The Virgin Queen’s Fatal Affair: Revealed

Posted By claire on November 15, 2010

If you’re in the UK or you have access to the UK TV channel Channel 5 then make sure you watch “The Virgin Queen’s Fatal Affair: Revealed” on Thursday 18th November at 8pm. On the Radio Times website, the programme is described as:-

“A historical documentary which explores the possibility that a controversial love affair between Elizabeth I and her confidante Lord Robert Dudley led to a savage murder. It examines remarkable evidence which suggests that Dudley’s wife, Amy Robsart, was assassinated so that her husband could be free to marry the Queen.”

This blurb and the trailer on Channel 5, which features a snippet of an interview with someone who appears to be a medical examiner or pathologist saying that if he had been presented with the evidence he would have advised a full-scale murder enquiry, made me conclude that the programme must be based on the book by Chris Skidmore, “Death and the Virgin: Elizabeth, Dudley and the Mysterious Fate of Amy Robsart” so I did a bit of digging. When I Googled the director, Tom Cholmondeley, I found his online profile which said of “The Virgin Queen’s Fatal Affair: Revealed”:-

“Over the last three years I have worked with rising historian Chris Skidmore to develop a film based around the mysterious death of Amy Robsart.

Amy Robsart was the wife of Elizabeth I’s lover Robert Dudley and when she died the ensuing scandal meant Elizabeth and Robert could never marry.

Chris has discovered new evidence lost for almost 450 years which sheds new light on this coldest of cold cases. Chris shows that Amy Robsart was murdered.”

Chris Skidmore’s Theories

Now, Chris Skidmore’s book has already caused a fair bit of controversy, debate and discussion here at The Elizabeth Files and you can read the articles and comments at:-

But, if you are not aware of this discussion then here is the new evidence that Skidmore puts forward to back up his claim that Amy Robsart’s death was suspicious, and I guess that this is what will be looked at in Thursday’s TV programme:-

  • The Coroner’s Report – Amy not only broke her neck but also had two large head wounds which were described as “dyntes”, or blows to the head. According to Skidmore “a sketch of the stairs has also been unearthed. This reveals eight steps, then a landing, followed by another four steps. If Amy fell from the top of these stairs, it seems likely that the landing would have broken her fall. And it does not explain how she could have suffered such extreme head injuries and a broken neck.” Also, she had no other marks on her body which Skidmore finds odd if she fell down the stairs.
  • The Staircase – Skidmore argued that a sketch of the staircase revealed that it had “eight steps, then a landing, followed by another four steps” and “if Amy fell from the top of these stairs, it seems likely that the landing would have broken her fall. And it does not explain how she could have suffered such extreme head injuries and a broken neck.” Skidmore went on to say “Interestingly, the sketch does reveal that on the landing there was an interlinking doorway, leading outside – perhaps a perfect getaway for any intruder.”
  • The jury – The foreman of the inquest jury was Sir Richard Smith. Smith was known as “The Queen’s Man”, and records show that Robert Dudley, Amy’s husband, gave Smith gifts six years after the trial and that Smith wrote to Dudley before the jury came to their verdict. Skidmore also reveals that Dudley asked that the jury be made up of “discreet” men and that one member of the jury (John Stevenson) was employed by Dudley. Skidmore wonders if the jury really were impartial and whether Dudley may have used bribery.
  • Anthony Forster – Robert Dudley paid Anthony Forster, owner of Cumnor Place where Amy died, £310 (around £65,000 in today’s money) shortly after Amy’s death.
  • Rumours – There were rumours before Amy’s death that Dudley was arranging his wife’s death.

Counter Arguments

When I discussed Chris Skidmore’s ideas back in March, I had some brilliant counter arguments from Elizabeth Files visitors:-

  • Coroner’s report – Christine Hartweg said “it is by no means mysterious that they wouldn’t mention (or even recognize) minor injuries on Amy’s body in those times. Perhaps they hadn’t have a thorough look under her clothes (she was a married woman, after all). Robert Dudley explicitly exhorted Thomas Blount, his steward to whom he wrote his letters after Amy’s death, to press for the jury to thoroughly examine her body! So, perhaps that was not the custom.”
  • Richard Smith – Author Robert Parry commented “The gift to Smith and others – It was normal for a man of Dudley’s estate to hand out gifts by way of payment to others. It occurred constantly, on an almost daily basis. Nothing out of the ordinary there. And was it even the same Smith?” Bess Chilver adds: “I can’t see that IF the two Smiths were the same person AND had been nobbled, that he would have waited 6 years for a pay off! It also totally ignores the bald fact that gift giving was a form of currency in the 16th century court.”
  • Anthony Forster – Christine Hartweg commented “I’ve just looked up Anthony Forster’s financial dealings with Robert Dudley which he had since at least 1557, when he borrowed over 1,000 pounds from Forster who was later a high-ranking officer in Dudley’s household. In “Household Accounts and Disbursement Books of Robert Dudley, Earl of Leicester” Cambridge UP (1995), the editor, Dr. Simon Adams (the greatest expert on Dudley), lists 300 pounds Dudley received from Forster in May 1559. Adams also comments on 310 pounds Dudley paid to Forster on 16 September 1560, eight days after Amy’s death, and 25 October 1560, in two instalments. Adams thinks the nearness to Amy’s death would perhaps point to ‘expenses of winding up her household’ “.
  • Robert Dudley – Robert Parry commented “it must remain very unlikely that Robert would have been culpable in the affair. He was neglectful of his wife, yes, perhaps unkindly so. But it was not uncommon for a husband thus highly placed at court to be away from home for weeks or even months on end. It was part of the job description. Moreover, he knew, as did Cecil and the Queen, that it was sadly (in those days) only a matter of time before Amy succumbed to her illness, and there would have been nothing to gain for him or Elizabeth by having this hastened unnaturally through violent means – in fact quite the reverse.”
  • The jury and bribery – Christine Hartweg said “Why bribe the jury if they don’t even bother to write a harmless report? Or otherwise, why should we take serious the coroner’s report if we don’t accept the verdict of that same jury? I wonder why Robert should have been so cunning as to write all those perfectly harmless sounding letters in bad faith or have forged them all when he was so stupid as to leave a trace of allegedly suspicious payment in his account book?”
  • The staircase – Bess Chilver took issue with Skidmore’s use of a sketch of the Cumnor Place staircase which he said revealed that it had “eight steps, then a landing, followed by another four steps”. Bess said “I would say there was another landing not in the sketch which doglegged back. Therefore, IF Amy was intending to commit suicide, she would be more likely to throw herself off the upper level which would have her hitting the ground level at the bottom of the described staircase with a great force.”
    Bess also said that of Skidmore’s theory relating to the door: “He is making a conclusion based on a sketch that he has not proved (in this article anyway) was made IN THE 16th CENTURY. At best it is a SECONDARY level evidence. He has already said that Cumnor Place has not existed since the 19th century and previously to that was falling down. How can Chris Skidmore state that the door on the landing (assuming it DID exist!) led outside?… The door could merely lead to a small room. If it led outside its on a higher level than the ground so that would mean another series of steps OUTSIDE. Which I think is unlikely to be the case.

Christine Hartweg was so horrified by Chris Skidmore’s theories that she actually wrote a wonderful  article arguing against Skidmore’s theories point by point and you can read that at A Response to “Did Robert Dudley Murder Amy Robsart?”

My Thoughts

I haven’t read Skidmore’s book yet (I can’t quite bring myself to!) but from Skidmore’s articles and his interviews, and from the title of this programme “The Virgin Queen’s Fatal Affair”, he does seem to be implicating Elizabeth I in Amy’s death by suggesting that her relationship with Robert Dudley, Amy’s husband, had something to do with it. This really does annoy me because there’s just no evidence to support this and I just cannot see how Dudley or Elizabeth could benefit from Amy’s death in this way. It is clear that Amy was dying so it would have been far better for the couple to wait for her to die naturally, rather than have her die in suspicious circumstances and cause a scandal which, in the end, actually prevented Elizabeth and Dudley from marrying.

Alison Weir has an interesting theory – she wonders if William Cecil actually had something to do with Amy’s death. Weir’s thinking is that Amy’s suspicious death caused a scandal and that made Elizabeth distance herself from Dudley, something that pleased Cecil no end! However,I don’t think Elizabeth I’s most trusted adviser would have risked his mistress’s reputation in that way.

So, what do I think, I hear you asking? Well, I’m torn between three possible scenarios:-

  1. Suicide – We know that on the day of her death, Amy Robsart ordered all of her servants out of the house, giving them permission to go to Abingdon’s “Our Lady’s Fair” for the day. When some of them protested, Amy was rather sharp with them and asked them to obey her orders. Perhaps Amy was trying to get rid of everyone so that she could put an end to her pain and distress. Her maid did wonder if Amy “might have an evil toy in her mind”, in other words suicide. However, in those days, suicide was regarded as a mortal sin, a sin that led to eternal damnation so Amy would have been risking her soul by committing suicide.
  2. Accident – This is the one that I’m more drawn to. Amy was very ill and would have been weak and tired so I think it is quite plausible that she had a dizzy spell and simply fell down the stairs. People do not necessarily have to fall a long way for a fall to be fatal, she may have just landed awkwardly and bumped her head on the edges of the stairs on the way down. One interesting theory is Professor Ian Aird’s from 1956, in which he suggests that Amy’s death could have been an accident caused by a spontaneous fracture of the vertebrae as she walked down the stairs. He theorises that Amy’s breast cancer may have caused a weakening of her bones.
  3. Murder by Person Unknown – I do not believe that Robert Dudley, Elizabeth I or William Cecil arranged for Amy to be killed but if anybody ever proved to me that she definitely was murdered then I would say that it was a plot to discredit Robert Dudley and to prevent him from marrying Elizabeth I.

What are your thoughts?

It certainly looks like “The Virgin Queen’s Fatal Affair: Revealed” is going to be an interesting programme and I will watch it on Thursday and share my thoughts with you on Friday.

More Information


15 Responses to “The Virgin Queen’s Fatal Affair: Revealed”

  1. Molly says:

    Having seen the trailers I’m pretty unimpressed TBH – the standard of costume seems pretty poor for a start so we shall see what tin-pot theories they come up with. For me the strongest theory by far is that AR was probably in the advanced stages of breast cancer which had weakened her vertibrae to such an extent that she could very probably have tripped over pretty much anything, including the edge of her bedgown, and died when she hit the floor. The incident as it turned out was just rather unfortunate, if apparently convenient for those concerned – an ideal hotbed for conspiracy theories. It all happened very early in QEI’s reign but being no fool she would have known that she could never possibly marry anyone with that sort of suspicion hanging over them, and Dudly would have known that too. No case to answer as far as I’m concerned – accidental death of a very sick and suffering woman.

  2. Anne Barnhill says:

    Well, I just wrote an entire argument but lost it–will try again! I wish I could get the show over in the US–maybe it will air at some point. I do not believe Elizabeth had any part in any sort of murder! It would not have been in her character to have done such a thing. This is a woman who took 18 years to execute an known enemy who plotted against her all the time–Mary, Queen of Scots. And it was an incredibly hard thing for her to do. Granted, that had a great deal to do with her belief in the Divine Right of Kings but still, she showed mercy and liberal treatment in many other cases. As for Dudley, if you look at his character, which was flawed like all of us, he was devoted in his service to Elizabeth long after their romance had cooled. He indebted himself trying to entertain and impress her, though he did profit from their relationship. But the profit did not really balance out as he died deeply in debt. He was a leading Protestant in a time when most people took the state of their souls seriously. I don’t think he would have risked his with murder. In many ways, he was an honorable, brave and upstanding man, though he did have a little trouble with women. So, I don’t think he had anything to do with it.
    I do like Weir’s theory about Cecil but I’m not sure I buy it. There may have been others who wanted to discredit Dudley who may have done it. But, if Amy were in great pain, as is likely, perhaps she couldn’t stand it any longer. Or perhaps, she just fell. I think it was most likely an accident caused by her illness–dizziness, weakness could have easily led to a fall. Great article!

  3. I agree with your assessment Claire. Amy’s death ruined any chance that Robert Dudley had of marrying Elizabeth I, if indeed she had been inclined to marry him. I personally vote for suicide which, if I remember correctly, is what they showed in the film Elizabeth. I wouldn’t be surprised if Amy committed suicide in such a way to make her death look suspicious. She couldn’t have been happy a bout her husband’s relationship with Elizabeth. Perhaps this was her way of punishing him.

  4. Christine Hartweg says:

    I think what is again and again ignored by the reading (now viewing) public is medical basic facts. As these random sample links show (,, there are many many more), discrimination of falls and blows in fatal head wounds is very difficult, even for today’s pathologists, who know where the wounds are located. More than three wounds are indicative of blows (Amy had two), one is extremely rare in homicides. Broken necks are no rare occurrence in falls and the length of stairs are negligible. All these statistical studies and random cases from police reports on the web, include fatal falls “from your own height”.

    In his preface Skidmore thanks two professors of medicine for discussing Amy’s hurts with him, but when presenting his arguments he never mentions them again, nor does he say anywhere what they told him. Since the location of Amy’s wounds are not given in the coroner’s report, it is virtually imposssible to prove anything on its basis, and Skidmore doesn’t do that. He seems to need his Stevensons and Smiths, but with no word explains, let alone establishes, why either Smith or Stevenson should be persons in Robert Dudley’s service or among his aquaintances.

    All in all, this theory about Varney&Co. has been cooked up by authors again and again since the times of Walter Scott and James Anthony Froude with the help of de Quadra and “Leicester’s Commonwealth”. Apart from the coroner’s report, nothing is in any way new. The jurors swore on their souls that, as far as they were able to establish (“constare”), it was accident and gives a plausible medical scenario; the tragedy is that no-one will notice out there …

  5. Eliza M.L. says:

    I’m not sure what exactly happened to poor Amy, but I don’t think Elizabeth or any of her people did it. If it was murder, it was probably someone who didn’t want Dudley to be King. I’m leaning towards murder, but this may be one of history’s mysteries that we may never solve.

  6. Fiz says:

    I think it was metathesized breast cancer which spread to her bones. Yes, Dudley was unkind, but a murderer? Can we believe Elizabeth was have been complicit in such an affair.? No – she was known for her judgement and rightly so. Poor Amy. Skidmore’s after yet more publicity – I’m NOT reading his book, ever.

  7. Impish_Impulse says:

    Yes, this one just won’t go away, will it? The thing for me is, what motive did Elizabeth or Dudley have for murdering a woman who was already quite ill? They’d had a friendship and/or romantic relationship for years, yet we are supposed to believe they couldn’t simply wait a few more weeks or even months? The ‘problem’ would be solved, and although people will always speculate and gossip, it would have been much less if Amy had died of her probable breast cancer rather than taking a fatal tumble down the stairs.

  8. Paula Kelly says:

    Like most this is a topic that has captured my interest for many years. Inquests then, unlike today, could be biased to a number of parties – just look at the Christopher Marlowe papers. Both seem to have inconsistencies and perhaps will never be totally unravelled.

    I agree with the previous posts that it was a high profile case as it concerned Elizabeth I and Dudley at the height of their ‘friendship’ and court intrigues. Many rumours were rife, including letters from the Spanish ambassador so much should be treated with caution.

    Cecil obvioulsy is a personage who stood to gain the most by the death of Amy. It would stop a final end to the speculation of Dudley gaining more power and the possible marriage to Elizabeth but interestingly, the name of Walsingham was never mentioned. He was the wheeler dealer of the spy network and nefarious dealings. His hand seemed to be in most places.

    The programme mentioned Dudley’s faction of hunchmen hungry for status and willing to walk around London sporting daggers and such like. This was a common enough practice for young bucks to be armed and quite able to fight for many reasons. It is no different to the youths of today walking around with their mobile phones! It all part of the accessories for the 16th century man. Violence was rife, look at the case of the sons of Elizabeth Carey who fled the country after the death of a neighbouring heir.

    As for the earlier comment about the questionable costumes, again I am in some agreement with these having made and worn historical garmetns for many years. These were not good representations of the period, another point to bear in mind is wearing such articles. For many years I was a re-enactor (although I wore Jacobean period styles clothes) I had no problems negotiating stairs coming down (unless my leather soled shoes slipped on the worn stone treads) but I was extremely wary of going upwards due to the length and bulk of the petticoats (skirts) and again the slippery soled leather shoes. So an accident is possible – just!

    I agree that it is strange that the household was sent away and this is extremely unusual, so in conclusion …. yes, I think that there was a good case for murder but probably not explicitly by Elizabeth or Dudley. I favour Walsingham!

  9. David Hough says:

    It was a typical ‘revealed’ programme, which takes one theory and stretches it to breaking point. The woman (I’ve forgotten her name already) who was convimced it was murder, and Skidmore came up with nothing but circumstantial evidence. I seem to recall many years ago, reading that Amy may have had mental health issues, so a woman being locked up at home with just servants for company wouldn’t be surprising.

    It is odd she was alone, but if determined enough perhaps they simply believed she would be okay for just a couple of hours. To my mind the most like ly explanations are accident, or more likely suicide. Launching herself from the stairs could account for the head injuries as she fell, and then when the servants returned home, they rearranged the body so their mistress could avoid the stigma of being a suicide.

    The theory that Cecil could have been involved is preposterous, though if they’d said Walsingham, that would at least have made sense, if not politically. Overall, I think Amy comitted suicide, whatever the reason, and that seems the most logical answer in my humble opinion. As for the letter to the tailor, unless she had planned it for weeks, a normal letter wouldn’t give any clue.

  10. Claire says:

    Yes, I wasn’t impressed with the costume or acting and it was all speculation. I do think that the title was very misleading too but I suppose it was to grab people’s attention.

    The programme ruled out Elizabeth and Dudley being involved and although Philippa Gregory stated that she believed Cecil was involved Chris Skidmore said that he didn’t think that Cecil would have risked Dudley becoming available to marry Elizabeth. It didn’t really provide any answers, just lots of questions.

    I keep going from suicide to accident to murder and just can’t make my mind up. Would Amy have risked her soul by committing suicide? How did she get two very deeo head wounds if it was an accident? Who could have murdered her? Aaaggh, it’s impossible to decide!

  11. Claire says:

    Yes, the coroner ruled that it was an accident and I can see no evidence that the coroner or jury were bribed. Dudley’s letters to Thomas Blount show that Dudley wanted a full investigation so there was no reason for the coroner to cover up a murder unless someone like Cecil was involved, which I do not believe. I’d really love to get my hands on that coroner’s report and take it to a forensic pathologist myself and look into the possibilities. I just don’t know enough about head injuries to know what could have caused those “dyntes”. Thanks for those links.

  12. Claire says:

    Yes I think it is always going to be a mystery.

    I feel so sorry for Amy. She was abandoned by the man she loved and she must have heard the gossip about him and Elizabeth. If she was dying then she had to cope with her illness without the support of a loving husband and she must have been so scared and depressed. However much Dudley loved Elizabeth and wanted to be with her, I cannot see him killing a woman he had once loved and risking his future by doing so, and I don’t believe for one minute that Elizabeth had anything to do with Amy’s death.

  13. William Ray says:

    Dear All,

    Since the program is not available in the United States, I am speaking from the limited background of reading your responses to it and reviewing the various speculative theories that follow from present evidence. Not to be naive, don’t two holes in her head indicate more than a trip down the stairs? I would encourage interested readers to recognize that Dudley was known for his predilection for poison against rivals, that Sussex who mysteriously died from poison called Dudley “the Beast”, and that Edward de Vere’s father Earl John de Vere died quickly following personal and financial dealings with Dudlley. Dudley then took over the de Vere lands, providing a neat parallel with Claudius usurping Hamlet’s kingdom and queen, so to speak. (Margery de Vere, Earl John’s widow and Edward’s mother, was married very soon after John de Vere’s demise to Dudley’s captain of horse.) Thus, the Amy Robsart mystery may be plausibly placed in a context of aristocratic psychopathic murder to achieve indecent ambition, with Elizabeth I’s more modest role being to provide an apartment next to her own for the very same Dudley, an arrangement lasting many years after. William Cecil’s first wife died rather precipitously as well. In conclusion, just a great bunch of guys whom tradition glosses rather smoothly past.. Paul Altrocchi’s ‘Malice Aforethought: the Killing of a Unique Genius’ discusses poison as the method of choice in the Tudor/Jacobean eras.

    with best wishes,

    William Ray

  14. Christine says:

    Hi, Cheers! Yes, Dudley, with his doctor Borgarucci (who was also the Queen’s), became England’s greatest poisoner in 1584 by the publication of Leicester’s Commonwealth. Henry Naunton made him a gipsy and a beast in the 1630s, and by the 1650s he was Osborne’s “terrestial Lucifer”. Of course Robert(!) Dudley also poisoned his master Edward VI! Seems to be Oxfordian dogma. Is this because Leicester’s Men became the hard core of Shakespeare’s troupe or because he was the first patron of the great Edmund Spenser, a real poet? Or just because he was the favourite uncle of Sir Philip Sidney, another real poet and Oxford’s tennis partner?

    P.S. It was John De Vere himself who appointed Robert Dudley overseer of his will, together with Thomas Howard, 4th Duke of Norfolk.

  15. Christine says:

    Amy Robsart had only one hole in her head. The other wound of c. 5 mm “deepness” would never have penetrated her skull, it would at most have scratched it. It would be just enough to cut through the sculp, a serious injury in those days because of the likelihood of infection. Today easily sutured.

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