Last Updated June 7, 2023.
Sir Walter Scott'sKenilworth revolves around a secret marriage, an Earl's ambition, and a servant's unscrupulousness. The action opens at the Black Bear Inn in Cumnor. Michael Lambourne has just returned home from years of misadventures and asks after his old friends. Upon learning that one of them, Anthony Foster, has become a wealthy man and holder of Cumnor Place, Lambourne decides to visit him. There is some mystery about a lady living there. Another guest at the inn named Edmund Tressilian asks to go along.
The two men ride out to Cumnor Place. While Foster and Lambourne discuss becoming partners, Tressilian waits in the parlor. The lady enters and recognizes Tressilian. She is Amy Robsart, and Tressilian has been sent by her father to bring her home. Her friends believe she has run off with Richard Varney, a follower and favorite servant of Robert Dudley, the Earl of Leicester. Amy will not go.
Amy is married to Leicester, but the marriage must remain secret because the Earl's place at court is not secure. He is a favorite of Queen Elizabeth, but that favor could dissolve quickly, especially if the Queen finds out about the marriage. Leicester loves Amy and visits her at Cumnor Place, but he insists she remains out of the public eye. Foster and Varney are assigned to guard her. Foster's daughter, Janet, serves Amy as a maid and companion.
Varney convinces Amy not to mention Tressilian's appearance to her husband. She does not, especially when the Earl is violent toward her old friend. Varney now has a secret he can use against Amy. Varney wants the marriage kept secret because when the Earl rises at court, so does Varney. He has significant ambitions and hires Lambourne to do some of his dirty work.
Tressilian returns to Lidcote Hall, the home of Amy's father, Sir Hugh Robsart, to get permission to plead Amy's case before the Queen. Along the way, his horse loses a shoe, and he meets the mysterious Wayland Smith and a brilliant yet hideous boy named Dickie Sludge. Wayland was once the servant of an alchemist and "physician" named Doctor Demetrius Doboobie. After Doboobie's mysterious disappearance, Wayland has had to put on a show to get work as a blacksmith, even though he is highly skilled in medicine and stagecraft. Now, however, he goes with Tressilian as his servant.
At Lidcote Hall, Tressilian gets the permission he wants but also finds that his friend, the Earl of Sussex, is horribly ill. Wayland knows that he has been poisoned and by what, and the men set out to Sayes Court to help Sussex. Along the way, Wayland buys the ingredients he needs at different shops in London. Wayland's medicine revives Sussex.
One of Sussex's followers, Walter Raleigh, turns away the Queen's doctor, and Sussex sends him to the court along with Nicholas Blount to apologize to the Queen. Raleigh throws his cloak down over a mud puddle so that the Queen can step on it, and he earns the Queen's favor and a name for himself at court. The Queen visits Sayes Court and is displeased by the military-like establishment she finds.
The Queen is tired of the conflict between Leicester and Sussex. She calls them both to court and orders them to be friends. The Queen then takes up the issue of Amy Robsart. Varney claims that she is his wife, and Leicester indirectly affirms it. The Earl is now trapped. He cannot reveal his secret marriage without seriously displeasing the Queen. He decides to work...
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even harder to earn the Queen's favor. Still, he also agonizes over what his ambition has done. Moreover, the Queen has ordered Amy to appear at the upcoming festivities at Leicester's Kenilworth.
Meanwhile, Wayland tells Tressilian that Demetrius Doboobie has been at Sayes Court. Tressilian sends Wayland to find out what is going on at Cumnor Place. Wayland tells Sussex to be extremely careful. Leicester calls on the astrologer Alasco to get his horoscope. Alasco tells him that he will experience a rise in position. Alasco, however, is none other than Doboobie and is in Varney's employment. Now Varney sends Alasco to Cumnor Place to make Amy sick so she cannot come to Kenilworth.
Wayland poses as a pedlar in Cumnor, and he goes to Cumnor Place and encounters Amy and Janet. He takes Janet into his confidence and gives the woman a "medicine" to counteract poison. In response to Varney's badgering, Leicester writes to Amy and commands her to pretend to be Varney's wife at Kenilworth. Amy refuses to cooperate and insists the letter cannot be from her husband. Varney forces Amy to drink one of Alasco's concoctions, but it does not affect her because of Wayland's precautions.
Janet and Wayland help Amy escape from Cumnor Place. Amy decides to go directly to Kenilworth and place herself under her husband's protection. Wayland disguises himself and Amy and joins a group of performers heading toward the castle. Dickie is a member of the group, and he helps them gain entrance to Kenilworth. He is very curious about the lady with Wayland and upset that the smith will not share his secret.
At the castle, Wayland puts Amy in Tressilian's room. Amy writes a letter to Leicester and gives it to Wayland to deliver. Wayland, however, decides to go to Tressilian first, but by the time he finds him, the letter is gone. Tressilian discovers Amy in his room, and she makes him promise to give her twenty-four hours before he says anything about her presence. Lambourne confronts Tressilian about his "mistress," throws Wayland out of the castle, and has Amy locked in her room.
The Queen arrives at Kenilworth amidst a great display of splendor and pageantry. Leicester is by her side as a clear favorite. The Queen asks after Amy, and Varney produces documents "proving" that she is ill. Tressilian challenges the documents but cannot say more because of his promise. Raleigh and Blount take him away after he grabs the Queen's robes to plead with her.
Lambourne forces his way into Amy's room to assault her. She flees and hides in the Pleasance, the castle's garden. Leicester and the Queen walk into the garden the following day, and Leicester hints at a match between them. The Queen says she cannot make connections and goes off alone. She finds Amy, who begs for protection, and says Leicester knows her story.
Elizabeth confronts Leicester, but Varney appears and claims that his "wife" is insane. Amy is taken away under the protection of an adviser to the Queen. Leicester visits Amy. She refuses to act the part of Varney's wife and tells her husband to go to the Queen and confess. He agrees. Varney, however, accuses Amy of having an affair with Tressilian, and Leicester believes him. He declares that Amy must die. When the Queen's doctor confirms Amy's "insanity," Varney leaves the castle with Amy at once. Leicester sends Lambourne after him with a message that he is only to take Amy back to Cumnor Place and nothing else.
Leicester and Tressilian duel, but Dickie intervenes, preventing Leicester from killing Tressilian. Dickie gives Leicester Amy's letter (which he had stolen from Wayland), and the Earl realizes that he has seriously misjudged his wife. He confesses to a furious Elizabeth, who sends Tressilian and Raleigh to Cumnor Place. They arrive too late. Varney has rigged a trap door, and Amy falls through it to her death. Varney commits suicide. Leicester is left to live with the consequences of his actions.