Friday Reads: Death and the Virgin Queen: Elizabeth I and the Dark Scandal That Rocked the Throne

The circumstances surrounding Amy Robsart’s death in 1560 have haunted historians for more than 450 years. Was she pushed down the stairs or did she trip and fall? Was she poisoned and her body positioned to look like an accident? Death and the Virgin Queen: Elizabeth I and the Dark Scandal That Rocked the Throne by Chris Skidmore attempts to answer these questions.  Skidmore argues that his reexamination contemporary records, as well as the long-long coroner’s report of Amy death and a contemporaneous journal kept by an unknown individual, sheds new light on this enduring mystery. Robsart’s passing would have attracted little attention if she had not been the wife of Elizabeth I’s favorite courtier Robert Dudley. In the months and years leading to Robsart’s fatal fall, Dudley rarely left Elizabeth’s side. In fact, rumors swirled not only through the English court, but through other European courts as well, that Elizabeth and Dudley were engaged in a passionate affair.  While Dudley attended to England’s queen, Robsart lived a quiet, but transient life – staying with friends and family because the Dudleys lacked a permanent home. Dudley rarely visited Robsart, but made sure she never lacked for funds and other necessities. Why the mystery then? Skidmore suggests that Robsart’s death was long expected by members of Elizabeth’s court. Prior to Amy’s death, rumors had circulated that she was in poor health and/or she was being poisoned. Skidmore cites several instances where courtiers and foreign ambassadors speculated that once Dudley was free of his wife, he would marry Elizabeth I. The circumstances surrounding Amy’s sudden passing become murkier when Skidmore reveals that Elizabeth mentioned Robsart’s death to the Spanish ambassador prior to it becoming public knowledge. Skidmore focuses his examination primarily on Dudley – his motives and how he might have carried out this deed. Despite the introduction of new documents and a reinterpretation of existing facts, Skidmore fails to provide additional insight into Robsart’s death. The basic facts are unchanged: Robsart’s body was found at the bottom of a short flight of stairs. She encouraged the household to attend a nearby fair, leaving the house largely empty. Perhaps if Skidmore had looked at suspects beyond Robert Dudley, he would have brought something new to the table. For example, other courtiers such as Dudley’s enemy Sir William Cecil could have arranged for Robsart’s death in order to tarnish Dudley’s reputation. However, Skidmore successfully demonstrates that Robsart’s mysterious death colored people’s treatment of Dudley, as well as destroyed any chance of marrying Elizabeth.  Ultimately, too much time has passed and too little evidence has survived for this mystery to be solved.
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