the house of one Anthony Forster, when she met her death under circumstances which certainly aroused suspicions of foul play. It is quite clear that her death had been surmised some time before as a thing that would remove an obstacle to Dudley's marriage with the Queen, with whom he stood in so high favour. We may take it, perhaps, from Venetian sources, that she was then in delicate health, while Spanish state papers show further that there were scandalous rumours of a design to poison her; which were all the more propagated by malice after the event. The occurrence, however, was explained as owing to a fall down stairs in which she broke her neck; and the explanation seems perfectly adequate to account for all we know about it.

Hilliard portrait of the Robert Dudley, Earl of Leicester, by Nicholas Hilliard, c1571-74. The V & A Certain it is that Dudley continued to rise in the Queen's favour. She made him a Knight of the Garter, and bestowed on him the castle of Kenilworth, the lordship of Denbigh and other lands of very great value in Warwickshire and in Wales. In September 1564 she created him baron of Denbigh, and immediately afterwards Earl of Leicester. In the preceding month, when she visited Cambridge, she at his request addressed the university in Latin. The honours shown him excited jealousy, especially as it was well known that he entertained still more ambitious hopes, which the Queen apparently did not altogether discourage. The Earl of Sussex, in opposition to him, strongly favoured a match with the archduke Charles of Austria. The court was divided, and, while arguments were set forth on the one side against the Queen's marrying a subject, the other party insisted strongly on the disadvantages of a foreign alliance. The Queen, however, was so far from being foolishly in love with him that in 1564 she recommended him as a husband for Mary Queen of Scots. But this, it was believed, was only a blind, and it may be doubted how far the proposal was serious.

After his creation as Earl of Leicester, great attention was paid to him both at home and abroad. The university of Oxford made him their chancellor, and Charles IX of France sent him the order of St Michael. A few years later he formed an ambiguous connexion with the baroness dowager of Sheffield, which was maintained by the lady, if not with truth at least with great plausibility, to have been a valid marriage, though it was concealed from the Queen. Her own subsequent conduct, however, went far to discredit her statements; for she married again during Leicester's life, when he, too, had found a new conjugal partner. Long afterwards, in the days of James I, her son, Sir Robert Dudley, a man of extraordinary talents, sought to establish his legitimacy; but his suit was suddenly brought to a stop, the witnesses discredited and the documents connected with it sealed up by an order of the Star Chamber.

Queen Elizabeth I, dancing with Leicester, c. 1580

In 1575 Queen Elizabeth visited the Earl at Kenilworth, where she was entertained for some days with great magnificence [see Gascoigne's Princely Pleasures]. The picturesque account of the event given by Sir Walter Scott has made every one familiar with the general character of the scene. Next year Walter, Earl of Essex, died in Ireland, and Leicester's subsequent marriage with his widow [Lettice Knollys], again gave rise to very serious imputations against him. For report said that he had had two children by her during her husband's absence in Ireland, and, as the feud between the two Earls was notorious, Leicester's many enemies easily suggested that he had poisoned his rival. This marriage, at all events, tended to Leicester's discredit and was kept secret at first; but it was revealed to the Queen in 1579 by Simier, an emissary of the Duke of Alençon, to whose projected match with Elizabeth the Earl seemed to be the principal obstacle.

The Queen showed great displeasure at the news, and had some thought, it is said, of committing Leicester to the Tower, but was dissuaded from doing so by his rival the Earl of Sussex. He had not, indeed, favoured the Alençon marriage, but otherwise he had sought to promote a league with France against Spain. He and Burleigh had listened to proposals from France for the conquest and division of Flanders, and they were in the secret about the capture of Brill. When Alençon actually arrived, indeed, in August 1579, Dudley being in disgrace, showed himself for a time anti-French; but he soon returned to his former policy. He encouraged Drake's piratical expeditions against the Spaniards and had a share in the booty brought home. In February 1582 he, with a number of other noblemen and gentlemen, escorted the duke of Alençon on his return to Antwerp to be invested with the government of the Low Countries. In 1584 he inaugurated an association for the protection of Queen Elizabeth against conspirators.

About this time there issued from the press the famous pamphlet, supposed to have been the work of Parsons the Jesuit, entitled Leicester's Commonwealth, which was intended to suggest that the English constitution was subverted and the government handed over to one who was at heart an atheist and a traitor, besides being a man of infamous life and morals. The book was ordered to be suppressed by letters from the privy council, in which it was declared that the charges against the Earl were to the Queen's certain knowledge untrue; nevertheless they produced a very strong impression, and were believed in by some who had no sympathy with Jesuits long after Leicester's death.

In 1585, he was appointed commander of an expedition to the Low Countries in aid of the revolted provinces, and sailed with a fleet of fifty ships to Flushing, where he was received with great enthusiasm. In January following he was invested with the government of the provinces, but immediately received a strong reprimand from the Queen for taking upon himself a function which she had not authorized. Both he and the states general were obliged to apologize; but the latter protested that they had no intention of giving him absolute control of their affairs, and that it would be extremely dangerous to them to revoke the appointment. Leicester accordingly was allowed to retain his dignity; but the incident was inauspicious, nor did affairs prosper greatly under his management. The most brilliant achievement of the war was the action at Zutphen, in which his nephew Sir Philip Sidney was slain. But complaints were made by the states general of the conduct of the whole campaign.

Robert Dudley, Earl of Leicester, c1588, by William Segar. Kenilworth Castle He returned to England for a time, and went back in 1587, when he made an abortive effort to raise the siege of Sluys. Disagreements increasing between him and the states, he was recalled by the Queen, from whom he met with a very good reception; and he continued in such favour that in the following summer (the year being that of the Armada, 1588) he was appointed Lieutenant-General of the army mustered at Tilbury to resist Spanish invasion. After the crisis was past he was returning homewards from the court to Kenilworth, when he was attacked by a sudden illness and died at his house at Cornbury in Oxfordshire, on the 4th September.

Such are the main facts of Leicester's life. Of his character it is more difficult to speak with confidence, but some features of it are indisputable. Being in person tall and remarkably handsome, he improved these advantages by a very ingratiating manner. A man of no small ability and still more ambition, he was nevertheless vain, and presumed at times upon his influence with the Queen to a degree that brought upon him a sharp rebuff. Yet Elizabeth stood by him. That she was ever really in love with him, as modern writers have supposed, is extremely questionable; but she saw in him some valuable qualities which marked him as the fitting recipient of high favours. He was a man of princely tastes, especially in architecture. At court he became latterly the leader of the Puritan party, and his letters were pervaded by expressions of religious feeling which it is hard to believe were insincere. Of the darker suspicions against him it is enough to say that much was certainly reported beyond the truth; but there remain some facts sufficiently disagreeable, and others, perhaps, sufficiently mysterious, to make a just estimate of the man a rather perplexing problem.

(James Gairdner)

      Excerpted from:

      Encyclopedia Britannica, 11th Ed. Vol VIII.
      Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1910. 636.

Other Local Resources:

Books for further study:

Brimacombe, Peter. All the Queen's Men: The World of Elizabeth I.
           Palgrave Macmillan, 2000.

Doran, Susan. Monarchy and Matrimony: The Courtships of Elizabeth I.
           London: Routledge, 1996.

Jenkins, Elizabeth. Elizabeth & Leicester.
           London: Phoenix Press, 2002.

Ross, Josephine. The Men Who Would Be King: Suitors to Queen Elizabeth I.
           London: Phoenix Press, 2005.

Wilson, Derek. Sweet Robin: A Biography of Robert Dudley, Earl of Leicester.
           London: Allison & Busby, 1981.

Wilson, Derek. The Uncrowned Kings of England: The Black History
           of the Dudleys and the Tudor Throne.
           London: Carroll & Graf, 2004.

Earl of Leicester on the Web:

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