On 4 September 1588, Robert Dudley, the Earl of Leicester and a long-standing favourite of Queen Elizabeth I, died at Cornbury Park in Oxfordshire.
Leicester’s life and career at court had been extraordinary. Described by one Venetian diplomat as ‘un giovane bellissimo’ – a very handsome young man – Leicester was the complete courtier: ambitious, athletic, theatrical, a master of witty banter, an expert jouster, and, for many years, he had been rumoured to be the Queen’s lover. For more than thirty years, his allegiance and loyalty to Elizabeth had been steadfast.
Less than a month before his death, Leicester had ridden alongside Elizabeth through the streets of London, basking in the Queen’s triumph over the Spanish Armada at the Battle of Gravelines. Leicester had been suffering from persistent stomach pains, possibly symptomatic of malaria (but most likely stomach cancer), and travelled to Buxton soon after the Armada’s defeat to take the waters. Tragically, Leicester took ill at Cornbury and died en route. He was fifty-six.
A week before his death, Robert Dudley penned what would be his farewell letter to Elizabeth, overflowing with oaths of devotion to her:
I most humbly beseech your Majesty to pardon your poor old servant to be thus bold in sending to know how my gracious lady doth, and what ease of her late pains she finds, being the chiefest thing in this world I do pray for, for her to have good health and long life. For my own poor case, I continue still your medicine and find that (it) amends much better than with any other thing that hath been given me. Thus hoping to find perfect cure at the bath, with the continuance of my wonted prayer for your Majesty’s most happy preservation, I humbly kiss your foot. From your old lodging at Rycote, this Thursday morning, ready to take on my Journey, by your Majesty’s most faithful and obedient servant,Leicester.
Elizabeth treasured this letter, storing it in her precious treasure box and entitling it ‘His Last Letter’. Here it remained until Elizabeth’s own death, fifteen years later.
News of Dudley’s unexpected death dealt a crushing blow to Elizabeth. She was devastated by his loss, ‘so grieved that for some days she shut herself in her chamber alone, and refused to speak to anyone until the Treasurer and other Councillors had the doors broken open and entered to see her’. Although the Queen deeply grieved Leicester’s passing, ‘no other person in the country’ appeared to mourn him, celebrations over the Armada’s defeat being such that public joy could not be ‘abated’ – not even by the death of a loyal public servant. For Leicester’s enemies at court, who shuddered to feign grief at his passing, Robert Dudley’s death could not have come at a more opportune moment.
The Earl was survived by his wife, Lettice (née Knollys), whom he’d wed in resignation to the fact that Elizabeth would probably never accept his proposal. The decision to marry Lettice incurred the Queen’s fierce displeasure, and both were banished from the court. Nevertheless, Leicester was eventually summoned back to the Queen’s side – where he remained until his death.
Leicester’s illegitimate son, Robert Dudley the Younger, fathered with Lady Douglas Sheffield, inherited the bulk of his father’s impressive assets, including Kenilworth Castle, and went on to become a famous Elizabethan explorer and cartographer. Leicester’s title of Master of the Horse went to his stepson, Robert Devereux, Earl of Essex, who succeeded Leicester as the ageing Queen’s favourite. Essex never commanded the same level of esteem as his stepfather, however, and was later executed following an unsuccessful coup against Elizabeth’s regime.
The Queen ensured that her favourite was honoured with a lavish funeral, befitting of his rank and importance. He was interred in the Beauchamp Chapel of St Mary’s Church, Warwick, where his son, Robert Dudley, Lord Denbigh, was buried. He was later joined by his second wife, Lettice, who died in 1634. Today, their tombs are crowned with splendid, lifelike effigies – a worthy tribute to the man who lived, and died, the favourite of the Virgin Queen.