Much speculation has swirled about the relationship between Elizabeth I and Robert Dudley, Earl of Leicester, for over four hundred years. Were they lovers? Did they have a secret child together? Was Elizabeth complicit in Lady Dudley’s untimely death? Sarah Gristwood’s Elizabeth and Leicester sorts through the facts and the fiction to present a fascinating examination of the personal and political impact that this lifelong relationship had on the queen and her primary favorite.
This is the first scholarly book to come out in several years about their relationship and illuminates just how influential Robert Dudley was in Elizabeth’s life. Not only was he a close friend and confidante, but he also acted as her ambassador on many occasions.
According to Gristwood, Leicester was tasked to negotiate a marriage for Elizabeth and was even considered as a potential groom to Mary, Queen of Scots, in order to serve Elizabeth’s interests. Additionally, he championed the Protestant agenda in England, was chancellor of Oxford University, and led Elizabeth’s armies against the Spanish invasion of the Netherlands. Previous scholarship, by contrast, tends to depict him as somewhat of a dandy with more style than substance.
While Elizabeth had the power to set him high or destroy him (and indeed, he profited greatly), Leicester thoroughly captivated her and was able to wield tremendous influence because of this. He was powerful enough to be seen as a threat to Elizabeth’s closest political advisors, William Cecil in particular.
Elizabeth and Leicester has its share of tabloid elements. There was the rivalry and bitter jealousy between Elizabeth and Leicester’s wives, one of whom died under suspicious circumstances, leaving all of Europe to speculate if Elizabeth had her murdered. Leicester, too, had to deal with his fair share of rivalry when he witnessed Elizabeth’s flirtations with some of her other favorites.
All of Europe waited in breathless anticipation for Elizabeth to choose a groom. There seemed to be an endless parade of men presented to her as potential husbands, and her reluctance to marry only fueled more speculation about her relationship with Leicester. There was also the appearance of Arthur Dudley, who claimed to be the bastard son of Leicester and Elizabeth. These rumors scandalized Europe and still captivate centuries later, but Gristwood presents them in a way that allows her to deconstruct and dismiss most of them.
There is much going on in this book, since Gristwood covers Elizabeth’s life from her childhood to her death, more or less the extent of her relationship to Leicester. It is meticulously researched yet still completely accessible, adding fresh insight to the wealth of Elizabethan scholarship and illuminating all the reasons why Elizabeth is one of the most fascinating monarchs in English history. Elizabeth and Leicester is a must for fans of Tudor, and especially Elizabethan, history.