The sad tale of Amy Dudley nee Robsart - Syderstone - Norfolk

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Most of you will know the story of the Earl of Leicester - Robert Dudley and the Elizabeth I Queen of England in 1558. But perhaps what is so widely known are the rumours that surrounded Robert Dudley’s young wife, Amy Dudley, who was found dead in mysterious circumstances at the bottom of a staircase in her house in Oxford with a broken neck. It is not known what Amy looked like, but the picture above was taken from a postcard from the 1900s.

Throughout history and also at the time of her death there has been speculation as to whether poor Amy was pushed down the stairs, fell down the stairs by accident or threw herself down in a fit of depression. It was generally believed that Robert Dudley and the Queen were lovers, so the demise of Amy could have been viewed as fortuitous as it freed her husband Robert from an unwanted marriage, which would mean that he was unencumbered and available to marry Queen Elizabeth. 

However, the circumstances surrounding Amy’s death and the gossip abounding at court at that time put paid to this idea. In fact the Queen even put some distance between herself and Lord Dudley, for at least a time after his wife’s death. In 1566 Lord Cecil of the court announced to the Privy Council that the Queen could never marry Robert because ‘he is infamed by death of his wiff’.  

Amy’s father was Sir John Robsart, Sheriff of Norfolk and Suffolk, and a wealthy landowner who lived at Syderstone Hall in Norfolk and this is where Amy spent her childhood. Amy’s initials can still be seen on the churchyard gate and also over the entrance to the church tower.  

Amy was married to Robert Dudley, the younger son of John Dudley, the Duke of Northumberland, on June 5th 1550 at Sheen (Richmond) Palace. Both she and Dudley were then but 18. It was a grand occasion with even the young King Edward VI attending the wedding. Not much is known of Amy other than that she was a quiet and charming young lady.

However, when Elizabeth's 1 accended to the throne in November 1558 she made Robert Dudley Master of the Horse and it was widely known that she greatly favoured him.So it was that he spent more time at court with the Queen than he ever did at his marital home with Amy. Which probably partially explains why the Dudleys had no children. Speculation said that had Dudley been a bachelor at the time of Elizabeth’s succession to the throne wedding bells would have been rung out for him and Elizabeth.

But a wife surely is of small consequence compared to a "throne" and in March 1560 even the Spanish Ambassador was writing about the affair between Robert and Elizabeth and the possibility of Dudley divorcing his wife and marrying the Queen. 

Amy, who was then living in Oxfordshire and was aware of the speculation concerning her husband and the Queen and it is reported by her maid servant that she prayed to God each night to deliver her from the situation.
Their home in Oxfordshire was Cumnor Place, a 14th Century hall built by the monks of Abingdon Abbey. After the dissolution of the monasteries Henry VIII gave Cumnor Hall to his physician George Owen. He subsequently leased it to Anthony Forster, a friend and servant of Robert Dudley. The Dudleys started living there, or rather Amy started living there in 1560.
Amy's last day on this earth was the 8th September 1560, Amy had insisted that all her servants attend the fair at Abingdon, which was some three miles from the Hall, thus leaving her alone in the house. Though some say she was not alone!
It is impossible to know what might have been going through Amy’s mind on that day or why it was that she emptied the Hall. It is known that she was extremely unhappy with the state of affairs and perhaps she could no longer bear being the cuckolded wife and held up to ridicule both at court and throughout the land. There were also rumours that she had breast cancer (malady of the breast), which in those days would have inevitably led to eventual death. 

On the other hand it might be that somebody knowing that Amy would be alone took advantage of this fact, and trying to curry favour with Lord Dudley, threw his unwanted wife down the stairs, thus freeing him to marry the queen. Or perhaps Dudley himself arranged for his wife to be done away with. Many theories have been suggested but unfortunately we will never really know the circumstances behind her death. Murder, accident or suicide! What is known that when the servants returned from the fair they found their mistress at the bottom of the hall's staircase with a broken neck! She was then but twenty-eight. The widowed Robert Dudley ordered a lavish funeral. The guilty conscience of a murderer or the remorse of a neglectful husband? 

An inquest was held into the circumstances of her death but the conclusion was that it had been an accident. Though what legal body in their right mind would convict the favourite of the Queen of England? 

Some twenty-four years after Amy’s death a document was produced by ‘the Catholics’ called Leicester’s Commonwealth. A satire in which it suggested that Dudley had indeed murdered his wife and had also murdered others to further his career. 
Even two centuries after her death there was still speculation about Amy’s demise. For in 1770 a poem was written by one Julius Mickle called "The Ballad of Cumnor" which speculated on the death of Amy Dudley. This poem is also said to have inspired Sir Walter Scott, 1771-1832, to write "Kenilworth" in which he claimed that her husband had indeed murdered Amy. Cumnor Hall was pulled down in 1810.

Since her death it was claimed that her unhappy spirit haunted Syderstone Hall and even after the hall was pulled down, Amy’s restless spirit is said to have moved into the Rectory across the way and continued her haunting.