8 September 1560 – The Mysterious Death of Amy Robsart

The Death of Amy Robsart by William Frederick Yeames

On the 8th September 1560, the body of Amy Robsart, wife of Robert Dudley, was discovered by her servants at the bottom of the stairs of her home, Cumnor Place, in Oxford.

Why do I say “mysterious death”? Simply because although the coroner ruled that Amy’s death was accidental, the result of “misfortune”, there is still controversy today, over 450 years on, about what really happened that day at Cumnor Place. Her death is a mystery and probably always will be.

You can read more about Amy and the controversy surrounding her death in the following articles:-

10 thoughts on “8 September 1560 – The Mysterious Death of Amy Robsart

  1. Interesting series of articles. I’ve often wondered if support for the Amy-had-breast-cancer idea can also be found in her traveling from place to place, staying with friends or relatives, instead of keeping a home, as did the wives of most of Elizabeth’s courtiers. I would think that a cancer victim, like many suffering from other ills, would have some days much better than others, so she could write a normal-sounding letter to dressmaker on a “good day”, but still have enough “bad days” that she couldn’t handle the constant responsibility of her own place.

    As far as motive goes, though, I think that much of the conventional wisdom was that Elizabeth would marry Dudley, despite the scandal; few people believed her when Elizabeth said she didn’t want to marry. However, if motive is the guide, I would suspect someone supporting Mary Queen of Scots, because she “won” either way. If Elizabeth did marry Dudley, then she would definitely lose prestige, and, by angering the nobility, could even lose her throne; if she didn’t marry, then there would be no child who could cut off Mary’s claim.

    In a work of fiction, Fiona Buckley set out an interesting explanation for Amy’s sending the servants to the fair … she thought that Amy may have sensed the presence of her murderers (because she was aware of many with a motive), and wanted to give her servants an alibi. (I won’t reveal the identity of the murderers, lest I spoil the book overmuch). It occurred to me that, if Amy had breast cancer, then she might want to make it easy for any potential murderers for the same reason she might want to commit suicide … but without offending her religious scruples against suicide.

  2. It may be important to remember that Amy Dudley led a sedentary life at Cunmor for about 10 months before her death in 1560; she seems no longer to have travelled, as she did in the years 1558 and 1559. This is not to say that she must have been suffering from an illness, of course. But there is the testimony of her maid that she ‟prayed God to deliver her from desperation” and the no less good testimony that she was “a strange woman of mind”. The letters are printed in http://www.thehistoryfiles.com/amy-robsarts-death-part-i-accident-or-suicide/433/ , a partner site of this one, and some of the reasons why I am convinced that her death was not a murder are discussed in http://www.thehistoryfiles.com/amy-robsarts-death-part-ii-the-improbability-of-murder/478/ .

  3. I have read bits of the theories about poor Amy’s death, and in some repects they all seem feasible. To me the most strange thing about this case is wanting the house completely empty, a very unusual thing to demand, even if she wanted to be alone to harm herself that was still possible with staff around, the least the better, yes, but not all. A lady of her standing would not expect to be without any staff in house, even for a few hours. She could have dismissed her ladies on pretext of wanting rest etc, they would have gone to another part of the house to respect her wishes, if she was determined to commit suicide she would have done it with or without anyone in the house, and usually, say the psychologists, there is always a letter, unless behaviour patterns have changed since then, or Amy could not write, or a letter was disposed of by someone to protect, or implicate someone.
    What if Amy wanted everyone out the house because she had someone coming to visit her, that she wanted to keep secret, someone who was high profile, or shady, (no I am not suggesting an affair). What if Robert himself told her to do this, so he could harm her,or send some one to do it for him, personally I think Robert was to wiley to do this, but who knows… Does anyone know enough about Amy’s circle of friends or family to think this possible, and why! Did she run to the door and fall, did she argue with this person to the extent that they clobbered her.
    To me suicide seems the most unlikely cause out of all 3 reasons, even with her being seriously ill or supposedly depressed. Accident is not out of the question, though experts say that the injuries don’t match up to the fall (where’s CSI when you need them), but with the event happening so long ago its hard to be accurate. Murder, well there are many candidates there, Robert, his enemies, Elizabeth’s enemies, did Amy herself have an enemy… who knows.
    As I said I have only read a little, but it always seems to be about others,what about Amy, a part from the suicide theory, could she have been involved in something she shouldn’t have and it backfired, am I letting my imagination run away with me, yessh,but all I keep thinking about is the getting rid of all but one servant, I think this is the key, but as all historical mysteries will it unlock the truth….. as anyone build the time travel transport yet !!
    Anyway the poor lady, hope she’s at peace now, because I think she was very unhappy in life.

  4. I read the articles that Christine mentions in her post, and she does a wonderful job of exculpating Robert Dudley. However, I can’t blame people for rejecting accident, as it is an odd coincidence that she sent the servants away.

  5. Personally I think that if Amy was murdered it was not as is often supposed to quicken the marriage of Elizabeth & Dudley but to prevent it. Elizabeth was far too clever too be involved with a crime that she would be suspect number one for. Even if Amy had died in her sleep with people around her there would always be people who would say it was far too convenient. Amy was dying and all Elizabeth and Dudley had to do was wait, very likely not very long. If Amy was murdered it would make a scandal that would, and did, keep Elizabeth and Robert from marrying for ever.

  6. Since nothing is certain for sure, everything is possible.

    Personally I don’t believe Elizabeth had anything to do with it and Robert has been put under trial and was found innocent.

    That leaves either accident, suicide or Murder (by other sources). IMHO I think it could’ve been purely an accident but if it weren’t suicide is a good possibility. Amy was a religious person and if she committed suicide in the classic ways (ex, stabbed herself, poison, hanged herself etc…) she probably feared she wouldn’t receive a proper burial since suicide is a sin so it would’ve been a good choice to fall from the stairs and pretend it was an accident or murder and thus nobody was going to suspect she killed herself. What makes this theory strongly likable is because Amy was alone in the house the day of her death so there is a chance she was planning for it. I believe she was depressed and in misery from both her Husband’s lack of attention and from her physical illness she also couldn’t produce a child since she was barren and probably felt like she failed at her duty as a wife.

    If however, she didn’t commit suicide and it wasn’t an accident. If it were murder then the probable suspect would be Cecil or any one of Robert’s enemies who strongly opposed the Dudley/Elizabeth match and didn’t wish to see him as King. I believe it was Cecil in cooperation with others who hated Robert because when Dudley returned at court after his wife’s death everyone was hostile to him except Cecil. He was the only one who treated him with respect and talked to him as if nothing happened. I believe Cecil was happy because his plan worked and there was no reason to disrespect Robert because now he would never be King.

    Sorry for my English

  7. Well, now that I’ve tried on my Tudor undergarments, I can see how she might have easily fallen over her skirts! But then, she would have been used to all those long layers. I don’t think it was murder but it sure did ruin Dudley for marriage to Elziabeth. I’ve read certain articles who believe William Cecil arranged for the ‘accident’ just to ruin Dudley’s chances. If she were ill, it only makes sense for them to wait for her to die naturally. Then, he would be a respectable widower and Elizabeth would suffer no taint of scandal. Reckon we’ll never know for sure what happened.

  8. Let’s be practical. Even for nobles and royals, medical care was non-existent as compared to today. And, for women, even of elevated status, their healthcare sometimes was at best at the same levels as commoners. People today and then die of breast cancer (if she had it). Maybe, ina weakened state she simply fell down those gorgeous stairs. Hard to believe, knowing all the murderous tendacies of the Tudor period and how expendable women were. But,it could have happened. They went through women like I go through paper towels.

  9. As much as I try, I can’t believe Amy threw herself down the stairs. I think she was murdered first because her neck was broken…then thrown down the stairs.
    She may have survived if she just threw herself down the stairs and ended up with broken limbs.

  10. I have read the various articles and seen the programme Elizabeth I Killer Queen which dealt with the arguments and read the book by Chris Skidmore but I am not convinced that she had poor Amy Robsart although I can well imagin the gossip and the rumours at the time. Elizabeth and Robert Dudley, son and grandson and brother of several executed traitors, were having a visible love affair. It is no wonder, that with Amy kept away from court due to Elizabeth’s jealousy of wives, and Robert’s own wishes, that when Amy died and the news reached the court, the heart of all rumours, that the fingers were pointed. Of course Robert wanted to make sure that his name was cleared and of course he was shocked by the tainting of his name; he had much to lose by his wife’s death. It may seem strange to us that a husband thinks more of his own name than being grieved for his wife, but this was not a love match and men did not have passion for their wives at this time. He and Amy shared an affection and she may have looked forward to his coming home, but they were not passionate lovers. Marriage is a business contract and Robert had another passion; Elizabeth. He was away at court much during this 10 years he had been married to Amy and he could not afford such a scandle.

    But he must also have wanted to make sure that the truth came out and he may not have known how ill his wife was. She may have even hidden her ill health. It may also seem wierd that she did not want the servants at home and the house to herself; but she may have been taking some strange medical stuff that may have made her mind hazy. She wanted the servants to go to the fair. She did not want to be disturbed as she wanted to sleep. She just wanted peace and quiet and she may not have thought keenly of it. It is possible that she did not care about what she was saying and then went to bed. She may have then awoke and gone looking for the servants, forgetting that she had sent them all out of the house. Still not being fully awoken, she came down the stairs, tripped, fell, her bones were brittle due to cancer, which can and does spread into the bones, and fell in such a way that her neck broke or split and she bled inside. The small wounds are not big enough to be from a blow on the head and could even have caused a brain swelling and bleeding into the brain and skull, which would kill poor Amy at impact. It has nothing to do with her being pushed or thrown down them and then bashed over the head.

    The arguments in the programme that she committed suicide is based on the remarks of her servants and cannot be taken as direct evidence. Anyone who has a terminal illness or a serious life affecting illness have a problem with bouts of depression and go through many periods and mood swings. You have good days and extremely bad days. It is possible for Amy to have had days when she pleaded with God to rescue her from her situation, this is a period that she may be in pain or depressed, and there is the letters seen by Sarah Greenwood in which she ordered a new collar for a new dress. Why would she not do? How could Amy know for certain when she would die? She may have felt better, may have had a few weeks of restbite from her illness and may have looked forward to her husband to come home. She may have felt well enough to order a new dress. She may have also felt she wanted to travel this last Summer to see friends that she may not see again. People with cancer do travel around; some may only have a short time to live and want to live life to its full and not waste it. Not everyone who is terminally ill wants to sit around in a hospital; some want to be at home and die at home. Why would she not travel or order a new dress? What a ridiculous suggestion that just because she was ill that she did not want to look her best or see a friend! This suggestion as someone who does have severe pain a lot annoys me!

    Yes, as stated before Amy would have dark days and would pray or cry in desperation and may not have wanted to go on; she wanted not to be in pain not to kill herself. Her religous centre and her love for life would have overcome this desperation and hold her onto life. To commit suicide was unthinkable and she went on, no matter what life brought her. No, Amy was not killed and did not kill herself, she fell.

    Robert Dudley did not want to kill his wife; he had too much to lose and he went out of his way to clear his name. He had the autopsy and investigation ordered at once and he was concerned too much about his name, but he did not pay the jurors. The Queen may have been potty and had a temper but she also could not afford the scandle that the death brought and William Cecil had too much respect for his mistress to expose her to this scandle and that rules him out as well. Fancy as the so called modern evidence sounds it was not shown in full detail on the programme and further reading shows that it deos not hold up to indicate murder. One person may have the idea that it does and may order a full murder enquiry but a fuller investigation would not have given a verdict of murder but an open one.

    It has been a mystery that fascinated me for a number of years, and there are some good arguments but the murder argument is the weakest and the suicide does not hold up as it is very hard to kill yourself on a set of shallow stairs. No it is more likely that Amy woke up, drowsy from sleep and some medication and needed some help, may-be she wanted food. She forgot that in her anger she sent the servants from the house and goes in search of help. She stumbles along the corridor and down the first set of stairs, turns on the stairs on the landing and misses her footing, she screams out and then falls. She is killed at once on impact from her head and her bones crack and the poor lady was dead. Her shocked servants found her on their return and did not know what had happened. The lies and the rumours were made before the inquest and the mud stuck. However, the inquest cleared Robert and despite what the servants and their gossip which is not admissable believed Elizabeth may have stopped her love affair but she did accept him back at court and he still had a career. She accepted he was not guilty and so do I and most historians. Philippa Gregory is entitled to have great sympathy for poor Amy, it is a terrible death and so I share that, but Gregory is not a historian and has a reputation for strange theories. Her belief that Amy was killed is not acceptable evidence. Would accusations of murder today uphold in court? No; not then and not now; there is not enough or very little or no evidence. An open verdict is the only one possible; accidental death the only one that makes sense given the known facts; accidental death is the only one that is reasonable by modern standards, and the only one that I can accept as a reasonable person.

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