Robert Dudley

Earl of Leicester

(Robert Dudley, 1st Earl of Leicester, features briefly in the novel When the Time is Ripe by Tony Thistlewood. In fact, it would be difficult to write about Queen Elizabeth I without mentioning her "Sweet Robin".)


Robert Dudley’s relationship with the fifth and last Tudor monarch, Queen Elizabeth I, is one of the great romances of the second millennium – well, probably – the question is: did Queen Elizabeth ever intend to marry anyone or was she wedded to her job?

There is no doubt that Robert Dudley’s love for the Queen was requited. “Sweet Robin” she called him, but was it a consummated love? It seems unlikely, yet his close and endearing friendship with Queen Elizabeth will always remain the Earl of Leicester’s greatest claim to fame.

Born a younger son with twelve siblings, he could look forward to a life of privilege yet without money or titles. No doubt with this in mind, his father arranged for him to marry Amy Robsart, the daughter of a wealthy Norfolk landed gentleman. Robert was only eighteen-years-old at the time.

Even so, his relationship with Elizabeth went back many years before then. In their younger days, they shared tutors with Prince Edward, later King Edward VI, at Hatfield Palace. Later, Elizabeth and Robert were both incarcerated in the Tower of London for a short time by Elizabeth’s suspicious half-sister, Queen Mary, who thought they were implicated in the Wyatt rebellion. Mary’s consort, King Philip II of Spain, eventually interceded on their behalf and they were released.

At Hatfield Palace, on 18th November 1558, Elizabeth received the news that Queen Mary I had died and named Elizabeth as her successor. Robert Dudley was by her side, and was, therefore, one of the first to bend his knee to England’s new monarch.

The new Queen Elizabeth I was quick to reward Dudley by immediately appointing him Master of the Queen’s Horse and, the following year, a Knight of the Garter. In 1564, she created Sir Robert Dudley the 1st Earl of Leicester.

Any ambitions of marrying Elizabeth that Robert Dudley, now the 1st Earl of Leicester, might have entertained were thwarted when, in 1572, Amy Robsart fell down the stairs at Cumnor Place, Oxfordshire, and broke her neck – or did she? Oh, how the tongues wagged! And some are still wagging to this day with claims that the corona’s report, recently found, made no mention of a broken neck.

However, the corona did conclude that her death was an accident – but what a convenient accident! Unfortunately, it ensured that Robert Leicester, the Queen’s “Sweet Robin”, could never marry her. The people of England simply would not have put up with it. The ever-pragmatic Queen Elizabeth realized this only too well and so too did her trusted advisor, Lord Burghley.

And so, six years later, the Earl of Leicester married the Dowager Countess of Essex, Lettice Knollys, widow of Walter Devereux, the 1st Earl of Essex. Elizabeth was furious and banned that “she wolfe”, as she called Lettice, from her Court notwithstanding that Lettice was her first cousin once removed. In fact, there were rumours that Lettice’s maternal grandfather was King Henry VIII, in which case, Queen Elizabeth was Lettice’s half-aunt!

A month after the Spanish Armada had been defeated, Robert, Earl of Leicester, spent a night at the home of Lord Norreys of Rycote, Oxfordshire. While there, he wrote a letter to Queen Elizabeth. Sadly, after leaving Rycote, the Queen’s “Sweet Robin” got no further than Cornbury Park, a few miles away, where he died – possibly of stomach cancer.

Fifteen years later, in 1603, the Queen died and the letter (pictured) that Robert Dudley had written at Rycote all those years ago was discovered in a drawer in Elizabeth’s desk. She had written on the back of it: "his last letter".

As the original is difficult to read, this is what Lord Leicester wrote in his last letter to Queen Elizabeth:

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 chiefest thing in the world I do pray for, for her to have good health and long life. For my own poor case, I continue still your 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

Even as I had writ thus much, I received Your Majesty's token by Young Tracey.


Snapshot Bio of Robert Dudley, Earl of Leicester

Date of Birth:

    24th June 1532 (this date is by no means certain)
Place of Birth:

    Unknown

Parents:

    Father: John Dudley, 1st Earl of Warwick, later the self-proclaimed Duke of Northumberland. He was the Protector of the young King Edward VI.
    Mother: Jane Guildford daughter of Sir Richard Guildford.

Date of Death:

    Sunday, 4th September 1588 at Cornbury Park, Oxfordshire. He was 57 years old.
Buried:
    Beauchamp Chapel, Collegiate Church of St Mary, Warwick

Siblings:

    John Dudley, 2nd Earl of Warwick (c.1527 – 1554)
    Ambrose Dudley, 3rd Earl of Warwick (c.1530 – 1590)
    Guildford Dudley (c.1535 – exec.1554) (m. Lady Jane Grey – also executed 1554)
    Mary Dudley (c.1534 – 1586) (mother of poet Sir Philip Sidney)
    Katherine Hastings, (née Dudley) Countess of Huntingdon (c.1538 – 1620)

    The following siblings died young:

    Sir Henry Dudley
    Thomas Dudley
    Henry Dudley
    Charles Dudley
    Temperance Dudley
    Margaret Dudley
    Katherine Dudley

Titles:
    Knight of the Garter (1559)
    Baron of Denbigh (1564)
    1st Earl of Leicester (1564)
Positions held:
    Master of the Horse (1558)
    Member of the Privy Council (1562)
    Lord Steward of the Royal Household (1587)
    Governor-General of the United Provinces – otherwise known as the Republic of the Seven United Netherlands – the modern day Netherlands. (c. 1586) Leicester incurred the Queen’s wrath by accepting this position.
Marriages:
    (1) 1562 Amy Robsart (d. 1572 at Cumnor Place, Oxfordshire).
      Children:
      No issue.

    (2) 1578 Lettice Devereux (née Knollys) widow of the 1st Earl of Essex.
      Children:
      (1) Robert Dudley (d. in infancy)

Castles and Houses:

    Kenilworth Castle,
    Warwickshire. Originally built in the 12th century, the castle was given to John Dudley, Robert Leicester’s father, in 1553. After John’s execution by Queen Mary, his titles and property were confiscated. Ten years later, the castle was returned to the Dudley family when Queen Elizabeth I gave it to her favourite, Robert Dudley, the 1st Earl of Leicester. During the civil war in 1649, the Parliamentarians partly destroyed the castle. Only ruins remain today, although two of its buildings are still habitable. Kenilworth Castle is open to the public.

    Leicester House, London. This was an enormous property with 42 bedrooms and a chapel. When Leicester died in 1588, the house passed to his stepson, Robert Devereux, 2nd Earl of Essex, who immediately re-named it Essex House - well, why not! The house was in the Strand and adjacent to Middle Temple, one of the four Inns of Court. Leicester (Essex) House was demolished in the 17th century. The current Essex Street covers part of the area where the house once stood.

    Wanstead Hall, Essex. Acquired by Robert Dudley in 1577 from Robert Rich, son of the infamous Lord Richard Rich “of whom”, it was said, “nobody has ever spoken a good word”.

The Earl of Leicester features fictitiously in Tony's novel

When the Time is Ripe



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