The Reading Room

Hume’s History of England and The House of Dudley: Part 3

“The hatred borne the Dudleys, made it be remarked, that Edward [VI] had every moment declined in health, from the time that lord Robert Dudley had been put about him.” Our third Dudley – Robert – makes his villainous entrance into Hume’s History in the company of his father, possibly poisoning the King of England. It is not an auspicious beginning. 
Robert Dudley, heavily active in the court of Elizabeth I for the first thirty years of her reign, appears frequently in Hume’s History, and Hume does not warm to him. He describes him as attractive, sycophantic, and dangerously influential. The queen’s “violent affection” toward him, “could seduce the judgement of this penetrating princess” and hide from her his “rather odious vices”. These included being “proud, insolent, interested, ambitious; without honour, without generosity [and] without humanity”. He associates Robert Dudley solely with the scandals that surrounded him, with no mention of his other contributions to literature, politics, art or diplomacy. He is not such a villain as his father had been, but that is only because he does succeed. What is pernicious about Robert Dudley, to Hume, is his ability to weaken the judgement of the queen, who “never could be made fully sensible of his vices and incapacity”, a personal connection which leaves the monarchy, and the realm, vulnerable. 
The first true scandal of Elizabeth’s reign involving her “favourite” was the mysterious death of his wife, Amy Robsart, found with a broken neck and two head injuries at the bottom of a flight of stairs in Sept 1560. It was declared accidental, but rumours persisted to Hume’s day, and ours. Hume clearly associates Robert with the death of his first wife, asserting, “He was universally believed to have murdered, in a barbarous manner, his wife.” This universality was certainly not the case at the time, for Robert recovered, and well, from this initial scandal. 
Hume brings up the discussion of the death of Amy Robsart in treating Robert’s ennoblement – he was created Earl of Leicester in 1564 – and proposed betrothal to Mary, Queen of Scots. He portrays this episode as many historians have; that Elizabeth proposed her favourite to Mary as a decoy, never intending to part with him. Hume treats this episode with seriousness, but there is evidence that this might have been a joke on both sides of the Scottish border, and have as much to do with Robert’s elder brother, Ambrose, Earl of Warwick, as it did him. As was reported at the time, Elizabeth was ‘determined to take th’one, and to give [Mary] th’other.’ Mary, for her part, reportedly said ‘she wished to God the earl of Warwick … had the grace and good looks of Lord Robert in which case each [queen] could have one’. 
More damaging than the suspicious death of Leicester’s first wife was the revelation of the existence of his second. Hume is correct to place this in the context of the queen’s marriage negotiations with the duc d’Anjou. Leicester had secretly married the queen’s (younger and arguably more attractive) cousin, Lettice Knollys, widow of the Earl of Essex, in 1578. This information made its way to Anjou’s representative in the court, Simier, who retained it until the opportune moment. This came after a failed assassination attempt on the queen, which Simier thought was directed at him. Hume sees the revelation of the marriage as a result of Leicester’s jealous attacks on Simier, that he “spread reports, that the minister had gained an ascendant over the queen, not by any natural principles of her constitution, but by incantations and love potions,” and goes so far as to suggest that Leicester had indeed tried to have the Frenchman killed. 
Hume also treats the final scandal with which the Earl of Leicester is associated, perhaps the most significant of all. In the 1580s, Leicester was sent to the Netherlands at the head of an English force, to support the Dutch Protestants in their efforts against the Catholic Habsburgs. He accepts the title of Governor General of the United Provinces, and they treat him, as Hume puts it, “as their sovereign.” This has “a contrary effect to what they expected”, as the queen was “displeased” with this. Hume is putting it mildly. As Ambrose warned his brother after the news hit England “our mistress’s extreme rage doth increase rather than in any way diminish,” and so “if I were you, I would go to the furthest part of Christendom rather than ever come to England again.” Hume suggests that his redemption came about because Leicester did travel to England to charm the queen, which is not quite right. Instead, he threw his colleague, William Davison, under the proverbial bus and lied about (or at least exaggerated) an illness to win Elizabeth’s sympathy. It worked, and he was back at the queen’s side until his death in Sept 1588. 
Although verbose in his condemnation of Leicester, as with his father, Hume has little to say in summary of Leicester's character or contributions to history at his death. In fact, Hume does not cover it at all, simply noting later that Leicester was “now deceased”. This is despite the important role that Leicester played in one of the most important moments of Elizabeth’s reign: her speech at West Tilbury in the face of the Spanish Armada in summer 1588. Hume documents this “heroic princess” and her actions at Tilbury, but not that it had been arranged and recorded by the Earl of Leicester. 
Robert Dudley, Earl of Leicester escapes the severe condemnation Hume extends to his father, John Dudley because his ambitions failed, but receives none of the (limited) sympathy offered to his grandfather, Edmund Dudley, as he is not figured as the victim of injustice. Robert Dudley becomes a cautionary tale about the weaknesses of too personal a rule, when someone of great charm, attractiveness, but also vice can present a threat to even the most prudent and penetrating of rulers. 
This three-part blog series investigates the treatment of the Tudor Dudley family by enlightenment philosopher and historian David Hume in his History of England (vols 3 and 4), comparing his accounts to recent research on the topic. This comparison is not meant to expose the veracity or falsity of Hume’s claims, but rather is an attempt to highlight choices that Hume made in his presentation of history. In doing so, we see Hume’s emphasis on historical and constitutional discontinuity through unintended consequences, the importance of justice as a social unifier, and the prevalence of public opinion as a director of historical events.  To read more about the Dudley family, see the author’s newly released book, The House of Dudley: A New History of Tudor England (UK: Penguin 2022; US: Pegasus 2023).

 Further Reading:

McArthur, Neil. David Hume’s Political Theory: Law, Commerce, and the Constitution of Government. Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 2007.

Paul, Joanne. The House of Dudley. London: Penguin, 2022.

Radcliffe, Elizabeth S, ed. A Companion to Hume. Hoboken: John Wiley & Sons, Incorporated, 2008.

Sabl, Andrew. Hume’s Politics: Coordination and Crisis in the History of England. Princeton University Press, 2015.

Skidmore, Chris. Death and the Virgin by Chris Skidmore. Weidenfeld & Nicolson, 2010.