Book Review: Kenilworth

Title: Kenilworth

Author: Walter Scott

Date: 1821 (many reprints)

ISBN: none, but click here to see one of the reprints on Amazon

Length: typically about 350 pages

Illustrations: vary

When a book is as old as Kenilworth, does one write a book review, or a book report? Technically, what I have to say about this bestseller of the nineteenth century is neither. It’s a protest.

I postponed reading this novel until I acquired one of the dozen or so reprints that are currently available. It was one of the nicer hardcover editions, with black-and-white photographs of real places and people named in the book. That said…this is not and never was a nice book.

Historical novels now usually contain a review of the facts that inspired the story and the parts the author invented. Most authors of historical novels are expected to stick to the known historical facts about real people, although this rule doesn’t seem to have been enforced on either Nikos Kazantzakis or Elliott Roosevelt. Walter Scott was another novelist, like these two, who got away with falsifying the known facts. That’s what’s wrong with Kenilworth.

This novel uses the names of three real people for major characters in a plot that more or less completely falsifies what’s known about them. In England’s Tudor Period, the confirmed facts about most well-known real people are scandalous enough; Scott, not satisfied with the dirt on Queen Elizabeth I, Robert Dudley, and Amy Robsart, drags their names through the sewer. Before reading Kenilworth it is, therefore, useful to have read a factual study of these people. Since my local library has a copy of Elizabeth Jenkins’ Elizabeth and Leicester, and yours may not have one, here’s a short list of pertinent facts:

1. Robert Dudley, a younger son of the Earl of Northumbria, married Amy Robsart when he and Queen Elizabeth were about twenty years old. The Dudley children were brought up as close to Henry VIII’s heirs as their scheming father could manage. Guildford Dudley, the eldest brother, had been browbeaten into marrying Elizabeth’s elder half sister, Jane Grey. Robert Dudley may have been Elizabeth’s closest friend, but Elizabeth, who had been molested by Kathryn Parr’s second husband as a teenager, didn’t want to marry anybody. She went to the Robsart-Dudley wedding with her brother, the future King Edward. It was no news to Elizabeth that Robert and Amy were married…but it would have surprised her if anyone had ever referred to Amy Robsart as Countess of Leicester, because she hadn’t given Robert the title of Earl of Leicester at the time. Amy’s title was “Lady Dudley.”

2. As queen, Elizabeth I flirted outrageously with her courtiers—most outrageously of all with Robert Dudley—and discouraged their wives from coming to court, probably because no married woman likes to watch a single woman flirting with her husband. Lady Dudley, however, was never a prisoner. For years she enjoyed an active social life at a low, wide, two-storey house called Cumnor or Cumner. She liked horses and was often seen riding. What eventually confined her to her bedroom was a mysterious, debilitating disease.

3. Exactly what went wrong with Amy Robsart will never be known, but her first specific complaint was about a “malady in her breast” that, within two years, grew into pain all over. The mystery about her death at Cumnor was how she managed to break her neck when there were only two flights of stairs to fall down. If her “malady” was breast cancer, which then metastasized, that would have explained the pain all over and the brittleness of her bones. Amy, however, would not have known that breast cancer tends to metastasize, and probably did entertain all kinds of fears about poisoning and witchcraft. A 2008 investigation of Amy’s mortal remains suggested violence.

4. Prejudiced people accused Robert and Elizabeth of having had Amy murdered so that they could marry each other. Since they didn’t marry each other and there was no clear evidence that Amy was murdered, the accusations were hard to take seriously. However, throughout Robert’s life, a rather startling number of people who became inconvenient to him did die—usually from what seemed to be natural causes, and never while he was in their neighborhood. Robert Dudley was regarded as a devout member of the Church of England; he even wrote a Christian book. At this period in English history, it wouldn’t have been unusual for a member of a church to have employed murderers, possibly without knowing it.

5. Nevertheless, while suffering from a fever, Elizabeth made a will leaving a suspiciously large bequest to Robert Dudley’s valet. It is often assumed that this was a bribe to keep the man silent on the question of whether Elizabeth had ever spent a night in Dudley’s bedroom. If so, the bribe worked.

6. The title of “Earl of Leicester,” and other awards and decorations which Walter Scott imagines Robert Dudley showing off to Amy Robsart, were bestowed on Dudley after Amy Robsart died…possibly to  console him for the fact that, although he was free to remarry, Elizabeth still didn’t want to marry him.

7. After some years of unsuccessfully courting Elizabeth, Robert Dudley lowered his standard far enough to notice the infatuation of a confused younger woman. Douglas Howard was the name of the wife of the Earl of Sheffield. To get the Earl to divorce her, Douglas arranged for him to see a letter, apparently from the Earl of Leicester, insinuating that he and Douglas had already slept together and proposing to have Sheffield assassinated. The Earl of Sheffield died, apparently from an infectious disease, before the divorce was final. As on many other occasions when someone’s untimely death seemed suspiciously convenient for Robert Dudley, Dudley avoided suspicion by not taking the advantage the other person’s demise offered him. He did not immediately marry Douglas.

He did, however, go through some sort of quiet wedding ceremony with Douglas, although the person who pronounced them earl and countess may not have been legally authorized to do so. Douglas was never presented to society as the Countess of Leicester, although by that time this was the title Robert’s wife would have had; she was always called Lady Sheffield. Nevertheless, a child appeared and was christened Robert Leicester, usually called Robin.  Robin was said to look just like the Earl of Leicester, except that, at least as a child, he had blond hair. Robert Dudley never tried to deny that Robin was his son, but, wanting to disown Douglas Howard, he sometimes called Robin “my base son.”

  1. Douglas Howard was the one who petitioned Queen Elizabeth to recognize her marriage to Robert Dudley. Elizabeth was actually sympathetic to her claim; Douglas could prove that some sort of ceremony had taken place, though not that it had been performed by a properly credentialed clergyman. Robert Dudley was unsympathetic, perhaps partly because Douglas was too emotional and indiscreet to be a good partner for him, but also becase he had now become infatuated with Lettice Knollys, who was Elizabeth’s second cousin and was married to Elizabeth’s other good friend, the Earl of Essex. The political differences between the Earls of Essex and Leicester often reduced to competing flirtations with Elizabeth and Lettice. Historians seem to think it most likely that Essex died naturally from dysentery. Dudley tried to bribe Douglas to pretend their marriage had never happened; when she refused the bribe he became angry and swore he would never speak to her again.

9. It was during this third, morally inexcusable, affair with Lettice Knollys that Dudley worried about what Elizabeth would say. In view of the facts that he was married to Douglas Howard and Lettice was married to Essex, who was out of the country, when Lettice became visibly pregnant, Elizabeth had quite a lot to say, and seriously considered locking Robert Dudley in the Tower. Mutual friends persuaded her that the country needed Dudley, so she finally allowed him to marry Lettice. Lettice also gave birth to a son and christened him Robert Dudley. His birth being properly announced at court, he was titled Baronet of Denbigh, and everyone who didn’t have to call him “my little lord” seems to have called him Denbigh. He died before his sixth birthday.

10. None of Robert Dudley’s wives ever lived at Kenilworth Castle, which does have towers with long, rickety, dangerous staircases. Kenilworth wasn’t opened to the public for fifteen years after Amy Robsart had died at Cumnor. Elizabeth gave it to Robert Dudley as a gift; he spent several years having it made livable, but never tried to make it a home. He willed Kenilworth, and three other manor houses, to Robin, though Lettice and her third husband fought hard to keep Robin from inheriting anything.

In short, Walter Scott’s fictionalization of Amy Robsart seems to have been an attempt to compress all three of Robert Dudley’s wives into one character, which is what makes his characterization of Amy so hard to take. (Then again, he characterizes Robert Dudley as a hotheaded manic-depressive fool, a view sober history does not support. Conceited, yes, but not a fool.) One minute Walter Scott’s Amy is as tough and selfish as Lettice Knollys, the next minute as puny and whiny as Douglas Howard, and at no point whatever, in Kenilworth, does Scott try to portray the historical Amy Robsart—the cheerful, sensible, horsey girl who became ill and died too young.

Now that you know how careless Scott was with facts, you may enjoy his fiction if you like that sort of thing. My copy of Kenilworth does have a few things to recommend it. It’s a vintage edition, and includes those photos of the portraits of all those Tudor Period characters and Kenilworth and Cumnor.

As fiction…well, I can’t imagine sane and sober adults talking the way Scott’s characters talk. One always has to remember that he wrote these novels longhand, leaving very little time for research or editing, and he was paid by the word. I can imagine someone who had a lot of time remaking some of the basic stories of his novels. Not this one, though. Historical fiction should be written with a reasonable respect for historical fact.

To buy a copy of Kenilworth in good condition from this web site, send $5 per book + $5 per package to either address in the lower left-hand corner of the screen. To buy any specific vintage edition may cost more.

Nobody even knows for sure what Amy Robsart really looked like. This may be a portrait of her. Or not:



“Unknown lady by Levina Teerlinc c1550 Yale University” by Levina Teerlinc (1510/1520–1576) –, direct link. Licensed under Public Domain via Commons –

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