The story opens in an inn located in a village called Cumnor, Oxfordshire. A young traveller, Tressilian, is secretly looking for a woman, Miss Amy Robsart, to whom he is betrothed. He overhears a story about a beautiful woman secluded in a house in the neighbourhood, Cumnor Place, and there he finds his betrothed living there as a prisoner, but she refuses to escape with him.
“This house is mine,” said Amy – “mine while I choose to inhabit it. If it is my pleasure to live in seclusion, who shall gainsay me?” “Your father, maiden,” answered Tressilian, “your broken-hearted father…”
As he is leaving, Tressilian comes upon Richard Varney, who had been attending on Amy’s father before she disappeared, and Tressilian supposes that Varney must have kidnapped her from her father’s house to be his mistress.
Tressilian arrives at Sir Hugh Robsart’s house where they decide that the best thing to do is bring the matter before Queen Elizabeth. The Queen’s favourite is the Earl of Leicester, and it is known that Varney is in his employment.
On route to the Queen in London, Tressilan gets word that his friend Earl of Sussex is not well, and he rushes to his side. The Earl of Sussex is also a favourite of the Queen, and is a fierce rival to the Earl of Leicester, who is Elizabeth’s preferred. Sussex hears of Tressilian’s plan to plead the case to the Queen and supports him, hoping that the revelation may damage Leicester’s standing with the sovereign.
Unknown to Tressilian, Amy Robsart has actually secretly married the Earl of Leicester, and NOT Richard Varney. Tressilian gains an interview with the Queen, where he accuses Varney of kidnapping Amy and holding her against her will, but Varney claims that there has been a legal marriage. The Queen then suggests that Leicester hold a royal party at his seat in Kenilworth, and that Amy attend so that she may see the new bride.
The Earl of Leicester is beginning to lament his hasty decision to marry Amy Robsart. The Queen is very attached to Leicester and the rumour is on everyone’s lips that they will marry. Varney is also regretting the Earl’s marriage, as his ambition is to climb as high as he can on the back of Leicester, hopefully being able to eventually influence him as King. They decide to try and persuade Amy to attend the revellings under the pretense of being Varney’s wife.
Varney travels to Cumnor Place with a letter from Leicester, telling Amy to attend the Kenilworth party as Varney’s bride. She is incensed, believing that Varney is lying and is not doing the will of Leicester, and then becomes afraid for her safety when her guards try to poison her. Her maid, seeing the mortal danger Amy is in from those men guarding her, helps her escape in the middle of the night with Tressilian’s servant, and they decide to travel directly to Kenilworth to plead her case with her husband, rather than going to her father’s house. They manage to gain admittance to the castle under the guise of entertainers, and Amy – secluded secretly in Tressilian’s chamber – writes a letter to Leicester, imploring his help.
The letter is stolen from the servant before it can be delivered, and the servant is accidentally evicted from the castle grounds. Tressilian, happening upon Amy in his chamber, is forced to promise not to intervene on her behalf for 24 hours, which closes all the avenues by which she can seek help.
The Queen arrives at the castle with all of the pomp and grandeur necessary, but the Earl of Leicester does not appear in Amy’s quarters, as he does not know she is there. The next morning she leaves her room and hides herself in a square within the grounds where Queen Elizabeth happens upon her. Amy is very anxious, as she does not want to betray her husband, yet she is afraid for her life. Elizabeth takes her before Leicester and demands the truth, but Varney intervenes, saying his “wife” is mad. Amy is confined in a room to calm down, and Leicester goes to visit her secretly with Varney. She pleads with the Earl to reveal her real identity to the Queen and, after seeing her emotional plea, Varney realises that, for his ambitions to succeed, she must die.
“She has brought me to this crisis,” he muttered — “she or I am lost. There was something — I wot not if it was fear or pity — that prompted me to avoid this fatal crisis. It is now decided — she or I must perish.”
Just as Leicester decides that he must tell Elizabeth everything, Varney suggests to him that his wife has not been faithful to him and has continued her attentions to Tressilian, despite being married. Leicester is passionate with rage and decides that his wife should be returned to Cumnor and punished to the point of death for infidelity. Varney leaves Kenilworth with Amy later that night, before Leicester has an opportunity of relenting of his anger.
That night Leicester confronts Tressilian about Amy and they fight a duel. Just as Leicester is about to slay Tressilian, they are interrupted by the boy who had stolen Amy’s letter, as he had been endeavouring to deliver it to the Earl himself. Leicester reads the letter, which communicates the perils with which Amy had travelled to be with him, and he begins to see that she was faithful to him, despite what Varney led him to believe. He rushes to Elizabeth to confess his marriage to her and then sends Tressilian to Cumnor Place to ensure Amy is safe.
Meanwhile, Varney had rigged a trap on the landing at the top of the stairs so it would give way as soon as she stepped on it. When she did not attempt to escape her chamber, he went outside and imitated Leicester’s secret whistle so as to lure her from her room. She came rushing out at the sound and fell to her death.
Tressilian arrived at Cumnor Place while Amy’s body was still warm. A measure of justice was at least done, as Varney poisoned himself, saying “I was not born to drag on the remainder of life a degraded outcast; nor will I so die that my fate shall make a holiday to the vulgar herd.”
The novel was intially quite hard to read, as it waffled on about seemingly irrelevant details and was full of thees, thys, thous, comeths, and goeths. But when I discovered that the novel was based on a true story my interest was rekindled!
The True Story
The plot is based on the true story of Robert Dudley, the first Earl of Leicester. He was the favourite of Queen Elizabeth, so much so that it was suspected he would marry her. As in many reproductions of “the truth”, Sir Walter Scott has taken some liberties with the facts in his novel.
Amy Robsart married Robert Dudley in 1550 and not in secret, as King Edward VI attended the wedding. She actually died in 1560 (not 1575) from falling down a flight of stairs at Cumnor Place. She was also suspected of being ill with a “malady in her breast”, possibly breast cancer. The coroner’s inquest concluded it had been accidental, although there was much suspicion that Dudley had orchestrated the death with the intent to marry Elizabeth afterwards. Sir Richard Varney was the only person at Cumnor Place the day that Amy died, as everyone else had gone to a local fair, which caused some suspicion of foul play at the time. A publication, Leicester’s Commonwealth, of disputed authorship, was published in 1584, and accused Dudley of murder and many other wicked deeds and it greatly affected his reputation.
The suspicion and unrest around the death of Dudley’s wife was one of the reasons Queen Elizabeth did not marry him. However, she granted him the castle at Kenilworth in 1563 and also gave him the title of Earl of Leicester in 1564. The royal party at Kenilworth was held in 1575, but Amy Robsart had already been dead 15 years.
As to the other main character of the book, Tressilian seems to be a mere invention of the author’s imagination. In my volume, the author has explained the origin of almost all the other incidental characters and their involvement in the history of this event, but Tressilian remains a mystery.
Robert Dudley did remarry eventually, to a widow named Lettice Devereux (maiden name, Knollys). They married secretly in 1578, but Elizabeth found out soon after and was very angry. Her jealous reputation came to bear and she refused to allow his new wife to come to court.
There is still much debate over whether Robert Dudley actually murdered his first wife. Unfortunately it is difficult to tell the facts from the fiction!
Sources and Relevant Links
Kenilworth, by Sir Walter Scott (1821) – read online
Robert Dudley – an interesting summary of his life
Did Robert Dudley murder Amy Robsart? – a website exploring many aspects of Elizabeth’s 1 life.
Elizabeth – the movie (1998), where Joseph Fiennes stars as Robert Dudley.