Kenilworth Castle in 1575
17. Robert Dudley, Earl of Leicester
Robert Dudley was the 5th son of John Dudley, earl of Warwick and duke of Northumberland, with whom he was imprisoned in the Tower of London for supporting the claim to the throne of Lady Jane Grey. His father was later executed, but Robert Dudley was released, as was his childhood friend Elizabeth who had been imprisoned there at the same time. When Elizabeth became queen in 1558, Robert Dudley’s prospects improved considerably.
As Robert Dudley continued to rise as a favourite of the queen, he accumulated many titles and honours. In addition to the earl of Leicester, he was made a Knight of the Garter and a Privy Councillor. He also acquired residences, and so his household staff increased, from up to 50 in 1560, 100 in 1567, and up to 150 by 1585. Dudley was one of only several to receive a royal licence to retain 100 men.
During this period, he commissioned 3 suits of armour, each of which would have cost millions of pounds in today’s money. By contrast, he also purchased more than 10 pairs of spectacles, each pair costing 1 shilling, and he paid 9 pence for lace for his pomander. A pomander was a container of aromatic substances, carried as a supposed protection against infection. Dudley also bought gifts for his queen, including, in 1571, one of the very first wrist watches.
Robert Dudley was a leading patron of the arts, he was fluent in Italian and could read French and Latin. ‘Leicester's men’ were the first sponsored troupe of actors, and the first to permanently occupy a public theatre. Dudley collected paintings by the finest artists throughout Europe, and he was obviously wealthy enough to commission paintings of himself, and of Elizabeth, for example by the most fashionable artist of the time, the Italian Frederico Zuccaro. His collection was one of the first to follow a theme, being mainly portraits of his rich and powerful contemporaries. Unlike the portraits in other collections, Robert Dudley, perhaps mindful of the fate of his father, chose not to include any of his own ancestors. Note that although the starched ruffs in the portraits now appear as white, they were in fact tinted pink or yellow. Most of the paintings are revealed using curtains, a fashion only lasting for a couple of decades, but one which can still be seen today in the gallery at Hever Castle. Dudley also had interests in mathematics, civil and military engineering, and cartography, and he amassed a vast collection of maps.
Dudley was in correspondence with Sir Francis Drake, and often gambled with Sir Francis and his brother Richard, whom he at one stage employed. He was even approached for patronage in the 1580’s by the newly rising Walter Raleigh.
Robert Dudley is said to have spent £60,000 (equivalent to 180 million pounds today) on buildings, parks, and the chase at Kenilworth, and by 1579 owed £21,000 to Elizabeth for loans made to him. He was worth £30,000 at his death in 1588, (just weeks after the defeat of the Spanish Armada), but he also had vast debts.