The Real Story

Murder in the Queen's Wardrobe is fiction, but the story of Lady Mary Hastings and the proposal that she marry Ivan the Terrible is not.


There is no portrait of Mary, but here is a contemporary likeness of Ivan.



Aside from his reputation for irrational violence, the other strike against him was that he already had a wife. Actually, he had two, having put one of them away in a convent in order to wed the other. He is said to have been deeply in love with his first wife, and devastated when she died. After that, his matrimonial record is worse than that of Henry the Eighth.


MARY HASTINGS was the youngest daughter of Francis Hastings, 2nd earl of Huntingdon (1514-June 20, 1561) and Katherine Pole (d. September 23, 1576). In 1562, Mary's brother contracted a marriage for one of his sisters, either Lady Elizabeth or Lady Mary, to Lord Bulbeck, the earl of Oxford's heir. The agreement provided for a dowry of 1000 marks and a jointure of 1000 pounds. Edward de Vere was supposed to marry one of the sisters within a month of his eighteenth birthday. Before that date, however, the earl of Oxford died and the new earl became the ward of William Cecil, Lord Bughley. He married Burghley's daughter, Ann Cecil, instead. Lady Mary, still unmarried and in her late twenties, may have been at the court of Queen Elizabeth in 1581 when Dr. Robert Jacobi, an English physician living in Muscovy, suggested her name to Tsar Ivan the Terrible of Russia in reponse to his interest in beginning negotiations for an English bride of royal blood. Mary qualified, being a Plantagenet descendent distantly related to the queen. It is uncertain when she was told of her role in the matter, but if she knew anything about Ivan, she cannot have been enthusiastic. He was at that time married to his seventh wife, a woman he planned to discard if the match with an English "princess" could be arranged. Ivan sent an ambassador,Theodor Andreevich Pissemsky, to England to negotiate the marriage and an alliance against the king of Poland. He was to report on the height, complexion, and measurements of the proposed bride and procure a portrait of her. Ivan was looking for a stately appearance, and would also require that Mary and all her attendants convert to the Orthodox religion. Queen Elizabeth, who wanted exclusive English access to the port of St. Nicholas, deliberately delayed committing herself with the ambassador, who arrived in England in September 1582, at first telling him that Mary Hastings had recently had smallpox and that a face-to-face meeting and a portrait would be intrusive. In May 1583, however, she could put him off no longer. There are several contradictory accounts of the meeting, based on a report by the ambassador himself (translated) and a memoir by Sir Jerome Horsey, who was not present. They differ widely in some areas but agree that the meeting was in the Lord Chancellor's garden. The Lord Chancellor was Sir Thomas Bromley, but while the ambassador's account says the garden was at Bromley's country house, Horsey places it in the gardens at York House, near Charing Cross in the city of Westminster. According to the ambassador, he was allowed only an interpreter, Dr. Roberts, and did not actually speak to Lady Mary. There was a party of ladies in the garden and Lady Mary was pointed out to him. She was walking at the head of the group, between the countess of Huntingdon (her brother's wife, born Katherine Dudley) and Lady Bromley (Elizabeth Fortescue). The two groups circled the garden several times, passing each other, so that the ambassador could get a good look. Horsey's version, in which the ambassador throws himself on the ground before the Tsar's betrothed and declares she has the face of an angel, seems unlikely. What the ambassador did say was, "It is enough." He reported to the Tsar that "The Princess of Hountinski, Mary Hantis is tall, slight, and white-skinned; she has blue eyes, fair hair, a straight nose, and her fingers are long and taper." Some translations make her eyes grey. The long-awaited portrait was completed in time for him to take it with him when he returned to Russia. He embarked on June 22, 1583 along with England's new ambassador to Russia, Sir Jerome Bowes. Bowes's instructions were to dissuade the Tsar on grounds of Mary's poor health, scarred complexion, and reluctance to leave her friends. Until Ivan's death on March 18, 1584, Mary (at least according to Horsey) had to put up with being called "the Empress of Muscovia." Mary herself died, still unwed, before 1589, by which date a bequest in her will was being contested. One source says her death came shortly after a visit to her brother in Ireland but, so far, I've found no record that any of her brothers was serving there in the 1580s.


Two other real people who play a role in Murder in the Queen's Wardrobe are the ambassadors, Theodor Andreevich Pissemsky (various spellings) was sent to England by Ivan the Terrible in 1582. Below is a painting showing Queen Elizabeth giving an audience to foreign ambassadors. It is doubtful it portrays the Russian, but he would have been received in a similar setting.




Sir Jerome Bowes was sent as Ambassador to Russia in 1583. He was not a great success. We do have a portrait of him.



Similarly, Sir Francis Walsingham, Sir Thomas Bromley, George Barne, Dr. Robert Jacobi, and Prince Albertus Laski, and Robert Dudley, earl of Leicester are all real people. Below are portraits of Walsingham and Leicester.




There are other real women in the novel, as well.


KATHERINE DUDLEY was the daughter of John Dudley, duke of Northumberland (1504-x.August 22, 1553) and Jane Guildford (1509-January 15, 1555). Although the Oxford Dictionary of National Biography gives her birthdate as c.1538, there is a record of a christening on November 30, 1545 that several authorities believe was Katherine's. The godparents were Francis van der Delft, Imperial Ambassador to England, Princess Mary, and Catherine Willoughby, duchess of Suffolk, who hosted a reception at Suffolk Place, Southwark. Assuming this birthdate to be correct, Katherine was seven when she was married to eighteen-year-old Henry Hastings (1535-December 14, 1594) on May 24, 1553 at Durham House in the Strand. Three months later, her father was arrested and executed for treason. It would have been easy for her father-in-law, the earl of Huntingdon, to have her marriage annulled. Instead he took her to Ashby-de-la-Zouche to be raised with his own family. From 1555 on, under the terms of her mother's will, her brother Robert paid her a stipend of twenty marks a year. She set up housekeeping with her husband in 1560. She first came to court in 1562 or 1563 and because her brother, Robert Dudley, was the queen's favorite, she was made a lady of the privy chamber. In 1564, however, when a book on the succession urged acceptance of her husband's claim to the throne, Katherine was given "a privy nippe" by the queen. His assurance that the book was "foolishly written" did not mend the rift and for a time Katherine left the court. In 1566, according to an essay by Simon Adams in Leicester and the Court, the earl of Leicester's visit to the West Midlands was put off due to the illness "or possible miscarriage" of his sister, the countess of Huntingdon. In January 1570, Leicester and both his sisters went to meet their brother the earl of Warwick at Kenilworth. In 1576, Katherine and her husband became legal guardians of the earl of Essex's children. She was already fostering and training several young gentlewomen but had no children of her own. In 1583, she was in London with her sister-in-law, Lady Mary Hastings, who was under consideration as a bride for Ivan the Terrible of Russia. On June 18, 1584, Katherine was living in her husband's house in Leicester when her brother, the earl of Leicester, stopped there for the night on his way back from a visit to the baths at Buxton. He left at 5 AM the next morning. Katherine spent some time in the north where Huntingdon was president of the Council of the North, but had been ill and remained at Whitehall the last time he went to York. She was prostrate with grief when told of his death. Nevertheless, she returned to court and was considered one of the queen's closest friends during the last years of her reign. During the reign of James I, she took charge of the small daughters of her nephew, Robert Sidney, while he and his wife were in the Netherlands. She died at Chelsea and was buried there in the parish church.


ELIZABETH FORTESCUE was the daughter of Sir Adrian Fortescue of Stonor Park, Oxfordshire (c.1481-x. July 9, 1539) and Anne Rede (c.1510-January 5, 1585). She was married by 1560 to Sir Thomas Bromley (1530-April 12, 1587), Lord Chancellor of England from April 1579, and was the mother of Sir Henry (d. May 15, 1615), three other sons, Elizabeth, Anne, Muriel (1560-1630), and Joan (b.1562). The Bromley children were tutored by William Hergest, who dedicated his The Right Rule of Christian Chastity (1580) to his charges. It was in the Lord Chancellor's garden, with Lady Bromley present, that an ambassador sent by the tsar of Russia was allowed a look at Lady Mary Hastings in May 1583. Lady Mary had been proposed as a possible bride for Ivan the Terrible. Accounts vary as to whether this garden was at York House, Westminster or at the Bromleys' country house. Since this was at Holt, Worcestershire, York House seems more likely. Elizabeth was buried on June 2, 1602 in St. Margaret's, Westminster.

JANE RICHARDS was an Englishwoman living in St. Stephen Walbrook, London when, on July 18, 1564 she married one Eliseus or Eligius Bomelius (c.1530-1579), also known as Elijah Bomel and Dr. Elisei. He was a native of Westphalia who had come to England in 1558 to study medicine at Cambridge. His sponsor was Katherine Willoughby, Duchess of Suffolk, who had been in exile with her second husband, Richard Bertie during the reign of Mary Tudor, and had given birth to their son, Peregrine Bertie, in October 1555 in Wesel. It was Eliseus's father, Henry Bomelius who baptized Peregrine. Eliseus started a practice in London as a physician and astronomer, living for a time in 1567 in Lord Lumley's London residence near Tower Hill and later in the parish of St. Michael-le-Querne, but he neglected to follow the regulations of the College of Physicians and was arrested in 1567 for practicing without a license and imprisoned in the Wood Street Compter. He was still confined at Easter 1570, but as an "open prisoner" of the king's bench. Jane appealed to Sir William Cecil, who was already acquainted with her husband, for help and appeared before the censor's committee of the College of Physicians, petitioning for his freedom. Having decided that London was no longer welcoming, Eliseus made arrangements to accompany the departing Russian ambassador back to Moscow, taking Jane with him. They arrived late in 1570. There he served Tsar Ivan IV (the Terrible) as a magician and physician and held a post in the household of the tzar's son. He cast horoscopes, concocted poisons, and accumulated a fortune. In 1575, however, he was caught trying to sneak into Riga (controlled by the Tzar's enemies, the Polish) in disguise. Under torture he admitted to all sorts of crimes against Russia. He died in prison. Jane, who had been left behind in Moscow in 1575, was not permitted to return to England until Queen Elizabeth interceded on her behalf in 1583. It is uncertain when she left, but it was certainly no later than May 1584, when Sir Jerome Bowes, the departing English ambassador, sailed home. On October 28, 1586, a marriage license was issued for Jane, widow of Eliseus Bomelius, and Thomas Wennington, gentleman, of St. Margaret Pattens, London.



The settings used in Murder in the Queen's Wardrobe are almost all real places. Willow House is fiction, but it's location, Bermondsey, is as accurate as I could make it. The village is famously portrayed in a painting by Joris Hoefnagel.



This map from 1572 also shows the area:





The Horse's Head Inn is my own invention, but it is based on real inns of the period. Here's what one of them may have looked like.



Another real place is English House in Moscow, which still exists and is now a museum. Below are an exterior photo and an exhibit showing an interior scene from the sixteenth century.




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