Robert was born in June 1532, the fifth son of the Duke of Northumberland. He was well educated and spent time at the courts of both Henry VIII and Edward VI. He married an heiress, Amy Robsart, in 1550, with King Edward attending.
As Edward’s health started to fail, the Duke of Northumberland schemed to put Lady Jane Grey, who was married to Robert’s older brother, Guilford, on the throne. We all know how that went. After Jane was tossed off the throne, Robert, his father, and all his older brothers were thrown into the Tower and condemned to death. Guilford and the Duke were both executed; Robert remained a prisoner, and his stay coincided with that of Princess Elizabeth, whom he’d known since childhood. He and his brothers were released in the autumn of 1554 due to the intervention of Queen Mary’s husband, Philip of Spain. Some of Dudley’s lands were restored to him in 1557, and he started to gradually work his way back into royal favor.
When Elizabeth came to the throne in 1558 his ascendency at court was assured. She named him Master of the Horse the day she inherited the crown—an important role that would keep him close to her. The following year he was elected a Knight of the Garter, and foreign envoys began to gossip about his close relationship with the young queen. Foreign visitors vied for his attention, and he acted as official host on state occasions. English nobles and foreign envoys alike resented his influence, and unpleasant rumors began to circulate that Elizabeth was planning to marry Dudley as soon as he was rid of his sickly wife. It didn’t help matters that Amy Dudley never seemed to be welcome at court and spent all her time in the country.
Amy was found dead at the bottom of the stairs of her home in September 1560, while her husband was with the queen at Windsor Castle. Upon hearing the news, he immediately withdrew to his house at Kew and awaited the verdict of the official inquest. The jury ruled that Amy’s death had been an accident, but there were many who believed that Robert had had his wife murdered. The scandal ensured that he would never be Elizabeth’s consort.
In 1562, Elizabeth fell ill with smallpox and, believing herself to be at death’s door, asked the Privy Council to name Robert Protector of the Realm with the astronomical salary of £20,000 a year. To the Council’s relief, she recovered, and he was, instead, made a Privy Councilor himself. He would prove to be a conscientious and devoted councilor.
Elizabeth put him forth as a potential consort for Mary, Queen of Scots and even named him Earl of Leicester to sweeten the prize. Robert, however, was totally uninterested in becoming Mary’s husband and Mary married Henry, Lord Darnley instead.
Although Dudley continued to hope he might someday marry Elizabeth, he did enjoy his dalliances. One affair, with Lady Douglas Sheffield, produced a son in 1574. After that, he took up with Lettice Knollys, wife of the Earl of Essex and a cousin of Elizabeth’s. After Essex’s death, Robert and Lettice secretly married. They successfully kept it secret from Elizabeth for nine whole months, but when she found out, she was furious. Lettice gave birth to a son in 1581, but he died aged only three. Robert was a good father to his three stepchildren, however, and was said to be a devoted husband to Lettice. One of those stepchildren, Robert Devereux, would one day become Elizabeth’s favorite as well.
In July 1588 the Spanish Armada was knocking on England’s door. Elizabeth appointed Robert Lieutenant and Captain-General of the Queen’s Armies and Companies, a role he filled enthusiastically and well, despite being in poor health. He erected a camp for the defense of London and organized the forces, which were in a sorry state. After the Armada victory, he rode in triumph through London before heading to Buxton in Derbyshire to visit the baths. He died en route at Cornbury Park. Historians believe he was either suffering from malaria or stomach cancer.
Elizabeth was inconsolable. She locked herself in her apartment for days until Lord Burghley had the door broken down. She kept the last letter he sent her in a treasure box by her bed for the rest of her life.