(B. Sheffield of Butterwick)
Died: BEF 11 Dec 1608
Buried: 11 Dec 1608, St. Margaret's, Westminster, England
Father: William HOWARD (1º B. Howard of Effingham)
Mother: Margaret GAMAGE (B. Howard of Effingham)
Married 1: John SHEFFIELD (2° B. Sheffield of Butterwick) ABT 1562
1. Elizabeth SHEFFIELD (C. Ormonde)
2. Edmund SHEFFIELD (1º E. Mulgrave)
Married 2: Robert DUDLEY (1° E. Leicester) May 1573, Esher, secretly -Divorced
3. Robert DUDLEY (E. Warwick)
Married 3: Edward STAFFORD of Grafton (Sir) 29 Nov 1579
Children:4. Son STAFFORD
5. Son STAFFORD
Douglas Howard was the daughter of William Howard, 1st Baron Howard of Effingham, and Margaret Gamage. Douglas was thus herself a first cousin to Anne Boleyn. She was said to resemble her cousin, Queen Catherine Howard. One of her brothers was Lord High Admiral Howard of Effingham.
Douglas Howard was at court in c. 1559, probably as a maid of honour. In 1560, at seventeen, she married wealthy peer, John Sheffield, 2nd baron Sheffield. After Sheffield's death in Dec 1568, some later said by poison, his widow returned to court as a gentlewoman of the privy chamber. There she vied for the attention of Robert Dudley, Earl of Leicester, with her own sister, Frances Howard.
In May 1573, it was observed by the court correspondent, Gilbert Talbot, that the Earl of Leicester was pursued by Lady Douglas and her sister:
'... There are two sisters now in the court that are very far in love with him, as they have long been; my Lady Sheffield and Frances Howard. They (of like striving who shall love him better) are at great wars together and the queen thinketh not well of them, and not the better of him...'
Sometime in the following years, Leicester wrote Douglas a remarkable letter, pondering on the history of their love, and explaining to her the reasons why he could not marry, not even to beget a legitimate heir; it would result in his 'utter overthrow':
'... You must think it is some marvellous cause, and toucheth my present state very near, that forceth me thus to be cause almost of the ruin of mine own house...and yet such occasions is there...as if I should marry I am sure never to have [the queen's] favour...'
He continues, proposing to accept one of the suitors for her hand, who she had so far declined for his sake: "The choice falls not oft, and yet I know you may have now of the best; and it is not my part to bid you take them...so it were not mine honesty to bid you refuse them". However, Leicester says, he still loves her as he did in the beginning. Yet he would help her, in case she wanted to marry elsewhere for reasons of respectability: "for when you have made your election you shall find me a most willing and ready friend to perform all good offices toward you".
According to a later deposition by Douglas, they were secretly married, well before the birth of their son, Robert, in Aug 1574 at Sheen House, Surrey. Leicester acknowledged paternity of his "base son", and was very fond of him, caring much for his well-being and education. When the boy was two, Leicester took him to Newington to be brought up by Lord North as befitted an earl's son, but he refused to support Douglas's claim that she was his wife.
It is unclear how long Leicester's affair with Lady Sheffield continued, but nearly thirty years later her version was that Leicester wanted to end the relationship around 1578, before his marriage to Lettice Knollys, the widowed Countess of Essex. They had a meeting at Greenwich in the garden, where according to her later claims, he wanted her to "disavow the marriage", offering her £700 per annum. She passionately rejected the offer. Leicester also became furious, saying he could as well part from her, leaving her penniless. Upon some reflection, she accepted the offer at last. Leicester, newly married, kept a portrait of Lady Douglas Sheffield in his country house at Wanstead until his death. However, there is no trace of any disagreement over young Robert's upbringing and whereabouts. He grew up in Leicester's and his friends' houses, having "leave to see" his mother whenever she wished.
After Leicester's marriage to Lettice Knollys became public, Douglas was asked to help Queen Elizabeth in her effort to have that marriage annulled, but instead of pressing her claim, she married Sir Edward Stafford on 29 Nov 1579 at her house in Blackfriars. She later claimed she committed bigamy to put an end to Leicester's attempts to have her poisoned. Edward Stafford was appointed English ambassador to the court of Henri III of France, and Douglas accompanied him. They resided in Paris from 1583 till 1591, Douglas moving in the highest circles of society as the ambassador's wife. Edward honoured his wife greatly, he had to cope with the fact though, that Douglas was still emotionally agitated by remembrances of the Earl of Leicester. Stafford himself was politically opposed to Leicester, and the personal component only aggravated this.
Douglas was sent home in 1588 for her own protection. She was at the English court during the 1590s.
After the death of Elizabeth I, in May 1603, Lady Sheffield's son, Sir Robert Dudley, began trying to establish his claim to the title of Earl of Leicester. He had been apparently told by a shadowy adventurer called Thomas Drury that his parents had been secretly married . The case ended up in the Star Chamber (1605) and aroused great public interest. The Court heard ninety witnesses for Dudley and fifty-seven for Leicester's widow, Lettice Knollys, Countess of Leicester. Lady Sheffield 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. As an explanation for marrying Edward Stafford, she asserted that Leicester had tried to poison her, and she determined to marry "for safeguard of her life". Lady Sheffield also claimed that she had refused to surrender the custody of their son, Robert, for fear that his father, the Earl, would have him killed. Sir Edward Stafford died while the proceedings were in progress. He had to answer questions regarding his wife's putative marriage with the Earl of Leicester. In his answers he wrote that he had asked Douglas back in Dec 1579, on the Queen's command, if she had been contracted to Leicester, to which "she answered with great vows, grief and passion that she had trusted the said earl too much to have anything to show to constrain him to marry her". 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".
Douglas died in 1608. In her will she left a black velvet bed among other things to her "honorable and beloved son Sir Robert Dudley". She was buried on 11 Dec 1608.
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