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Robert Dudley ( 1532 - 1588 )  Category ( Historical_Figures ) [suggest a correction]

Robert DudleyRobert Dudley, first Earl of Leicester was a decades-long favorite of England's Queen Elizabeth I.

During the politically treacherous years of the English succession following the death of Henry VIII, Dudley's family fought against Mary I, and for a time Dudley was imprisoned in the tower and sentenced to death. For an unknown reason, the queen pardoned him and appointed him master of the ordnance. When Elizabeth succeeded her sister Mary to the throne, he also became master of the horse, a very highly-placed position at court. Therefore, it may be assumed that he was much favored by the new queen.

He was said to be tall and very handsome. Scholars are uncertain if Elizabeth and Dudley were ever in love. It is clear they were excellent friends and companions for much of their lives. Dudley had married very early, to a woman named Amy Robsart. While their marriage was arranged, the couple appeared contented, and when Dudley was in the tower Amy visited him often. However, once he became a favorite of Elizabeth's, he began to spend more and more time at court. He still visited his wife, but not nearly as often as before he became involved with Elizabeth. Indeed, he was so highly favored by the queen that he was allowed to entertain the possibility of marriage with Elizabeth.

The queen certainly did nothing to dissuade him from such ideas. When Amy Dudley died mysteriously -- no clear explanation was ever given, other than she fell down stairs and died -- the queen and Dudley's relationship was suddenly cast in a poor light. Whether Amy did indeed die of natural causes or if -- as some suspect -- she was poisoned or otherwise murdered to clear the way for Dudley to marry the queen remains unknown. What is certain is that after Amy's death Elizabeth continued her relationship with Dudley, but marriage was no longer on the table of options. She continued to heap honors upon him, including Knight of the Garter, the lordship of Denbigh, granted him thousands of acres of valuable land and gave him Kenilworth Castle. Once she created him Earl of Leicester his star only continued to rise, both in England and on the Continent.

He was named chancellor of Oxford University, and the King of France awarded him the order of St. Michael. His relationship with Elizabeth continued happily, paintings and written accounts of their travels and entertainments together survive, suggesting a warm, loyal, and rewarding companionship between the two. In 1575, however, Dudley (he claimed for political reasons) secretly married Lettice Knollys, widow of the Earl of Essex. Rumor had it that Lettice had borne two of Dudley's children while her husband was away in Ireland. There was no love lost between the two Earls; they had opposed each other bitterly for years. Elizabeth was shocked and furious when she received word of the marriage. For a time she banished Dudley from her sight and from her court.

At about the same time a pamphlet was being circulated claiming that Elizabeth had given over control and power of the government to Dudley, who was a secret atheist and a traitor. Even though the charges were cleared, they left an impression on the English people. Dudley wisely sought an appointment overseas, and he was sent to command an expedition to the Low Countries. Less than two years later he returned to England, then back to the Low Countries in 1587. This was the time period leading up to the year of the Spanish Armada. Dudley was recalled by the queen, on which occasion they reconciled. The following year he was appointed Lieutenant-General of the army at Tilbury, who were set to resist the coming Spanish invasion. Once the drama of the Armada had passed, and England was safe, he was on his way home to Kenilworth when he took ill and died.

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