Tuesday, September 4, 2012

On This Day in Elizabethan History: The Death of Robert Dudley, the Earl of Leicester

A portrait of Robert Dudley, Earl of Leicester from 1564, the same year Queen Elizabeth granted him his earldom. Picture acquired through Wikimedia Commons. Image public domain.

 "A personage so dear unto us."
-Queen Elizabeth describing the Earl of Leicester in a letter to the Earl of Shrewsbury, 1588.
On this day in Elizabethan history, 1588, Robert Dudley, the Earl of Leicester died. While the earl had been unwell for quite some time, nobody expected his illness to be fatal, least of all Queen Elizabeth (ODNB)

Dudley's unexpected death occurred when he was on the road to "take the waters" in Buxton, Derbyshire. A few miles after stopping to write the Queen a letter at Rycote in Oxfordshire on August 29th, Leicester grew gravely ill and took shelter at the nearby manor of Cornbury. It is there that he died in the early morning hours of September 4th (Gristwood, 334).

Only a week earlier Leicester had bid the Queen farewell after she had ordered him to go on retreat and tend to his health. The letter that Leicester had sent her from Rycote became her most prized possession; on it she scrawled, "His last letter", and she kept it in a private box in her closet. The letter now resides in the National Archives.

"His last letter", in the National Archives in England. Picture acquired through Wikimedia Commons. Image public domain.

Leicester had been in physical anguish following his role as the Queen's Lieutenant General at Tilbury, a position that he had welcomed and a duty that he had been honored to fulfill. But  the work had been stressful none the less. Leicester had been in charge of between 12,000-17,000 men at Tilbury fort, and another 6,000 were under his command in Sandwich (Gristwood, 328). The Earl of Leicester had urged his Queen to visit her troops at Tilbury, writing to her that, "you shall comfort not only these thousands, but many more that shall hear of it" (quoted in Gristwood, 330).

Indeed, once a chaplain in Leicester's service recorded Queen Elizabeth's "excellent oration", which he wrote that she delivered dressed like an "armed Pallas", (Athena, Greek goddess of wisdom and war) the speech was printed and circulated throughout Europe within the week (Gristwood, 329-30). The English people were inspired by the Queen's Tilbury Speech, which they could now hold in their hands, and the rest of the world knew from the pamphlet that the English were not to be intimidated.

A painting of Queen Elizabeth at Tilbury, courtesy of Anniina Jokinen. Image public domain.

Leicester and Elizabeth's collaboration at Tilbury would be their last; yet their romantic and political partnership had spanned almost 30 years. Leicester was the Queen's emotional support, and sometimes her stand-in an state functions. Theirs was a bond unlike any other; it survived imprisonment, threat of execution, a mysterious death, rejections, indiscretions, marriage, and the threat of assassination and war.

A composite image of a pair of portrait miniatures of Queen Elizabeth I and Robert Dudley, Earl of Leicester. Painted c.1575, by Nicholas Hilliard. Picture acquired through Wikimedia Commons. Image public domain.

According to the antiquarian William Camden, (the author of the invaluable primary source, The Annals of Queen Elizabeth) after the defeat of the Spanish Armada, Queen Elizabeth was having papers drawn up to make Leicester the permanent Lieutenant Governor of England. Camden claimed that the Queen was only dissuaded from putting this plan into action by William Cecil, Lord Burghley and Sir Christopher Hatton.

A detail of a portrait of Sir Christopher Hatton, c.1575. Picture acquired through Wikimedia Commons. Image public domain.

Perhaps this was true; Camden was working from many primary sources now lost to us, and his work is largely accurate and free of the religious bias that permeated most works of the 16th and 17th century. Certainly Elizabeth was starting to think about what would happen to England upon her death, even if she refused to speak of the succession aloud.

The frontispiece and title-page of the 1575 edition of The Annals of Queen Elizabeth, by William Camden. Picture acquired through Wikimedia Commons. Image public domain.

Leicester dined every day in the Queen's apartments before he left for Buxton (Gristwood, 333). We can hope that Queen Elizabeth found comfort in her memories of their last days together, after she had recovered from the initial shock of Leicester's unexpected death.

A miniature of the Earl of Leicester, c.1572-76. By Hilliard. Picture acquired through Wikimedia Commons. Image public domain.

The Earl of Leicester's demise was probably caused by stomach cancer, which his persistent gastric symptoms seem to suggest, or complications caused by chronic malaria (Gristwood, 333-34). Malaria was rampant in England in the 16th century and had claimed the lives of many, including prominent members of the royal family, like Arthur Tudor. We do know that Leicester had complained of "the stone", which was a colloquialism for any intestinal problem (Gristwood, 334).

A miniature of Queen Elizabeth, c.1572-76. By Hilliard. Picture acquired through Wikimedia Commons. Image public domain.

 The juxtaposition of England's celebration over the defeat of the Spanish Armada, and the death of her oldest and dearest friend was almost too much for Queen Elizabeth to bear:

"Elizabeth was condemned to an extraordinary conjunction of public rejoicing and private agony. This was her own personal sorrow-it would be folly to try to damper the mood of he country-and against a background of the national victory celebrations she shut herself into her own chamber to grieve." (Gristwood, 334-365)

Many contemporary reports confirm that Queen Elizabeth locked herself away in her apartments. Sir Francis Walsingham lamented that he could not get the Queen to attend to state business at this time, "by reason that she will not suffer anybody to have access to her" (quoted in Gristwood, 335).

Sketch of Queen Elizabeth I from life. By Zuccaro, 1575.

This tells us how profound Queen Elizabeth's grief was. Here is a woman who relished her role in government and never shirked her public responsibilities because of her private feelings, save for this one instance. Elizabeth's life experiences had caused her to develop a hard, protective exterior, which rarely cracked to reveal signs of affection or vulnerability; Robert Dudley had always been the only exception.

Sketch of the Earl of Leicester from life. By Zuccaro, 1575.

Yet, however much the Queen of England mourned her "Sweet Robin", his death barely registered with the rest of England in comparison to the victory over Spain. The antiquarian John Stow, who himself admitted that he owed his career to Leicester, wrote: "All men, so far as they durst, rejoiced no less outwardly at his death than for the victory lately obtained against the Spaniard." 

Still, Robert Dudley, Earl of Leicester left this life having accomplished a great deal for Queen and Country, and should be remembered for it. I think William Camden's epitaph of the earl conveys many of the aspects of his character; this is fitting since the way the earl was thought of differed so greatly from person to person. 
"He was reputed a complete courtier, magnificent, liberal, a protector and benefactor of soldiers and scholars...very officious, and cunning toward his ill-willers; for a time much given to women...to say the truth, he was openly held to be in the rank of those which were worthy of praise, but the things which he secretly plotted displeased many."

We do not know how Robert's widow, Lettice Knollys dealt with the loss of her husband. Let it be said that we should not for a minute entertain the idea that she and her second-cousin, the Queen, would have commiserated over their mutual loss. Lettice's greatest testament to her husband may have been their joint tomb. Elizabeth's may have in fact been her relationship with Leicester's step-son, Essex.

The tomb of Robert Dudley, Earl of Leicester and his wife, Lettice Knollys in Beauchamp Chapel in the Collegiate Church of St.Mary, Warwickshire. Picture acquired through Wikimedia Commons. Image public domain.

Historian Sarah Gristwood explains the significance of Queen Elizabeth's relationship with the Earl of Essex:

"Perhaps it is to the years ahead (of Leicester's death) that we should look for Elizabeth's last (and almost disastrous) great loving gesture towards her lost companion to her relationship with Leicester's stepson and surrogate, Essex. Leicester had brought Essex to court as he himself began to tire and age, willing still to perform necessary duties, but unable any longer to flatter Elizabeth with the conviction he once has; unable to provide the energetic, exciting pageant of eager masculinity. Elizabeth obediently would follow his programme almost to her destruction; would try to believe Essex was another Leicester. The Queen's long, her extraordinary, indulgence towards Robert Devereux was her long lament for Robert Dudley."
(Gristwood, 337)

When Elizabeth whispered the name "Robert" on her deathbed in 1603, there can be no doubt to which earl she was referring.

A portrait of Robert Dudley, Earl of Leicester circa 1560-65. Attributed to Steven van der Muelen. Picture acquired through Wikimedia Commons. Image public domain.


Gristwood, Sarah. Elizabeth and Leicester: Power, Passion, Politics. New York: Viking, 2007. Print.

"Dudley, Robert, earl of Leicester (1532/3–1588)" Oxford Dictionary of National Biography online edition. Retrieved 09-02-2012