Thursday, September 16, 2010

Book Review: Death and the Virgin by Chris Skidmore

Perhaps there is no event that threatened the early years of the reign of Queen Elizabeth I than the death of the wife of her most favored courtier, Lord Robert Dudley, K.G. For the past 450 years the death of Amye Robsart found with a broken neck and no other injuries on her body lying at the bottom of a pair of stairs has been combed over and speculated upon by historians and fiction writers alike, most famously in the highly inaccurate novel Kenilworth by Sir Walter Scott. The location of her death, Cumnor Place was a romantic pilgrimage site until it was demolished in the mid-19th century. Even Amye’s burial place is presumed to have vanished as no sign of it was found when the foundations of St. Mary the Virgin Church were dug up following a fire in 1947.

Can one truly uncover any new contemporary material that can shed light on this early Elizabethan mystery? In Chris Skidmore’s exhaustively researched new book, yes it can. Skidmore is a professor of history at Bristol University and this is his second book. His previous book was an illuminating biography of King Edward VI. And despite a few glaring errors that should have been caught by an attentive editor, his new book, Death and the Virgin: Elizabeth, Dudley and the Mysterious Fate of Amy Robsart is a compelling, well researched take on an old tale.

Skidmore spends a lot of time introducing his characters. Many who are familiar with the Tudor dynasty are probably aware of Robert Dudley’s family history. His grandfather Edmund was executed as a traitor at the beginning of Henry VIII’s reign. His father John was executed following his defense of Edward VI’s desire to place Lady Jane Grey Dudley on the throne of England. His younger brother, Guildford, married to Lady Jane also suffered the headsman’s axe. Robert spent the beginning of Queen Mary I’s reign in the Tower of London with his remaining brothers and upon his release served the Queen well, particularly in the war with France. Upon the accession of Queen Elizabeth I Robert Dudley was immediately in high favor, being appointed Master of the Horse and named a Knight of the Garter in 1559. During the marriage politics of the early years, it was speculated by Ambassadors and even Elizabeth’s Chief Secretary William Cecil, who drew up a pro and con list on the matter, that  if the Queen chose to marry within her kingdom, she would prefer to marry Robert Dudley. But, there was one big problem, Robert Dudley was already married.

Robert married Amye Robsart in 1550 the day after his elder brother John married Anne Seymour, the daughter of the Duke of Somerset. As a younger son, his wedding was not as lavish. Why did he marry? It is most probable that Robert and Amye met in 1549 during Kett’s Rebellion when he accompanied his father to the home of Amye’s father. They were “neighbors” and Amye had the advantage of being sole heiress to her father. It was a good match for a younger son who would not inherit his father’s title and lands. And there is speculation that it was a love match,. When William Cecil years later following Amye’s death drew up his pro/con memorandum on the subject of Robert marrying the Queen his famously wrote Nuptii carnales a laetitia incipient et in luctu terminantur – carnal marriages begin in joy and end in weeping.

During their ten year marriage there were no children. Robert and Amye were frequently separated first by his imprisonment and then by the War with France. They also did not have a permanent home of their own. Amye would not come into her inheritance until the death of the father, and as a younger son of an attainted father, Robert had no property of his own. This explains why, during the first two years of Elizabeth’s reign Amye stayed at the homes of friends and retainers of Robert only once coming to London to stay at the time of Robert’s investiture as a Knight of the Garter. The last time that Robert saw his wife alive was in April 1559 when he visited her at Throcking during the parliamentary recess. Despite Amye’s travels to London (he left for Windsor before she arrived) and her location at Cumnor Place at the time of her death, only 30 miles from Windsor, he never saw her again.

There were rumors spread by the Imperial and Spanish Ambassadors that she was ill with a malady of the breast and that she was taking precautions to not be poisoned. As the scandal at court over Elizabeth’s flirtations with Dudley grew, rumors continued that they were only waiting for Amye to die and then they would marry.

On September 8, 1560 Amye Dudley was found at the bottom of a pair of stairs with a broken neck. She was allegedly alone in the house at the time having insisted that all of her household attend a local fair. Back at court it was reported that the wife of Lord Robert was all ready dead or nearly so. And thus began the mystery that forever ruined Robert Dudley’s chance of marrying the Queen and has led to much speculation over the years. Skidmore methodically addresses each of the theories which are accidental death, suicide, spontaneous fracture caused by advanced breast cancer, and murder.

Did Amye commit suicide? This is one theory that Skidmore fairly easily dismisses. She was reported as having asked to be delivered from desperation. This was reported by Amye’s maid, Picto, and has been used to suggest that Amye deliberated flung herself down the stairs. There is the mystery of why Amye insisted on the entire household going to the fair, thus leaving her alone in the house. But, Amye was not alone.  Two women remained behind. Mrs Odingsells informed Amye that she would not go because Sunday was the day that the common folk attended making it unseemly for a gentlewoman to go and that she would attend the fair on Monday. Amye was angry at this and told her that she could do as she pleased and when it was questioned who would keep Amye company at dinner Amye replied that Mrs. Owen would. So there were two women in the house when Amye died. Then there is the religious aspect, as a devoted Christian lady Amye would have known that were she to commit suicide she would be condemning her soul. She would also have been denied a church burial. Lastly when Dudley’s servant Thomas Blunt questioned the maid Picto as to whether Amye might have an “evil toy in her mind” she replied “No, good Mr Blount, Do not judge so of my words. If you should so gather, I am sorry I said so much.” Then there is the matter of suicide by falling down a pair of stairs only eight steps high (it had a landing in the middle). Not the most efficient way to kill oneself. Then there is the letter that Amye wrote to her tailor less than two weeks before her death instructing him to make a new collar for a gown and that she needed it done very quickly. Perhaps with Robert at Oxford less than half a day’s ride from Cumnor Place she was anticipating seeing her husband for the time in more than a year.

Did Amye die from a spontaneous spinal fracture caused by advanced breast cancer? The breast cancer theory was posited fifty years ago by Dr. Ian Aird. He wrote “Spontaneous fracture of the spine, or of any bone, occurs when the bone, weakened and softened by disease or age, collapses or breaks under the strain of normal muscular effort…Diseased or aged bones in the spine may collapse from the slight strain imposed upon them by the normal act of stepping, for example. If that part of the spine which lies in the neck (cervical spine) suffers in this way, the affected person gets spontaneously a broken neck, and may collapse then, totally paralyzed from the neck down or suddenly dead. Such a fracture is more likely to occur in stepping downstairs than in walking on the level.

Did Amye have breast cancer? That theory comes from a dispatch by the Spanish Ambassador that Amye had a malady in one of her breasts. However there are several problems with this theory. Skidmore discovered a later dispatch that had not been translated into English before which contradicts the earlier one. On 6 June 1559 he wrote “The wife of the Lord Robert is already better, and it is said that she has been warned not to eat anything that is not very safe.” Also Amye traveled extensively in the last year of her life, hardly likely if she was so seriously ill that her bones were softened enough to cause a fracture stepping down a staircase. There is also the possibility that she had Hypercalcaemia or high levels of calcium which can cause tiredness, confusion, agitation and a loss of balance and fainting. This could explain her anger towards the household the morning of her death and falling if she fainted coming down the stairs. And lastly, if she had been terminally ill, why did none of her servants comment on her illness, why was there no discussion of a tumor found when the body was examined by the coroner. And why was her husband genuinely shocked by her death?

So we move to the two most likely theories. First that the death was truly accidental. Skidmore found a sketch of what is most likely the pair of stairs that Amye fell down. “Lysons’ sketch reveals that the stairs in the north-west corner of Cumnor Place had twelve to thirteen steps in total, broken up by a landing arund which the stairs turned on a 180-degree angle. It is not clear from the drawing, however, where the stairs begin and end. It has been argued that ‘it would be natural to assume that its foot was at the north end’ of the western side of the building…If this was indeed the case, the staircase was accessed from the ground floor of the western range of the building, in a room adjoining the Great Hall…The stairs, accessed from this room, would then have led up four stairs to a landing; turning right at an angle of 90 degrees, another flight of stairs, according to Lysons’ drawing what seems like eight steps in total, at first angled around the turn and then leading straight up in to the Long Gallery o the north side of the building.” Skidmore then lists numerous statistics on the injuries from falls down staircases and the fatalities. And in examining Amye’s case we have to turn to the first bombshell discovery of the book…the coroner’s report. This report has been ignored over the years in the National Archives because it wasn’t filed until a year after Amye’s death. In the document we learn the names of the jurors on the inquest into her death and we see the results of the examination of the body. And it is here that we get the first clues. Amye did suffer a broken neck and no other marks upon her body, but she suffered two dents (dyntes) to her head one about a quarter of inch deep and the second two inches deep. These are serious head wounds which could have occurred if Amye hit her head on the sharp edges of the stone stairs as she fell. But, it also raises the second question….

Was Amye murdered? I became frustrated with Skidmore at this point. He does not address the murder theory in any detail until late in the book, nearly 100 pages after discussing the first three theories in great detail. But, have patience there is a method to this. It became clear that you must understand the fallout of Amye’s death on Robert and Elizabeth. The continuing rumors that he would marry the Queen continued for years afterword, his elevation to the peerage in 1564 as Earl of Leiceister, Elizabeth’s proposal of him as a husband for Mary Queen of Scots, which he did not want and Robert actively encouraging Mary’s future husband, Lord Darnley. And then when it became clear that he was not going to marry Queen Elizabeth he turns his desires to having a legitimate heir of his own. His only surviving brother, Ambrose, did not have any children from his marriages, his sisters Mary and Katherine did, but the name of Dudley was in danger of dying out. First he turned to a long term affair with Douglas Sheffield which produced a son named Robert Dudley. And then he married the widow of the Earl of Essex, the Queen’s cousin, Letitia “Lettice” Knollys Devereaux whose husband died of dystentery while serving in Ireland. They had a son, also named Robert, known to history as the noble imp, who died young.

It has been set forth by many historians that Robert married Douglas Sheffield secretly. Her son, Robert Dudley tried to claim that he was legitimate during the early years of the reign of James I, this was the only time in all the years after her son’s birth that Douglas publically came forward to claim that she was legally wed. But she had no concrete proof and it was denied by the Star Chamber. This is important to our story as we turn to the examination of the theory that Amye Robsart was murdered.

In 1584 a pamphlet was published entitled The Copy of a Letter Written by a Master of Arts of Cambridge to his friend in London, concerning some talk passed of late between two worshipful and grave men about the present state, and some proceedings of the Earl of Leicester and his friends in England. We know it by its 1641 reprint title Leiceister’s Commonwealth. Now, when I got to this chapter I was rolling my eyes. Leiceister’s Commonwealth is a anti-Protestant piece of propaganda and could not possibly contain anything that could be corroborated as truth. It was designed to slander Robert Dudley and keep the story that he had his wife murdered in the public eye. But, there is more to this story. There is another document that has come to light that shows parallels to the tales in the Commonwealth published 20 plus years after Amye’s death.

First a bit of background on the Commonwealth. It actually chastises both Protestants and Catholics for their willingness to serve a higher authority than the Queen. It focuses on the greed of Elizabeth’s favorites and it is here that it turns into an attack on what the author(s) see as the worst offender Robert Dudley. It does bring up his relationships with Douglas and Lettice stating that in the case of Douglas that he promised to marry her, but he paid her off with about 1000 pounds. And the tract accuses Dudley of being a conspirator in his wife’s murder. And here is where the propaganda gets interesting. It claims that Dudley’s retainer Sir Richard Varney was instructed to kill Amye first using poison and when that didn’t work to have her killed by other means. As proof the tract names Dr. Walter Bayly of New College Oxford as having been asked to cure Amye of an abundance of melancholy but that Bayly refused saying she didn’t need any medicine. Bayly became a respected member in court circles handsomely rewarded for curing the Queen of a toothache. And he never publicly denied what was written about him in the pamphlet.

Where did the author get his information? It is purely coincidental, but Douglas Sheffield did remarry to Sir Edward Stafford and moved with him to Paris when he became English Ambassador to France. Skidmore makes a case that the likely author of the Commonwealth was Douglas’ cousin Charles Arundell who was forced to flee England in 1583 when he was implicated in the Throckmorton Plot. Douglas and Stafford regularly entertained her cousin and it is possible that he learned the details of Douglas’ relationship with Dudley from her. Sir Francis Walsingham suspected that Arundell, Stafford, and Douglas were involved in the publication of the Commonwealth pamphlet.

So, we have a piece of propaganda written 24 years after Amye’s death. This should alone dismiss it as proof. But then there is the second bombshell. In the British Library there is a document which was catalogued by the Victorians as a brief chronology of occurrences in England 1559-1562. In 1978 historian George Bernard examined the document in question. It is Additional Manuscript number 48023 measuring 31 ½ inches by 20 ½ inches and still bound its original calf leather binding. It is entitled “ A Journall of Matters of State happened from time to time as well within and without the realm from and before the death of King Edw. The 6th until the yere 1562.” It is a hand written document with first hand information on the early years of Elizabeth’s reign. It contains notes on points to follow upon and the document is virulently anti-Dudley as well as being very anti-the Duke of Northumberland. Bizarrely the author never met Robert Dudley until after Amye’s death saying “for myself I knew him not, for I never saw him before, nor knew not that it was he till he was past.”

It is a contemporary document written at the time of events. And the author is unknown although Skidmore examines the possible candidates. Here is what the journal reports on the death of Amye.

“How the Lord Robert’s wife brake her neck at Foster’s house in Oxfordshire…her gentlewomen being gone forth to a fair. Howbeit it was thought she was slain, for Sir…Verney was there that day and whilst the deed was doing was going over the fair and tarried there for his man, who at length came, and he said, thou knave, why tarriest thou? He answered should I come before I had done? Has thou done? Quoth Verney. Yea, quoth the man, I have made it sure. So Verney came to the court.?"

The story is very similar to the one written 24 years later in Leiceister’s Commonwealth, but is contemporary. The journal also gives an accurate account of Amye’s movements in the year before her death.

“The people say she was killed by reason he forsook her company without cause and left her first at Hyde’s house in Hertfordshire, where she said she was poisoned, and for that cause he desired, she might no longer tarry in his house. From thence she was removed to Verney’s house in Warwickshire, and so at length to Foster’s house (Cumnor Place).”

I addition to being accurate as to where Amye was living it also corroborates all of the contemporary stories from various Ambassadors reports and Wiliam Cecil that Amye believed that she was being poisoned.

The journal also helps uncover that members of the coroner’s jury were known to Dudley’s retainers.

And as to the coroner’s report about the two dints in her head in addition to the possibility that they were caused by striking her head on the stairs the phrase “dyntes” was a common phrase used to describe wounds inflicted by a blow. In the 17th and 18th centuries accounts of local villagers refer to Amye having suffered wounds to her head.

Skidmore discusses that if it was murder it was likely done by Dudley’s retainers, led by Sir Richard Verney whose name keeps popping up. There are many documents between the two men that make it clear that he was in Dudley’s service. Skidmore also discusses the dark side of retainers, who could threaten or do violence on the implication of their master relating a tale of Dudley’s retainers threatening the Swedish Ambassador’s retinue when he was in England negotiating for Eric of Sweden to marry Elizabeth.

Ultimately, Skidmore readily admits we cannot know for certain how Amye Dudley died. He strongly favors the murder theory,, believing that Dudley’s men killed Amye to pave the way for their master to marry the Queen, but he gives equal good evidence for the accidental death theory concluded by the coroner’s report.

Read the book. Decide for yourself.

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