On this day in history, 29th September 1564, Robert Dudley was made Earl of Leicester, an earldom which had been planned earlier in the year to make him more acceptable as a bridegroom to Mary Queen of Scots. Yes, in the Spring of 1563, Elizabeth I offered her favourite, and the man she loved, Robert Dudley, to the Scottish Queen. How bizarre!
When she first spoke to William Maitland of Lethington, the Scottish Ambassador, about this idea, he laughed it off and then asked why Elizabeth herself did not marry Dudley and that way she could leave both her husband and kingdom to Mary Queen of Scots!
Elizabeth’s chief advisor, William Cecil, supported the plan, after all, it killed two birds with one stone: it got rid of the troublesome Dudley and it formed an alliance with Scotland. Cecil wrote to Maitland in praise of Dudley but Maitland did not pass on the proposal to his queen because Dudley was not even a peer, he was a nobody. This was something that Elizabeth said that she would rectify by giving Dudley an earldom. However, although Elizabeth’s ambassador to Scotland, Thomas Randolph, was ordered to keep on urging the Scottish queen to marry Dudley, neither Mary Queen of Scots or Robert Dudley were keen on the idea. In the Spring of 1564, when Randolph spoke to Mary of the idea, she was flabbergasted. She had been married to the King of France and here was Elizabeth trying to marry her off to a nobody. She did not say an outright “no” and demanded that if she were to marry Dudley then she should be named Elizabeth’s heir, but this was something that Elizabeth would never consider.
As we know, the marriage never took place and it is hard to know how serious Elizabeth was in her offer of Dudley to her nemesis, Mary Queen of Scots. Why on earth would she offer the man considered by many to be the love of her life to her enemy the Scottish Queen? In her book, “Elizabeth and Leicester: The Truth about the Virgin Queen and the Man She Loved”, Sarah Gristwood ponders the following possible reasons:-
- Elizabeth was trying to settle the question of succession – If the Protestant Dudley married Mary and became her consort in Scotland then maybe, just maybe, Elizabeth could name them as her heirs.
- Elizabeth was trying to steer Mary away from other less suitable candidates, a match that would endanger England – If Mary married a European Catholic prince then England would be in danger, it would be surrounded by threats.
- Elizabeth was trying to insult or mock the Scottish queen, “trying to needle the Scots queen into making a foolish choice, one that would threaten Scottish stability.” – Gristwood points out that if this was the case then Elizabeth succeeded.
- Elizabeth was trying to make amends to Dudley – Was she offering him another queen as compensation because she couldn’t marry him?
- Elizabeth was indulging herself – Gristwood asks “was she permitting herself a gesture – insulting, incalculable – that would silence and baffle all those men who had so patronizingly urged and arranged for her to marry?”
- Elizabeth was trying to annoy the French and silence those who kept demanding that she should marry by considering marriage to the Earl of Arran – In return for the Scots giving her Arran, she would give them Dudley.
- Elizabeth wanted to “silence the demanding Robert”.
- Elizabeth was testing Dudley – She needed reassurance that he would not leave her.
- Elizabeth had decided to stay a virgin and so wanted Dudley to marry Mary – In September 1564, Elizabeth told the Scottish Ambassador, Sir James Melville, that if she had ever considered marriage “she would have chosen Lord Robert, her brother and best friend, but, being determined to end her life in virginity, she wished that the Queen her sister should marry him.”
I don’t think that Elizabeth had any intention of marrying Dudley off to Mary. She kept Mary busy with negotiations, managed to silence those who disapproved of her relationship with Dudley, showed Mary that she was willing to be amicable and showed Dudley that she was boss, bravo Elizabeth!
On the 29th September 1564, despite the fact that the marriage negotiations had gone pear-shaped, Elizabeth I made Robert Dudley Earl of Leicester. Gristwood explains that this earldom had “resonant history” because it had previously been held by royal princes like John of Gaunt and Henry of Bolingbroke (Henry IV). Although Dudley behaved impeccably at the ceremony, the Queen did not. As she put the chain of earldom around Dudley’s neck, Melville reported that she “could not refrain from putting her hand in his neck to kittle him smilingly.” A loving gesture and perhaps one that was meant to reassure Dudley that he was still hers.
- Elizabeth and Leicester: The Truth about the Virgin Queen and the Man She Loved, Sarah Gristwood, p156-163