Recently, an article appeared on the web where an art expert removed the yellowing varnish from a 399-year-old painting that had been in a private collection in England. The remarkable picture, named The Lady in Red, was of of an unknown 36-year-old woman painted in 1618. If that wasn't incredible enough, when I saw the almost finished product, I was stunned.
In history, there are a lot of unanswered questions. Did Richard III kill his nephews in the Tower? Was King John plotting to take the throne from his brother Richard Lionheart? Was Richard of Conisburgh illegitimate as thought which would have made Richard of York and his brood of future kings illegitimate as well? But the biggest question of all has always been Why didn't Elizabeth I marry? Being Henry VIII’s daughter, there would have been no greater thought on her mind after seeing firsthand how her father had become obsessed with his own difficulty to produce a male heir. After all, for the dynasty to continue, you had to have male heirs.
By the time of her death, Elizabeth had become a legend and over the centuries, instead of that legend decreasing, her legend has grown. She has become one of the most talked-about monarchs of England and I like to think her father would have been very proud of her. But with her legend came some astounding stories and theories.
We all know of the rumours of an affair with Robert Dudley. Over the years, through her sister Bloody Mary’s reign and after her death, then through her own early years as queen, the friendship between Robert and Elizabeth grew until she could barely stand to have him leave her side. She appointed him to be her Master of Horse, which involved regular attendance at her side, and she even had his bedchamber moved next to her personal apartments, further igniting rumours of sexual liaisons.
Unfortunately, there were a couple of things that stood in the way of their marriage. Firstly, the nobles disliked and distrusted the Dudley family intensely. And secondly, Robert was already married.
Despite this, they remained close. Very close. Letters were sent to each other and the symbol they used was ‘ôô’ as a code for the nickname ‘Eyes’ she gave him. As his influence grew, so did Elizabeth’s possessiveness and jealousy.
To say their relationship was platonic is naïve. In the 16th century, sex was seen as an expression of love and I don’t believe Elizabeth was against it. She had already declared that she was ‘fond’ of Robert and she even called him her ‘sweet Robin’. While foreign suitors vied for her hand, everyone was gossiping about the scandal between Elizabeth and Robert Dudley and their flirtatious behaviour. Catholics challenged her virtue and accused her of ‘filthy lust’ and the courts of Europe were abuzz with gossip about the Queen of England’s sexual behaviour. Talk was that she was not considering any of their offers because she wanted to marry her favourite, but was unable to do so.
The last time Robert saw his wife, Amy Robsart, was four days over Easter and once during the summer of 1559 when she visited London. Apparently, they never saw each other afterwards. Then one year later, on 8th September 1560, one day after Elizabeth’s birthday which she celebrated with Robert, Amy sent all the servants out for the day to a local fair and shortly afterwards, she was found dead at the bottom of a flight of stairs with head injuries and a broken neck.
As you can imagine, the gossip went berserk.
To say the very least, Robert Dudley’s reputation was tarnished. The story grew more scandalous by the day until eventually he was being accused of arranging his wife’s death so that he would be able to marry Elizabeth. And the scandal played into the hands of many nobles and politicians who were desperately trying to stop Elizabeth from marrying him. Warning bells were clanging loudly in their heads when they remembered stories of his father and his brother Guildford. Many of them were desperately trying to remind England about the similarity of circumstances in Robert’s family members. His father, John Dudley, had wielded considerable control over both Henry VIII and young King Edward. Robert’s brother Guildford Dudley had married Lady Jane Grey two weeks before she became queen as a stepping-stone to the throne and Robert Dudley was trying to do the exact same thing by getting rid of his wife so he could marry Elizabeth. They were frantic to make it look like the Dudley family had a predisposition for this sort of behaviour.
At the end of the inquest, the verdict came back as an unfortunate accident, perhaps even suicide, but in the end, it didn’t matter. The rumours had done their work, not just in the kingdom but also across the courts of Europe, and the implications of his wife’s death affected him for the rest of his life. Even if Elizabeth had seriously considered marrying Dudley at some time, there was no way she could marry him after that. Dudley suggested that he leave England for a while but Elizabeth would have none of it and everything remained the same.
William Cecil, her most trusted adviser wrote at the time that he feared the pair would be the “ruin of the realm”. So what if Cecil actually did know a secret and that secret was that she had become pregnant to Robert Dudley prior to the death of his wife and she delivered an illegitimate child to him? It has already been noted that during 1560 – 1561 there is very little documented information regarding Elizabeth. However, there are reports that during the summer of 1561, the Spanish ambassador commented that she was “swelling extraordinarily” and was “dropsical” and she had a swelling of her abdomen. According to witnesses, she was supposedly suffering from dropsy, now called oedema, the same ailment that Mary Queen of Scot's mother, Mary of Guise, had suffered which was a build-up of fluid in the body. It is not too much of a jump to imagine this might also have been due to a pregnancy. Put that with the fact that Elizabeth was ‘fond’ of Robert Dudley, whose bedchamber adjoined hers. She could have given birth during the winter of 1561 when marriage to Robert would have been impossible due to the scandal surrounding his wife’s death.
This is where I bring in more theories. Doing my math, the painting was painted in 1618 of a 36 year-old woman. This woman by the way is distinctive, as is her clothing and jewellery. She was undoubtedly a woman of means and her resemblance to Elizabeth I is amazing and uncanny. The shape of the face is identical, as are the lips, nose, eyes and stance. But working backwards from 1618, the woman would have been born around 1582 and at that time, Elizabeth would have been a 49-year-old woman so it is unlikely that she was the woman's mother.
But let's go back again to Robert Dudley and the winter of 1561. What if Elizabeth had in fact given birth to a child? What if that precious child was given to a wealthy noble family to raise as their own? What then if that child had a child when they were ... say ... 21-years-old? Not out of the question, is it? That would mean that this child, this grandchild of Elizabeth and Robert Dudley, was born in 1582. The exact date that The Lady in Red would have been born. This theory fits all the criteria and time frames. But ...
It also brings in the question, Did Dudley actually kill his wife after all? Did he do it in the hope that he and Elizabeth could in fact marry and make the legitimate? Perhaps the intensity of the nobles and politician's dislike for the Dudley family surprised Elizabeth and made her hesitate.
Over the years, Robert Dudley tried everything in his power to persuade Elizabeth to marry him. In 1575, he decided to pull out all the stops and make on last spectacular attempt. The invitation for her to visit him at his Warwickshire estate, Kenilworth Castle, for several days of lavish entertainment was meant to be extraordinary and Elizabeth loved every minute of her visit. Still she hesitated. As genuine as her love for him, she knew that marrying him would only court disaster, sparking such intense opposition from Dudley’s rivals that it might even spill out into civil war.
He waited for Elizabeth until 1578. For all his desperation to marry Elizabeth, he had been secretly courting one of her ladies-in-waiting Lettice Devereaux, formerly Knollys, now the dowager Countess of Essex for the past three years. Lettice was one of the most beautiful women at court, bearing a striking resemblance to a younger Elizabeth and was of royal blood herself, being the great-niece of Elizabeth’s mother, Anne Boleyn. The pair had enjoyed a flirtation for 10 years and with his failed last-ditch attempt to persuade Elizabeth to marry him, he took Lettice as his mistress.
Lettice was 29 and her husband had disappeared into an Irish fog and died of dysentery two years before, leaving her with two children. For a time, Elizabeth was blissfully unaware that Dudley had betrayed her. But three years into the affair, around 1580, Lettice fell pregnant and refused to be pushed aside any longer. Fearing the inevitable backlash from Elizabeth, Dudley agreed to a secret ceremony. Lettice wore a loose gown at the ceremony but inevitably the secret was out. Elizabeth reacted as we would expect. She threw a Tudor wobbler. When she heard that her cousin had stolen the only man she’d truly loved, she boxed Lettice’s ears and screamed abuse before banishing her from court, vowing never to set eyes on her again.
For the birth of Leicester's heir, Robert, Lord Denbigh, in June 1581, Lettice moved to Leicester House on the Strand. A further advanced pregnancy was reported in September 1582 by the French ambassador, yet the outcome is unknown. This pregnancy fits the time frame and with records stating that Lettice bore a 'striking resemblance to the young Elizabeth', perhaps this is child that grew up to be The Lady in Red.
A wise woman recently said, ‘The truth is both a beautiful and terrible thing and must therefore be treated with caution.’ Whatever the truth was, it died with Elizabeth and no one else was talking. And with her, the Tudor dynasty died as well.