Robert Dudley (explorer)

Robert Dudley (explorer)
Robert Dudley

Robert Dudley, 1590s. Engraving after a portrait by Nicholas Hilliard
Born 7 August 1574
Richmond Palace, Surrey
Died 6 September 1649 (aged 75)
Villa Rinieri, Italy
Resting place San Pancrazio, Florence
Known for Courtier, explorer, cartographer, shipbuilder, engineer
Notable works Dell'Arcano del Mare
Spouse Margaret Cavendish
Alice Leigh
Elizabeth Southwell
Children by Alice Leigh:
Alice Dudley
Douglas Dudley
Catherine Leveson
Frances Kniveton

by Elizabeth Southwell:
Anna Dudley
Maria, Princess of Piombino
Carlo, Duke of Northumbria
Ambrogio Dudley
Ferdinando Dudley
Teresa, Duchess of Cornia
Cosimo Dudley
Maria Christina, Marchesa Clivola
Maria Maddalena, Marchesa Malaspina
Antonio Dudley
Enrico Dudley
Parents Robert Dudley, 1st Earl of Leicester
Lady Douglas Sheffield

Sir Robert Dudley (7 August 1574 – 6 September 1649) was an English explorer and cartographer. In 1594, he led an expedition to the West Indies, of which he wrote an account. The illegitimate son of Robert Dudley, 1st Earl of Leicester, he inherited the bulk of the Earl's estate in accordance with his father's will, including Kenilworth Castle. In 1603–1605 he tried unsuccessfully to establish his legitimacy in court. After that he left England forever, finding a new existence in the service of the grand dukes of Tuscany. There he worked as an engineer and shipbuilder and designed and published Dell'Arcano del Mare, the first maritime atlas to cover the whole world. He was also a skilled navigator and mathematician. In Italy he styled himself "Earl of Warwick and Leicester", as well as "Duke of Northumberland", a title recognized by the Emperor Ferdinand II.


Early life

Robert Dudley was the son of the Earl of Leicester and his lover Lady Douglas Sheffield, daughter of William Howard, 1st Baron Howard of Effingham. He grew up in the houses of his father and his father's friends, but had leave to see his mother whenever she wished.[1] Lady Sheffield married Sir Edward Stafford in November 1579, and left for the Continent. Leicester was fond of his son and often made trips to see him.[2] Dudley was given an excellent education and enrolled into Christ Church, Oxford in 1587 with the status of filius comitis, Earl's son. There his mentor was Thomas Chaloner, who also became his close friend.[3] In 1588, when the Spanish Armada threatened England, the 14-year-old Robert joined his father, who was commanding the army at Camp Tilbury, preparing to resist a Spanish invasion. On 4 September the Earl of Leicester died.[4] The Earl's will gave Dudley a large inheritance, including the castle and estate at Kenilworth and the lordships of Denbigh and Chirk, on the death of his uncle, Ambrose Dudley, 3rd Earl of Warwick.[5]

Probable likeness of Robert Dudley, c. 1591[6]

In early 1591, Dudley made a formal contract to marry Frances Vavasour with the consent of Queen Elizabeth, who liked Dudley very much but wished him to wait until he was older. Frances married someone else secretly later that year and was banished from court. In turn, the 17-year-old Dudley married Margaret Cavendish, sister of Sir Thomas Cavendish—in whose last voyage he had probably invested. Dudley was excluded from court for this secret marriage, but only for a few days. His father-in-law, Robert Cavendish, gave Margaret two ships, the Leicester and the Roebuck. She soon died without having children.

Expedition to the West Indies

In 1594, Dudley assembled a fleet of ships, including his flagship the galleon Beare, the Beare's Whelpe and the pinnaces Earwig and Frisking. He intended to use them to harass the Spaniards in the Atlantic. The Queen did not approve of his plans because of his inexperience and the value of the ships. She did commission him as a general but insisted that he sail to Guiana instead.

Dudley recruited 275 veteran sailors, including the navigator Abraham Kendal, and the captains Thomas Jobson and Benjamin Wood. Dudley's fleet sailed on 6 November 1594, but a sudden storm separated the ships and drove the vessels back to different ports. He sent word to the captain of the Beare's Whelp to join him in the Canary Islands or Cabo Blanco and sailed again. At first Dudley's trip proved unlucky—the Earwig sank and most of the vessels they encountered were friendly. Dudley led only one raid in the Gulf of Lagos. In December the expedition finally managed to capture two Spanish ships at Tenerife. Dudley renamed them Intent and Regard, manned them with his sailors and put Captain Woods in charge. He sailed to Cabo Blanco, expecting to meet the Beare's Whelpe there, but it did not show up. Dudley's fleet sailed to Trinidad and anchored at Cedros Bay on 31 January 1595. There he discovered an island that he claimed for the English crown and named Dudleiana. Then he sailed to Paracoa Bay for repairs and made a reconnaissance to San Jose de Oruna but decided not to attack it. Dudley divided his forces, sending the Intent and Regard to the north. In Trinidad Dudley recruited a Spanish-speaking Indian who promised to escort an expedition to a gold mine up the Orinoco River. The expedition led by Captain Jobson returned after two weeks—as it turned out, their guide had deserted them and they had struggled back. Dudley returned to Trinidad.

On 12 March Dudley's fleet sailed north, where they finally captured a Spanish merchantman. Then it sailed to Cabo Rojo, Puerto Rico, waited for suitable prey for some time and then sailed towards Bermuda. A storm blew the Beare north to near what is now New England before the fleet finally reached the Azores. Low on provisions and working guns, Dudley sailed for home but met a Spanish man-of-war on the way. Dudley managed to outmanoeuvre and cripple it in a two-day battle but decided not to board it. The Beare arrived at St. Ives, Cornwall at the end of May 1595 and Dudley heard that Captain Woods had taken three ships.

The next year, 1595, Dudley joined Robert Devereux, 2nd Earl of Essex to serve as a commander of the Nonpareil in the expedition against Cadiz. He was later knighted for his conduct in that battle although what he did was not recorded. Shortly afterwards he married Alice Leigh, daughter of Sir Thomas Leigh. In 1597 Dudley sent Captain Woods to China with the Beare and Beare's Whelp, but they never returned.

Claiming legitimacy

In May 1603 Dudley was apparently told by a shadowy adventurer called Thomas Drury that his parents had been secretly married.[7] He began trying to establish his claim to the titles of Earl of Leicester and Earl of Warwick, as well as to inherit his deceased uncle Ambrose Dudley's estate of Warwick Castle. The case came before the Star Chamber in 1604–1605 and aroused great public interest. 90 witnesses for Dudley and 57 for the widowed Countess of Leicester, Lettice Knollys, appeared. Dudley won, and possibly pressured, his mother to support his cause, so she declared in writing (she did not attend the trial personally) that Leicester had solemnly contracted to marry her in Cannon Row, Westminster in 1571, and that they were married at Esher, Surrey, "in wintertime" in 1573. Yet all of the ten putative witnesses ("besides others") to the ceremony were long dead since. Neither could she remember who the "minister" was, nor the exact date of the marriage.[8] The Star Chamber rejected the evidence and fined several of the witnesses. It was concluded that Sir Robert Dudley had been duped by Thomas Drury, who in his turn had sought "his own private gains".[9] King James ratified the judgement and it was handed down on 10 May 1605. In 1621 an official investigation in Tuscany, Dudley's new country, concluded that Dudley's "friends maintain that his father married Lady Sheffield, but they are unable to account for her marriage during his lifetime, an act so injurious to the alleged legitimacy of her son."[10][note 1]

In Italy

Grandduchess Maria Maddalena, one of Dudley's Medici patrons

Dudley left England in July 1605 by Calais. His lover and cousin Elizabeth Southwell accompanied him, disguised as a page. She was a daughter of Sir Robert Southwell and Lady Elizabeth Howard, who was a granddaughter of Charles Howard, 1st Earl of Nottingham, Dudley's uncle. The couple declared that they had converted to Catholicism. Dudley married Elizabeth Southwell in Lyon in 1606, after they had received a papal dispensation because they were blood relatives, and they first settled in Florence. He began to use his father's title of Earl of Leicester and his uncle's title of Earl of Warwick.

Dudley designed and built warships for the arsenal of Tuscany and became a naval advisor to Ferdinand I, Grand Duke of Tuscany, of the Medici family. He received an annuity of 2,000 ducats. In 1608 Dudley convinced the Duke to send the privateer galleon Santa Lucia Buonaventura to Guiana and northern Brazil in the only tentative of Italian colonization in the Americas.

Attempts at reconciliation

James I revoked Dudley's travel license in 1607. When he ordered Dudley to return home to provide for his deserted wife and family, Dudley refused. He was declared an outlaw and his estate was confiscated. He continued contacts with the English court through Sir Thomas Chaloner, who was now a chamberlain to Henry, Prince of Wales. He corresponded with the young Prince on the subjects of navigation and shipbuilding and in 1611 tried to broker a marriage between him and Caterina, daughter of Duke Ferdinand. Meanwhile, Henry Frederick had taken a fancy to Kenilworth Castle, calling it "the most noble and magnificent thing in the midland parts of this realm". Wanting it, he was willing to buy it from Dudley and agreed in 1611 to pay £14,500, with Dudley to hold the office of constable of the castle for his lifetime. When Henry died in 1612, only £3,000 had been paid, and it is unclear whether Dudley ever received it. The new Prince of Wales, Charles, then took possession of the castle but failed to pay the balance owing. In 1621, he got an Act of Parliament allowing Dudley's wife to sell the estate to him for £4,000.

In 1618, James I transferred the Earldoms of Leicester and Warwick to others. In 1620, Dudley convinced Grand Duchess Maria Maddalena, wife of the new duke Cosimo II, to ask her brother Emperor Ferdinand II, to recognize his claim to his grandfather's title of Duke of Northumberland. Dudley succeeded on 9 March 1620, and James I severed all negotiations for conciliation.

Later years

In addition to shipbuilding, Dudley was busy with many projects in Tuscany, including the Livorno's breakwater and harbour fortifications, draining local swamps, and building a palace in the heart of Florence. He also designed new galleys, and he wrote his memoirs of navigation and seamanship between 1610 and 1620. Later, Dudley incorporated his notes into six volumes of Dell'Arcano del Mare (The Secret of the Sea), self-published in 1646–1647. He also wrote a Maritime Directory as a manual for the Tuscan Navy but it was never published. In 1631 his wife Elizabeth died the day after giving birth to her last child. Several of his 13 children with her married into the Italian nobility. In 1644 King Charles I created Alice Dudley, Duchess of Dudley for life—without significant prerogatives—and recognized Dudley's legitimacy but did not restore his titles and estate. Robert Dudley died on 6 September 1649 outside Florence in Villa Rinieri. He was buried at San Pancrazio in Florence.

Dell'Arcano del Mare: chart of Portugal

Dell'Arcano del Mare

The most important of Dudley's works was Dell'Arcano del Mare (Secrets of the Sea). It includes a comprehensive treatise on navigation and shipbuilding and it has become renowned as the first atlas of sea charts of the world. Dell'Arcano del Mare consists of six known volumes that illustrate Dudley's knowledge of navigation, shipbuilding and astronomy and it includes 130 original maps, all his own creations and not copied from existing maps, which was unusual for the period. Originally published at Florence in 1645 in Italian, they represent a collection of all contemporary naval knowledge. The atlas also includes a proposal for the construction of a fleet of five rates (sizes) of ships, which Dudley had designed and described. Dell'Arcano del Mare was reprinted in Florence in 1661 without the charts of the first edition. The distinctive character of Dudley's charts was influenced by the Italian baroque engraver Antonio Francesco Lucini. Later mapmakers chose not to copy Dudley's style and so it became a unique and rare relic in the history of cartography. Lucini recorded that he had spent 12 years and 5,000 pounds of copper to produce the plates.


  1. ^ In the nineteenth century, the question of Sir Robert Dudley's legitimacy was again raised in the House of Lords, but again, it remained unresolved. Historians have had differing views on the problem: While Derek believes in a marriage,[11] it has been rejected by, for example, Conyers Read,[12] Johanna Rickman,[13] and Simon Adams.[14]


  1. ^ Adams 2008a; Adams 2008b
  2. ^ Warner 1899 p. vi; Wilson 1981 p. 246
  3. ^ Wilson 1981 p. 246
  4. ^ Warner 1899 p. viii
  5. ^ Wilson 1981 pp. 336–337
  6. ^ "University of Bristol students reveal true identity of Elizabethan portrait" Early Modern England 10 March 2010 Retrieved 2010-06-15
  7. ^ Warner 1899 p. xli
  8. ^ Warner 1899 pp. xl–xli; Adams 2008b
  9. ^ Warner 1899 p. xlvi
  10. ^ Adams 2008a
  11. ^ Wilson 1981 p. 326
  12. ^ Read 1936 p. 23
  13. ^ Rickman 2008 p. 51
  14. ^ Adams 2008b


  • Adams, Simon (2008a): "Dudley, Sir Robert (1574–1649)" Oxford Dictionary of National Biography online edn. Jan 2008 (subscription required) Retrieved 2010-04-03
  • Adams, Simon (2008b): "Sheffield , Douglas, Lady Sheffield (1542/3–1608)" Oxford Dictionary of National Biography online edn. Jan 2008 (subscription required) Retrieved 2010-04-03
  • Read, Conyers (1936): A Letter from Robert, Earl of Leicester, to a Lady The Huntington Library Bulletin No.9 April 1936
  • Rickman, Johanna (2008): Love, Lust, and License in Early Modern England: Illicit Sex and the Nobility Ashgate Publishing ISBN 0754661350
  • Role, Raymond E. (2003): "Sir Robert Dudley Duke of Northumberland" in History Today March 2003
  • Warner, G.F (1899): The Voyage of Robert Dudley to the West Indies, 1594-1595 Hakluyt Society
  • Wilson, Derek (1981): Sweet Robin: A Biography of Robert Dudley Earl of Leicester 1533-1588 Hamish Hamilton ISBN 0241101492

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