Authors: Emily Purdy
Carnal marriages begin in joy but end in sorrow.
—Sir William Cecil commenting on the marriage of Robert Dudley and Amy Robsart
Table of Contents
I used to think of her. She used to think of me.
The Church of Our Lady in Oxford
Sunday, September 22, 1560
told Kat to fetch a chair and be my dragon, to sit outside my bedchamber door and guard my lair after I was gone.
“Let no man or woman cross my threshold and enter here. Say I have a black and red
of a headache, and any who dare disturb my rest do so at their own peril,” I instructed as, one by one, the regal layers of pearl-and-jewel-encrusted, gold-embroidered, white-brocaded satin tumbled to the floor, followed by the cumbersome farthingale, stays as stiff as armour, rustling layers of starched petticoats, bejewelled ribbon garters, and the silk stockings Robert bought me, specially ordered from Spain by the score—twenty pairs at a time, in a typically extravagant gesture—and, lastly, like a bridal veil, a shift of cobweb lawn thin enough to read a book through if the light were good and the ink black enough.
With all my court finery pooled around my naked feet, the jewels on my discarded gown seeming to float like ruby red and sapphire blue flowers upon a froth of rich cream, I stood straight and breathed deeply, stretching my arms high above my head. If Robert had seen me thus, he would no doubt have compared me to Aphrodite emerging newborn and naked from the surf. But I could not think about that now; I could not think about Robert. I took another deep breath before stepping out of the rich, luxurious fabric froth and trading it all for a shirt of unbleached linen and the plain brown leather and cloth of a common man’s clothes.
I ignored Kat’s concerned queries and anxious pleas as I sat and pulled on the high leather riding boots while she circled and flapped around me like a bird futilely squawking and batting its wings in a gilt-barred cage, pinning my hair up tightly even as she implored me not to do this foolish, insane, and dangerous thing.
The moment my telltale flame-coloured tresses were tucked out of sight beneath a brown cloth cap, I stood and imperiously waved her aside, cutting off Kat’s chatter like a headsman’s axe with one flourish of my long-fingered, marble white hand. And, in the stark silence that followed, I snatched up the leather gloves and riding crop and headed for the secret door and stairs that descended into my private garden, where I so often walked in the mornings still wearing my nightgown before I girded myself in queenly regalia to face the business of the day, the heavy responsibility of ruling the realm, and feeling, sometimes, like one lone woman against the whole world.
I hugged tightly to the wall as my booted feet felt carefully for each one of the stone steps in the dim and close torchlit stairway.
my mind kept repeating.
It all ended with a staircase. By mishap or murder, it all ended with a staircase.
A common hired barge waited for me upon the river, then a horse, a fleet bay stallion, muscular and lean, yet another gift from Robert. It was a dangerous and heady sensation to be out in the world anonymous and alone. I, the Queen of England, unencumbered by escorts, chaperones, and guards, was making my way as a lone woman, disguised in male attire, on a secret pilgrimage.
could happen. I could be set upon by a gang of ruffians or thieves; I could be murdered, or, if my sex was discovered, raped, then left for dead in a ditch, or, my identity unknown or disbelieved if I proclaimed it, forced to live out my days catering to the lusts of men as a prisoner in a bawdy house. Every step I took was fraught with danger, but we were old friends, danger and I; danger of one kind or another had dogged my steps since the day I was born. Safety was a stranger and a state more illusory than real to me. I had outlived the shifting moods and murderous rages of my father, and even when my own sister wished me dead and futilely and painstakingly sifted the haystack to find a shiny silver needle of guilt with which to condemn me, still I managed to prevail and preserve my life.
I was alive, but another woman was dead—a life for a life. She had died alone and unloved with no one to protect her from danger, to keep Death at the hands of cruel Fate, her own desperation, fatal mischance, or all too human villainy, at bay. That was the reason for my solitary journey; that was why I had stripped myself of my royal persona and raiment and was riding hard to Oxford in a pouring rain that cloaked my sorrow as silent tears coursed down my face.
I was in time to see the funeral procession pass. Mourners, and those just curious to catch a glimpse, lined the roadside and stood bareheaded in the pounding rain, the men clasping their caps over their hearts.
I closed my eyes and thought of Amy, weeping and raging, pounding her fists upon the mattress of the bed she should have been sharing with her husband in a home of her own instead of sleeping in alone as a perpetual houseguest of some obliging friend or gentleman retainer of Robert’s, eager to do the high-and-mighty lord, the Queen’s Master of the Horse and rumoured paramour, a favour by providing lodgings for his unwanted and inconvenient wife. How she must have
me and raged against the unfairness of it all: at the cancer marring the pink and white perfection of her breast and stealing her life away, sapping her vitality and strength like an ugly, bloated, blood-hungry leech that could never be sated until her heart ceased to beat; at the husband, once so in love with her, who desired her death and might even have schemed to hasten it, so he could have another who came with a crown as her dowry; and at the woman—the Queen—she thought had stolen the love of her life away. She had every reason to be angry, bitter, and afraid, and to hate me.
When the embalmers opened the body of my father’s first queen, the proud and indomitable Catherine of Aragon, they found her heart locked in the ugly black embrace of a cancerous tumour. Some took it as a sign that the woman who had used her last reserve of strength to write to my father,
Lastly, I vow that my eyes desire you above all things,
had actually died of a broken heart. Was Amy’s deadly malady of the breast also physical proof of the pain inside it, a visible manifestation of the broken heart of a woman mortally wounded when Cupid’s arrow was forcibly pulled out? If that were true, the gossip and rumours were right: we—Robert and I—
murdered Amy. Robert had pulled the arrow out, carelessly and callously, leaving her alone to suffer and bleed, while he gave his love to me. And I, a selfish and vain woman, exulting in the freedom and new-come power to control my own destiny, eager for passion without strings, had accepted it, like an offering of tribute and desire laid at the feet of an alabaster goddess.
The black plumes crowning the staves carried by the men who walked before and aft the coffin hung limp and bedraggled, beaten down by the rain, like squiggles of black ink running down a wet page, like the tearstained letters Amy used to send her husband. The eight-and-twenty men—one for each year of Amy’s life—who walked in solemn procession, two by two, down that long and winding road, escorting Amy to her final rest, wore long, hooded black robes. I shivered, remembering the letter I had once found on Robert’s floor, crumpled into a ball on the hearth. He had flung it at the fire in a fit of annoyance but had missed. He hadn’t cared enough to disturb himself and rise from his chair and cross the room to pick it up and feed it to the flames. Instead, he had left it lying there, where any, whether they be servant, queen, or spy in the Spanish Ambassador’s pay, might pick it up and read those smeared, hysterical words scrawled frantically across tearstained pages about a phantom friar who haunted Cumnor Place in a grey robe with a cowl that hid his face
—the face of Death!
—in blackest shadows no human eye or light could pierce.
I have seen Death,
Amy had insisted.
He is stalking me!
Now, as the church bells tolled mournfully, robed men with hoods that hid their faces in black shadows carried Amy to her tomb on a grey and gloomy day when even the sky wept. The coffin was leaden and heavy, and they took turns shouldering it, those who had borne the burden falling back to walk in seamless step whilst others took their places beneath its weight; it was all done as precisely as military manoeuvres, as perfectly choreographed as a court masque, with not a single stumble or misstep. What little family she had and the women and servants who had borne her company at Cumnor followed the casket, a few of them weeping copiously and volubly, the others enjoying the notoriety of being, however slightly and momentarily, at the centre of a maelstrom of raging scandal. Each of them was outfitted in new mourning clothes paid for by the absent widower, who remained closeted in his milk white mansion at Kew, feeling sorry for himself instead of grieving for the wife whose so-convenient death he now realised was a grave inconvenience. And a choir of solemn-faced little boys in white surplices brought up the rear, clutching their black-bound songbooks and singing dolefully.
At the black-draped, candlelit Church of Our Lady, as the boy choir sang, the coffin was opened and draped with black sarcenet fringed with gold and black silk, surrounded by candles and mounted escutcheons supporting the Dudleys’ bear and ragged staff, and Robert’s personal emblem of oak leaves and acorns, and Amy lay in state, to be entombed in the chancel on the morrow.
The Doctor of Divinity, Dr Babington, a round little man with a bald pate ringed by a fringe of grey, and lopsided spectacles slipping from his nose, then came forth to preach his sermon, “Blessed are they who die in the Lord,” but few bothered to listen and instead sat in the pews or stood in the back with their heads bent together, gossiping about how Lady Dudley had met her death, by villainy or mischance or, “God save her,” her own desperation, and the fact that her absent husband was rumoured to have spent the astounding sum of £2,000 on this splendid funeral, and that not counting the cost of his own mourning garb, which was said to be the very epitome of elegance. But there was a gasp and a lingering, horrified pause when Dr Babington misspoke and recommended to our memories “this virtuous lady so pitifully
”. He stood there for a moment with his mouth quivering and agape. “Oh, merciful Heaven, did I
?” he gasped before he hastily continued and completed his sermon in a babbling rush, his face highly flushed as he stumbled and tripped over the rest of the words as though his own poor tongue were falling down a staircase, going from bad to worse with each bump and thump. Then the mourners came forward, in solemn procession, to pause for a moment by the coffin and pay their last respects to Lady Dudley. For those who needed more than a moment, Robert had thoughtfully provided a pair of impressive—and no doubt expensive—mourning stools fringed in Venice gold and black silk and upholstered in quilted black velvet, placed at the head and foot of the coffin, so that any who wished to might sit and mourn in comfort.