Amy Robsart’s death at Cumnor Place in 1560 was a notorious scandal in an age of scandals. Born in Norfolk, the daughter of Sir John Robsart of Syderstone, she subsequently moved with her family to Stanfield Hall, where she met Robert Dudley, later Earl of Leicester. In 1550, they were married, but when in 1558 Elizabeth I came to the throne, ‘Robin’ quickly became a royal favourite. His wife, not welcome at Court, was left in a succession of borrowed houses and, when she fell ill, rumours began. On 18 April 1559, the Spanish ambassador wrote to King Philip, ‘People … say that his wife has a malady in one of her breasts, and the Queen is only waiting for her to die to marry Lord Robert.’
By the end of that year there were accusations that Dudley was hastening Amy’s demise. On 15 November, the ambassador wrote, ‘I heard from a person … accustomed to give veracious news that Lord Robert has sent to poison his wife.’ On 16 January 1560, he called the rumour ‘an important story and necessary to be known’.
On 6 September, at Windsor for an audience with the queen, the ambassador bumped into Sir William Cecil:
After … many entreaties that I would keep it a secret, he told me that … he saw that they were thinking of putting to death Lord Robert’s wife, and that now she was publicly reported to be ill, but … was quite well, and taking care not to be poisoned. The day after this took place the Queen told me … that Lord Robert’s wife was dead, or nearly so, and begged me to say nothing about it.
There is a postscript: ‘Since this was written the Queen has published the death of my lady Robert,
and has said in Italian “se ha rotto il collo”; she must have fallen down a staircase.’
On Sunday, 8 September, Amy had been found dead with a broken neck at the foot of a stone newel staircase in Cumnor Place. Monastic in origin, this stood secluded among fields and orchards. It was leased by Anthony Forster, formerly Leicester’s steward, from Dr Owen, the queen’s physician. Owen’s wife was one of only two people in the house when Amy died, the other being a widowed dependant of Forster’s.
Because of these suspicious circumstances, Amy’s death is the locus classicus of ‘did she fall or was she pushed?’ At the time, though the coroner’s verdict was death by misadventure, the word on the street was murder.
The scandal was appalling. Elizabeth sent Dudley away from Court, with orders not to reappear before his wife was buried. He did not go to Cumnor, but the day after Amy’s death wrote to a relative, Thomas Blount, asking him to go and find out ‘whether it happened by evil chance or villany’. He expresses no regret but much concern with what was being said. Blount’s response is vague. At no point does he tell Dudley what happened – the manner of death, where and when the body was found, who found it – though he does say that Amy had sent the whole household, except for the two women, to Abingdon Fair.
Curiously impersonal, too, was the disposal of Amy’s remains. Though she was given what amounted to a state funeral at Oxford, the chief mourner was Anthony Forster’s sister-in-law. Dudley did not attend.
If the pompous funeral was designed to disarm suspicion it failed. On the following 22 January, the Spanish ambassador reported, ‘There … was hardly a person who did not believe that there had been foul play. The preachers in their pulpits spoke of it.’ In a minute of Cecil’s of April 1566, concerning possible husbands for the queen, in a list of ‘Reasons against the E. of L.’ appears as no. 4: ‘He is infamed by the death of his wiff.’
So what had happened to Amy? The choices are accident, suicide, or murder. Even those close to the Court seem never to have learned with certainty what happened. Clearly there was something to be hushed up, if only suicide, as then Amy could not be buried with full rites.
Whatever the truth, Dudley’s continuing connection with Elizabeth did nothing to allay gossip, and twenty-four years after Amy’s death political capital could still be made out of it. In 1584, there appeared an anonymous attack known as Leicester’s Commonwealth. It paints Leicester as an English Borgia, a princely villain with poisoners in his train, and a long list of victims beginning with his wife. Among other things, it tells how a ‘Professor of … Physic’ at Oxford was asked to prescribe for Amy, but, seeing that she was perfectly well, declined, lest his ‘potion’ be blamed for her death.
Leicester’s Commonwealth was read avidly, and on 26 June 1585 the queen was forced to ban this and other libels on Leicester, ‘of which most malicious and wicked imputations Her Majesty in her own clear knowledge doth … testify his innocence to all the world’. The world remained unconvinced, and the antiquary Elias Ashmole, a hundred years later, was able to add:
The inhabitants will tell you that she was conveyed from her usual chamber … to another where the bed’s head … stood close to a privy postern door, when they in the night-time came and stifled her in her bed … broke her neck, and at length flung her downstairs, believing the world would have thought it a mischance …
Cumnor Place itself fell into ruin and acquired the name of ‘Dudley Castle’ from a belief that Lady Dudley’s ghost haunted it. According to Alfred Bartlett in his Historical … Account of Cumnor Place (1850):
The apparition was said to appear chiefly in the form of a beautiful woman, superbly attired, and was mostly to be seen at the foot of a stone staircase, in the north-western angle of the building, where the remains of her Ladyship are said to have been discovered. At length the panic became so general, and the building so dreaded, that the fear-stricken superstitious villagers had recourse to exorcism to expel the spirit; and the tradition yet remaining is, that the ceremony was performed by nine Parsons from Oxford, who laid the ghost in a pond in the adjoining close; and it is said that the water never afterwards froze over the spot. This story exists in the neighbourhood to the present day, and the pond is still pointed out as the receptacle of Madame Dudley’s spirit.
However, says Bartlett, not everyone was convinced that the haunt was over. Rather more than a century before he was writing, part of the building had been repaired and used as a dwelling and workplace by a farmer and maltster; later it was patched up and made into tenements for labourers. Their occupancy was not peaceful:
There is a story now current in the village, that the ghost was never effectually laid, and that it exercised its power to the terror and annoyance of the inmates as long as the place was inhabited; and it is asserted, that at times the candles would become almost extinguished, and the subdued light assume an unnatural hue; while at other times the inmates would be aroused from their slumbers in the dead of night by the most terrific and unearthly noises …
In 1810, nearly the whole mansion was taken down to obtain materials for rebuilding Wytham church nearby. In the east wall of the chancel is the window of the chamber above the Long Gallery at Cumnor in which, according to tradition, Lady Dudley spent the night before her death. The site of the house itself was immediately south of the churchyard. Traces of its terraces and gardens are still visible to the west of the site, or were in the 1920s when the Victoria County History: Berkshire recorded them.