Monday, May 21, 2007

An Elizabethan Enigma near Oxford

by Frank Luger

A youthful Frank Luger
A youthful Frank Luger ( 1966)

On the occasion of one of my recent Braziers College presentations, I took the opportunity to "get lost" for a few hours in the library; feeling like fish in water among endless rows of old books and manuscripts. This delightful bibliophile experience proved even more fascinating than anticipated on the account of stumbling upon the still unsolved mystery of one Amy Robsart over four centuries ago in Elizabethan England. So, without further ado, let me share my befuddlement; here are the unusual details.

Not far from Oxford, actually maybe four miles to the west, in a secluded situation away from the main roads, lies the Berkshire village of Cumnor. In appearance, there is nothing much to distinguish it from the many other peaceful old villages in these parts, despite a modern, paved expressway that just doesn't fit into this quaint countryside of thatched and tiled cottages, greystone walls, an inn or two, and commanding the scene from a slight eminence, the parish church with its battlement tower, surrounded by the graves of past generations of villagers. Cumnor, in short, conforms to the everyday village pattern; and it is curious to reflect that just over four hundred and forty years ago this quiet spot was the subject of gossip and speculation in half the royal courts of Europe. Indeed, to this day, people still ask themselves what really happened at Cumnor Place on the night of Sunday, September 8th, 1560. They do so in vain, for the mystery of Amy Robsart's death is rumored to have defied even Sherlock Holmes' celebrated talents; and thus the enigma is likely to remain a question mark for all time.

Nowadays only a few scant traces remain of the house in which the tragedy occurred, though it was still standing, just to the west of the church, when the XVIIIth-century poet William Mickle related the oft — told story of Amy Robsart in his Ballad of Cumnor Hall:

The dews of Summer night did fall,
The moon, sweet regent of the sky,
Silver'd the walls of Cumnor Hall
And many an oak that grew nearby.

However, even then Cumnor Place, which was the house's correct name, was no longer inhabited. As long as anyone could remember, it had stood deserted and forlorn, for it was reputedly haunted by the ghost of Lady Amy. Today we may smile, in our cosmic complacence, at such superstition; but then, a ghostly old place it must have appeared, judging from the old print which hangs in the church. The eerie ruins of this house of memories, shunned by all who passed that way, were finally pulled down in 1810- and eleven years later Sir Walter Scott's novel Kenilworthonce again set people talking about the Cumnor tragedy. For in his romantic story of the times of Queen Elizabeth I, Scott had revived the old theory of murder.

Because Amy Robsart is encountered in the pages of Kenilworth, there is often a tendency to regard her as a "character from Scott" rather than as an actual person in realtime History. Only when one actually visits the place where she died, and gazes upon the same grey church tower1which she herself must so often have gazed upon, one is reminded of the real, flesh and blood Amy Robsart and, independently of Scott, one is motivated to ponder yet again over the mystery of her tragic end.

It was the misfortune of Amy Robsart -- daughter of Sir John Robsart, of Norfolk- to be married to the man who became the favorite of Queen Elizabeth. In 1550, at the age of 18, she married Lord Robert Dudley, who was the fifth son of the Duke of Northumberland and was the same age as herself. Young though he was, he was a well-known figure at Court- he had already met the future Queen Elizabeth- and the boy King Edward VI, Elizabeth's half-brother, attended the wedding and made a note of it in his diary. What follows may perhaps be imagined in "classical" terms.

When Elizabeth succeeded to the throne in 1558, her early affection for the handsome Lord Robert grew warmer. She made no secret of her regard for the man she was later to create Earl of Leicester, and in 1559 Dudley was referred to by the Spanish ambassador as "the king that is to be".

"The king that is to be"- but if Dudley's ambitions, and those of the Queen, did indeed turn in that direction, they were confronted by a very inconvenient obstacle: the fact that Dudley was married. So long as Lady Amy lived, the obstacle was insurmountable. One way or another, Dudley neglected his wife "big time".

Whatever the future might hold for Dudley, it seemed to hold no place for his lonely wife, who moved from one country house to another, throwing herself on the hospitality of a succession of family friends. One of these- a particularly close friend of Dudley- was Anthony Forster, who early in 1560 invited her to take up residence with his household at Cumnor Place.

There she carried on her melancholy existence, in which one of her great interests, after her husband had neglected her for the glitter of the Court, was to appear still as a fine lady. Rather pathetically, she seemed to have a passion for new clothes, and in the church at Cumnor we can read the facsimile of a letter she wrote to her tailor, requesting him to embellish "the gowne of velvet which I send you" in the same style as "the rosset taffeta gowne you sent me last. I pray you let it be done with as much speed as you can."

This letter was dated from Cumnor on August 24th, 1560, but, in spite of her injunction of speed, she never wore that velvet gown. For in little over two weeks after she wrote the letter she was dead.

We come to the day of the tragedy. On September 8th, the annual autumn fair was being held in the market-town of Abingdon, a few miles from Cumnor, and for some strange reason Lady Amy appeared particularly anxious that, though she herself intended to remain at home, everyone else should go to the fair. Mrs. Forster and the two family friends also staying at Cumnor declined (perhaps on the ground that it would not do for gentlewomen to be seen at a fair on a Sunday), but the servants departed with alacrity. The rambling old house was therefore deserted on this fatal day except for the four ladies- for Forster himself, it appears, was away from home.

Nothing unusual happened during the day, and in the evening, after dining in her own apartments, Lady Amy joined her companions in the communal hall before they retired. Late at night the servants returned from Abingdon to make a horrifying discovery. The beautiful Lady Amy was lying dead at the foot of the staircase with her neck broken, still wearing her quite proper evening clothes.

The news traveled around the country like wildfire, and with the news went all sorts of rumors. Dudley was with the Queen at Windsor when he was told of his wife's death, and he saw at once that he would be an object of suspicion- and not only he, but the Queen. Had he (with or without the connivance of Elizabeth) persuaded an accomplice- Forster perhaps?- to murder his wife while he himself was innocently employed at Windsor? That was what people would be asking- indeed, that great gossip, the Spanish ambassador, in a letter home on September 11th, wrote that "they (the Queen and Dudley) were thinking of destroying Lord Robert's wife… They had given out that she was ill, but she was not ill at all." (In actual fact, it is now believed that Lady Amy was suffering from an incurable malady… though it's rather doubtful that her death was euthanasia; you don't break someone's neck out of pity.)

It is therefore not surprising that Dudley ordered a stringent inquiry into the circumstances of his wife's death. The jury at the inquest cleared his name by returning a verdict of accidental death, but the gossips were not satisfied. Even if Dudley and Forster were innocent of murder, there was a possibility of either a hired killer or suicide. Some substance seems to have been lent to the suicide theory by the fact that Lady Amy's personal maid had stated that she had heard her mistress "pray to God to deliver her from desperation." If that was so, what else but her husband's flagrant behavior could have been the cause of her "desperation"?

Curiously enough, Dudley did not attend his wife's funeral at St. Mary's Church, Oxford, on September 22- which perhaps is fortunate as the chaplain who preached the sermon is said to have slipped up at one point and described the lady as "pitifully slain." That was only a few days after the coroner's jury had declared that death was accidental.

he libels on Dudley continued long afterwards, though they failed to produce new evidence. In 1584 a scurrilous publication entitled Leicester's Commonwealth alleged that Forster and another of Dudley's friends had flung Lady Amy down the stairs- this, of course, being the theory which was revived by Scott in Kenilworth. Also, a couplet in a poem of 1608 made an obvious reference to the Cumnor tragedy:

The surest way to chain a woman's tongue Is break her neck - a politician did it.

However, did he? Are there not surer ways of committing murder than by throwing the victim down a flight of stairs? Suicide then? -- bearing in mind Amy's anxiety to be left alone in the house on the day of Abingdon Fair. But would not poison have been so much more simple and certain?

The official verdict was "Mischance," but, in spite of that, the mystery of Amy Robsart remains determinedly a mystery, and Cumnor keeps its secret.

Whatever Elizabeth's relations with Dudley may have been before his wife's death, they became closer after it. But Dudley never married the Queen. It is plain that she soon realized the inadvisability of such a course, and in addition his presumptuous behavior irritated her- as on the occasion when he threatened to dismiss one of the Court officials. The matter being brought to the Queen's attention, she publicly told Dudley: "I have wished you well, but my favor is not so locked up for you that others shall not partake thereof." However, outside the Court, he advanced rapidly in power, wealth and title, and the fine estate of Kenilworth was only one of his many territorial possessions.

If Cumnor Place is no more, there are in the church several reminders of the tragedy. There is, as I have already mentioned, Amy's letter to the tailor, and alongside we can read the tailor's bill for work done, with a receipt to the effect that the account was settled in February, 1561. Here we read, as evidence that the tailor duly carried out the instructions in Amy's last letter: "For new translating the collar of your velvet gowne with gold fringe… 2s. 6d." Immediately below this comes the next item in the account: "For making a mantle of clothe for the chief morner… 6s. 8d."

Anthony Forster of Cumnor Place lies in an elaborate tomb close to the altar, but perhaps the most compelling monument in the church is that which stands, white and unexpected, in an obscure corner at the opposite end of the building. It is one of the only two contemporary statues of Queen Elizabeth I still surviving- and with what a strange enigmatic expression she surveys this place of memories.

According to rumors, the famous master-detective of Victorian England, Sherlock Holmes, was baffled by the mystery of Cumnor Place. Reason? He was unable to eliminate the impossible, and thus end up with truth, however improbable, because Elizabethan records stubbornly refused to cooperate- perhaps preferring to safeguard the enigma as a simple testimony to the Roman maxim: "quieta non movere." Now, whether such stubbornness was in defense of the Realm, or perhaps for preventing even a hint of lèse majesté, is something I think I can safely leave to the undoubtedly fertile imagination of our readers.

1 Cumnor Church dates from the twelfth century and contains many interesting features, including a chained bible and a beautiful, genuine, solid oak staircase.

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