The Arthur Dudley Myth

Posted By claire on November 19, 2009

Following on from the Bisley Boy legend and the myth that Elizabeth I was really genetically male, I just had to write about Arthur Dudley, a man who has been the subject of books and documentaries, a man who some say was the illegitimate son of Elizabeth I and Robert Dudley.

I decided to research the story after Jennifer commented on the Bisley Boy post saying that she had read of a man turning up at the Spanish Court and claiming he was Elizabeth and Dudley’s son. I love mysteries and conspiracy theories so I just had to know more and I actually found some great research material – a chapter in Sarah Gristwood’s “Elizabeth & Leicester” and an article on the Dudley Genealogy website. So, are you sitting comfortably? Then let me begin…

Arthur Dudley – Heir to the Throne or Impostor?

The Tudor era had seen many people claiming that they were heirs to the throne – Perkin Warbeck, the famous pretender who claimed to be Richard Duke of York, one of the Princes in the Tower; Lambert Simnel who pretended to be Edward Plantagenet, Earl of Warwick, son of George, Duke of Clarence (Edward IV’s brother) ; and the madwoman Anne Burnell who claimed to be the daughter of Mary I and Philip of Spain – so there was really nothing new about Arthur Dudley and his story, particularly when there were already rumours circulating during Elizabeth’s reign that her summer progresses were cover-ups for her giving birth to illegitimate children! However, the fact that he turned up at King Philip of Spain’s court might have been worrying to Elizabeth, unless he was in fact an English spy.

Arthur’s Story

In the summer of 1587, a Spanish ship intercepted a boat off the coast of San Sebastian which was heading for France. One of the passengers aboard this boat was a young man in his 20s who claimed to be a Catholic who had undertaken a pilgrimage to a shrine at Montserrat. The Spanish officials arrested the man, suspecting that he was an English spy, and incarcerated him at San Sebastian. The man asked to Sir Francis Englefield, a Catholic who had once been an adviser to Mary I and who was now in exile at the Spanish Court, and it was then that he told his story.

The young man, claiming to be called Arthur Dudley, told of how he had been raised by Robert Southern, a man who had once been a servant of Kat Ashley, Elizabeth I’s governess and friend, in a village around 60 miles outside of London. On Southern’s deathbed, he had told Arthur that he was not his real father but refused to tell him any more. Arthur had stormed off but Smyth, a schoolmaster who was sent after Arthur by Southern, told Arthur the truth, that he was the son of Robert Dudley and the Queen.

Arthur went on to tell Englefield that Southern had been handed a baby after being summoned to Hampton Court and that he had been told to name him Arthur and raise him as his own. Southern had been told at first that the baby belonged to one of the Queen’s ladies, but, when Arthur ran away to sea as a teenager and was stopped by a letter from Elizabeth I’s privy councillors and ordered back to London with John Ashely, Kat Ashley’s husband, it became clear that he was someone important.

Arthur told Englefield of how he had taken flight abroad, fearing for his life, when it became known that Arthur knew the secret of his birth. He also told of how, at one point, he had been taken before Robert Dudley, Earl of Leicester, by officers named Blount and Fludd (who did exist), and that Dudley had shown him affection “by tears, words, and other demonstrations” and had said “You are like a ship under full sail at sea, pretty to look upon but dangerous to deal with”. Dudley had then ordered Arthur to be taken out of the country under the supervision of Sir Francis Walsingham. Arthur then told Englefield of how Walsingham’s manner had scared him so he escaped once again and joined a group of English soldiers who were on their way to serve in Flanders.

Arthur’s rather long and complicated story told of his many travels and his fear that he would be tracked down and murdered by Elizabeth’s agents to hush him up. It was a brilliantly told story and the fact that it contained plausible events and real people, like Fludd and Blount, must have made it seem slightly plausible but Englefield was suspicious. He sent a statement to King Philip and included a letter from Arthur with it. Arthur’s letter to the King said:-

“If God grants that his Majesty should take me under his protection, I think it will be necessary to spread a rumour that I have escaped, as everybody knows that I am here, and my residence in future can be kept secret. I could then write simply and sincerely to the Earl of Leicester all that has happened to me, in order to keep in his good graces; and I could also publish a book to any effect that might be considered desirable, in which I should show myself to be everybody’s friend and nobody’s enemy…”

Gristwood writes of how Englefield made further reports back to the King after he had questioned Arthur again and Sandy Sellers, in the article “Arthur Dudley”, writes of how Englefield tested Arthur on his education, his knowledge of the Queen’s household (because he claimed to have spent his summers at one of the Queen’s houses in Enfield) and his knowledge of the people he had mentioned in his elaborate story. Apparently, Arthur passed these tests but Englefield was convinced that he was a spy and wrote to the King:-

“I am of the opinion that he should not be allowed to get away, but should be kept very secure to prevent his escape.”

According to the Venetian ambassador in Madrid, Arthur Dudley was then sent to the castle of Lameda, proof that he was thought to be an English spy. Sellers writes of how Englefield believed that Elizabeth was planning to acknowledge Arthur as her son and nominate him as heir to the throne to obstruct the claims of James VI of Scotland and King Philip. In Englefield’s opinion, Arthur Dudley was both an English spy and a English tool:-

“I think it very probable that the revelations that this lad is making everywhere may originate in the queen of England and her Council, and possibly with an object that Arthur himself does not yet understand. Perhaps, if they have determined to do away with the Scottish throne, they may encourage the lad to profess Catholicism, and claim to be the queen’s son, in order to discover the minds of other princes as to his pretensions, and the queen thereupon acknowledge him, or give him such other position as to neighbouring princes may appear favourable. Of perhaps in some other way they may be making use of him for their iniquitous ends.”

Englefield also wrote:-

“It also manifests that he has had much conference with the Earl of Leicester, upon whom he mainly depends for the fulfillment of his hopes. This and other things convince me that the queen of England is not ignorant of his pretensions; although, perhaps, she would be unwilling that they should be thus published to the world.”

Robert Dudley by Nicholas Hilliard

Gristwood believes that Englefield thought that Arthur was a “stooge” of Elizabeth I and her government, and the Venetians thought him to be a spy. Historian Martin Hume wondered if Arthur had actually been on a secret mission to report back to the English government on Spain’s preparations for war and was forced to concoct his story as a cover when he was arrested.

Whoever we believe Arthur to be, historical evidence shows him to have definitely existed and we even know from a letter sent to William Cecil in May 1588 that Arthur was costing the King of Spain 6 crowns a day to keep imprisoned. In 1590 a report to England mentioned a man purporting to be Leicester’s son being imprisoned in Alcantara, but Arthur is never mentioned again.

Could his Story Have Been True?

Sarah Gristwood writes of how Arthur’s story has been given credence in “The Secret Life of Elizabeth I”, a book by Paul Doherty who is an historian and novelist, and in novelist Robin Maxwell’s “The Queen’s Bastard”. But could Elizabeth really have had an illegitimate son by the Earl of Leicester or anyone else?

The letter written to William Cecil in 1588 about Arthur Dudley described him as being 27 which would give him a date of birth in 1561, a year where, according to Gristwood, records of Elizabeth’s movements are somewhat scanty. Gristwood goes on to write of how there are reports from the summer of 1561 of how Elizabeth looked like she had come from her childbed and how, according to the Spanish ambassador, she was “swelling extraordinarily” and was “dropsical”. When you put this together with:-

  • The fact that Elizabeth would have conceived in the winter of 1560/61, when marriage to Robert Dudley would have been impossible because of the scandal surrounding his wife’s death.
  • The fact that the name Arthur was in both the Dudley and Tudor trees
  • The fact that in 1562, when she was gravely ill, Elizabeth wanted to appoint Dudley as Lord Protector.

then you may begin to wonder if this is more than a conspiracy theory or tall tale.

But how on earth could Elizabeth have hidden a pregnancy?

I for one cannot believe that she could have hidden her pregnancy or childbirth from her council. Her ladies would have certainly noticed her weight gain and swelling and such scandal would surely have got out somehow, however hushed up Elizabeth tried to keep it. As Sarah Gristwood says:

“Do we really believe that someone as closely watched, as incessantly accompanied, as Elizabeth could have carried a pregnancy to term and given birth with no one knowing? Do we really believe that her ladies and councillors, her chambermaids and doctors were in on the act? And that no one, ever, would have breathed a word about the most saleable secret of the century?”

A resounding no!

Even when we consider that there are often stories today of teenage girls giving birth in secret after hiding their pregnancy under baggy clothes or the fact that Anne Vavasour, one of Elizabeth’s ladies, was able to keep her condition secret, I just can’t see how someone who was always in the public eye and always the centre of scandal and rumour could have given birth to an illegitimate child without anyone knowing, or without the story getting out. Also, can we really believe that Spanish officials managed to capture Elizabeth I’s illegitimate son just by chance? As Gristwood concludes, ” In the end I feel like the White Queen in “Alice”, asked to believe too many impossible things before breakfast”!

So, who was Arthur Dudley?

We just don’t know.

Gristwood wonders if he was in fact an English agent. She points out that Walsingham made good use of “agents provocateurs”, sending them undercover to gather information on foreign enemies, and that this may explain why Arthur Dudley suddenly disappears from history, perhaps he escaped and resumed his own identity. Whoever he was, it is very unlikely that he was the son of Dudley and the Queen.

Gristwood concludes her examination of the story of Arther Dudley by saying that we actually don’t know that Elizabeth slept with anyone, never mind giving birth to an illegitimate child, and by saying:

“In the world of fact, not fiction, I still believe that the “Virgin Queen” as more than just mythology”

and I have to agree with her. For me, there is no reason to believe that Elizabeth was not the person she said she was. Why is it so difficult for us to believe that she was a virgin and why, if we do believe in her virginity, do we have to explain it by implying that there was something wrong with her? I think Elizabeth made a life choice and stuck to it – period, end of story. What do you think?

More Conspiracy Theories

While browsing on the internet, I found a press release about a book called “Oxford, Son of Queen Elizabeth I” by Paul Streitz which claims that the Edward de Vere, 17th Earl of Oxford, (AKA William Shakespeare) was the illegitimate son of Elizabeth I. The press release goes on to say:

“”Oxford, Son of Queen Elizabeth I” is the result of seven years of painstaking, meticulous historical research. Mr. Streitz reveals that historians have omitted or ignored historical documents that throw doubt on the myth of the Virgin Queen. He further uses new historical documents that show John de Vere, 16th Earl of Oxford, was forced into
marriage to provide a foster home for the newborn. The result of this research is a remarkable story of royal scandal, sex, murder, betrayal and incest with all the hallmarks of a gripping Elizabethan drama.

The book reveals:

  • How Elizabeth gave birth to the first of several illegitimate children and how that first child came to be known as ‘William Shakespeare.’
  • How ‘Shake-speare’s Sonnets’ reveals the relationship between Oxford, the Queen and the Earl of Southampton.
  • How Oxford’s story is found in the character of Hamlet and in Shakespeare’s Sonnets.
  • How there is line of descendants from Queen Elizabeth and the rightful King of England should be a descendant of the Tudor line of monarchs and of William Shakespeare.”

Has anyone read this book? Sounds intriguing!



65 Responses to “The Arthur Dudley Myth”

  1. Claire says:

    I think that even if the pregnancy could have been hidden by clothing, there’s no way that she could have hidden it from her ladies who bathed and dressed her and the news would have leaked out, somebody would have talked.

  2. Hello everyone from the Czech Republic.
    I do agree with Jane Thoele in these great discussion.
    There are a lot of gossips about Elizabeth I, about her real sex,Bisley Boy
    story,Arthur Dudley and Shakespeare origin etc.I do think Elizabeth was after her
    father in physical and character way and because she experienced all these horrible
    drama in marriages of her father and others, she decided to be independent.I also
    think it was impossible to keep in secret her pregnancy, but who knows.The fact is,
    that her personality,life and period attract us all !

  3. Morten Bjoernholt says:

    It’s a fascinating and intriguing part of English and European history. I tend to support the opinion that Elizabeth I did indeed have a child with Robert Dudley for two reasons that I shall try to explain here. Although it was god fearing and pious times and the concept of sin was extremely present everywhere, there was also a very lecherous side to life in the intersection between medieval time, the renaissance and reformation. Henry VIII, Elizabeth’s father, fornicating high and low, was a good example of this, and bending the scriptures to his whims and executing anyone including some of his spouses if they did not deliver what he expected them to do. The wanton sides of these times have been described many times. It is therefore in my view, very difficult to imagine that Elizabeth, growing up in the thick of this extremely physical environment, should remain untouched through her most fertile years. Furthermore being the sovereign ruler of the nation she would have had the power and opportunities to secretly deal with an illegitimate love child, which leads me to the second part of my argument. I recently saw a documentary (Revealed – The secret life of Elizabeth I) about this whole affair in which the English historian and writer Paul Doherty argues that Elizabeth and Robert had a child by the name of Arthur, finding new evidence in letters and wills from both spain and England which makes it plausible. It is mentioned in this documentary that Elizabeth in 1561 suffered from dropsy, we call it oedema nowadays, which according to the spanish ambassador, caused swelling of her abdomen, and the Queen was subsequently bedridden for some time. To me this indicates more than anything else that she might actually have been more pregnant than sick. 26 years later in 1587 this man Arthur Dudley turns up in Madrid claiming to be born in that year when Elizabeth allegedly fell ill with dropsy. In my view the probability of him being the son of Elizabeth is very high. What say You?

  4. Chris says:

    Hello i am arthur t dudleys great grand son i want to know the truth

  5. As a descendant of Sir Philip Sidney and his cousin Robert Dudley, I am most interested in the story of Arthur. The fact that Elizabeth from time to time suffered from edema could explain various pregnancies, swollen abdomen et al. I tend to agree with Mr. Bjoernholt’s opinion.

  6. Elizabeth 1st son Aruther robert.was given to the sidney family and thus.lived in coity castle and then.thus pennshurst.castel.and then he become one of that family by name..p…so now you.. know.. the true story of the blood line…thats why iv allways been my england.for the blood. ,stop telling lies about us and history .r.w.p

  7. Bert says:

    Stories of Elizabeth’s lifestyle are rife, remember her mother had been hated by the general population , she was the living example of the new faith. Her step father Thomas Seymour had made no secret of his ” attraction ” for her , her letter to the Lord Protector Somerset suggests her honour, even as a young woman, was questioned . She seems to have been fertile ground for myth makers , she may have been a ” born again virgin ” but her decision not to marry was about power , simple, this lady would share power with no one in Church or state, to our modern eyes , no problem in that but viewed through the eyes of 16th century Tudors ,this is a vacuum into which all these fantastic stories fit so neatly .

  8. Scarlet Rose says:

    I thoroughly believe that Elizabeth had at least one secret love child and not with Robert Dudley but with Thomas Seymour. When Katherine Parr was pregnant (and back in those days it was said to be dangerous to have intercourse with a pregnant woman) I think that Thomas and Elizabeth had an affair. During Katherine’s pregnancy, she sent Elizabeth away to Kat Ashley’s family. Maybe she found out that Elizabeth was pregnant also and sent her away for her own protection? Wasn’t there a story where a midwife was brought into a bedchamber one night blind folded and delivered a baby born to a red haired teenage girl? Some say the baby was born dead so it was thrown on the fire whereas others say it was alive and the midwife pretended it was dead and took it with her and raised it? There are so many stories about this that I don’t know what to believe?

  9. Patricia says:

    As someone who suffers from oedema in one leg, resulting from damaged valves with heart failure, I can’t believe that Elizabeth occasionally suffered from attacks of oedema. It just doesn’t work that way. Sometimes it is worse, but it doesn’t fluctuate between nothing and huge swelling. Occasional large ‘swelling’ could well have been a pregnancy.

  10. SUZIE says:

    It is not unusual that she should have children..she was the queen and could do anything she liked…second…a virgin queen zuch as mary Magdalene…not a physical Virgin but a state one

  11. Kayla says:

    I think she could have hidden her pregnancy if she managed to keep it among her council and ladies. Think of the punishment for revealing such a secret…I know I’d keep my mouth shut tight. Elizabeth was one of the most powerful people in a world before any type of mass communication, it might have been easier than we think. Even today, with social media and CCTV and all that, people still keep some bombshells secret somehow. I guess we will never know, unless we can get DNA from Elizabeth and one of her alleged son’s descendants.

  12. Deborah Miller says:

    Has any researcher looked into the diagnosis of Dropsy that “caused her to swell” in 1561 and discussed this disease with a medical professional. My reading of the condition suggests it is most associated with congestive heart failure or serious abdominal conditions that at the time would either lead to death or repeated chronic events. Other than the smallpox my reading of a Elizabeth was she was healthy as a young woman – therefore I wonder if an abhorrent occurrence of Dropsy could explain swelling from some other one off condition that was not abdominal swelling from pregnancy?

  13. Ann Johnston says:

    I find it quite possible that Elizabeth 1 had a pregnancy as I have known three people in my life who gave birth but no one knew they were pregnant nor did they show. Hard to believe but it does happen.
    One a young school girl that even her parents had no idea. She gave birth in their toilet in their home as she herself had no idea what was happening.
    Another who basically only ate one meal a day and the third was a trapeze artist who they believe her muscles so tight she was unaware.
    Not all women are regular and some can be unaware. I know of another who experienced the same late in life and she thought her slight weight was from menopause.
    Yes…..I believe possible.

  14. Coucouneh ssys says:

    i don’t believe the queen had a child but I do believe she love him and was intimate with him.I don’t believe she was a virgin,she loves both Robert and the throne and will not give up one or the other.She wanted him at her side always wanted to marry him but for political reasons she couldn’t this why she died alone to me is Lord Robert or no one she loves him until the end

  15. Maggie says:

    I personally have come to believe the Earl of Oxford and Queen Elizabeth story With Henry Wriothesley 3rd Earl of Southampton as their son. I just watch a documentary on the Therory behind William Shakespeare, and though it is dividing some scholars in the Oxford orthodoxy, I find it just as compelling as the Earl of Leicester theory. There is as much evidence to support it as any other. It was called Last Will and Testament on Amazon Prime. It’s an interesting watch. It talks about his relationship with Elizabeth in some form all the way through out. I think I remember watching something else on Amazon that supported the theory about Dudley as well.

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