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.

  6. I shall attempt someday soon to obtain more information from the spirit of Amy Robsart if spirit permits. I now believe that this was the identity of the spirit who came through to my instructor in a psychic development class, held at the old Psychic Institute in Albany, NY, that I took in Fall of 1993 or approximately that year. She would only reveal that she had a broken neck…I didn’t think of asking the unknown spirit, at that time, how this happened to her. I personally doubt that William Cecil was involved in her alleged murder, which seems plausible considering the coroner’s report supposedly describing at least one very deep wound in the back of her head, which can quite easily rule out suicide. Assisted suicide is also not very logical. If she knew about her husband’s personal affairs with the Queen, then she might very well have asked for a divorce from him or whatever such preceedings were called and done in that era (unless she loved him so much that she couldn’t bear the thought of living on afer a divorce). Cecil was somehow aware of the possibility of a murder scheme being planned and seemingly tried to protect the queen with a possible story about Amy’s health being at risk (unless she did have cancer). History also has supposedly preserved accurately the alleged fact that he came close to resigning from his position before Amy’s death, I believe. He could only consider giving up his position if he felt that perhaps he would be accused of participating in it. The only way that he could be so afraid that his position made him vulnerable of being accused of such involvement is if his boss, the Queen, was possibly also involved or could be accused of being involved. She actually has been suspected as well as he. But, he was dissuaded somehow from acting on this fear and, thus, held onto his position as fearlessly as possible. There has never been any evidence produced to implicate him in any alleged crime committed during his entire lifetime; he, however, did protect at least one family member from being convicted of accidental crimes and so forth. Yet, his fault perhaps was in letting the victim’s family supposedly endure terrible hardships as a result of losing their loved one (unless the family was secretly helped somehow). What purpose then would plotting such a crime have for his own sake, his career, his responsibilities to the Queen, who depended on him a lot? How could he contemplate committing such a crime and then wrongfully transferring the blame to Dudley however justififable he may have considered his plan to be? How could he then justify his crime of killing another man’s wife for the sake of protecting the Queen from this man and his alleged adverse influence upon her and from other threats? The risk of being correctly found guilty would then defeat the alleged purpose of protecting the Queen by placing him in a serious position to be accused of arranging for Amy’s murder and, thus, losing his position in an undignified. humiliating, adverse manner, which would have destroyed his reputation and the positive image people had of him. So, if he did plot her death, then he accepted a high risk of his alleged scheme failing and, thus, must have been grateful when it succeeded for at least a while (for the Queen ordered Dudley to be banished from Court for a while but not permanently). Desperation seems to be a motive for either Cecil or Dudley due to the high risk that both men could be considered to have taken for engaging in such a potential act. But, Cecil was also not a man to be moved by desperation, as far as I know, as Dudley might have been. Yet, Dudley’s potential for desperation can’t so easily be ruled out. If he was only thinking about himself being King someday and really didn’t care that much about the Queen as he might have acted and, thus, might have been deceiving even the Queen. Yet, one can say that Cecil was attempting to deceive the Queen too but in the name of protecting her from herself or her own feelings. Yet, we already ruled out quite well the Queen’s involvement due to her own actions. Plus, she and Dudley were alleged to have secretly married each other at some point…possibly a while after Amy’s death; but, if not, then while Amy was still alive…I can’t remember what I’ve read on this subject. So, if both the Queen and Dudley could do practically as they pleased, then they could avoid public exposure of a secret marriage or completely avoid a secret marriage, too. So, my point here is that either possible scenario excludes both party’s need for Amy’s death unless some legal and/or political reason or motivation was involved. If Dudley and the Queen were conceiving children together, then ideally the children would need to be legitimatized under their society’s rules or laws. Since the Queen didn’t seem to find marriage that important for allegedly conceiving children, it’s reasonable to conclude that she wouldn’t have had much interest in helping Dudley untie himself from his marriage to Amy especially in such a horribly risky and deadly way unless Amy had already been offered divorce and refused. She also seemed to consider the allegation against Dudley as a potential threat to her and the Crown and, thus, separated herself from him for at least a while as mentioned. So, whoever did possibly contrive the scheme, might have sensed Dudley’s possibly desperate desire to marry the Queen. But, for Dudley to have thought that murdering Amy would open up an opportunity for him to marry the Queen, whom history has never recorded as seriously interested in marrying Dudley and, thus, he, of all people, would have been able to discern this potential fact, is as unreasonable as considering Cecil to have arranged the potential murder. But, if he had an obsession for the Crown, then perhaps irrational thinking caused him to be willing to doubt the Queen’s indications and consider that she was deceiving him and others and would marry him if the opportunity was available. Well, then she proved him wrong when Amy’s death pushed him away from the Queen instead of bringing him closer. The only exception to the unreasonableness of blaming Cecil worthy of any consideration also involves his own close position to the Queen. He, on the other hand, may have not only discovered somehow Dudley’s self-serving interest(s) but also have known that the Queen most likely would never have married him even if Amy’s death opened up this opportunity for her. So, with such potential knowledge and desire to protect the Queen at all risks, he might have arranged for Amy’s murder to try to use Amy’s death as a means to create an alleged scandal involving Dudley adversely to separate Dudley permanently from the Queen, who’s life might have been discovered to be in danger due to his possible obsession on becoming King. Otherwise, Cecil would have had no motive for arranging for Amy’s death for the status quo–i.e., Amy’s marriage to Dudley–basically ensured that Dudley’s wish couldn’t be fulfilled and, thus, protected the Crown in that way, as long as he remained married to Amy. So, whether or not the Queen believed in marriage or ever wanted to marry Dudley, Cecil should have easily realized that by arranging for Amy’s death he could only have been aiding Dudley’s possible obsession, at great risk to himself, and, thus, would have opened up an opportunity for him to act on it more aggressively due to Dudley’s closeness to the Queen and, thus, put the Queen in further danger contrary to his duty to her. Dudley, thus, had the most personal motivation of all suspects and, thus, the most potential willingness to be burdened with such a high risk of blame. Also in Cecil’s favor is the notion that if Cecil was aware of a plot to murder Amy, not involving himself, then he could more easily have tried to protect Amy then let her be killed nonsensically because, once again, Amy’s death created a more secure opportunity for Dudley to have a close, personal relationship with the Queen in or out of marriage. The Queen was basically free to name anyone she chose to succeed her if she died or even to marry her. But, if Dudley had enemies, then they would or should have been suspected too in the mystery surrounding Amy’s death and would have realized that there was a possibility that the Queen would believe Dudley’s claim of innocence and, thus, order that the real suspect be found. With such a high risk of incorrectly predicting the outcome of such a scheme, it’s quite doubtful that Dudley’s enemies, including possibly Cecil, would have been willing to put such a scheme into action.

  7. This is what really happened….a message was sent to Amy by Dudleys manservant telling her he had private correspondence from Dudley to give to her,please give the servants the day off before his arrival.That’s why she sent them to the fair.He arrived,whacked on the head and threw her down the stairs,he had heard the master say how he wished he was unmarried and now his master was free.
    Amy would never have committed suicide as she was a devout christian,it was not an accident either as deep holes don’t appear in a skull from falling down the stairs.I believe my theory is right.

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