Amy Dudley the first wife of Robert Dudley, Earl of Leicester, died on Sunday 8th September 1560. Amy had been staying at Cumnor Place, Abingdon as a guest Sir Anthony Forster and his wife. On the morning of the 8th September Amy had sent her servants to attend the Fair that was in Abingdon.
Upon their return they found Amy dead at the foot of the stairs with two head rooms and an apparent broken neck. Robert Dudley upon hearing of his wife’s death immediately ordered his steward, Thomas Blount, to order an inquest at once. Blount reported back to Dudley regarding his wife’s movements on the morning of her death, he reported that Lady Dudley had risen early and;
“would not that day suffer one of her own sort to tarry at home, and was so earnest to have them gone to the fair, that with any of her own sort that made reason of tarrying at home she was very angry, and came to Mrs. Odingsells… who refused that day to go to the fair, and was very angry with her also. Because (Mrs. Odingsells) said it was no day for gentlewomen to go… Whereunto my lady answered and said that she might choose and go at her pleasure, but all hers should go; and was very angry. They asked who should keep her company if all they went; she said Mrs. Owen should keep her company at dinner; the same tale doth Picto, who doth dearly love her, confirm. Certainly, my Lord, as little while as I have been here, I have heard divers tales of her that maketh me judge her to be a strange woman of mind.”
Mrs. Picto was Amy Dudley’s maid and Thomas Blount asked her whether or not she suspected foul play in her death Blount reported that Mrs. Picto replied;
“she said by her faith she doth judge very chance, and neither done by man nor by herself. For herself, she said, she was a good virtuous gentlewoman, and daily would pray upon her knees; and divers times she saith that she hath heard her pray to God to deliver her from desperation. Then, said I, she might have an evil toy in her mind. No, good Mr. Blount, said Picto, do not judge so of my words; if you should so gather, I am sorry I said so much.”
Thomas Blount continued in his report by saying;
“My Lord, it is most strange that this chance should fall upon you. It passeth the judgment of any man to say how it is; but truly the tales I do hear of her maketh me to think she had a strange mind in her: as I will tell you at my coming.”
An inquest was set up consisting of the coroner and the jurors were made up local gentlemen and yeomen. Blount followed up his letter to Dudley with a second to keep him informed of the proceedings, he informed Dudley that some of the jury were not friendly towards Anthony Foster and they were proceeding with the inquiry and were very thorough. He wrote;
“they be very secret, and yet do I hear a whispering that they can find no presumptions of evil. And if I may say to your Lordship my conscience: I think some of them be sorry for it, God forgive me…Mine own opinion is much quieted… the circumstances and as many things as I can learn doth persuade me that only misfortune hath done it, and nothing else.”
Rumours began to spread around the court back in London regarding the circumstances of Amy’s death, it had long been rumoured that Dudley wished to marry the Queen and viewed his wife as an obstacle. Therefore rumours sprang up that Dudley had his wife murdered or poisoned to further his proposal with the Queen. It was in Dudley’s best interest for the inquiry to conclude as quickly as possible with an outcome that cleared him of any suspicion.
The jury wrote to Dudley to tell them that the ruled the death as accidental but they recommended that another inquiry should take place to investigate further and it should include any friends of Amy’s that were available as well as her half brothers John Appleyard and Arthur Robsart. However, this second inquiry never happened.
The coroner ruled on 1st August 1561 that Lady Dudley ‘being alone in a certain chamber… accidentally fell precipitously down’ the stairs ‘to the very bottom of the same’ The coroner reported that she had two injuries to her head with one being ‘of the depth of a quarter of a thumb’ and the other ‘of the depth of two thumbs’. It continued to say that ‘by reason of the accidental injury or of that fall and of Lady Amy’s own body weight falling down the aforesaid stairs’ that she broke her neck ‘on account of which … the same Lady Amy then and there died instantly;… and thus the jurors say on their oath that the Lady Amy…by misfortune came to her death and not otherwise, as they are able to agree at present.’
Amy Dudley was buried at St. Mary’s, Oxford and Robert spared no expense with her funeral and spent £2,000. Robert Dudley did not attend the funeral as was the custom in Tudor times but he wore mourning clothes for the next six months he also retired from court for a month and went into mourning at his home at Kew.
With the aid of modern medicine the death of Amy Dudley has been kept alive theories surrounding her death suggest that she was suffering from breast cancer that had spread into her spine causing her neck to break easily under limited strain. Another theory was that she was murdered but not by Dudley but by someone who did not wish to see the Queen and Dudley marry. However, anyone who did arranged it risked the Queen’s reputation. Therefore, the most likely cause of death I believe is either illness or perhaps even suicide due to depression or a worsening illness.
William Frederick Yeames