The death of Amy Robsart on the 8th September 1560 is an Elizabethan mystery that has caused controversy and speculation for over 458 years with historians still debating whether it was accident, suicide or murder……and if it was murder, who ordered the deed?
The small but picturesque village of Syderstone is situated in the county of Norfolk in the United Kingdom; midway between Kings Lynn and Norwich and about five miles west of the town of Fakenham. It is about ten miles inland from the North Norfolk coast. Although small, Syderstone dates back well over a thousand years and pre-dates the Domesday Book of 1066 in which the village is recorded. Its original Anglo Saxon name was Sidsterne; meaning “large estate”, from the Old English “sid” for an area broad or extensive and “sterne” meaning property.
In the 16th century Syderstone Hall was the home of Sir John Robsart, a wealthy gentleman-farmer, Sheriff of Norfolk and also Suffolk. He had a daughter named Amy, whose initials, by the way, are still to be seen on the churchyard gate and over the entrance to the Norman church tower. Amy was born in 1532 and in 1549, just before she was 18, married Robert Dudley, Earl of Leicester, at Sheen (Richmond) Palace. The young King Edward VI, no less, was present at their wedding. As for Robert Dudley, the bridegroom, he also happened to be the son of the powerful John Dudley, Earl of Warwick.
On her accession in November 1558 Elizabeth I made Robert Dudley ‘Master of the Horse’, an important post which brought him in close contact with Queen Elizabeth I. It also meant that Dudley’s periods of absence from his wife, Amy, would increase further from those he was already committed to. In any case, it was not customary for courtiers’ wives to live at Court and Elizabeth, for her part, would also have wanted to keep Amy out of the way – for she was strongly attracted by Robert, who was “a magnificent, princely looking man”.
Both Elizabeth and Dudley were much together so it was inevitable that there would be a great deal of gossip about the affair…….which Amy must have known about! Within a year of Dudley’s appointment, rumours were indeed rife that the Queen was smitten with him – and it seemed that the feelings were mutual. In March 1560 the Spanish Ambassador wrote about the possibility of Dudley divorcing his wife! It would seem that Amy’s continued existence may have been something that he could have done without? Certainly, his actions indicated that his thoughts were elsewhere for amongst other things, he began to neglect Amy. He sent her to live at Cumnor Place, a ramshackled two-story house about 4 miles from Oxford and formerly a 14th-century country house of the abbots of Abingdon.
On September 8th 1560 and still only twenty eight years of age, Amy was found dead at the foot of a staircase at Cumnor Place. Apparently, Amy had insisted that her servants attended Abingdon Fair leaving her alone in the house; when they returned they found her dead – from head injuries and a broken neck. She appeared to have fallen down the stairs?
At the time there was speculation as to whether she had fallen accidentally, had been murdered or even committed suicide, although this latter point was dismissed by those who thought of another reason for Amy’s ‘desperation’ and death. It appears that in April, 1559 seventeen months before her death, the Spanish Ambassador reported that people talked of Elizabeth and Dudley’s friendship so freely that:
“they go so far as to say his wife has a malady in one of her breasts and the Queen is only waiting for her to die to marry Lord Robert.”
It was argued that this was cancer and had spread to the bones of Amy’s spine, which could have caused her neck to break spontaneously from any jolt or fall. Clearly, many subsequent historians were to speculate about her death, perhaps more furiously than contemporaries. However, the one suspicion that stood out from all others, was the belief that Amy had been murdered so that Robert Dudley could marry Elizabeth I – a suspicion which became the subject of Sir Walter Scott’s novel “Kenilworth”.
Amy Dudley, nee Robsart, was buried in the chancel of the Church of St Mary the Virgin, Oxford, her body having been first taken to Gloucester (Worcester) College – where there is a relatively modern tablet recording her burial. Eighty poor men and women were said to have marched in procession, followed by members of the University, a choir and heralds. Her funeral cost Robert £500; but he was not present.
Possibly, no one will ever know how Amy died but the jurors were there and their view may be as near to the truth as one can get. As for Dudley, the Queen blew hot and cold in her attitude towards him. Of course she never married him, nor anyone else, though Dudley married again. However, she gave him Kenilworth Castle and large areas of North Wales. He commanded the army at Tilbury when Elizabeth made her famous speech on August 9th 1588 just after the Spanish fleet had been defeated. Later that month Robert set off for Kenilworth on his way to a cure at some spa or other. There was some belief at the time that Amy’s ghost was supposed to have met him in the park there saying that “in ten days he’d be with her”. As it turned out, Dudley stayed a night at Lord Norreys’ home at Rycote, and while there wrote a letter to Elizabeth. She had afterwards wrote on it “his last letter”, for he got no further than Cornbury Park, where he died!
If others are to be believed, it was chiefly the people of Cumnor who remembered Amy’s mournful end. Apparently, according to them, Amy’s ghost haunted Cumnor Place, made people fear to go near it and “destroyed the peace of the village”. The ghost had to be exorcised by nine clergymen from Oxford who claimed to have drowned it in a pond in the adjoining close – and the water never again froze over the spot! Clearly, that did not work because it was claimed thereafter that the ghost of Amy Robsart walked the grounds each Christmas – for almost 250 years. Her pale shape also appeared near the staircase where she had died, and when she returned every Christmas she also stared ‘tragically and accusingly’ at all who still lived in the Hall.
After Cumnor Place was demolished in 1810 Amy’s ghost moved to her parents home at Syderstone Hall in Norfolk – so it was said! Well, that must have been true because poltergeist activity was reported there………and many of the locals said so and believed that it was the ghost of Amy! How come? Were the villagers there ‘jumping on the bandwagon’ as it were? Not only that, the folk there were also to claim that she continued to appear at the Old Hall until that too was also demolished. Apparently, Amy’s ghost would appear by the staircase, re-inacting in exactly the same way its actions at Cumnor Place in Oxfordshire……..and with exactly the same story, villagers would claim that Amy’s ghost also walked the grounds of Syderstone Hall at Christmas time. But some around the County went a step further with claims that Amy’s ghost also revisited her childhood home of Rainthorpe Hall, Tasburg near Norwich on the anniversary of her death. There, she appeared in the garden with a gentleman who may be either her half brother, John Appleyard or her husband Robert Dudley. A somewhat cynical historian of Berkshire, William Clarke, wrote that when he visited Cumnor in 1817, after the building was pulled down, “there were no traditions current about it among the villagers”. Well, these ‘traditions’ of myths and ghosts soon sprang up plentifully in both Oxfordshire and Norfolk after the publication of Sir Walter Scott’s ‘Kenilworth’ in 1821!
Were these beliefs behind the folks of Syderstone not wanting to lose Amy when its Old Hall too was demolitished? – for it was said after this event that her ghost moved to the Parsonage nearby.
In 1833, Reverend Stewart and his family were well settled in the Parsonage. On the 8 May of the same year the Bury and Norwich Post carried a story about a series of daily hauntings at the Parsonage. The original letter that sparked this story came from the same Revd J. Stewart, the Rector of Syderstone at the time, around whom this story revolves, and concerns what he refers to as ‘The House of Mystery’.
According the Revd Stewart, this particular ghost had taken up residence at his Parsonage and liked to move around, though nothing in the house was ever disturbed. It also varied its activity such that:
‘sometimes it was a low moaning which the Rev. says reminds him very much of the moans of a soldier on being whipped; and sometimes it is like the sounding of brass, the rattling of iron or the clashing of earthenware or glass’. The noises frightened the household to such an extent that ‘the maids … were actually incapable of motion’ and some of the staff were so scared they ran away’.
The Revd Stewart opened his house to all and sundry, so that they could satisfy themselves of the goings on, including no less than four local priests – Revd & Mrs Spurgin, Revds Goggs, Lloyd & Titlow, plus a local surgeon, Mr Banks, on one particular night. It seemed that they were not disappointed, with a display that started:
‘like the clawing of a voracious animal after its prey’ and included knocking, ‘some of which were as loud as those of a hammer on the anvil, lasted from between eleven and twelve o’clock until near two hours after sunrise’. One is quoted as saying ‘We had a variety of thoughts and explanations passing in our minds before we were on the spot, but we left it all equally bewildered’.
All those present on the night felt compelled to contact the paper, stating that their investigations, and subsequent independent examinations, were unable to find the cause. But, the one thing on which they could all agree; this was not any kind of deception on the part of Revd Stewart or his family. A section of the actual newspaper article is as follows:
“The following circumstance has been creating great alarm in the neighbourhood of Fakenham for the last six weeks. In Syderstone Parsonage lives the Rev. Mr. Steward, Curate, and Rector of Thwaighte. The house has a modern appearance, and not at all calculated for concealment. About six weeks since an unaccountable knocking was heard in it in the middle of the night. The family became alarmed, not being able to discover the cause. Since then it has gradually been becoming more violent until it has now arrived at such a frightful pitch that one of the servants has left through absolute terror, and the family, we understand, intend removing as early as possible.”
Three weeks after this first article, on 29 May 1833, the same paper carried a story describing how a number of investigators (all named in the article) had gone to witness the phenomenon for themselves.
“The first commencement was in the bed-chamber of Miss Stewart, and seemed like the clawing of a voracious animal after its prey. Mrs. Spurgeon was at the moment leaning against the bed post, and the effect on all present was like a shock of electricity. The bed was on all sides clear from the wall; — but nothing was visible. Three powerful knocks were then given to the sideboard, whilst the hand of Mr. Goggs was upon it. The disturber was conjured to speak, but answered only by a low hollow moaning; but on being requested to give three knocks, it gave three most tremendous blows apparently in the wall. The noises, some of which were as loud as those of a hammer on the anvil, lasted from between 11 and 12 o’clock until near two hours after sunrise.”
Having described a number of events and the baffled reaction of the visiting gentlemen, the article ends by calling the haunting an “unaccountable mystery”. Then, on 12 June, a letter from one of those present, Reverend Samuel Titlow, was published drawing attention to a few inaccuracies, as he saw it, of the previous letter.
“The noises were not loud; they commenced in the bed room of Miss Steward and the female servants, and the time of the commencement was, as we had been prepared to expect, exactly at half past one o’clock a.m. It is true that knocks seemed to be given, or were actually given, on the side-board of a bed in an adjoining room, where two little boys were sleeping, whilst Mr. Goggs’ hands were upon it, but they were not ” powerful knock. If the writer of the paragraph had been present with us, he would not have said that we were terrified, as if we had experienced ” a shock of electricity;” but rather, that though there was no want of proper decorum, we were all in good humour”
He seemed convinced that there was nothing supernatural behind the events, also adding that he couldn’t believe that a ghost would appear:
“for trifling purposes, or accompanied with trifling effects.”
On 22 June, the Norfolk Chronicle carried a number of witness statements regarding the hauntings going back many years. These statements had been submitted to the magistrates as Affidavits, but since it was not clear if the magistrate could legally accept Affidavits on a subject of this nature, they were published in the local paper. The earliest event described was from 1785, when a Rev Mantle moved in to the parish. He immediately boarded up two rooms, and there was one occasion when his sister saw something “which had greatly terrified her”.
Revd Stewart was able to attribute the origin of his ghost to some 60 years previous, to about the time when this Revd Mantle had moved in – he with an emerging reputation for vice and drunkenness, having ‘formed an intimacy with a very dissipated circle of gentleman farmers’ one of whom had ‘an improper admiration of Mrs Mantle’ and ‘seduced the curate into the vilest debaucheries’. Indeed, Revd Mantle would have to be held upright during burial ceremonies ‘lest he should fall into the grave on top of the corpse’.
Needless to say, the Revd Mantle died in a miserable state but, before being buried, ‘strange noises began to be heard in the parsonage’. It was these noises which greeted Revd Stewart and his family and, at the time these articles were written, ‘the ‘noises’ occasionally recur and my ‘diary’ occasionally progresses until it has, now, assumed rather a formidable appearance’.
The Phantom Highwayman Etc. Etc:
So, it seems, Amy Robsart and the one that haunts the Parsonage are not the only ghosts of Syderstone. It is further claimed that the village is also haunted by a phantom highwayman, who has been seen on his ghostly mount, silently galloping towards the village green…….and as recently as 2017 a local resident, stated:
I live in Syderstone and was aware of these spectral stories. But, there are a few more as we also have, a lady in Rectory Gardens – [her name is also Amy by the way] – and something on a local track named Burnham Green Lane. “My normally amenable Labrador was extremely reluctant to walk up there at dusk last summer – heckles up”!
Answers on a postcard please!