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Cumnor Place

On 8 September 1560 Lady Amy Dudley (née Robsart), wife of Sir Robert Dudley, 1st Earl of Leicester, (24 June 1532 – 4 September 1588) was found dead at Cumnor Place after apparently falling down a flight of stairs. Her death effectively meant that Sir Robert was free to marry Queen Elizabeth I and thus caused a huge scandal with rumours spreading that her death was the result of foul play. Cumnor Place no longer exists having been demolished in 1810, but it has been suggested it was haunted by the ghost of Lady Dudley.

Amy was the only legitimate child of Sir John Robsart of Syderstone and his wife Elizabeth Robsart (died 1549) (née Scott), the widow of Roger Appleyard (with whom she had had four children). Aged 18 Amy married Sir Robert Dudley on 5 June 1550 in Richmond at Sheen Palace, in a ceremony attended by King Edward VI, and the future Queen Elizabeth I. Settling in Norfolk it is generally thought their early married life was happy. Dudley became constable of Castle Rising, a Member of Parliament for Norfolk and Joint-Commissioner of the Lieutenancy for Norfolk. Dudley was however attracted by the Royal Court and its political opportunities, often leaving Amy at home.

Robert’s father was Sir John Dudley, 1st Duke of Northumberland (born 1504 – died 22 August 1553), Chief Minister of King Edward VI. Upon the death of the young king on 6 July 1553, Northumberland tried to install his protestant daughter-in-law Lady Jane Grey (born circa 1536 – died 12 February 1554) upon the throne of England, which she held for nine days. The day after Edward’s death, Robert Dudley and three hundred men were sent to arrest the catholic Mary Tudor, who was the rightful heir to the throne. But Mary had moved and was raising armed support for her claim. Dudley was himself arrested in Kings Lynn following the end of Jane’s short reign and sent before Mary Tudor at Framlington Castle.

By the end of July 1553, Robert Dudley was in the Tower of London awaiting execution and Mary I (born 18 February 1516 – died 17 November 1558) was crowned on 1 October 1553. At this time his childhood friend Princess Elizabeth (soon to be Queen Elizabeth I) was also imprisoned in the Tower of London. He was released thanks to his mother and other family members gaining favour with King Philip II of Spain, Mary’s husband. However, Robert and Amy did not see the return of any of their seized land until January 1557.

Dudley had a special relationship with Queen Mary’s sister Elizabeth (born 7 September 1533 – died 24 March 1603) and following her ascension to the throne he was given the important position of Master of the Horse. Rumours spread about Elizabeth’s attraction to Dudley and their intimate friendship, hinting that the Queen was waiting for Amy (who was suffering from a “malady of the breast” (thought to be breast cancer)) to die and Robert to be free to marry rather than truly consider any other potential suitor.

Whilst Robert was living at Court for long periods of time, Amy Dudley was as usual left behind and as her ancestral home of Syderstone was uninhabitable she spent time in various different friends houses, including the home of Sir Richard Verney in Compton Verney and from December 1659, with Sir Anthony Forester at Cumnor Place.

Cumnor Place has been described as the grandest grange of Abingdon Abbey and following the Dissolution of the Monasteries it became the home of Abbot Rowland. In 1547 Cumnor Place passed to the Royal Physcian, George Owen (died 1558) and later leased to Sir Anthony Forster, a friend of Sir Robert Dudley. The following description of the building appeared in A History of the County of Berkshire* by William Page and P H Ditchfield (1924):

It was a quadrangular stone building with an outer courtyard on the north, entered from the road. The house was mainly of 14th-century date, but was considerably altered late in the 16th century by Anthony Forster. (Note: Forster purchased the manor of Cumnor in 1561) The gate of the courtyard was dated 1575, and what was probably its postern now forms the entrance to Wytham churchyard. The main building had a gate-house with a vaulted roof in the centre of the north side, and the upper floor of this range was occupied by a single apartment forming the 'Long Gallery.' At the north end was a chamber containing a window, now the east window of Wytham Church. The west range was mainly taken up by the 14th-century great hall, 44 ft. by 22 ft., and having the screens at the north end. Its windows were removed to Wytham Church, and the 16th century entrance doorway is built into the porch there. The heads of the windows were carried up into small gables and the tracery is of the flowing type. The roof had large curved principals similar to those of Sutton Courtenay 'Abbey.' The south range had at the east end a small chapel, 22 ft. by 15 ft., and the east range included an entrance from the churchyard. The base of the outer wall of this range is the only part of the structure now standing. It forms the boundary of the churchyard, and contains a fireplace with a stone head, ornamented with a series of sunk quatrefoils. Traces of the terraces and gardens of the house are still visible to the west of the site.

On 8 September 1560, whilst Robert Dudley was with the Queen at Windsor Castle, Amy died. Members of the household were attending ‘Our Lady’s Fair’ at Abingdon and upon their return they discovered Amy lying dead at the foot of the staircase with what was thought to be head injuries and a broken neck.

The coroner ruled that her death was due to misfortune. It is generally believed that she was depressed and this has led to suggestions that if her death was not accidental, it may have been suicide. However, it was of course the suspicion that she may have been murdered in order to allow Dudley to marry Queen Elizabeth that was considered by their political enemies and caused a huge scandal. Queen Elizabeth I of course did not marry Dudley, in fact she never married and the exact cause of Amy’s death may never be known.

It has been suggested that Amy haunted the manor house and the staircase where she was found dead. The atmosphere at Cumnor Place following the death of Lady Dudley has also been described as oppressive and uncomfortable. Whether this was a tangible feeling or not I cannot say and it may possibly be related to story that Amy may have been murdered there. Either way Cumnor Place eventually stopped being a main residence and was allowed to fall into disrepair, eventually demolished and used to rebuild Wytham Curch.

There is another piece of folklore attached to the supposed exorcism of Lady Dudley’s ghost. The story suggests that nine Oxfordshire parsons came to Cumnor because of the haunting and laid Amy’s ghost to rest in a nearby pond, which, following the rite, it never froze over again.

Note: By 1806 Cumnor Place was being used as a granary and in 1810 it was demolished by the Earl of Abingdon. According to A History of the County of Berkshire by William Page and P H Ditchfield (1924): In the centre of the village is the church of St. Michael. The site of Cumnor Place, where Anthony Forster entertained Amy Lady Dudley, and where she met her end by falling down a 'payre of stayres,’ is immediately south of the churchyard.

* Cumnor was in Berkshire until 1974 and this is usually considered to be a Berkshire haunting.

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Re: Cumnor Place

In the 18th Century William Mickle wrote the following poem - Cumnor Hall

The dews of summer nighte did falle,
The moone (sweete regente of the skye)
Silver'd the walles of Cumnor Halle,
And manye an oake that grewe therebye.

Nowe noughte was hearde beneath the skies,
(The soundes of busye lyfe were stille,)
Save an unhappie ladie's sighes,
That issued from that lonelye pile.

"Leicester," shee cried, "is thys thy love
That thou so oft has sworne to mee
To leave mee in thys lonelye grove,
Immurr'd in shameful privitie?

"No more thou com'st with lover's speede,
Thy once-beloved bryde to see;
But bee shee alive, or bee shee deade,
I feare (sterne earle's) the same to thee.

"Not so the usage I receiv'd,
When happye in my father's halle;
No faithlesse husbande then me griev'd,
No chilling feares did mee appall.

"I rose up with the chearful morne,
No lark more blith, no flow'r more gaye;
And, like the birde that hauntes the thorne,
So merrylie sung the live-long daye.

"If that my beautye is but smalle,
Among court ladies all despis'd;
Why didst thou rend it from that halle,
Where (scorneful earle) it well was priz'de?

"And when you first to mee made suite,
How fayre I was you oft would saye!
And, proude of conquest--pluck'd the fruite,
Then lefte the blossom to decaye.

"Yes, nowe neglected and despis'd,
The rose is pale--the lilly's deade--
But hee that once their charmes so priz'd,
Is sure the cause those charms are fledde.

"For knowe, when sick'ning griefe doth preye
And tender love's repay'd with scorne,
The sweetest beautye will decaye--
What flow'ret can endure the storme?

"At court I'm tolde is beauty's throne,
Where everye lady's passing rare;
That eastern flow'rs, that shame the sun,
Are not so glowing, not soe fayre.

"Then, earle, why didst thou leave the bedds
Where roses and where lillys vie,
To seek a primrose, whose pale shades
Must sicken--when those gaudes are bye?

"'Mong rural beauties I was one,
Among the fields wild flow'rs are faire;
Some countrye swayne might mee have won,
And thoughte my beautie passing rare.

"But, Leicester, (or I much am wronge)
Or tis not beautye lures thy vowes;
Rather ambition's gilded crowne
Makes thee forget thy humble spouse.

"Then, Leicester, why, again I pleade,
(The injur'd surelye may repyne,)
Why didst thou wed a countrye mayde,
When some fayre princesse might be thyne?

"Why didst thou praise my humble charmes,
And, oh! then leave them to decaye?
Why didst thou win me to thy armes,
Then leave me to mourne the live-long daye?

"The village maidens of the plaine
Salute me lowly as they goe;
Envious they marke my silken trayne,
Nor thinke a countesse can have woe.

"The simple nymphs! they little knowe,
How farre more happy's their estate--
To smile for joye--than sigh for woe--
To be contente--than to be greate.

"Howe farre lesse bleste am I than them?
Dailye to pyne and waste with care!
Like the poore plante, that from its stem
Divided--feeles the chilling ayre.

"Nor (cruel earl!) can I enjoye
The humble charmes of solitude;
Your minions proude my peace destroye,
By sullen frownes or pratings rude.

"Laste nyghte, as sad I chanc'd to straye,
The village deathe-bell smote my eare;
They wink'd asyde, and seem'd to saye,
Countesse, prepare--thy end is neare.

"And nowe, while happye peasantes sleepe,
Here I set lonelye and forlorne;
No one to soothe mee as I weepe,
Save phylomel on yonder thorne.

My spirits flag--my hopes decaye--
Still that dreade deathe-bell smites my eare;
And many a boding seems to saye,
Countess, prepare--thy end is neare."

Thus sore and sad that ladie griev'd,
In Cumnor Halle so lone and dreare;
And manye a heartefelte sighe shee heav'd
And let falle manye a bitter teare.

And ere the dawne of daye appear'd,
In Cumnor Hall so lone and dreare,
Full manye a piercing screame was hearde,
And manye a crye of mortal feare.

The death-belle thrice was hearde to ring,
An aërial voyce was hearde to call,
And thrice the raven flapp'd its wyng
Arounde the tow'rs of Cumnor Hall.

The mastiffe howl'd at village doore,
The oaks were shatter'd on the greene;
Woe was the houre--for never more
That haplesse countesse e'er was seene.

And in that manor now no more
Is chearful feaste and sprightly balle;
For ever since that drearye houre
Have spirits haunted Cumnor Hall.

The village maides, with fearful glance,
Avoid the antient mossgrowne walle;
Nor ever leade the merrye dance,
Among the groves of Cumnor Halle.

Full manye a travellor oft hath sigh'd,
And pensive wepte the countess' falle,
As wand'ring onwards they've espied
The haunted tow'rs of Cumnor Halle.

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Re: Cumnor Place

Amy was not totally alone in the houshold on th eday of her death.  There was at least Mrs. Odingsells and Mrs. Owen present, though it is thought all of Lady Dudley's servants were at the fair.

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Re: Cumnor Place

According to a Daily Mail (21 February 2010) article entitled Did Elizabeth I's 'lover' have wife killed so he could wed the Virgin Queen?

It has been the subject of fierce debate for more than 400 years.

Now new evidence has emerged that supports the theory that Amy, the wife of Elizabeth I's close friend and suspected lover Robert Dudley, was murdered so her husband could marry the Queen.

Amy died aged 28 in 1560 after breaking her neck while falling down the stairs at Cumnor Place in Berkshire.

New evidence: Was Amy, the wife of Elizabeth I's suspected lover Robert Dudley, murdered so her husband could marry the Queen.

At the time, it was rumoured that Dudley had his wife killed to clear the way for him to wed Elizabeth.

On hearing the gossip, Dudley wrote letters to friends in which he claimed to be 'much perplexed'.

Any chance of marrying the monarch were dashed by 'the malicious talk that I know the wicked world will use'.

But now the original coroner's report on Amy's death has been discovered in the National Archives by historian Steven Gunn, a lecturer at Oxford University who was searching through 16th century court reports of accidents.

In the report, the coroner records two impacts that caused two deep wounds to Amy's head. There were no other injuries, as would normally be expected in a fall down a stone staircase.

The coroner concluded that Amy's death was the result of 'misfortune'.

'At the very least it casts doubt on the accident theory,' Chris Skidmore, who reveals the documents in his new book Death And The Virgin, told The Sunday Times.

Mr Skidmore has discovered that within five weeks of Amy's death Dudley gave £310 - the equivalent of £65,000 in today's money - to Anthony Forster, who had been renting Cunnor Place at the time of her death.

Dudley, who did not attend his wife's funeral, also wrote to ask that the coroner's jury be 'discreet' men, while one member of jury was a John Stevenson, a man he employed.

The foreman of the inquest jury was Robert Smith, a man who Dudley always maintained he never had any contact with.

But Mr Skidmore found that Dudley's household accounts for May 1566 who he gave 'Mr Smith, the Queen's man' several yards of black taffeta and velvet to make clothes.

Mr Skidmore is one of many historians who believes that Dudley was the only man Elizabeth ever desired to marry.

'You could say that Amy’s death was what really made her the Virgin Queen,' he said.

In the years following Amy's death Dudley did not remarry for the monarch's sake. When he finally did wed, his new wife Lettice Knollys was permanently banished from court.

His only legitimate son died in 1584.

Dudley was made the 1st Earl of Leicestershire in 1564. He died aged 56 in 1588.

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Re: Cumnor Place

The Haunted Homes and Family Traditions of Great Britain by John Ingram (1897)

Cumnor Hall was a large, quadrangular building, ecclesiastical in style, having formerly belonged to the dissolved Monastery of Abingdon, near which Berkshire town it was situated. It has acquired a romantic interest from the poetic glamour flung over it by Mickle, in his ballad of Cumnor Hall, and by Sir Walter Scott, in his novel of Kenilworth. Both authors allude to it as the scene of Lady Amy Robsart's murder, and, although the contemporary coroner's jury pronounced the lady's death to have been accidental, and modern antiquarians* endeavour to exonerate Lord Robert Dudley (afterwards Earl of Leicester) from having had any hand in bis wife's tragic end, the matter is still enveloped in mystery.

According to the evidence given before the Coroner, Lady Dudley, on Sunday, the 8th of September, 1560, had ordered all her household to go to a fair then being held at Abingdon. Mrs. Odingsell, her companion, had remonstrated with her for this order, observing that the day was not a proper one for decent folks to go to a fair; whereupon her Ladyship grew very angry, and said, "All her people should go." And they went, leaving only Lady Dudley and two other women in the house. Upon their return the unfortunate lady was found dead at the bottom of a flight of stairs, but whether fallen by accident, or through suicide, or flung there by assassins, is, seemingly, an unfathomable mystery.

Sir Walter Scott, taking Mickle's ballad for his authority, assumed that a foul murder had been committed, and, in his romance of Kenilworth, gives the following dramatic but purely imaginative account of the affair. Lady Dudley, miscalled the Countess of Leicester,! is described as imprisoned in an isolated tower, approached only by a narrow drawbridge. Halfway across this drawbridge is a trap-door, so arranged that any person stepping upon it would be precipitated below into a darksome abyss. Varney, the chief villain of the novel, rides into the courtyard and gives a peculiar kind of whistle, which Amy recognises, and, deeming her husband is coming, rushes out, steps on the trap-door, and falls headlong down. " Look down into the vault," says Varney to Foster ; " what seest thou ?" "I see only a heap of white clothes, like a snow-drift," said Foster. " Oh, God ! she moves her arm!' "Hurl something down upon her: thy goldchest, Tony, it is a heavy one."

The imputation of this terrible crime, derived by Scott from Mickle, was obtained, by the latter, from Ash- mole's Ajitiqaities of Berkshire, the compiler of which work is said to have found the accusation against Lord Dudley in a book styled Leicester's Commonwealth, a publication published in 1584, four years before Dudley's death, and publicly condemned by the Privy Council as an infamous and scandalous libel. It is interesting to know that Amy Eobsart, who is believed to have been born at Stansfield Hall, Norfolk, a house which obtained a fearful notoriety some years ago as the scene of the murder of the Jermyns by Rush, was married publicly at Sheen, in Surrey, on 4th June 1550, instead of clandestinely, as generally stated. King Edward the Sixth, then only eleven years old, kept a little diary (preserved in the British Museum), and, says Canon Jackson, to whom we are indebted for much of the information given here, therein alludes to the marriage in these terms :

"1550, June 4. Sir Robert Dudeley, third sonne to th' Erie of Warwick, married S. Jon. Kobsartes daughter, after wich mariage, ther were certain gentle- men that did strive who shuld first take away a goose's head which was hanged alive on two cross posts."

Although the jury and Lady Dudley's relatives agreed to accept the poor woman's death as accidental, the country folk about Cumnor would not forego their idea that foul play had been resorted to. Ever since the fatal event, the villagers have asserted that " Madam Dudley's ghost did use to walk in Cumnor Park, and that it walked so obstinately that it took no less than nine parsons from Oxford 'to lay her/ That they at last laid her in a pond, called 'Madam Dudley's Pond'; and, moreover, wonderful to relate, the water in that pond was never known to freeze afterwards."

Notwithstanding the " laying of Madam Dudley," however, her apparition still contrives at intervals to reappear, and he is a brave, or a foolhardy man, who dares to visit, at nightfall, the haunts of her past life. Mickle's ballad is still applicable :

" And in that Manor now no more

Is cheerful feast and sprightly ball ;
For ever, since that dreary hour,
Have spirits haunted Cumnor Hall.

" The village maids, with fearful glance,
Avoid the ancient mossgrown wall ;
Nor ever lead the merry dance,

Among the groves of Oumnor Hall.

*' Full many a traveller oft hath sighed
And pensive wept the countess's fall,
As, wandering onward, they espied

The haunted towers of Cumnor Hall."

Lord Dudley was not created Earl of Leicester until 29th September 1563, three years after his wife's death.



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