Queen Elizabeth I famously died a virgin, but her life was not always without romance. Before being crowned Queen in 1558, she was involved with Robert Dudley who was her master of the horse. Dudley was the Queen’s favourite, and it was suggested that the pair would have been well suited to marry, but Dudley was already wed to Amy Robsart.
On 9 September 1560, Amy Robsart was found dead at home. Rumours quickly spread that the 28-year-old had been murdered at the request of her husband or even Queen Elizabeth. Many believed that Robert Dudley was so in love with the Queen that he was willing to have his wife murdered, so he was free to re-marry. A number of Elizabeth’s advisors used the incident to their own advantage, as they had never agreed to her relationship with Dudley. Any plans that Dudley and Elizabeth had made for their future were stopped in their tracks by Amy’s death; the scandal was too much for the new Queen to be embroiled in.
Elizabeth and Robert were forever reminded of the death of Amy Robsart throughout the rest of their lives, but the truth is that nobody knows for certain how she died. Murder was the obvious conclusion when Amy was found dead at the bottom of a staircase in her home, Cumnor Place near Oxford. Amy was apparently discovered with head injuries and a broken neck, but still wearing her headdress which looked perfectly placed.
A few factors make murder seem unlikely, including Robert’s reaction to the death of his wife. Upon finding out about her death, he spoke of the “greatness and the suddenness of the misfortune” and “how this evil should light upon me”. Dudley broke down after Amy’s death and immediately launched an inquiry into what caused it. We will never know if this was clever theatrics or genuine heartbreak, but we do know that the inquest ruled that the death had been an accident caused by a fall on the stairs. Recent reports such as by a Medical Professor Ian Aird in 1956, also indicate that Amy could have been suffering from breast cancer which caused cancerous deposits on her spine which would allow the neck to break with a slight fall.
Another factor which disputes the idea of murder is that Amy was apparently depressed and even suicidal during this period. The Queen did not allow Dudley and his wife to live together at court and so she was alone staying in different homes around the country, barely seeing her husband and forever in the knowledge of his relationship with the Queen. It is understandable that Amy would have been struggling. On the day she died, Amy had sent her servants away and asked to be alone. She had also been overheard praying for deliverance from her situation.
A coroner’s report which was released in 2008 has done little to lay the mystery to rest. The report states that the death came from two blows and a broken neck, but that this may have been caused by a fall, suicide or other violence. All we know for sure is that Amy Robsart died on that September day, alone in her home. We can never know if her husband or Queen Elizabeth had ordered her death, or if they were genuinely surprised by the horrific incident.