Mastodon The Writing Desk: Special Guest Post by Nicola Cornick, Author of The Forgotten Sister

11 November 2020

Special Guest Post by Nicola Cornick, Author of The Forgotten Sister

Available from Amazon UK and Amazon US

1560: Amy Robsart is trapped in a loveless marriage to Robert Dudley, a member of the court of Queen Elizabeth I. Surrounded by enemies and with nowhere left to turn, Amy hatches a desperate scheme to escape – one with devastating consequences that will echo 
through the centuries…

Writing and Researching The Forgotten Sister

Amy Robsart, wife of Robert Dudley, the childhood friend and favourite courtier of Elizabeth I, is largely famous for the way in which she died. When she fell down the stairs at Cumnor Hall in Oxfordshire on 8th September 1560, a scandal erupted over whether she had tripped, taken her own life or been murdered. Dudley, intent on clearing his name of all suspicion, might have initially thought that his wife’s death opened a path by which he might marry the Queen. However, the taint of Amy’s death was to prove fatal to his matrimonial ambitions even if Elizabeth had been prepared to accept him.

It was the mystery of Amy’s death that first caught my interest. Having read The Daughter of Time by Josephine Tey at a young age, I’m fascinated by historical puzzles. The gaps in the historical record gives a novelist space for their imagination to roam. Once I started to research Amy, however, it was her life that became the focus of my book rather than her death. I wanted to find out more about Amy herself, a woman who is so often eclipsed by her husband and by the dazzling Queen Elizabeth I.

This was the basis for The Forgotten Sister, my dual time novel set in the present and in the years between 1550 and 1560. I wanted the present-day story to be a mirror of the historical one but not a precise parallel; the two timelines begin in different places but come together at the end.

Searching for evidence of Amy Robsart’s life is difficult. She is elusive. A couple of her letters are extant, from which we can deduce that she was literate and wrote a good hand, and that she was involved in the wool trade associated with the Norfolk estates she had inherited from her parents. Some mention is made in Robert Dudley’s household accounts of her expenditure on clothes. Perhaps it is as a result of this that some authors of non-fiction as well as fiction have portrayed her as being a fashionista with no other interests. A lack of evidence of her other activities can lead to a disproportionate amount of emphasis being placed on the things that we do know about.

As well as drawing on a couple of excellent books on Amy’s life, Death and the Virgin by Chris Skidmore and Amy Robsart A Life and its End by Christine Hartweg, I also read some of the earlier books about her, such as “An Enquiry into the particulars connected with the death of Amy Robsart” which was written in 1859. These were of special interest to me because as a public historian, I am as interested in the myths and legends that grow to surround a historical event or character as I am in the facts. Many Victorian writers were strongly influenced by the writing of Sir Walter Scott, who had written about Amy in his novel Kenilworth. They were not sympathetic to Robert Dudley.

One of the ways in which I found I could broaden my understanding of Amy and her background was to visit the places where she had lived. She was born in Stansfield in Norfolk which during her teenage years was in the throes of Kett’s Rebellion. With relatives on both sides of the dispute, Amy would have had an emotional understanding of the effects of political discord. East Anglia in that period was considered a wild and lawless place which was one of the reasons why Robert Dudley’s father, the Lord Protector, was keen to shore up alliances with prominent gentry such as the Robsart family.

Amy went from this relatively sequestered life to London and the royal court on her marriage to Robert. For a while she was at the pinnacle of society but it all came crashing down with the Duke of Northumberland’s failed attempt to place Jane Grey on the throne in 1553. Such extremes of fortune are always fascinating to explore and of course there was the very real prospect of Robert’s execution at this point. Amy was permitted to visit him during his incarceration in the Tower of London – what must such spousal visits have been like, one wonders.

After Robert’s release from the Tower of London, his and Amy’s stories diverge. Again I had to trace her in the places where she lived apart from him – at Throcking in Hertfordshire and then, finally at Cumnor Place in Oxfordshire, where she died. They are quiet places that must have been both isolated and isolating in the 16th century, a stark contrast to London and the court.

I visited Cumnor on a miserably grey and wet day which seemed all too appropriate. The manor house where Amy fell to her death was demolished at the start of the 19th century but a few walls remain in lonely isolation beside the churchyard. In the church is the life-size statue of Elizabeth I, said to have been commissioned by Robert Dudley in tribute to the Queen, which seems somewhat tactless in the place his first wife died. Amy’s tomb in the University Church of St Mary in Oxford has similarly been lost. All that is visible is a small plaque referring to the fact that she was buried close by.

Amy Robsart remains an elusive figure and one who’s life I would very much like to explore further. Again, as a public historian I am interested in the historical figures whose stories have not been told, including women from the footnotes of history. In some ways Amy Robsart’s afterlife has been much more significant than the mere 28 years that she lived for. Her death and the impact that it had on Robert Dudley’s life has ensured a sort of immortality for her but it is important to see her a woman in her own right and try to tease out the real person behind the myths.

Nicola Cornick

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About the Author

Nicola Cornick grew up in Yorkshire and studied History at the University of London and at Ruskin College Oxford where she was awarded a Distinction for her Maters dissertation on heroes and hero myths. She worked in academia for a number of years before becoming a full-time writer. She is the author of acclaimed dual-time mysteries as well as of award-winning historical romance. When she isn’t writing, Nicola volunteers as a guide and researcher for the National Trust at the 17th century hunting lodge Ashdown House. She has given talks and chaired panels for a number of festivals and conferences including the London Book Fair, the Historical Novel Society and the Sharjah Festival of Literature.  Nicola also gives talks on public and local history topics to WIs, history societies and other interested groups. She is a former Chair of the Romantic Novelists Association and is the current RNA archivist, and a trustee of the Friends of Lydiard Park. In her spare time Nicola is a puppy walker for the Guide Dogs charity. Find out more at Nicola's website and follow her on Twitter @NicolaCornick

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