Robert Dudley, 1st Earl of Leicester (24 June 1532/1533 – 4 September 1588) was the long standing favourite of Elizabeth I of England. He was born a younger son of the 1st Duke of Northumberland, who was executed in 1553 for his part in the attempt to put Lady Jane Grey on the throne of England. (Lady Jane was married to Robert's youngest brother, Guilford Dudley.) Robert Dudley was temporarily imprisoned, along with his father and brothers Guilford, John, Ambrose and Henry Dudley, in the Tower of London, where his stay coincided with the imprisonment of his childhood friend, Lady Elizabeth Tudor, who had been sent there on the orders of her estranged elder sister, Queen Mary I of England. By this time he was already married to Amy Robsart.
A document titled "Leycester's Commonwealth", banned in England when published in Europe, proposes an elaborate conspiracy regarding Dudley. He is said to have poisoned his first wife Amy Robsart, then later killed the Earl of Essex in order to marry his widow. Several leading aristocrats became suspicious of his machinations, perceived as motivated to place him at the seat of power, and moved to thwart him.
Some widely believed that he had arranged her murder in order to free himself to marry the Queen. Some said that a secret marriage had taken place. Ironically, Amy's death would put an end to any such ambitions Dudley may have had. Elizabeth, mindful of public opinion and also doubtful about the desirability of marriage at all, never gave cause to believe that she seriously considered making her favourite her husband. Historians today think that if Amy was murdered, the deed would have been carried out either by someone who believed it would win him or her royal favour or, even more likely, by someone who understood very well that the ensuing suspicions would prevent the Queen from marrying Dudley. It seems implausible that Elizabeth could have been foolish enough to involve herself in such a crime, even if Dudley were. It has also been suggested that Amy was terminally ill with breast cancer, which would have made her death by murder less likely than suicide or a fatal accident. It has been suggested that metastatic breast cancer can weaken the bones of the neck, causing the sort of collapse at the top of the stairs, and the subsequent fall, that occurred in this case.
In 1563, Elizabeth suggested Dudley as a second husband for the widowed Mary, Queen of Scots, whom she hoped to neutralise by marriage to a Protestant. The State Papers record that she hinted this was to be a reward for Dudley, "whom, if it might lie in our power, we would make owner or heir of our own kingdom," for his loyal service. Mary, insulted by the idea of accepting Elizabeth's mere Master of the Horse and rumoured "lover", rejected him. The following year, Elizabeth bestowed on him the earldom of Leicester. He was her official protector through life.
The marriage offended the Queen mightily. Out of her own pain, she temporarily banished Leicester from court and never again received the new Lady Leicester, thereafter known to her as 'the she‐wolf'. However, no one other than Elizabeth would have expected Leicester's devotion to her to cause him to lead an entirely celibate life after the death of his first wife.
In 1573, it was observed that not only the widowed Lady Douglas Sheffield, but also her unmarried sister, Frances Howard, were "very far in love with him" and also that the Queen "thinketh not well of them, and not the better of him" for encouraging their attentions. Nevertheless, a son was borne by Lady Sheffield in 1573/4 and was named Robert Dudley. Other than Elizabeth's threats to incarcerate Leicester, the reason for his deception regarding a marriage to Lady Sheffield may have been a desire to protect her and their son from his debts (and intrigues) with the Queen.
Leicester's only surviving brother, Ambrose, was childless, and unless he fathered some legitimate offspring, his family line would perish. "You must think it is some marvellous course, and toucheth my present state very near, that forceth me thus to be cause almost of the ruin of my own house," he observed in a letter to Lady Sheffield, explaining that he was uniquely situated, and unable to take a wife without causing "mine utter overthrow". Keeping a second marriage secret may well have seemed a matter of great importance, given that Leicester did not wish to upset his close association with Elizabeth. The secrecy at the time of marriage might also have made it easier to proclaim the absence of a legal contract later, when Leicester wished to marry Lady Lettice Knollys. Elizabeth herself, feeling betrayed by her discovery of the marriage to Knollys, reminded Leicester of the rumours that he had been pre‐contracted to Lady Sheffield; if these proved to be true, he could be sent to rot in the Tower. It is therefore not surprising that he should have denied the Sheffield marriage.
In the 19th century, the question of the Sidneys' legal claim over the Dudley estates was raised when Sir John Shelly‐Sidney laid claim to the titles of De L'Isle and Dudley, to which he clearly would have had a claim had the first Robert Dudley been honest and forthright about his son's origins. The House of Lords duly investigated the matter, concluding that Sir John Shelley had not, in fact, succeeded in establishing that the marriage of Robert Dudley's parents, Leicester and Lady Sheffield, had been legal and therefore he had also not established right to the Barony. Leicester, although he appears to have been fond of his son, never acknowledged his legitimacy.
Eventually restored to Elizabeth's favour, Dudley was placed in command of the Dutch campaign of 1585, culminating in the Battle of Zutphen. He was afforded the title Governor-General of the Dutch Republic under the Treaty of Nonsuch.
However, the direct support from the English would prove to be of little help to the revolt. Leicester was an ineffective administrator, often in conflict with the leading Dutch statesman Johan van Oldenbarneveld. His military enterprises came to no success either, culminating in the loss of Battle of Zutphen. He was to return to England in disgrace.
In 1588, despite having shown himself a failure as a military leader, he was in command of the English land forces against the Spanish Armada. The Spanish never landed, and he died soon after (probably of stomach cancer), near Oxford on the 4th September 1588. By the time of his death, he was already losing his place as Elizabeth's favourite to his stepson, Robert Devereux, 2nd Earl of Essex. Elizabeth was devastated at the loss of her old friend and companion and, reputedly, locked herself in her apartment for hours, if not days. She treasured the letter that he had sent her only days before his death, and wrote on it "His Last letter." She put it in her treasure box, and it was still there when she died 15 years later.
Dudley is buried in the Beauchamp Chapel in St. Mary's Collegiate Church, Warwick, Warwickshire, England. When Lettice Knollys died in 1634, she was buried alongside Dudley in St. Mary's. Their son, Robert Dudley, styled as Lord Denbigh and known affectionately as the "noble imp," who died about the age of five years, is also entombed in the Beauchamp Chapel across from his parents.
Robert Dudley was portrayed in Philippa Gregory's 2005 book The Virgin's Lover.