The Virgin Queen’s Fatal Affair- Who Killed Amy Robsart?

There has been much discussion of late about the recently aired (in the UK) documentary, The Virgin Queen’s Fatal Affair. Here is Channel 5 website’s description:

“Did a controversial love affair between Elizabeth I and her confidante Robert Dudley lead to a savage murder? This programme explores remarkable new evidence suggesting that Dudley’s wife, Amy Robsart, was assassinated so that her husband could be free to marry the Queen.”

Death and the Virgin: Elizabeth, Dudley and the Mysterious Death of Amy Robsart by Chris Skidmore

From these few lines alone we can see why there is much ‘discussion’ and why there is a fair amount of controversy surrounding Chris Skidmore’s book, Death and the Virgin: Elizabeth, Dudley and the Mysterious Fate of Amy Robsart on which the programme is based.

The book was published in February this year and sounds intriguing. The blurb available on the author’s website reads:

On 9 September 1560 Amy Robsart, the wife of Robert Dudley, Queen Elizabeth’s favourite courtier, was found lying dead at the foot of a staircase. Her neck was broken, yet there was no other mark or wound on her body. She was 28 years old.

It was a death that scandalised Tudor England. Was Amy’s death an accident, suicide, or murder? In the months before, speculation was rife that Amy— nowhere to be seen at court— was being poisoned. Robert Dudley’s open flirtation with the young Queen Elizabeth only fuelled rumours that he had orchestrated his own wife’s death. Elizabeth was the most eligible woman in Christendom. The security of the realm, as she was continually reminded, depended on her finding a husband. With her favourite now conveniently widowed, perhaps the queen had found her consort at last.

The death of Amy Robsart is one of the most famous unsolved mysteries of the Tudor period. Now for the first time, in this gripping account Chris Skidmore is able to put an end to centuries of speculation as to the true nature of Amy’s death. Death and the Virgin is both an investigation into an unsolved death and a vivid portrait of a remarkable and frenetic period in the life of the young Virgin Queen.

The book has received some wonderful reviews but has also been met with quite a lot of controversy. This review published in the Guardian summarised the four possible causes of Amy’s death that have always existed:

“Murder by Dudley’s agents, to open the way for his marriage to the queen; murder by the agents of a third party, intent on framing Dudley, with his rival William Cecil as the foremost candidate; suicide (Amy’s maid reported that her mistress had been praying God to deliver her from desperation); or an accident. Fifty years ago Dr Ian Aird published a paper explaining how untreated breast cancer could have triggered a skeletal collapse, which explains how Amy came to die on what was, by all accounts, a short and shallow “pair” of stairs, but Skidmore’s research demolishes that theory, while offering an alternative medical possibility.”

This new evidence that was recently uncovered and allegedly proves irrefutably that Amy Robsart was in fact murdered, is the coroner’s Report, unearthed at the National Archives after centuries of being dismissed as lost. What important information does this document reveal? That Amy broke her neck but also that she had two “dyntes” or wounds in the back of the head, one allegedly “two thumbs deep”. Now this seems a very tempting theory considering the evidence of wounds in the back of the head immediately sparks images of an assassin hitting Amy in the the head with a heavy, sharp object, causing her to tumble down the stairs to her death (if she wasn’t already killed by the blows).

Yet, even this seemingly ‘irrefutable’ theory has some problems. In a review of Skidmore’s book by Christine Arabella available on Amazon, Christine states that “cranial injuries of the most serious order are a typical phenomenon in serious and fatal stair falls (or even falls from your own height).” Now I am by no means an expert in these matters but couldn’t another possibility then be that Amy, weakened from her illness, simply accidentally fell down the stairs, hitting her head on one or several of the steps causing the injuries to her head and her fatality?

If not accidental then was it suicide? It is well known that Amy, on the day of her death, sent away all her servants. Was this so that she could end her life with no witnesses around? In the Guardian’s review, the author asks “but would a woman contemplating suicide recently have written to her tailor, ordering a new velvet gown?”

Unfortunately, I can answer this from experience. Some years ago a friend of mine took his own life and it was the most terrible shock to all his friends and loved ones because in the days leading up to his suicide he had been happy, attended work, gone out to parties, invited friend’s over, re-stocked his locker at work with new toothpaste and supplies, even made plans with friends for the days following his death. Yet after completing an eight hour shift and going to his parent’s house to watch a sports game on television, he went home and ended his life. So the fact that Amy ordered a dress from her tailor, to me, does not rule out suicide.

We must then consider the question on everyone’s lips, if it was murder, then who actually killed Amy Robsart? Was the murderer working alone or was the job ordered by someone in a position of power?

Was it Dudley clearing the way for his marriage to Elizabeth? Was it William Cecil protecting the interests of his queen? Was it some third party trying to frame Dudley? Was it an unknown party with some other motive? Did Elizabeth have something to do with the murder?

It’s clear then that a coroner’s report showing that Amy was murdered by no means ends the mystery, in fact, in my eyes, it really only deepens the mystery. Skidmore offers us other theories supporting the case for murder. Claire at the Elizabeth files has summarised the theories and counter arguments in her post here and one of her readers, posted a response to the theories and evidence presented by Skidmore in an interesting article here.

I haven’t yet read the book or seen the documentary so I feel that I cannot yet totally commit myself to one theory or another. But my gut feeling is that Elizabeth and Dudley had nothing to do with Amy’s death and that if it was murder, it was someone attempting to discredit Dudley and ruin the prospects of him ever becoming Elizabeth’s husband. And he did, after all, have his fair share of enemies that would have rejoiced at the thought of him losing favour with the queen.

Even with the coroner’s report, I cannot completely rule out it being an accident or suicide. I am very interested in hearing your thoughts. Murder, suicide or accident?

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  1. The more I hear about this book the more I am interested in reading it and also watching the documentary. I hope it comes out on DVD.

  2. I actually don’t believe in the suicide theory, I think Amy Dudley was murdered, however on the suicide subject, Amy was known to have suffered from depression, and the fact she ordered a new dress does not mean she could not have decided to kill herself; people with depression can behave quite normally but frequently have suicidal thoughts and the decision to act on them can happen very suddenly. Another point is that even if she were planning suicide she was known to be deeply religious and the consequences of committing suicide in those days meant burial in unconsecrated ground with a stake through the heart, something I think with her deep religious beliefs she would not have taken lightly. I think Amy was murdered, certainly the discovery of the Coroners Report in the National Archives and the detail of the two head wounds including one 2″ deep certainly provides some evidence for this (a respected pathologist stated, based on the report, he would today suggest the death be treated as a homicide). I don’t agree with Skidmore’s conclusion as to who was responsible, but do agree with a murder theory, I tend to go more with Alison Weir’s conclusions about Cecil.

  3. Sadly, this unfortunate young woman was most likely murdered. Two significant puncture wounds in the skull then dragged to a staircase which she was thrown down, not even sophisticated.
    Smacks of a third party, Dudley could pretty much do as he pleased at the time, Elizabeth…, why would she have such a murder committed for a man she never ended up marrying.

  4. Paul Nash says:

    The report is in Latin, except for the word dyntes. I would like to be sure that the measurements referred to the depth, not the length of the wounds. One might expect a couple of long wounds if the person’s head has struck stone stairs during a fall.

  5. Lore Olson says:

    Knowing that Elizabeth did everything in her power to steer away from scandal not to mention inviting it into her own court. She even cautioned and later shunned her cousin Queen Mary who seemed to find scandal in every relationship she embarked on. The death of Amy only pushed Lord Robert further from her favor especially if she ever entertained marriage. This goes against everything I have studied regarding the life and reign of Elizabeth R. If Lord Robert killed his wife, he acted alone and out of desperation to become eligible should Elizabeth consider him for marriage.

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