The Case of Amy Robsart – A Tudor Whodunnit?

As promised, I want to share with you what was said in last night’s Channel Five “Revealed” programme, “The Virgin Queen’s Fatal Affair”. I wrote copious notes so that I didn’t miss anything and I have divided the different topics into sections so that it is easy for you to take in.

The programme featured the following experts:-

  • Philippa Gregory, author of many historical novels including “The Virgin’s Lover”
  • Tracy Borman, historian and author of “Elizabeth’s Women”
  • Sarah Gristwood, historian and author of “Elizabeth and Leicester”
  • Steven Gunn, historian
  • Chris Skidmore, historian
  • Edward Impey, archaeologist
  • Dominic Taylor, architect
  • Allen Anscombe, forensic pathologist
  • Simon Adams, historian and author of “Leicester and the Court”

The Implications of Amy’s Death

Both at the start and end of the programme, it was suggested that Amy Robsart’s death changed the course of English history because it made Elizabeth into the Virgin Queen. As a result of Amy’s death, Elizabeth did not marry and the Tudor dynasty was brought to an end.

Elizabeth and Dudley’s Relationship

Sarah Gristwood spoke of how Elizabeth made Robert Dudley her Master of the Horse when she came to the throne and that this meant that he was in charge of all the fun things and that when he arrived to see her it was always with “an invitation to play”.

It was suggested that Dudley was Elizabeth’s “surrogate” husband and that in the first two years of her reign Elizabeth was besotted with him. She arranged for him to have a bedchamber next to hers, she spent all of her time with him and this led to scandal and rumour. Dudley was seen as a poor choice and a unsuitable consort because both his father and grandfather were executed as traitors, and William Cecil thought that England would face a very dark future if Elizabeth was to marry Dudley. Also, Dudley was married to Amy Robsart.

Dark Whispers

In 1560 there were “dark whispers” at Court. In March 1560 it was rumoured that Dudley was going to divorce his 28 year old wife, who he had not seen for over a year, and William Cecil told of how Elizabeth and Dudley were trying to get rid of Amy. By September 1560, the Court was alive with rumours, Elizabeth seemed so obsessed with Dudley that she was seen to be abandoning her country, Dudley was gaining power and influence, and William Cecil was at his wit’s end. Cecil told the Spanish ambassador that he saw ruin for the Queen if she continued the way she was going.

The Death of Amy Robsart

Amy Robsart died on the 8th September 1560 at the house she was renting in Oxfordshire, Cumnor Place.  She was found dead at the foot of the stairs. According to the programme, her death had all of the ingredients of an Agatha Christie thriller and it was used in Walter Scott’s 1821 romantic novel, Kenilworth, where Amy is murdered by Dudley’s steward, Sir Richard Varney. At the time, at the inquest into Amy’s death, the coroner ruled that her death was down to “misfortune”, an accident .

The Stairs

Cumnor Place was pulled down in 1810 so the stairs that Amy was said to have fallen down no longer exist. However, archaeologist Edward Impey was able to build a model of Cumnor Place based on old drawings and plans and concluded that Amy must have lodged in the Great Chamber. Architect Dominic Taylor made a 3D model of the staircase shown in an old plan of this part of the house and concluded that although it was a dangerous staircase, in that it twisted half-way down at a landing, a wall would have stopped Amy from falling right down to the bottom. Also, statistics of falls on staircases show that a healthy young woman would have been unlikely to have died in such an accident.

But was Amy healthy?

Was Amy Dying?

There have been suggestions that Amy had terminal breast cancer and was dying in 1560. Philippa Gregory mentioned the theory that I have discussed already here on the Elizabeth Files, that of Professor Ian Aird who suggests that Amy may have died from a spontaneous break of her neck due to secondary deposits in her bones and that is why she fell.

The case for Amy having cancer is based on a remark by de Feria that she had “a malady in one her breasts”, a comment by Robert Dudley about how within six months his position would be much changed and remarks made by Elizabeth I about how Amy was dying. However, Chris Skidmore rejects the idea that Amy was dying. He spoke of how Amy moved from house to house in the last two years of her life, something that an ill woman just would not do, and forensic pathologist Allen Anscombe called the thinning bone theory no more than speculation and did not agree with it. Sarah Gristwood examined a letter at Longleat, a letter written by Amy to her tailor just a fortnight before her death, in which she asks him to make a new collar for a dress. Gristwood wonders if Amy was ordering it because she was expecting to be reunited with her husband when he visited nearby Windsor.

Dudley’s Reaction to Amy’s Death

Robert Dudley’s reaction to his wife’s death was discussed. All agreed that the news of Any’s death was a blow to Dudley and that his letters to his steward, Thomas Blount, show his astonishment and consternation. He immediately ordered an investigation into Amy’s death and sent Blount to Cumnor. Her funeral cost Dudley the equivalent of £100,000 but he did not attend her funeral. Apparently, the vicar at Amy’s funeral added to the scandal by mentioning that Amy had been pitifully murdered!

The Investigation

Thomas Blount rode to Cumnor Place and launched an investigation into Amy’s death. He questioned the servants and found that Amy was alone when she had died. According to her maid, Mrs Picto, Amy had been in an angry mood that day, and had demanded that her servants leave her alone and that they attend the local fair. Sarah Gristwood mentioned how odd this was. She spoke of how wanting the house to yourself is a very modern idea and that in Tudor times there were always servants around so Amy’s behaviour was very strange. Mrs Picto also spoke of how Amy had been praying daily on her knees for God to deliver her from her situation. Although this suggests that Amy may have been suicidal, it was pointed out that suicide was unthinkable for a Tudor woman, that Amy had just sent off to have a dress altered and that the staircase was unsuitable for committing suicide.

It was concluded that an accident was improbable, that suicide did not fit the facts so, therefore, Amy must have been murdered.

The Coroner’s Report

The original coroner’s report into Amy’s death was found by Steven Gunn when he was searching the archives of Tudor accidents. The report states that Amy had a broken neck, that her hood and clothing were intact and that she had two head wounds. The head wounds were described as “dyntes” which are usually used to describes blows like those of a sword in battle, and they were recorded as being 1/2 a thumb length deep and two thumb lengths deep. Allen Anscombe, the forensic pathologist, felt that these wounds were more like puncture wounds caused by a mace, spear or halberd, and that if he saw these types of head injuries today he would ask the police to launch a full scale murder enquiry.

Was it Miss Scarlett with the mace on the staircase?


But, if it was murder, who killed Amy? The programme examined the following suspects:-

Robert Dudley

Although, at first glance, it seemed that Dudley had the most to gain from his wife’s death and therefore was the most likely killer, there is evidence in his defence – his reaction to Amy’s death, his letters to Blount, his desire for a full investigation.

Dudley’s Henchmen

Could Dudley’s henchmen have taken matters into their own hands and killed Amy for Dudley so that he could marry Elizabeth?

A contemporary account in the British Library describes how Sir Richard Verney, a retainer of Dudley, was in Cumnor on the day that Amy died and that he arranged her death. However, the programme asked if Dudley would really have tolerated one of his servants killing Amy and suggested that Dudley would have cleared his own name and stopped all of the scandal and rumour by bringing his servant to justice.

At this point, the programme asked “who would Amy clear the house of servants for?” and it was suggested that Amy would make sure the house was empty and that she was alone if she was asked to do so by her husband, her Queen or William Cecil.

Elizabeth I

Tracy Borman spoke of Elizabeth’s fiery temper and the way that she could lash out at people in anger, such as stabbing one lady in the back of the hand with a fork and breaking the finger of another lady when she married without the Queen’s permission. It was also pointed out that, according to a letter written from the Spanish ambassador to Philip II, Elizabeth had spoken of how Amy was dead or nearly so before news of Amy’s accident had reached court. Did Elizabeth know something? However, Borman argued that Elizabeth was too much of a pragmatist to involve herself in murder and that also the secret would have eventually come out.

William Cecil

Philippa Gregory spoke of her belief that William Cecil was involved in Amy’s death, that he benefited most from her death and that he made the connection between Amy’s death, Dudley’s reputation and the impossibility of Elizabeth marrying Dudley. It was pointed out that Amy’s death prevented Dudley and Elizabeth marrying and that before Amy’s death Cecil had been close to resigning but after her death his career soared. However, Chris Skidmore said that he’s not sure that William Cecil would have taken the risk of making Dudley a widower.


Even though Amy’s death caused scandal and Dudley suffered as a result, he did not give up wooing Elizabeth. In 1575 he entertained the Queen at Kenilworth Castle with lavish pageants and displays, which Shakespeare alludes to in “Midsummer Night’s Dream”, and Sarah Gristwood spoke of this being “his last throw of the dice”. However, all of it was wasted on Elizabeth.

The Virgin Queen

The programme concluded by saying that Amy’s death prevented Elizabeth marrying Dudley and that it caused Elizabeth to become “The Virgin Queen”. Amy’s death, therefore, changed the course of history and ended the Tudor dynasty.

Amy’s Tomb

The programme ended with Chris Skidmore visiting Amy Robsart’s tomb in a corner of Oxford’s University Church. This is actually a memorial tablet rather than Amy’s tomb as it is not known exactly where in the church her body lies. In his article, “The Death of Amy Robsart”, Professor Ian Aird wrote:-

“The exact site of Amy’s grave has never been known, though in the contemporary account it was said to
have been at the east end of the church of St. Mary the Virgin in Oxford. In November 1946, after a fire in that church, it became necessary to re-lay the whole of the pavement of the chancel, and opportunity was then taken of exploring the area where Amy Robsart’s grave might have been expected to be. It was discovered, however, that all the area had been dug over subsequent to her burial, and some vaults of a later date were discovered, one of them, incidentally, being that of Cardinal Newman’s mother. The disturbance of the soil down to a depth of about six feet was very great and bones and soil were so intermingled and in such complete disorder that if there had been a grave in the area all trace of it was lost, destroyed by the previous disturbance. There is thus no hope now of recovering Amy Robsart’s remains and of observing the kind of broken neck which caused her death.”

My Thoughts

I cannot say that I was convinced by any of the arguments put forward by the programme as to me it just seemed like speculation and there really was no new evidence brought to light. I’ve always been torn between three theories – accident, suicide and murder by an unknown person – and I still am. Amy’s behaviour leading up to her death suggests suicide, although her faith may have prevented her from actually doing so, and the two deep head wounds suggest murder, however, I have not seen the coroner’s report and so find it difficult to come to a conclusion. What I am sure of is that Robert Dudley, Elizabeth I and William Cecil had nothing to do with her death.

What do you think?

33 thoughts on “The Case of Amy Robsart – A Tudor Whodunnit?

  1. Pardon, Claire, if I pop in once again here, but I just realized that the TV programme said regarding the Verney theory “that Dudley would have cleared his own name … by bringing his servant to justice.” Wow! That is an improvement against Skidmore’s book, where nothing like this ever crosses his mind. It’s of course very true.
    This Verney died in 1569. Little is known about his relationship with Dudley except it was always good. There are two letters by Leicester from the 1580s concerning Verney’s little orpahned, impoverished grandson, whose wardship Leicester had required. He writes to Cecil because of some licences he needs from the Master of the Wards (Cecil). The letters demonstrate that guardians were not always rapacious; Leicester indeed payed some sums out of his pocket trying to rescue the child’s inheritance. Perhaps some will argue he did this because, once upon a time, Verney got him rid of his wife; but since he had had only trouble because of this and he never became king or consort, I don’t think so. (The letters are in Adlard: Amye Robsart and the Earl of Leycester c. p. 95, on the internet archive)

  2. If it was murder, then out of the main suspects I’m leaning towards Cecil, he was a brilliantly clever man and if Amy was dying anyway, why not tweak the method so it was impossible for Dudley and Elizabeth to marry.
    The idea that it could be either Robert or Elizabeth is just crazy, she was a brillaint judge of character so would she really, favour a man she knew to be a murderer? And Robert wasn’t an idiot. If she was ill, why not leave her be? And if she was healthy, could he have tried to annul the marriage? (Maybe that was impossible, I’m not sure)
    All in all, I do think it may have been suicide, the programme didn’t change my mind, but I do like some of the comments on this site..murder by an unknown person who happened to be her lover does carry some weight.

    But the comment the programme made about Robert NOT attending her funeral, was it the sign of guilty man? Erm…NO! I’m sure I read that was rare for husbands to attend their wives funerals, talk about only telling one half of the story!

  3. The main thing you need to look at in Amy’s case is the house she was in and if she was ill. Well in the latter it’s clear that she had breast cancer, so she was ill. And the house was very old, even for the time she was alive. So what can we make of these facts. Firstly if she has cancer of the breast she’s not going to have a lover. Women who have this sickness see it has a body image problem. It will make them unatractive to men in their eyes, they won’t want anyone going near them and make a point of rejecting advances and if they are married as she was, rejecting their husband. Clothing even now improves your image, so no wonder she orded a new dress. That fits in with illness she had.
    So what about the house. The house clearly used stone stairs. They didn’t have handrails, so falling down them would be more common than it is now. I’ve been in a Elizabethan building and some of the stairs are downright dangerous. How many of us now have sharp stone stairs with no handrails?
    She was ill and fell down the stairs. Banging her head twice, once on the wall as she fell and another when she going down (falling) on a sharp stone of the staircase, ending up at the bottom.
    In the film he called the damage to her head “dents” and that’s just what they found.

    The murder story came about because (even back then) nobody understood Elizabeth’s personality and it continues to puzzle everyone even now.
    Infact her whole life put forward by historians of an academic nature doesn’t make a bit of sense. What woman would be like that I ask you?
    I have my own theory on her personality, which I posted on a forum once (not on this site). But the person in charge (an academic) wasn’t interested in any serious debate and deleted it, in what she called ‘cleaning’ up the site. I suspect there are more academics like her around who don’t want outsiders in on their field, just in case they show them up!
    Sadly that is the nature of historical debate these days and those on the TV show looked very guilty of it.

  4. Personally, I think that it is likely to be murder, due to
    the head wounds; but I don’t think that it could have been her
    husband who was the murder. It is my understanding that they
    married for love (since Amy was considered below Robert)?

  5. This is a very interesting thread. I hope you don’t mind me adding my two cents worth. Everything about Amy’s death points to murder [especially the information that before her head was smashed in she was being moved from place to place by her husband and had complained to him that she was sure she had been poisoned. Actually the dents in her head seem to indicate that someone had stunned her and then fractured her skull and broke her neck although not necessarily in that order. The lack of other bruising (stone steps!) and her headpiece not being mussed up leads one to think that she was placed at the bottom of the stairs rather than fall there. It’s odd that no one said anything about blood on the stairs on the way down. There should have been something nasty to indicate where she hit the steps as she bounced down them. Those gashes were pretty deep] Anyways I agree that neither Dudley nor Elizabeth would have been so silly as to murder Robsart: it simply wasn’t in their interests to do so–especially if they thought she was to die within a year. I agree that Cecil is a possibile candidate (he did very well after Amy’s death) but I think it’s important to note that he was also a very intelligent man. Amy’s murder would have been a silly and terrible risk. I’m wondering if another of Elizabeth’s suitors is responsible: a man who was competing with Dudley for Elizabeth’s hand and a man who wasn’t really very bright. Apologies to Arundel and Sussex but they could fit this sort of a profile. Cecil could have planted the idea. I just can’t see him being the one to arrange it, but Arundel could have. He was that goofy. And of course Elizabeth taking care of her favorite vis a vis the coroner’s findings further serves to muddy the waters. As for Amy sending off her household on a Sunday to a fair (inappropriate and shocking), I have always thought she was meeting someone–perhaps she thought it was her husband and turned out to be the murderer purporting to take her to him. It could have been a lover. Whoever it was must have been someone she trusted–unless she was running from him and that’s how she ended up at the bottom of the stairs…but wouldn’t the coroner or someone have mentionned the condition of the stairs if bloodied as evidence to support the conclusion that it was an accident? It’s odd no one did.

  6. I just finished reading Scott’s “Kenilworth”, and wanted to check how many of his historical facts he had got wrong, quite a few incidentally, and in doing so I found this interesting web site.

    A possible 21st century misinterpretation of the 16th century coroner’s report, which Graham has already noticed, is in the word “dyntes” and the reports of “half a thumb length deep” and “two thumb lengths deep”. It would be useful to have the exact wording and spelling here.

    Anscombe has made an invalid assumption that these were puncture wounds. The coroner’s meaning may alternatively be understood to be more like describing lacerations half a thumb and two thumbs in length, and deep dents or cuts to the depth that they reached but did not cleave the skull, as opposed to shallow cuts or scratches. The coroner may not have troubled himself to measure the depth of the incisions, merely contented himself with using his common word for noting the sort of injuries typical in broadsword and billhook fights, and not stab wounds, which he surely would have been able to recognize.

    Sue noted the headpiece not being mussed and the lack of blood on the steps, concluding that the head did not strike the steps, but blood does not always spurt instantly from this kind of injury, rather it may be delayed by a second or two, depending on the blood pressure, thickness of the hair, and whether the heart was beating or stopped, during which time the body could have continued to fall down the stairs to the final resting place, thus not leaving any blood at the point of impact. Nor do we know the location of the injuries and the type of headpiece if any. The word used was hood, which may have been either the fashionable headgear seen in portraits or a cloak worn outdoors on cold rainy days.

    The injuries as described by the witness are then consistent with a headlong or backward fall down a staircase of either wood or stone and striking the head twice on sharp edges of steps before coming to rest. Heart failure, fainting, bone fracture, slipping on the steps, tripping on a cat, being pushed by an assailant, and suicide are all still possible, but attack with a weapon seems less likely to me unless it were a hacking sort of blow.

    I’m sure all you historians will at least agree about the danger of invalid assumptions.

    Scott invented a staircase with a trap feature, which he had Varney and Foster set, thus allowing them to claim that Amy fell and they never actually set hands on her. If Cumnor House was still standing in Scott’s early years, I wonder if Scott had first or second hand knowledge of the details of the staircase? But since it was gone when he published the book, perhaps that is why nobody questioned his veracity.

  7. I have several notes to add here…

    First, regarding Amy’s health:

    Cancer was, until fairly recently, suspected to be contagious. Dudley may well have avoided her because of this. Also, if it was in the latest stages, it likely had invaded her bones (a friend of mine is battling this) and made them porous and fragile- including her skull.

    It is quite probable that she was seriously depressed by her condition. Whether this would have overcome religious strictures against suicide cannot really be known, but it is know that one’s judgement when in pain and emotionally wrought is not the best. It cannot be ruled out.

    Re the fall:

    And number of factors could have caused a fall- a flaw in a step, momentary dizziness, the lace of her shoe, catching the hem of her skirt. If she was contemplating suicide, a moment’s misstep, intended or not, might have settled the issue. Porous bones might have been an issue, and were very likely to have suffered if she struck her head on the way down. The fractures can well be explained by this. Also, headdresses were not set loosely- the French hood, for instance was securely pinned and then tied under the chin. It was unlikely to have been dislodged. And it was also likely to have absorbed any both as she fell, preventing it from being left on the stairs.

    Given that there were in fact people remaining in the house, and no note of anyone observed leaving, it is very unlikely that someone from the outside had been with her when this happened. Also, there has been no indication that she had formed another relationship- certainly there were no rumors to that effect, and with that many people living in the house, it would be very unlikely that it would not have been noticed.

    Murder? Possible, but I feel unlikely. Dudley of course had the most to lose from this, and while her could at times be foolhardy, he wasn’t that stupid. Nor were his friends. And I don’t think that anyone else would have taken the risk. Those who might have had too much to lose, and those with less motivation would not have chanced it.

    I think we’re looking at an accident, perhaps a suicide. I can’t really see clear and cohesive evidence otherwise.

  8. It is very hard to tell what went on on September 8th 1560. There has been some amazing research though. I just hope that someday we will find out more about the matter. I don’t know what happened that day but one thing is clear her death formed history.

  9. Elizabeth could have done it, with her abnormally long fingered hands during a one to one catfight over Leicster then found a way to avert sucpion from her to a suspect that wasn’t Leicster.
    I mean she probably had strength enough to strangle or break a neck as neatly as a finger so claimed to be harmed under a candlestick.
    And also enough strength to apply the blows to Amy’s head.
    That is what I have sort of seen in a vision, I know some of you might not imagine Elizabeth in a hooded cloak not trimmed with ermine that could have been dark red or black, white as a corpse with fangs like a vampire slayer.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *