Robert Dudley, 1st Earl of Leicester

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Robert Dudley, by Nicholas Hilliard, 1576.

Robert Dudley, Earl of Leicester (or Leycester), (June 24, 1532 - September 4, 1588) was the long-standing favourite of Queen Elizabeth I of England and almost became her husband.

Dudley was born around 1532, a younger son of the Duke of Northumberland, who was executed in 1553 for his part in the attempt to put Lady Jane Grey on the throne of England. (Lady Jane was married to Robert's elder brother, Guilford Dudley.) Robert Dudley was temporarily imprisoned, along with his father and brothers Guilford, John, Ambrose and Henry Dudley, in the Tower of London, and it was here that he probably first came into contact with the then Princess Elizabeth, who had been sent there on the orders of her estranged elder sister, Queen Mary I of England. By this time he was already married, to Amy Robsart.

On Elizabeth's accession, Dudley was appointed Master of the Horse. Rumours about their relationship were rife, and when, in 1560, Dudley's wife, Amy, died after falling down a flight of stairs in mysterious circumstances, it was widely believed that he had arranged her murder in order to free himself to marry the queen. Some said that a secret marriage had taken place. Ironically, it would be Amy's death that put an end to any such ambitions Dudley may have had. Elizabeth, mindful of public opinion and also doubtful about the desirability of any marriage at all, never gave any cause to think that she intended to take the step of making her favourite into her husband. Historians today think Amy's murder, if it were a murder, was carried out either by someone who believed it would win them royal favour or, even more likely, by someone who wanted to prevent the queen from marrying Dudley. It seems impossible that Elizabeth could have been foolish enough to involve herself in such a crime, even if Dudley were. It has also been suggested that Amy was mortally ill with breast cancer at the time, which would have made murder less likely, and suicide or a fatal accident more plausible.

In fact, in 1563, Elizabeth put Dudley up as a candidate for marriage to the widowed Mary, Queen of Scots, whom she hoped to neutralise by marriage to a Protestant. The State Papers record how she hinted that this was to be a reward to Dudley, "whom, if it might lie in our power, we would make owner or heir of our own kingdom", for his loyal service. Mary, insulted by the idea of accepting Elizabeth's former lover, rejected him. In the following year, Elizabeth bestowed on him the earldom of Leicester.

Dudley was always a ladies' man. He is thought to have secretly married the widowed Lady Douglas Sheffield in 1573. He later deserted her in favour of Lettice Knollys, widow of Walter Devereux, 1st Earl of Essex and maternal cousin of Queen Elizabeth. Lettice was daughter of Catherine Carey, granddaughter of Lady Mary Boleyn and grand-niece of Anne Boleyn. The marriage offended the queen mightily. It was hardly to be expected, by anyone other than Elizabeth at least, that Leicester's devotion to the Queen should have caused him to lead an entirely celibate life during the nineteen years that had elapsed since the death of his first wife.

In 1573 it was observed that not only the widowed Lady Douglas Sheffield, but also her sister, Frances Howard, who was unmarried, were “very far in love with him” and also that the Queen “thinketh not well of them, and not the better of him” for encouraging their attentions. Nevertheless, before long a son was born by Lady Sheffield, and was to be named Robert Dudley, in 1573/4 (later created Duke of Northumberland). The true descent of the rights of this line of the Elizabethan Earl of Leicester were diverted away from their rightful heir, this son, by the deeds of his own father. Other than Elizabeth’s threats to incarcerate him, the reason for Leicester’s deception may have been to protect his wife, the Lady Douglas Sheffield, and their son from his debts (and intrigues) with the Queen.

His only surviving brother, Ambrose, was childless, and unless he fathered some legitimate offspring, his family line would perish. “You must think it is some marvellous course, and toucheth my present state very near, that forceth me thus to be cause almost of the ruin of my own house,” he observed in a letter to Douglas Sheffield, explaining that he was uniquely situated, and unable to take a wife without causing “mine utter overthrow”. The secrecy of Leicester’s second marriage to Douglas Sheffield may well have been a matter of great consideration, given that he did not wish to upset his close association with his childhood companion, Elizabeth, and thus he was to later proclaimed the marriage illegal, so that he could marry a third time, on this occasion to Lady Lettice Knollys. Elizabeth herself had felt betrayed by the later discovery of the marriage to Lettice Knollys, and reminded Leicester of the rumors that he had been pre-contracted to Lady Sheffield; if these proved to be true he could be sent to rot in the Tower. It is therefore not surprising that he should have denied the rumours.

In the 19th century, the question of the Sidneys' legal claim over the Dudley estates was raised when Sir John Shelly-Sidney laid claim to the titles of De L’isle and Dudley, to which he clearly would have had no claim, had the first Robert Dudley been honest and forthright about his son's origins. The House of Lords duly investigated the matter, concluding that Sir John Shelley had not in fact succeeded in establishing his right to the Barony, on the grounds that the marriage of Robert Dudley’s parents had indeed been legitimate and authentic. Leicester, although he appears to have been fond of his son, never acknowledged his legitimacy.

Eventually restored to Elizabeth's favour, Dudley was placed in command of the Dutch campaign of 1585, culminating in the Battle of Zutphen. Despite having shown himself a failure as a military leader, he was in command of the English land forces against the Spanish Armada of 1588. The Spanish never landed, and he died soon after near Oxford. By the time of his death, he was already losing his place as Elizabeth's favourite to his stepson, Robert Devereux, 2nd Earl of Essex.



Preceded by:
Sir Henry Jernyngham
Master of the Horse
1558–1587
Succeeded by:
The Earl of Essex
Preceded by:
The Earl of Pembroke
Lord Steward
1570–1588
Succeeded by:
The Lord St John

Template:End box


Preceded by:
New Creation
Earl of Leicester
Succeeded by:
Extinct

Template:End boxnl:Graaf van Leicester

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