How Did Amy Robsart Die? – JSTOR Daily

Controversy is nothing new for the British royal family. Take, for example, the scandal that developed from the events at Cumnor Place, a mansion on the site of what was once Abingdon Abbey, Berkshire, in the 16th century.

Cumnor was leased from Sir Anthony Forster, controller of Robert Dudley, 1st Earl of Leicester. Dudley’s wife of twenty-eight, Amy Robsart, resided there whenever he was at the court of Queen Elizabeth I, his rumored mistress. On 8 September 1560, when Dudley was once again out of town with the Queen, Robsart sent all the household staff to Abingdon Fair for a day. When they returned they found her dead at the bottom of the stairs. Could she have been murdered without witnesses? Did she commit suicide? Or was her death just a tragic accident, the result of a stumble or misstep?

In 1956, Scottish surgeon Ian Aird considered the possible causes of Robsart’s death. According to his research, talk of what might have happened in Cumnor had spread almost immediately, with many opinions leaning towards a murder planned by Dudley. The evidence: Dudley had sent a letter to one of his household officers, Sir Thomas Blount, “anticipating malicious talk”. But Dudley also ordered Blount to see to it “that a coroner and the jury should investigate the cause of the matter honestly and by all possible investigations.”

Amy Robsart by William Frederick Yeames, 1877
Amy Robsart by William Frederick Yeames, 1877 via Wikimedia Commons

Dudley did not attend Robsart’s funeral, which was attended by one of his own ministers, Dr. Francis Babington, claimed she was “miserably slain” (the minister later said he was). “stumbled in his speech”). But one of the most telling allegations against Dudley was not that he did not attend the funeral, but a rumor spread by the Spanish ambassador to the English court, de Quadra. De Quadra reported that as early as March 1560 Dudley had said that in a year he would be in a “new position”. If, in fact, his wife died and he married the Queen of England, that would put him in a “new position.” De Quadra also gossiped about Robsart being poisoned.

Years later, Robsart’s brother accused Dudley of covering up his sister’s murder. But Dudley had his supporters, and Aird writes that his “contemporaries absolve him of guilt” and accept that Robsart’s death was an accident.

Whatever happened on the stairs, Aird notes that suicide probably wasn’t the cause of death:

The nature of Amy’s death almost certainly rules out suicide. Diving upside down from an upper window or balcony has been used, though rarely, as a method of suicide. Throwing himself down a flight of stairs would not occur to a suicide today, still less to an Elizabethan suicide at a time when the steps were wide and low and the angle of descent was gradual.

A coroner’s report dated September 1561, a year after the death, also noted that Robsart was not murdered. As Aird explains, a staircase is not a convenient murder weapon. Still, he found the verdict of mishap unconvincing.

“The finding of Amy’s body at the bottom of the stairs with no injury other than a broken neck was one of the reasons for contemporary suspicion,” he writes, and it also made him suspicious. “Adults don’t usually fall down the stairs and suffer a broken neck.” (Mind you the more recent case of Kathleen Peterson’s death.)

In all likelihood, Aird concludes, one factor contributing to the fatal fall was a pre-existing weakness. “The death of Amy Robsart is best explained by assuming that she died of a ‘spontaneous fracture’ of the spine, as might be expected from an illness,” he writes.

Was Robsart weak from poison? Maybe, or maybe she had cancer. Aird shares that a former ambassador to the Spanish court wrote that Robsart had “a disease in one of her breasts and in the queen [was] was just waiting for her death to marry Lord Robert.”

Whether Dudley played a part in it or not, the rumors that followed Robsart’s death brought his ambitions to a halt: he could not marry Elizabeth I while he was in a swirling cloud of accusations.

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By: Ian Aird

The English Historical Review, Vol. 71, No. 278 (January 1956), pp. 69-79 (11 pages)

Oxford University Press

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