Sunday, September 4, 2011

On this Day in Elizabethan History:The Death of Elizabeth's "eyes", Robert Dudley, Earl of Leicester

On this day in Elizabethan history, September 4th, in 1588, not long after England's momentous victory against the Spanish Armada, Queen Elizabeth's I joy was eclipsed by the death of her oldest, dearest friend, Robert Dudley, the Earl of Leicester. Leicester was undoubtedly her true love.

The Earl of Leicester c. 1564. The portrait is attributed to Steven van der Meulen, but this has been disputed. Leicester's Coat of Arms is depicted twice in this portrait, surrounded by the Colar of the Order of St. Michael, and the Garter. Leicester received the Order of St. Michael in 1566, so it was certainly added to the portrait after it was initially completed. 

Robert Dudley had been sick for quite some time before he passed. In his final years of service to his queen, he was commander of the English forces in the Netherlands from 1585-1587, with a brief return home from fighting with the Dutch against Philip II (who else?) to support Elizabeth in the crisis concerning Mary Queen of Scots.

Dudley's tactics in the Netherlands were scrutinized by his enemies, but he had done his best given the complex situation at hand. Shortly after he returned to England, the Earl of Leicester served as Elizabeth's "Lieutenant General" at Tilbury.

"In the meantime, I leave my Lieutenant General in my stead, whom never a prince commanded a more noble or worthy subject..." (Excerpt from Queen Elizabeth's Tilbury Speech, 1588)

A sketch from life done by Zuccaro in 1575 of Queen Elizabeth I. This sketch is part of a pair; the Earl of Leicester was also sketched by Zuccaro in preparation for full-scale portraits for Leicester's Kenilworth celebrations. Picture acquired through Wikimedia Commons. Image public domain.

Robert Dudley, Earl of Leicester, sketched in his armor by Frederico Zuccaro in the spring of 1575. This sketch is part of a pair; Queen Elizabeth I was also sketched by Zuccaro in preparation for full-scale portraits for Leicester's Kenilworth celebrations.Picture acquired through Wikimedia Commons. Image public domain.

After the victory, the Queen recognized her dear friends rapid decline in health, and she urged him to retreat to the country, and drink the "healing waters" at Buxton, in Derbyshire. Leicester never arrived at his destination, prematurely dying at his estate in Oxfordshire.

Upon hearing the news, Queen Elizabeth was understandably beside herself, and she locked herself away in her apartments for days on end. The letter the Earl had written her only days before his death did not leave Elizabeth's side. She scrawled "His last letter" on the note, and kept it close in an ornate box beside her bed. It would remain in that place, holding an almost sacred value until her death 15 years later.

A scan of Leicester's last letter to the queen. You can see where Elizabeth I scrawled "His Last Letter" on what would be the exterior of the folded letter. Picture acquired through Wikimedia Commons. Image public domain.

His Last Letter

I most humbly beseech your Majesty to pardon your poor old servant to be thus bold in sending to know how my gracious lady doth, and what ease of her late pain she finds, being the chieftest thing in the world I doth pray for, for her to have good health and long life.
For my own poor case, I continue still you medicine and find that (it) amends much better than any other thing that hath been given me.
Thus hoping to find perfect cure at the bath, with the continuance of my wonted prayer for your Majesty's most happy preservation, I humbly kiss your foot.
From your old lodging at Rycote, this Thursday morning, ready to take on my journey, by your Majesty's most faithful and obedient servant,

R.Leicester (Leicester drew a pair of "eyes" over his name, alluding to the queen's nickname for him)

Even as I had writ thus much, I received your Majesty's token by young Tracey.
(Before the letter was set, Leicester had received a gift from his queen!)

Robert Dudley, the Earl of Leicester died the Queen's most trusted confidante and oldest friend. In addition to his devotion to his "Bess", Leicester was a avid reformer, who did much to financially and militarily aid Protestants at home and abroad. He also was an investor, a collector, and a patron of the arts, even establishing his own theatre company in 1559.

He was buried at Beauchamp Chapel at St. Mary's in Warwick, by his biological son, who died in early childhood.

R.I.P. Robert Dudley, Earl of Leicester. I have no doubt you and her Majesty are enjoying each others company where you are now, together!