A remarkable lady

If you are part of St Giles but have never heard of Alicia, Duchess Dudley then the time has come to cure you of this particular ignorance. In this month’s Pelican, Rector Alan reveals the story of one of our most important benefactors:

Alice Dudley, Duchess of Dudley, (known to us as Alicia), was born Alice Leigh in 1579, daughter to Sir Thomas Leigh, 1st Baronet of Stoneleigh Abbey, Warwickshire, himself the third son of Sir Thomas LeighLord Mayor of London for 1558. On 11th September 1596, Alice married Sir Robert Dudley, the natural son of  Robert Dudley, 1st Earl of Leicester and one of Queen Elizabeth I‘s favourites. Seven children came from this marriage and of them five daughters reached adulthood; most married into the minor nobility.

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Robert Dudley, Earl of Leicester – Alicia’s father-in-law

In 1605, Robert Dudley left England and fled to Florence, accompanied by his first cousin once removed, Elizabeth Southwell (disguised as a page), the couple soon announcing their conversion to Roman Catholicism and intention to marry. To repudiate his marriage to Alicia, Robert claimed that he had already been married (to one of Queen Elizabeth’s maids of honour) when he married Alicia. In spite of this, the third marriage was never recognised in England. Whilst in Italy the Emperor Ferdinand bestowed on Robert, who was a learned man, the title of a Duke of the Holy Roman Empire in 1620.

Things became more complicated when Robert, who owned Kenilworth Castle among other properties, valued at £50,000, sold them in 1612 for only £14,500 to Henry Frederick, Prince of Wales; and after the prince’s death the property then devolved upon the new Prince of Wales, the future Charles I, who then, in 1622, obtained a special Act of Parliament to allow Alicia to sell her interest in the properties for £4,000, together with further payments to be made to her in later years.

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Kenilworth Castle

The story is then taken up over twenty years later when by letters patent of 23rd May 1644, Charles created Alicia to be a duchess for the span of her own life. This decision appears to have been in the nature of an apology to Alicia for the poor treatment she had received at the hands of Robert, whose claim to be a legitimate son had earlier not been believed by Charles’ brother Henry and led to the property above mentioned being bought at less than it was worth. Charles, it appears, had come to accept that Robert had been a legitimate son after all and that Alicia had suffered through no fault of her own for the misfortune of her marriage. The decision, which was also helped by the assistance given to Charles by two of Alicia’s sons-in-law to the royalist cause, was written thus:

‘And whereas, our father [James I] not knowing the truth of the lawful birth of the said Sir Robert (as we piously believe) granted away the titles of the said earldom to others … and holding ourselves in honour and conscience obliged to make reparation; and also the said great estate which the Lady Alice had in Kenilworth, and sold at our desire to us at a very great undervalue… we do… give and grant unto the said Lady Alice Dudley the title of Duchess of Dudley for life.’

Alicia was finally widowed in 1649, her husband dying at his villa near Florence after more than forty years in exile. A memorial to Alicia and one of her daughters, also called Alicia, lies near the chancel arch of St Mary the Virgin, Stoneleigh, whose records state that ‘beyond the chancel arch lies a monument, erected in 1668, to a proud lady with a bitter story and one of the few Englishwomen made a Duchess in her own right.’ It is reproduced on the first page of this newsletter and bears a striking resemblence to the memorial to her daughter Frances in St Giles itself.

At this point the story of Alicia and the story of St Giles merge. because, living in the parish, she became a generous benefactor to St Giles-in-the-Fields, then technically in Middlesex. After the (first) medieval church had fallen into decay, a new Gothic-style building (the second) was built in brick between 1623 and 1630, mostly paid for by the future Duchess. She died at her house near the church on 22nd January 1669, having outlived all her daughters except Lady Katherine Leveson and having lived through some of the most tumultuous political events this country has ever known.

Duchess Dudley Memorial

Memorial to Frances Kniveton, daughter of Alicia, Duchess Dudley in the nave at St Giles-in-the-Fields © Andrea Liu 2012

In the The Pall Mall Gazette of 1896 the following is found: ‘Alice survived her affliction [being deserted by Robert] well, for she lived to the age of ninety. Her portrait, taken when she was an old lady, is preserved at Stoneleigh, her little thin, sharp-featured countenance appearing out of the midst of the enormous ruff of the period and surrounded by a white fluted cap under a black hood. She died in her house near St Giles Church in London to which, amongst many other churches, she left large sums of money and various gifts, including ‘a neat pair of organs, with a case richly gilded,’ and ‘the great bell in the steeple which, as oft it ringeth, soundeth her praise.’ She also left a sum of money to the sexton of St Giles to ‘toll the Great Bell when prisoners condemned to die shall be passing by, and to ring it out after they shall be executed.’ These gifts to various churches Duchess Dudley left on condition that her name should be mentioned in the sermon preached on Whit Sunday’ – a custom unknown to us hitherto.

Today we remember her in particular for the sum of money that, as the years have passed, has grown to become a lasting bequest which still provides the stipend for the Rector of St Giles; and with this her story is told and the reason why all those attached in any way with the third church built on this same site (the third – our own) would do well to remember her with thanksgiving. She had tenacity, this Duchess, and generosity and an enduring faith. The least the present Rector can do is find a way of bringing her name into his Whit Sunday sermon!