Last Updated on October 26, 2018, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 762
Michael Lambourne, a ne’er-do-well in his early youth, returns from his travels. While drinking and boasting in Giles Gosling’s inn, he wagers that he can gain admittance to Cumnor Place, a large manor where an old friend is now steward. It is rumored in the village that Tony Foster is keeping a beautiful young woman prisoner at the manor. Edmund Tressilian, another guest at the inn, goes with Lambourne to Cumnor Place. As Tressilian suspects, he finds the woman there to be his former sweetheart, Amy Robsart, apparently a willing prisoner. He also encounters Richard Varney, her supposed seducer, and the two men engage in a sword fight. Lambourne, who decides to ally himself with his old friend, Tony, intervenes.
Contrary to Tressilian’s suspicion, Amy is not Varney’s mistress but the wife of Varney’s master, the earl of Leicester. Varney only served as the go-between and accomplice in Amy’s elopement. Leicester, who is competing for Queen Elizabeth’s favor with the earl of Sussex, fears that the news of his marriage to Amy will displease the queen; he therefore convinces Amy that their marriage must be kept secret.
Tressilian returns to Lidcote Hall to obtain Hugh Robsart’s permission to bring Varney to justice on a charge of seduction. On his way, he employs Wayland Smith as his manservant. Smith formerly served as an assistant to Dr. Doboobie, an alchemist and astrologer. Tressilian later visits the earl of Sussex, through whom he hopes to petition either the queen or the earl of Leicester in Amy’s behalf. During that visit, Wayland saves Sussex’s life after the earl was poisoned.
When the earl hears Tressilian’s story, he presents the petition directly to the queen. Confronted by Elizabeth, Varney swears that Amy is his lawful wife, and Leicester, who is standing by, confirms the lie. Elizabeth then orders Varney to present Amy to her when she visits Kenilworth the following week.
Leicester sends a letter to Amy asking her to appear at Kenilworth as Varney’s wife. She refuses. In order to have an excuse for disobeying Elizabeth’s orders regarding Amy’s presence at Kenilworth, Varney has Alasco, the former Dr. Doboobie, mix a potion that will make Amy ill without killing her. This plan is thwarted, however, by Wayland, who was sent by Tressilian to help her. She escapes from Cumnor Place and with the assistance of Wayland makes her way to Kenilworth to see Leicester.
When she arrives at Kenilworth, the place is bustling in preparation for Elizabeth’s arrival that afternoon. Wayland takes Amy to Tressilian’s quarters, where she writes Leicester a letter telling him of her escape from Cumnor Place and asking his aid. Wayland loses the letter, and through a misunderstanding, he is ejected from the castle. Disappointed that Leicester does not come to her, Amy leaves her apartment and goes into the garden. There she is discovered by the queen, who, judging Amy to be insane because of her contradictory statements, returns her to the custody of Varney, her supposed husband.
Leicester decides to confess the true story to the queen, but Varney is afraid for his own fortunes if Leicester falls from favor; he convinces the earl that Amy was unfaithful to him and that Tressilian is her lover. Leicester, acting on Varney’s lies, decides that death will be just punishment for Amy and her lover. Varney takes Amy back to Cumnor Place and plots her death. When Leicester relents and sends Lambourne to tell Varney that Amy must not die, Varney kills Lambourne so that he might go through with Amy’s murder. Leicester and Tressilian fight a duel; but before either can harm the other, they are interrupted by Dickie Sludge, the child who stole Amy’s letter. Leicester reads the letter and realizes that Amy was faithful to him and that the complications of the affair were caused by Varney’s machinations.
Leicester immediately goes to the queen and confesses the whole story. Elizabeth is angry, but she sends Tressilian and Sir Walter Raleigh to bring Amy to Kenilworth. They arrive too late to save her. She falls through a rigged trapdoor and plunges to her death.
Tressilian and Raleigh seize Varney and bring him to prison. There Varney commits suicide. Elizabeth permits the grief-stricken Leicester to retire from her court for several years but later recalls him to her favor. Much later in life, he remarries, and he eventually meets his death as a result of poison he intended for someone else.