The more research I undertake, the more I read about Lord Robert Dudley, Earl of Leicester, the favourite of Queen Elizabeth I, the more I think he’s really gotten a bad rap in popular culture that he doesn’t necessarily deserve. I think a lot of the bad press that he got in his lifetime is really a reflection of two things.
Firstly, he was a leading, if not the leading, Protestant figure at the centre of Elizabethan government at the time. That earned him a special place on the hit list of the Catholic Church. Although to this day no one knows for sure who wrote ‘Leicester’s Commonwealth’ it was a smear campaign the likes of which tricky Dick Nixon would be proud. Popularly believed to have been written by a leading Jesuit, the thing to keep in mind is, he wasn’t the only one to be smeared in this way. Similar pamphlets came out against others in the same manner (for instance, see the one commonly referred to at the time as ‘Burley’s Commonwealth’). So should it be taken seriously? Yes, but only for what it was – an attack to undermine a leading Protestant figure.
Secondly, he was the royal favourite. Can you show me one royal favourite who wasn’t reviled? In fact, some of them were so hated that they were murdered by jealous Barons, And the thing I think everyone forgets is – not only was he the royal favourite – but he was so in a unique way that England has never seen before. Why? Because the country had never seen a court the like of that of Elizabeth I before. Only the second Queen in the country’s history, she was unmarried (and liked the attention of her courtiers, mind) and unfettered in a way her half-sister Mary never was, surrounded by a court of testosterone-laden, competitive men? Hmmm, doesn’t take much imagination to see how that’s going to go, does it?
Did Dudley use the patronage system to further his own interests? Was he vane and arrogant? Yes, but I would argue, he wasn’t alone (if you watched Wulf Hall you’d have seen that). Everyone used the patronage system to get as much as they could for themselves – that was the system! And then there was the rumour that he murdered his wife. I believe he was way too politically savvy to have had anything to do with it – he knew very well what the suspicious death of his wife would do to him politically – just read his first letters after he received the news.
So did he make powerful enemies at the time? Just the Catholic Church, the Catholic population of England that wanted to turn the country back to Catholicism, as well as many of the most powerful men in the country.
In the end, the thing I’d say is – lighten up! Instead of just automatically dissing him, read a few of the modern books on Dudley such as the one by Derek Wilson or the essays on Elizabethan politics by Simon Adams with an open mind. Then come back and talk to me about him.