Robert Dudley was the fifth son of Edward VI's most powerful subject, John Dudley, Duke of Northumberland. Robert was brought to court and knighted during the reign of Edward VI. Marriage to a Norfolk heiress, Amy Robsart, followed. The Dudley family and its fortunes were suddenly eclipsed by the death of Edward and by the abortive attempt of Northumberland and his sons to depose Mary Tudor in favor of Lady Jane Grey. Robert, two brothers, and his sisters survived the Marian revenge, but not until the accession of Elizabeth I did he escape the shadow cast by his father's treason.
Elizabeth and Robert had known each other as children, and she was clearly drawn to him. She was lavish in the honors granted him, and rumor inevitably linked the two romantically. Thus when Amy Robsart died in a fall late in 1560, Dudley was widely suspected of having had a hand in the accident. Though he was exonerated by a jury, popular suspicion was not allayed, and thus chance of marriage with the Queen was effectively blocked.
By 1564 Elizabeth sought to use Dudley to neutralize Mary Stuart of Scotland; by creating him Earl of Leicester, she gave him a rank fit for a royal consort. Mary's match with her cousin Darnley put an end to this plan, and the new earl remained at court. Leicester's presumption upon Elizabeth's favor antagonized both the older nobility and the inner ring of royal ministers, and his petulant interference with every marriage proposal the Queen received did nothing to allay old suspicions. During the mid-1570s Leicester's private affairs (awesome in their complexity) claimed most of his attention. A secret, unacknowledged marriage with Lady Douglas Sheffield was followed by an open wedding to Lettice Knollys, widow of the Earl of Essex.
As a member of the House of Lords, Leicester had taken the lead in the formation of the Protestant Association in 1584, which swore to protect Elizabeth with their lives. He adopted an increasingly anti-Spanish position in the Privy Council and led the party which favored open intervention on the side of the Dutch rebels. In 1585, reluctantly, Elizabeth agreed to dispatch an army and, equally reluctantly, to send Leicester as its head. Before fighting a single battle, the earl found himself named "Absolute Governor" of the United Provinces. Elizabeth, who feared being dragged unprepared into a full-scale war with Spain, denounced his actions loudly. Leicester's arrogance coupled with his ineffectiveness as a military leader led to his return to England, and to the resignation of his Dutch title, by April 1588.
As the threat of Spanish invasion grew, the earl was made nominal commander of the English defense; an empty honor, it proved his last, for he died of a fever on Sept. 4, 1588. Clearly, at the end, Leicester recognized the extent of his debt to Elizabeth's favor, for he left her a collection of jewels and "strong expressions of fidelity."
Further Reading on Earl of Leicester
In 1584 Leicester was slandered in an anonymous pamphlet usually known as Leicester's Commonwealth, which accused him of subverting the state to his ambition. These charges were refuted by his nephew, Sir Philip Sidney, and by Elizabeth herself. Two modern studies present a highly romanticized picture of Leicester: Milton Waldman, Elizabeth and Leicester (1944), and Elizabeth Jenkins, Elizabeth and Leicester (1961). Eleanor Rosenberg, Leicester: Patron of Letters (1955), contains a list of works dedicated to the earl and makes a case for him as a sponsor of learning.
Additional Biography Sources
Haynes, Alan, The white bear: Robert Dudley, the Elizabethan Earl of Leicester, London: P. Owen; Chester Springs, PA: Dufour Editions distributor, 1987.
Kendall, Alan, Robert Dudley, Earl of Leicester, London: Cassell, 1980.
Wilson, Derek A., Sweet Robin: a biography of Robert Dudley, Earl of Leicester, 1533-1588, London: H. Hamilton, 1981.