Robert Dudley, Earl Of Leicester (24th June 1532 to 4th September 1588)

 

Elizabeth 1st was nearly seventy when she died, a long time for the era. Though she became Queen aged 25 and lived through interesting times she never once got engaged or married. In contrast her dad was Henry VIII and he married six times. Perhaps she repelled marriage when she learnt her dad had had her mum beheaded for not bearing him a male heir. Despite many suitors the only person who she would have married was Robert Dudley the Earl of Leicester (the fifth of thirteen children of John Dudley, Duke of Northumberland and Lady Jane Guildford.) I’m sure you’ve seen the Blackadder episode where Rik Mayall plays Lord Flashheart and Queenie melts a little in his dynamic presence. Flashheart was based on Robert Dudley and here I am at his final resting place at Beauchamp Chapel of St Mary's Church in the centre of Warwick.

 

Though he became a powerful and charismatic Tudor gentleman he knew Queen Elizabeth from boyhood. He was introduced to Elizabeth when he was about eight years old (she was a princess at the time) and she bore a soft spot for him through nearly fifty years of turbulent English history (I won’t go into his varied life here as it’s all on the internet.) The eight-year-old Elizabeth told Robert privately that she “will never marry” after the execution of her third stepmother, Catherine Howard in 1541.

 

Elizabeth became closer to Robert during uncertainty under Mary Tudor’s reign (1553–58) when she lived in constant fear for her life. Robert remained loyal and physically close to her at risk to his own safety. They spent many years in one another’s company sharing loves of hunting, dancing and lively conversation. When Elizabeth became Queen in 1558 she gave Robert the prestigious title of Master of the Horse. He quickly became the new Queen’s favourite companion and she bestowed titles and gifts on him for the rest of his life. Gossip and jealousy rose around court and some suggested Robert got Elizabeth pregnant.

 

Robert had married at 18 but always kept his wife away from court in case it damaged his relationship with Elizabeth. When she died suddenly in 1560 under suspicious circumstances it ignited rumours that he had her murdered so he could marry the Queen. As the Queen’s reign progressed she was under immense pressure to marry. She never did though and kept all her hopeful suitors at bay. Once Robert invited her to his Warwickshire estate (Kenilworth Castle) and laid on several days of extraordinarily lavish and expensive entertainments. It didn’t work though as the Queen knew that marrying Robert may spark intense opposition from his rivals – and possibly a civil war.

 

Robert married again but not for almost eighteen years and only when it became clear Elizabeth would not marry him. She made him the Earl of Leicester. Aged 46 in 1573 he had an affair with Lady Douglas Howard with whom he had a son. Aged 51 he secretly married the Queen's cousin, the widowed Lettice Devereux, Countess of Essex.

 

Aged 53 he was made commander of the English forces in aid of the Netherlands which were in revolt against Spanish rule. When the threat of the Spanish Armada emerged he was given command over the Queen’s land based forces in England. He stayed with Elizabeth until danger passed. One of the last recorded sightings of the pair together was at a palace window, watching a celebratory parade.

 

He walked beside Elizabeth’s horse as she delivered her famous speech at Tilbury on 8th August 1588. She had inspected the troops that had been assembled to defend the Thames Estuary against any incursion up-river towards London and said: “I know I have the body but of a weak and feeble woman, but I have the heart and stomach of a king and of a king of England too.”

 

After the defeat of the Armada Robert’s health worsened. From home in Rycote in Oxfordshire he made plans to go to Buxton which reputedly had healing waters. Elizabeth wrote probably the last letter he ever received ending with: “I humbly kiss your foot… by Your Majesty’s most faithful and obedient servant.” He never made it to Buxton and died five days later on 4th September 1588 aged 56.

 

Elizabeth was inconsolable at the loss and bequeathed her last gift to him - a sumptuous funeral and he was interred in the Beauchamp Chapel of St Mary's Church, Warwick. For all his titles and bravery he’s mainly remembered as being the only man who could have tempted Elizabeth to marry.

 

 

 

He was Queen Elizabeth I’s favourite person for nearly fifty years…

 

Impressive resting place…

 

Blackadder’s Lord Flashheart was based on Robert Dudley…