‘Your great favour, thus oft and so far to send, to know how your poor @@ doth, is greatly beyond the reach of his thanks.’

So begins a certain love letter. The symbols @@ signify the pet name of the sender – they might almost be ‘text-speak’! But there was no Tudor microchip, and lovers might have to resort to code.Elizabeth_1524100cThe relationship between Queen Elizabeth I and her favourite, Robert Dudley, Earl of Leicester lasted until his death. He was her @@ (Eyes) and sketched his own fine, dark pair in letters to the Queen. But the exact nature of their bond is a subject of speculation. Leicester’s father and grandfather had been executed for treason and he inevitably bore its taint. After resisting the accession of the Catholic Mary Tudor, he was imprisoned in the Tower and was fortunate to escape the block. It was here he met the young Elizabeth whose life also hung by a thread in the wrangle for succession which followed the death of Henry VII.

After Elizabeth became Queen, Leicester was swiftly marked out for her particular favour. Apart from important court positions and trading privileges, he was given estates, houses, manors, forests and ecclesiastical properties in both England and Wales. Among them was the estate of Kenilworth in Warwickshire, which was to become his favourite residence. He was made Baron of Denbigh and Earl of Leicester in 1564.


Leicester demonstrated princely style in his refurbishing of the grounds and castle which were run down and insignificant when he acquired them. He is estimated to have spent the enormous sum of £60,000  (millions in today’s money) in the first few years. A later survey reported that the estate extended to twenty miles around, while a detailed furnishings inventory described acres of luxurious carpet in crimson velvet and silver, embroidered with heraldic posies, bears and ragged staves. The same emblems and colour-scheme appeared in a sumptuous bed of walnut, embellished with painted roses, curtains of the finest satin and a quilt covered in silver lozenges. There were twenty other grand bedsteads and the quantities of top-of-the-range- bedding would have filled a warehouse, not excluding a selection of ‘close stooles’, some in quilted black velvet with pans of pewter.

Painting of Elizabeth dancing with Dudley c.1580

Painting of Elizabeth dancing with Dudley c.1580

Elizabeth visited Kenilworth in 1566 and 1572 whilst on Royal Progress, for Leicester’s position as undisputed favourite and reputed lover had endured. ‘The queen is in love with Robert’ wrote Philip of Spain after the failure of the latest  round of marriage negotiations on Elizabeth’s behalf. But the Queen had evaded marriage with her favourite or with any other suitor.

Leicester was distrusted for his ‘traitorous’ family, for his swaggering and ambition, for the power and wealth he had amassed through royal favour and for his influence over the Queen. The rumour was also rife that he had murdered his first wife, Amy Robsart, in order to clear his way to Elizabeth’s hand. He almost certainly nursed such an ambition whilst Elizabeth was presumably all too aware of how marriage would diminish her power and overthrow her iconic status as the Virgin Queen. She and Leicester may or may not have been lovers. Whatever the case, their association continued.

Her visit to Kenilworth in 1575 is regarded as the high watermark of Tudor culture. It was the social event of the age and, presumably, Leicester’s last attempt to impress and then gain his Queen. To say that no expense was spared in the preparation is an understatement: a new turreted Gatehouse was built and a 100 feet high tower- a sort of Tudor Shard – comprised the Royal Apartments. The third storey penthouse inevitably housed her bedchamber and, lacking the technology for an express elevator (plush lined in scarlet and silver, no doubt), Leicester installed windows so enormous that different vistas over the estate would delight Elizabeth as she ascended to bed.

A full account of the visit is ascribed to a letter of Robert Laneham (or Langham), a court servant. The Castle is praised for being situated in;

‘ayr sweet and hollsum, rayzed on an eazy mounted hill…with sweet springs bursting foorth…and plentifully well sorted on every side into arabl, meado, pasture, wood, water (and) a goodly Pool of rare beauty’

The pool, stuffed with ‘great and fat fish’, embraced the castle on three sides below a ‘faire Parke’ where the Renaissance ideal of nature improved by art was expressed in

‘delectabl, fresh and umbrageous Boowerz, arberz, seatz, and walks…tall and fresh fragrant treez…also by great…cost…sweetnes of savour…fragrant earbs and floourz, in forme, cooler and quantities…deliciously variaunt’

Sir Walter Scott in his 1821 novel Kenilworth imagined the scene as Elizabeth’s procession approached:

‘the acclamation…ran like wildfire…and announced to all…that (the Queen) had entered Kenilworth. The whole music of the Castle sounded at once, and a round of artillery was discharged…the Queen herself, arrayed in the most splendid manner, and blazing with jewels, formed the central figure…Leicester, who glittered like a golden image with jewels and cloth of gold, rode on her Majesty’s right hand.’

Gascoigne presenting his book Hemetes the Heremyte (c.1579) to Elizabeth.

Gascoigne presenting his book Hemetes the Heremyte (c.1579) to Elizabeth.

Scott turns for his information to Laneham’s letter and the verses of poet George Gascoign, who wrote and organised festivities designed to go on for a full twenty-one days. The whole region was aroused and, among huge crowds, might well have been John Shakespeare, alderman of Stratford, and his eleven year old son, William. Onlookers stood for days hoping to catch a glimpse of the Queen, and of spectacles which included fireworks, bearbaiting, hunting parties and an elaborate water pageant.

The latter was overwhelmingly theatrical, featuring Triton riding a mermaid, nymphs on floating islands and a mechanical twenty-four foot long dolphin (possibly the precursor of Speilberg’s shark). This beast was benign, however, for Arion, the classical poet and master of the lyre, himself preserved by music-appreciating dolphins, sat astride and sang:

‘a delectabl ditty of a song…compounded of six severall instruments al covert, casting sound from the Dolphin’s belly.’


Image of Arion from Vesalius, 1543

The scene may well be echoed in Twelfth Night when the ship’s captain tells Viola that her brother has survived drowning, riding the waves ‘Like Arion on the dolphin’s back.’ Other striking references appear in A Midsummer Night’s Dream which Elizabeth is thought to have seen acted. An allusion to Leicester’s designs on the Virgin Queen appears in Oberon’s speech:

‘Cupid all armed: a certain aim he took / At a fair vestal throned by the west.’

Like Leicester, however, Cupid misses his mark and the ‘imperial votaress’ passes on ‘in maiden meditation, fancy-free.’

Oberon twice stresses that he is speaking of visual and auditory memories, and the music and fireworks of Kenilworth are evoked in:

‘Since once I sat upon a promontory

And heard a mermaid on a dolphin’s back

Uttering such dulcet and harmonious breath

That the rude sea grew civil at her song,

And certain stars shot madly from their sphere

To hear the sea maid’s music.’

Leicester’s flair for drama and entertainment had important implications for Elizabethan theatre. He was the first to take into his service the group of private players who became ‘Leicester’s Men’. This set a precedent for other companies to seek rich patrons and, to some extent, improved the popular perception of actors who were widely regarded as rogues and vagabonds. In response to a petition from some of his household, he also procured a royal patent allowing them to perform plays. Among the signatories was James Burbage, father of that very Richard who, at the Globe, was the first to create the roles of Hamlet, Macbeth and Coriolanus.

Shakespeare achieved his theatrical effects mainly through the power of words; Leicester via massive capital outlay. He is reckoned to have spent £1000 per day on the ‘princely pleasures’ at Kenilworth leaving himself virtually bankrupt for the rest of his life. If a reasonable annual income at the time was £40, he must have expended some tens of thousands of pounds.

Elizabeth departed the Castle after only nineteen days, still unbetrothed and, according to some stories, in ‘dudgeon.’ What  had gone wrong? We do not know.

It had been the last throw of the marital dice.

Bettina Harris, Library Support Assistant



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