Wednesday, June 16, 2010

Death & the Virgin - Chris Skidmore

Almost 450 years ago, a young woman was found dead at the bottom of a staircase in a deserted country house. Her neck was broken but it was said she had no other wounds on her body. Her death caused a scandal & a mystery that has never been solved. The dead woman was Amy Robsart, wife of Lord Robert Dudley, Master of the Horse & favourite of Elizabeth I. Amy was a neglected wife. She & Robert had married when they were very young and, after Elizabeth’s accession to the throne, Robert’s fortunes had risen, leaving Amy behind. Elizabeth & Robert played out a very public courtship, sparking rumours that they would marry, conveniently ignoring the fact that Robert already had a wife.

Elizabeth was a consummate politician, giving her councillors & foreign ambassadors “answers answerless” on the many marriage proposals she received as the most eligible woman in Europe. She may have used Robert as a threat or a pawn in her marriage games but she did genuinely love him, I think. Their relationship had begun in the dangerous days of Queen Mary’s reign when Elizabeth was threatened with imprisonment, even death, as other people sought to incriminate her in their own plots & her sister tried to force her to abandon her Protestant faith & embrace Catholicism. Robert helped Elizabeth with money & support at this crucial time & she never forgot his loyalty. However, she was also too clever to commit to anything, especially marriage.

Her advisors & Parliament were urging her to marry, have a male heir & settle the succession, but she refused to commit herself. Even after she had passed the age where she could reasonably have expected to bear children, she kept everyone guessing as to whether she would marry her last suitor, the Duc d’Alencon, brother of the French King. Amy Robsart’s death answered the question in regard to whether she would marry Robert Dudley. The rumours of murder or suicide, & of Robert’s involvement in his wife’s death, put paid to any plan for marriage. The Spanish ambassador, de la Quadra, famously said that if she married for love rather than for her kingdom she would “one evening lay herself down as Queen of England & rise the next morning as plain Mistress Elizabeth.” Once Elizabeth understood the impact of the rumours surrounding Amy’s death & her own relationship with Dudley that were racing through all the courts of Europe, she realised that they could never marry.

Chris Skidmore’s new book investigates Amy Robsart’s death as part of a broader examination of the political machinations surrounding Elizabeth’s marriage prospects. The circumstances of Amy’s death are mysterious. She was staying at Cumnor Place, not far from Windsor Castle where the Queen was staying on her summer progress. On Sunday, September 8th 1560, Amy sent her household servants to a local fair as she wanted to be alone. Only two women remained in the house. They heard a noise of something falling & discovered their mistress lying dead at the bottom of a staircase, her neck broken. There have always been several theories about Amy’s death. Had Robert murdered her so that he could marry Elizabeth? Had she committed suicide? She hadn’t seen her husband for almost a year & had seemed to be sad & despairing. Was it an accidental fall? Had the fall down a relatively short flight of stairs proved fatal because of an illness like breast cancer that had weakened her bones? Rumours of Amy’s ill-health, “a malady in one of her breasts”, had circulated at court but were the rumours true or had Dudley spread them to prepare the way for her death? There were also rumours that Amy feared she was being poisoned.

The news of her death shocked Dudley, according to letters he wrote at the time, although he seems more shocked by the threat to his reputation than anything else. The inquest was held & the verdict was accidental death. This didn’t stop the rumours. Those who suspected Dudley claimed it was a cover-up & thought Dudley had used his influence over the Coroner to get the verdict he wanted. The Coroner’s report had been thought lost until Skidmore discovered it in the National Archives during his research for this book. He uses this report & his extensive researches in other archives in examining Amy’s death fully. There are no great revelations in the report, although the story that Amy had no mark on her body except the broken neck is shown to be inaccurate.

Death & the Virgin
is an exhaustive account of the death of Amy Robsart. Skidmore provides extensive background information on the saga of Elizabeth’s marriage negotiations & on the relationship between the Queen & Robert Dudley. So little is known of Amy herself that we never really get an idea of her, although Skidmore examines two letters she wrote & attributes a portrait of a previously unknown woman as possibly Amy on the occasion of her marriage. It’s sad but true that Amy is only known as the victim of a mysterious death & for her peripheral place in the life of Elizabeth I. If you’re fascinated by the Tudors, as I am, then I’d recommend this book. It presents all the available evidence about Amy Robsart’s death in an entertaining & absorbing narrative.


  1. Thank you for this review. The mystery of Amy Robsart's death is fascinating, so an historian who has newly researched and then written about this episode and its background in an interesting style sounds good.

  2. Thanks for the review - this sounds really interesting. Last year I read a Phillipa Gregory book about Amy Robsart, Robert Dudley and Elizabeth. I wouldn't really recommend the book, but it did have an interesting theory about Amy's death.