Robert Dudley, 1st Earl of Leicester

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Robert Dudley, 1st Earl of Leicester, KG (24 June 1532 – 4 September 1588) was an English nobleman and the favourite and close friend of Elizabeth I from her first year on the throne until his death. For many years he was a suitor for the Queen's hand; she giving him reason to hope.

Dudley's youth was overshadowed by the downfall of his family in 1553 after his father, the Duke of Northumberland, had unsuccessfully tried to establish Lady Jane Grey on the English throne. Robert Dudley was condemned to death but was rehabilitated with the help of Philip II of Spain, then England's king consort. On Queen Elizabeth's accession in November 1558 Dudley was appointed Master of the Horse. In October 1562 he became a privy councillor and in 1587 was appointed Lord Steward of the Royal Household. In 1564 Dudley became Earl of Leicester and from 1563 one of the greatest landowners in North Wales and the English West Midlands by royal grants.

Robert Dudley, Earl of Leicester was one of Elizabeth's leading statesmen, involved in domestic as well as foreign politics alongside William Cecil and Francis Walsingham. Although he adamantly refused to be married to Mary, Queen of Scots, Dudley was for a long time relatively sympathetic to her until from the mid-1580s he strongly advocated her execution. As patron of the Puritan movement he supported non-conforming preachers, but tried to mediate between them and the bishops within the Church of England. A champion also of the international Protestant cause, he led the English campaign in support of the Dutch Revolt from 1585–1587. His acceptance of the post of Governor-General of the United Provinces infuriated Queen Elizabeth. The expedition was a military and political failure and ruined the Earl financially. Leicester was engaged in many large-scale business ventures and a main backer of Francis Drake and other explorers and privateers. During the Spanish Armada the Earl was in overall command of the English land forces. In this function he invited Queen Elizabeth to visit her troops at Tilbury. This was the last of many events he organized over the years, the most spectacular being the festival at his seat Kenilworth Castle in 1575 on occasion of a three-week visit by the Queen. Dudley was a principal patron of the arts, literature, and the Elizabethan theatre.[1]

Robert Dudley's private life interfered with his court career and vice versa. When his first wife, Amy Robsart, fell down a flight of stairs and died in 1560, he was free to marry the Queen. However, the resulting scandal very much reduced his chances in this respect. Popular rumours that he had arranged for his wife's death continued throughout his life, despite the coroner's jury's verdict of accident. For 18 years he did not remarry for Queen Elizabeth's sake and when he finally did, his new wife, Lettice Knollys, was permanently banished from court. This and the death of his only legitimate son and heir were heavy blows.[2] Shortly after the child's death in 1584 a virulent libel known as Leicester's Commonwealth was best-selling in England. It laid the foundation of a literary and historiographical tradition that often depicted the Earl as the Machiavellian "master courtier"[3] and as a deplorable figure around Elizabeth I. More recent research has led to a reassessment of his place in Elizabethan government and society.

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