DEATH BY THE RIVER THAMES
Walkers along the Thames Path should take a break at the village of Cumnor, otherwise reached by car via the A420 from Oxford. In the 14th century the monks of Abingdon Abbey built Cumnor Hall, scene of a mysterious death in the 16th century.
On September 8th 1560, 28 year old Amy Robsart was found dead from a broken neck at the foot of the stairs in her apartments at the Hall, by then a private residence. Amy was the young wife of Lord Robert Dudley, a favourite of Queen Elizabeth I.
The close relationship between Lord Robert and the Queen was said to have driven Amy to despair. Dudley’s enemies fostered a rumour that his wife had been murdered, thereby freeing him to marry the Queen. De Quadra, the Spanish Ambassador, went even further. He wrote a letter home after Amy died in which he inferred there had been a conspiracy involving Elizabeth herself; ‘…the Queen, on her return from hunting, told me that Lord Robert’s wife was dead, or nearly so, and begged me to say nothing about it.’ His words suggest Elizabeth had prior knowledge of a plot, as the hunting trip he referred to took place on September fourth, several days before Amy’s fatal plunge down the Cumnor Hall stairs.
De Quadra’s claim could merely have been salacious gossip as he was not noted for his integrity. However, his letter highlights the intrigue and suspicion that surrounded the affair. During Amy’s Robsart’s burial service, from which Dudley was tellingly absent, the priest made his own feelings clear by informing mourners she had been ‘pitifully murdered’. She was buried in the Church of St Mary the Virgin in Oxford.
Cumnor Hall was located immediately to the left of St Michael’s Church. For centuries its towers stood as a poignant reminder of the tragedy. In 1770 the poet Julius Mickle wrote The Ballad of Cumnor Hall, which began;
Full many a traveler oft hath sigh’d
And pensive wept the Countess’ fall,
As wand’ring onwards they’ve espied
The haunted towers of Cumnor Hall.
Inspired by Mickle’s poem, Sir Walter Scott created a sinister, though highly fictionalized account of Amy’s death in his novel Kenilworth.
Cumnor Hall was demolished circa 1800, after villagers complained that it was occupied by the dead woman’s spirit. An exorcism carried out by clergymen from Oxford seems not to have satisfied them. However, by the churchyard path is stonework thought to have been part of one of the manor’s fireplaces. The church has a display of letters and photographs relating to Amy Robsart, and also a ghostly, life-size statue of Elizabeth I. It is possible this statue was commissioned by Dudley himself, as it was first recorded in the grounds of Dean Court, a house he owned within the parish.
A WRONGFUL ACCUSATION?
In an interesting footnote to the story, modern medical science may have exonerated Lord Robert and the Queen. Amy Robsart was suffering from what was described as ‘a malady of the breast’ when she died, probably breast cancer. It is now known that advanced cancer can weaken surrounding bone structure, and that her fall could have been caused by a spontaneous fracture of the neck.
Another theory is that Amy took her own life, sick both at heart and in body. If true, it could explain why she insisted that virtually all her servants attend the fair at nearby Abingdon on the day of her death.
The only portrait thought to be of Amy Robsart is a miniature, dating from her marriage in 1550.
Amy’s story appears in my book ALL ALONG THE RIVER; TALES FROM THE THAMES. If you know anyone visiting the UK, it would make a great gift. Well, in my (not very humble) opinion!
AND HERE IS THE STORY OF ANOTHER YOUNG WOMAN ASSOCIATED WITH THE RIVER. SHE TOO, DIED TRAGICALLY YOUNG AND SURROUNDED BY SCANDAL. HER NAME WAS FLORENCE CAMPBELL
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