Robert Dudley Leicester, earl of

Leicester, Robert Dudley, earl of (lĕsˈtər) [key], 1532?–1588, English courtier and favorite of Queen Elizabeth I. A younger son of John Dudley, duke of Northumberland, he was early brought into the society of Edward VI and Princess (later Queen) Elizabeth. Knighted at an early age, Dudley married Amy Robsart in 1549 and received preferment from the crown. Upon Edward's death (1553), he aided his father in the plot to place Lady Jane Grey upon the throne, was sent to the Tower of London, and condemned to death. He was later released, pardoned, and, after military service in France, restored to his rights (perhaps through the intervention of Mary I's husband, Philip II of Spain).

On the accession of Elizabeth (1558), Dudley was made master of the horse and later a privy councillor. Within a year he was acknowledged as her favorite and as her most probable choice for a husband. His wife's mysterious death in 1560 darkened his reputation. He then proposed (1561) to Philip II to restore Roman Catholicism in England in return for Philip's endorsement of Dudley's marriage to Elizabeth. By 1563, Elizabeth seems to have realized the impracticality of marriage with Dudley, but her personal feeling toward him did not change, and he remained in a position of influence at court. She offered his hand to Mary Queen of Scots and, to facilitate this scheme, created him earl of Leicester (1564), but the plan was halted by Mary's marriage to Lord Darnley. Leicester married secretly in 1573 and in 1578 (perhaps bigamously) wed the countess of Essex, an act that led to a temporary estrangement from Elizabeth.

From about 1564, Leicester was leader at court of the Puritan party, which desired war with Spain. In 1585 he was named commander of an expedition to help the United Provinces of the Netherlands against Spain. His military efforts were undistinguished, and he enraged Elizabeth by accepting (1586) the title of governor of the Netherlands. He was finally recalled in 1587. Upon the approach of the Spanish Armada (1588), Leicester was appointed captain general of the armies. Leicester was a patron of letters and the drama. The first royal patent for actors was granted to his company.

See M. Waldman, Elizabeth and Leicester (1944, repr. 1969); E. Rosenberg, Leicester, Patron of Letters (1955); R. C. Strong and J. A. Van Dorsten, Leicester's Triumph (1964).

The Columbia Electronic Encyclopedia, 6th ed. Copyright © 2012, Columbia University Press. All rights reserved.

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