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.