Authors: Carol Mackrodt
September 1560 -
Farewell, Cumnor Place
The worst thing when someone dies, after the shock of knowing that you’ll never again talk to them or laugh with them, share their sorrow or have good times, is the terrible moment when you have to sort through their possessions, those sad and cherished souvenirs of a life now over, those little things of no value that once gave them so much pleasure. I’m sad, oh yes, so sad for my friend and I’m furious.
Where’s her husband in heaven’s name? He should be doing this, not me.
as usual he’s occupied elsewhere so, as Amy’s lifelong friend, this miserable task has fallen to me. It’s now nearly three weeks since she died, just twenty eight years old, and I still can’t quite believe it. The two wooden chests that have been our faithful companions on our endless travels from Lincolnshire to Kent, from Essex to London and from London to Oxfordshire stand open, half filled with Amy’s gowns, kirtles, hoods and velvet embroidered slippers once again – as if we’re making just another journey. She’d always wanted a home of her own with her beloved Robert but it didn’t happen.
Sir Robert Dudley! – I say the words with disgust and contempt. Where have you been all these years? She trusted you and waited for you to come home, waited for affectionate little notes that never arrived? And where were you when she died, Dudley? Oh yes I know very well … walking with your lady love, laughing and giggling with her, and your wife conveniently far away where you could forget about her – as you have for the past two years. Why would I have thought you’d have any difficulty with that? I hate you. And I hate your lady friend even if she is the Queen.
s I look around her chamber strewn with fine clothes and cherished possessions, it seems as if Amy and I are simply preparing for yet another move to yet another manor house where we’ll be treated as privileged guests.
ot the case – and never will be again. She’s dead; my lovely friend is gone forever. She’s lying in a cold vault in the Church of Mary the Virgin in nearby Oxford, all alone and asleep in the dark. She hated the dark. What was the prayer we would say at night when we were small? “Matthew, Mark, Luke and John, bless the bed that I lie on.” I sit down on the edge of the bed and think of Amy in her cold bed, the tears rolling down my face.
There are footsteps on the stairs outside, the heavy measured tread of a man. I dry my tears and try to look less emotional as Sir Anthony Forster enters the chamber. He was Amy’s host during her last months, a favour to his friend, Sir Robert. But Cumnor is not his; the manor house is rented from a doctor called Mr Owens.
“Are you making good progress, Katherine?” He then sees my tear stained face. “It’
s a terrible task I know. Why not take some time in the Hall with the rest of us and enjoy a cup of ale and a sweet cake.”
“Thank you for your kindness, Sir Anthony, b
ut I’d rather finish. Robert – I suppose I should say
Robert now - has said that he wants very few of the personal items that belonged to Amy so …..”
“Not even a keepsake?” Mr
Forster is incredulous.
s asked for the large jewels and her brooch, the Dudley one she wore when her portrait was painted …… so I asked her brother, John, if her sisters would like her dresses, hoods and slippers. I’m packing them in the chests that .… served us well on our travels.” At this point I have to choke back the tears again as I remember how Amy loved fine clothes. Robert, on her death, had immediately demanded all items of high value, precious stones and gold, to be returned to him - but nothing of true sentimental value. He wants no reminders of his marriage. There’s a silence. I wonder who will get her jewels – I
ve composed myself, Sir Anthony says, “What about you Katherine – is there nothing you would like?”
t wear her clothes. They would remind me too much of her and she always felt she was, well, very grand and beautiful when she wore them even though Robert treated her carelessly and caused her to feel she was worthless.”
I’ve embarrassed poor Sir Anthony by speaking so freely and thoughtlessly. Robert Dudley is a friend of his. He pauses and then, to my surprise, he says, “We will all have to answer to God one day, Kate.” It’s almost, but not quite, a criticism of Robert who, though shocked at Amy’s death, has not been near Cumnor Place for the fifteen months we’ve been here - not even when he heard of the tragedy. No wonder poor Amy died broken hearted and in despair. Nor did he attend his wife’s funeral, a grand affair that cost him a small fortune. Why the expense? Remorse? A guilty conscience? I just wonder.
takes a key from the top of an oak table and unlocks the drawer underneath. He lifts out a small wooden casket and a bundle of letters tied with ribbon. “The letters were not valuable to anyone but Amy. They are probably from Robert. Will you take them and look after them, Katherine? Someone should do so.”
“I’d be pleased to have them. Thank you.”
There’s another key in the drawer. He unlocks the casket, which Robert’s manservant must have missed when he came to collect Amy’s diamond and other gems; it contains some small pieces of jewellery from the early years of the marriage - not many as Robert had little money to spare at that time. Later he was attainted, a penniless traitor imprisoned in the Tower while the loving Amy stood by him. These were bad times and, for many years, the young couple had nothing to live by and depended on the charity of their families and friends.
Upon his release Robert and his brothers spent huge sums of money fighting Prince Philip’s wars and still Amy waited patiently for better fortune which, for her, never arrived. As Robert’s star rose again Amy was slowly and surely cast aside. He spent money gambling at cards or placing wagers on jousts or tennis matches and, yes, he started buying presents too, very expensive presents - but not for her. By this time there was another woman in Robert’s life and her name was Elizabeth, the same Elizabeth who is now our Queen. The gossip was rife and, while Amy was delighted with the small gifts her husband sent her, it was rumoured that he spent tenfold on lavish gifts for the Queen.
y bitter reminiscences are interrupted by Sir Anthony who has been examining the contents of the casket.
“Here, Kate, you m
ust take this. It’s the necklace she wore, she once told me, when her portrait was painted for her wedding. I’m sure you would like it.”
But what about her sisters, Anne and Frances, or the wives of John and Philip?” Amy has two half sisters and two half brothers, all from her mother’s first marriage to Roger Appleyard.
you are her family too. She would have wanted you to have this and I know she valued it because she wore it often.”
I hold the necklace
in the palm of my hand and look at the miniature portrait on the table, her wedding portrait. A fair haired girl of eighteen looks out into the distance with an honest, steady gaze. Amy was a beauty when this portrait was painted just before their grand wedding at the royal palace of Sheen and there’s the necklace her father gave her and, on her gown, the Dudley brooch, framed with oak leaves and gillyflowers, worn with pride and love. It had been a gift from Robert but he’s now obviously forgotten its meaning. The Latin word for oak, quercus robur, meant ‘Robert the oak’ to Amy – it was a joke. The gillyflowers represented eternal love, which, I reflect bitterly, was another joke.
sits warmly in my palm and I feel the rush of love that Amy always invoked with her lively, kindly personality. I can feel her smiling at me and saying, “Go on, Kat Brereton, my good gossip, take it. I want you to.”
“It’s, it’s beautiful. Yes I would love to have it.” I’m too full to say more.
smiles, “Well that’s settled then. I’ll send Mrs Picto to help you otherwise she’ll spend all afternoon chattering to Mrs Odingsells! These women! They do nothing but gossip!”
That makes me smile anyway. A few minutes pass by and
from the stairs I hear the slow laboured step of Mrs Picto, who was Amy’s personal maid.
“Those stairs will be the death of m
e,” gasps the rather plump lady. She then blushes as she realises what she’s just said. Amy’s body was found at the foot of a pair of stairs, two short flights with a landing between them.
“Never mind, Mrs Picto, you’re here now. You can help me s
ort through the last of Lady Dudley’s possessions.”
We work through the next hour, placing in four heaps small items
- from the casket a pearl brooch, a gift from her father, from the drawer two velvet French hoods decorated with pearls, an embroidered purse made of velvet, a dried orange studded with cloves, a prayer book, a decorated mirror, five pairs of dainty gloves, some handkerchiefs and ribbons, a pair of red leather riding gloves to match the embossed leather saddle Robert gave her soon after their wedding when she was still learning to ride, like a lady of the royal court.
living female relatives are Frances and Anne, her two half sisters, and the wives of her half brothers, John and Philip Appleyard. We’ll leave any further distribution to the cousins to them. She has another half brother, Arthur, the illegitimate son of her father, Sir John Robsart. He and John Appleyard will have to negotiate with Robert Dudley for the lands her father left to his only legitimate child.
Mrs Picto finds a miniature of Robert Dudley
, painted when his father was Duke of Northumberland early in 1553, when Robert was nineteen years old.
“He was handsome, wasn’t he?” says Picto.
“He still is if you like a swarthy gypsy look,” I say. I feel full of contempt for the man who let my dear friend down so badly.
“Do you think he’ll want this likeness back?” says Picto.
“What, so he can give it to his new lady love, the Queen?”
“Hush, Miss Katherine,” says Mrs Picto looking round fearfully. “The walls have ears, you know.”
Well I really don’t care any longer but I change the subject.
Have you been questioned yet by the coroner’s jury?” I ask.
“Well I spoke to Mr Smythe, the foreman of the jury, the other day.”
“And what did he ask you, Mrs Picto?”
“He wanted to know why Lady Amy had been behaving so strangely on the day she died.”
“And what did you say to that?”
“I told him what I said to Mr Bl
“Why, how she had been very angry with us and how she had insisted that we all went to the fair in Abingdon so she could be left alone at Cumnor Place - and how old Mrs Owen and Mrs Odingsells refused to go because it was the Lord’s Day and no time to be going to a fair. And how there was an argument and how Lady Amy had screamed at them but they still wouldn’t go. And how we had to leave her like that and how the next time we saw her she was dead.”
“Is that all?” Mrs Picto does
not notice the note of irony in my voice. She just can’t help gossiping to people.
, that isn’t all - for he asked me if she was often in a strange mind like that. And I said that indeed I had often heard her praying to God to be delivered from her suffering. And then I was amazed. He asked me if I thought she had an evil toy in her mind. ‘Good sir,’ I said shocked, ‘My Lady Amy was a good girl and loved God and said her prayers like a good Christian woman. I’m sorry I said so much if you think I was meaning that she took her own life.’ ”
I look skywards to heaven. Oh, Mrs Picto, if only you thought before using your tongue.
Fortunately the jury must have come to the conclusion that Amy’s death was accidental for she’d been given a Christian burial. On the basis of Picto’s foolish ramblings they could well have reached the conclusion that Amy, in a fit of desperation and dejection, had tried to kill herself by flinging herself down the stairs, a most evil act for which the dead person would be buried at a crossroads with a stake driven through the heart to prevent their wicked spirit from wandering and tormenting others.
“This little needlework case is nice,” says Mrs Picto.
“Yes it was a present from her husband last Christmas.”
“Well that was nice of him.”
“Yes, except I heard he’d presented the Queen with gemstones and two pairs of her favourite silk stockings.”
“What! Silk stockings all the way from
Spain? They must have cost a fortune.”
“Apparently, they did.”
“Well that was a kind thing to do too. I expect, being a Queen, her legs are more delicate than ours.”