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Robert Dudley, The Earl of Leicester

Robert Dudley's father, the Duke of Northumberland, had been executed in 1553. Dudley himself was sentenced to death by Mary I at the start of her bloody reign, but was later freed to serve in the army against the French. He must have therefore been very aware that a nobleman at times held a very tenuous grip on life.

Elizabeth I on her accession to the throne made gossips' tongues wag with her swift promotion of Dudley, making him Master of the Horse, a Knight of the Garter and a Privy Councillor.

The death of Dudley's wife also set conspiracy theorists' anoraks fizzing, as it seemed to coincide fortuitously with Elizabeth's increased interest in him. They seem to have spent a lot of time entertaining each other, and he was clearly much favored up until his marriage to Lettice, the widow of the Earl of Essex.

A curious mix of Puritan zeal (he pursued enemies among Catholic sympathizers relentlessly) and artistic patron (he established the Earl of Leicester's Men which featured James Burbage) he was less successful as a commander of armies in foreign campaigns.

At the time of his death in 1588 he was Captain-General of the Queen's armies and companies, poised to throw back invaders from the Spanish Armada.

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