Leicester's Commonwealth

The Black Reputation of Robert Dudley

Robert Dudley was one of the most unpopular men at Elizabeth’s court. Her affection for him provoked jealousy, and the possibility that she might marry him instilled both fear and loathing in the hearts of other courtiers.

As the son and grandson of men who had been executed for treason, and who had himself been found guilty of the same crime in 1553, he was considered to be an unfit companion of the queen. In addition, many of the older nobility looked down on the Dudleys as Robert’s grandfather had been only a lawyer. In fact, the Dudleys were cousins to the lords of Sutton, and Robert’s grandmother, Elizabeth, had been Viscountess Lisle in her own right, descended from the great Talbot earl of Shrewsbury who had been a hero of the Hundred Years’ War.

Robert’s two greatest opponents were the Duke of Norfolk and the Earl of Sussex.  Norfolk once quarrelled violently with him in front of Elizabeth, when Robert took the queen’s handkerchief to mop his face, during a tennis match. Norfolk was disgusted at what he saw as Robert’s over-familiarity, and challenged him. Elizabeth took Robert’s part, which did not endear him to the duke. 

Sussex referred to Robert, slightingly, as ‘the gypsy’, and his dying words as late as 1583 were a warning against Robert - the other nobles should ‘beware of the gypsy, for he will be too hard for you all. You know not the beast as well as I do.’

Cecil, although he did not like Robert’s influence over the queen, and feared that she would marry her favourite, came to an accommodation with him as time passed, and the two worked harmoniously, with Robert appreciating that Cecil’s influence with the queen was perhaps even greater than his own, and supporting it to take policies in the direction they jointly agreed.  In 1572, Robert wrote to Cecil, asking him to return to court speedily, to persuade Elizabeth to take a decision regarding Mary, Queen of Scots:

‘There will be little to be fone while you are away.; if I say as plainly as I think, your Lordship as the case stands, shall do her Majesty and your country more service here in an hour than in all the court there will be worth this seven years; wherefore I can but wish you here, yea to fly here if you would, till these matters were fully despatched.’

With Walsingham and Knollys, the other ministers close to Elizabeth, Robert was on good terms. They shared a religious outlook, and Knollys eventually became Leicester’s father-in-law.

It was not just within the court that Robert had enemies. His reputation more widely was black. The death of his first wife, Amy, in mysterious circumstances, gave rise to rumours that he was a murderer.

The sixteenth century saw an explosion of printed propaganda. As the technology of the printing press transformed public discourse, it became used for wars of words, waged to further the ever-more irreconcilable division between Catholics and Protestants. By the 1580s, Elizabeth, however reluctantly, was seen as the champion of the Protestant cause. Libels against the queen herself were punishable with mutilation or death, but her closeness to Robert gave her enemies, and his, a handy target for polemic. Robert, like the queen, was closely associated with Protestantism, and he became the target of one of the most libellous works ever produced.

Usually known as ‘Leicester’s Commonwealth’, it was published in either Paris or Antwerp in 1584 under the title The copy of a Letter Written by a Master of Art of Cambridge to his friend in London, concerning some talk passed of late between two worshipful and grave men about the present state and some proceedings of the Earl of Leicester and his friends in England.

It related an alleged conversation between a London gentleman, a Catholic lawyer and a Cambridge graduate.

The purport of the pamphlet was that Robert was an evil, Machiavellian schemer, who sought no less than the Crown itself. He planned to poison or otherwise eradicate anyone around Elizabeth with any claim to the throne, except his brother-in-law, the Earl of Huntingdon, who combined the bloodlines of York (he was a great-grandson of Margaret, Countess of Salisbury) and Buckingham (he was a great-grandson of 2nd Duke of Buckingham).  Once Huntingdon was king, Robert would supplant him.

To make this farrago credible, the author had to impugn Robert on every level – his background in a status-conscious age, his morals, and his political views and policies. By beginning with the facts that Robert’s father and grandfather had been executed as traitors, the polemicist could insinuate that the subsequent ‘facts’ he produced were also true.

After abusing Robert’s background, he was then painted as an immoral villain.  He was accused of a long list of murders: his wife, Amy, by having her pushed down the stairs and Lord Sheffield (whose widow, Douglass, was the mother of Robert’s illegitimate son), by poisoning, which had been so successful that it was repeated on the Earl of Essex, so that Robert could marry his widow. Other victims were the Cardinal de Chatilloon; Sir Nicholas Throckmorton; the queen’s cousin, Margaret, Lady Lennox; and an attempt had been made on the envoy, Simier, who had been pursuing the suit of his master, the Duke of Anjou with Elizabeth.

To effect these murders, Robert apparently kept ‘cunning men’ adept in secret poisons – proved by his frequent patronage of Italian scholars – Italians being associated with the art of poisoning.

Murder was not sufficient – unbridled lust was also cast up against him. As well as the affair with Douglass Sheffield, and Lettice, before their marriage, he pestered Elizabeth’s ladies, and ‘no man’s wife can be free from him whose fiery lust liketh to abuse…kinswoman, ally, friend’s wife or daughter…’

Even worse, in the mind of the writer, was Robert’s alleged dedication to the cause of executing Mary, Queen of Scots. In this, the propagandist was palpably wrong – Robert had tended to be an advocate of Mary’s. It was not until after Leicester’s Commonwealth was written that he came to believe her death was necessary.

Leicester’s Commonwealth was banned from publication in England. Elizabeth was well aware that it was a covert attack on her, and pointed out to the local magistrates, who had the task of suppressing any copies, that it was hardly to be supposed that she was so negligent or lacking in judgement that she would employ a minister of such bad character. Unsurprisingly, attempts to repress the book made it more popular than ever, and a second proclamation was made, referring to the book as ‘most malicious, false and slanderous, and such as none but the devil himself could deem to be true.’

Robert himself paid little attention to the vicious diatribe, although he had taken issue with rumours that he lived an immoral life, writing to a friend that, although, like every other man, he was a sinner, he was not guilty of the terrible crimes imputed to him.

‘In these dangerous days, who can escape lewd or lying tongues? For my part, I trust the Lord will give me his grace to live in His fear and to behave myself faithfully to my sovereign and honestly to the world. And so shall I pass over these calumniations.’

Unfortunately for Robert, the mud stuck, and his reputation ever after has been of a man who was at best a greedy and intriguing courtier, and at worst, a murderer. Little account is ever taken of his long and faithful service to his queen.