El­iz­a­beth I’s neme­sis

Then she stole the queen’s sweet­heart

BBC History Magazine - - Contents - Ni­cola Tal­lis tells the story of a Tu­dor love tri­an­gle

When Let­tice Knollys mar­ried the Vir­gin Queen’s sweet­heart, the re­sults were ex­plo­sive, writes Ni­cola Tal­lis

The at­mos­phere within the queen’s apart­ments at the Palace of White­hall was icily cold when, in late 1579, Let­tice Knollys stood be­fore El­iz­a­beth I. The queen raged at the woman in front of her in no un­cer­tain terms. “As but one sun light­ened the Earth, she would have but one queen in Eng­land,” El­iz­a­beth seethed, be­fore re­put­edly box­ing Let­tice’s ears and ban­ish­ing her from court.

What could Let­tice have pos­si­bly done to pro­voke such a vol­canic re­ac­tion? She had en­tered into a se­cret mar­riage without the queen’s con­sent – rea­son enough to pro­voke royal out­rage. But what re­ally fanned the flames of El­iz­a­beth’s fury was the iden­tity of the groom: Let­tice’s hus­band was none other than the queen’s favourite and one time suitor, Robert Dud­ley. It was a be­trayal that El­iz­a­beth would never for­give.

Scan­dalous gossip

“They say she is in love with Lord Robert and never lets him leave her.” So wrote the Span­ish am­bas­sador, the Count de Fe­ria, two decades ear­lier in 1559, of the blos­som­ing re­la­tion­ship be­tween El­iz­a­beth I and Robert Dud­ley. Nor was de Fe­ria alone in his be­lief that mat­ters were far from pla­tonic be­tween the queen and Dud­ley, and scan­dalous gossip about the pair be­gan to cir­cu­late soon after El­iz­a­beth’s ac­ces­sion the pre­vi­ous year.

De Fe­ria had heard that “Her Majesty vis­its him in his cham­ber day and night”. Dud­ley was al­ready mar­ried to Amy Rob­sart, but this did noth­ing to quell the ru­mours, and when Amy died in mys­te­ri­ous cir­cum­stances (she was found dead at the bot­tom of a flight of stairs) in Septem­ber 1560, it was whis­pered that Dud­ley had or­dered her mur­der in or­der to free him­self to marry the queen.

El­iz­a­beth had known Dud­ley since child­hood, and from the be­gin­ning of her reign she showed him great favour. He was cre­ated her Mas­ter of the Horse, and in 1564 she granted him the ti­tle of Earl of Le­ices­ter. Their be­hav­iour raised eye­brows, and although El­iz­a­beth would later swear that noth­ing im­proper had ever passed be­tween them, one thing is cer­tain: Dud­ley was more than her favourite, and her re­la­tion­ship with him was ar­guably the most im­por­tant of her life.

Hand­some, clever and am­bi­tious, it was lit­tle won­der that Dud­ley caught the queen’s eye. She her­self was a tall, slim and fiercely in­tel­li­gent woman – one de­scribed by the Vene­tian am­bas­sador as “comely rather than hand­some”.

When she as­cended the throne, El­iz­a­beth – scarred by her mother, Anne Bo­leyn’s tragic fate – pub­licly de­clared her in­ten­tion to re­main un­mar­ried and a vir­gin. This was of lit­tle mat­ter to the queen’s ad­vi­sors, and no sooner had she taken her seat on the throne than the pres­sure on her be­gan to mount: few peo­ple re­ally be­lieved that El­iz­a­beth in­tended to re­main sin­gle, and it was ex­pected that she would marry in or­der to pro­duce an heir.

Var­i­ous Euro­pean princes be­gan to press their suit, but not all of those who pro­posed mar­riage were of royal blood. Fol­low­ing the death of his wife, Robert Dud­ley was a free agent. And, once the scan­dal sur­round­ing Amy Rob­sart’s death had died down, he be­gan to present him­self as a se­ri­ous con­tender for El­iz­a­beth’s hand in mar­riage.

Dud­ley had al­ready won El­iz­a­beth’s heart, but ro­man­tic at­tach­ment was not her sole con­sid­er­a­tion. She was, after all, no or­di­nary woman but Queen of Eng­land. Dud­ley would spend more than a decade at­tempt­ing to per­suade her to be­come his wife. At times El­iz­a­beth seemed to con­sider it, toy­ing and tor­ment­ing him as she per­sis­tently re­fused to give him a de­fin­i­tive an­swer. This was such a source of frus­tra­tion to Dud­ley that, in 1565, he re­sorted to pro­vok­ing her jeal­ousy in or­der to st­ing her into a de­ci­sion.

The queen sees red

De­scribed as “one of the best-look­ing ladies of the court”, Let­tice Knollys was a kinswoman of the queen, to whom she had been a “dar­ling” in her youth. Though 10 years younger than El­iz­a­beth, the phys­i­cal sim­i­lar­i­ties be­tween the two women were strik­ing – no­tably their flame red hair.

Let­tice’s grand­mother had been the queen’s aunt, Mary Bo­leyn, and her mother was a close com­pan­ion of El­iz­a­beth. Let­tice her­self had briefly served in the queen’s house­hold, and was re­ferred to as one of her favourites. It was prob­a­bly in 1561 that she mar­ried Wal­ter Dev­ereux, Vis­count Here­ford and left the court be­hind for leafy Stafford­shire.

In the sum­mer of 1565, Let­tice was back. She was preg­nant with her third child, and

had trav­elled to Lon­don to at­tend her brother’s wed­ding. El­iz­a­beth treated Let­tice gen­er­ously, but that sum­mer the queen’s feel­ings for her kinswoman were put to the test. It was re­ported that Robert Dud­ley, now Earl of Le­ices­ter, “showed at­ten­tion” to Let­tice at the wed­ding cel­e­bra­tions – a very de­lib­er­ate de­ci­sion on Dud­ley’s be­half. Flirt­ing with Let­tice would, he hoped, pro­duce more than dither­ing in­de­ci­sion from the queen in re­sponse to his suit for her hand.

It achieved no such thing. All Dud­ley suc­ceeded in do­ing was throw­ing El­iz­a­beth into a jeal­ous rage. She ad­mon­ished him, we’re told, for “his flirt­ing with the vis­count­ess in very bit­ter words”.

As the 1560s gave way to the 1570s, the queen re­mained un­mar­ried – and, to many of her courtiers, it was be­com­ing in­creas­ingly ap­par­ent that this would re­main the case. She ap­peared to take the mar­riagei of­fersff of sev­eral of her Euro­pean suit­ors se­ri­ously, be­fore in­evitably get­ting cold feet, and the prospect of her ac­cept­ing Dud­ley’s over­tures grew more re­mote with ev­ery pass­ing year.

The re­al­i­sa­tion that the queen would not wed him came as a ma­jor blow to her old sweet­heart. He had made enor­mous per­sonal sac­ri­fices to re­tain her favour, and later claimed that, since the death of his first wife, he “had for a good sea­son for­borne mar­riage in re­spect of her Majesty’s dis­plea­sure”. In the 1570s he had how­ever be­come em­broiled in an af­fair with Lady Dou­glas Sh­effield – one of the queen’s ladies – re­sult­ing in the birth of a son, Robin Sh­effield.

Let­tice Knollys’s life had also reached a cross­roads. For sev­eral years of the 1570s, her hus­band, Wal­ter Dev­ereux, now Earl of Es­sex, had been en­gaged in a pro­tracted mil­i­tary cam­paign to colonise Ul­ster. The en­ter­prise was a dis­as­ter, and had at­tracted a storm of con­dem­na­tion back in Eng­land. One of Dev­ereux’s fiercest crit­ics was Robert Dud­ley – and so, when Dev­ereux died of dysen­tery

Dud­ley at­tempted to pro­voke the queen’s jeal­ousy by show­er­ing Let­tice Knollys with at­ten­tion

in Dublin in Septem­ber 1576, whispers soon spread that he had been poi­soned on Dud­ley’s orders. The ru­mours were base­less but, in light of con­se­quent events, it is un­sur­pris­ing that such gossip was cir­cu­lat­ing.

In the sum­mer of 1577, the wid­owed Count­ess of Es­sex spent time hunt­ing on Dud­ley’s War­wick­shire es­tate, Ke­nil­worth Cas­tle. It may have been here that the seeds of a ro­mance were sown, for that year the cou­ple’s re­la­tion­ship be­came more than pla­tonic. What­ever the cir­cum­stances, the love af­fair quickly be­came se­ri­ous, and they re­solved to marry. But there was one ma­jor ob­sta­cle: the queen.

Though El­iz­a­beth would not marry Dud­ley, she was still fiercely jeal­ous of the at­ten­tion her favourite showed to other women, and was de­ter­mined to keep him to her­self. But Let­tice and Dud­ley were in love, and he could sacri­fice his per­sonal hap­pi­ness no longer. “For the bet­ter qui­et­ing of his own con­science” he was de­ter­mined to “marry with the right honourable Count­ess of Es­sex.”

Dud­ley was forced to re­tire from court in dis­grace, leav­ing his new wife to bear the brunt of the queen’s fury

Mar­ry­ing into trou­ble

Let­tice and Dud­ley were fully aware that by en­ter­ing a mar­riage they risked los­ing the queen’s favour per­ma­nently. Yet, so strong were their feel­ings for one an­other, it was a risk they were both pre­pared to take. Early in the morn­ing of 21 Septem­ber 1578, they were se­cretly mar­ried in front of just a hand­ful of wit­nesses at Wanstead, Dud­ley’s Es­sex home.

The cou­ple’s nup­tials did not re­main se­cret for long. Within a mat­ter of weeks, word had started to spread. Just one ques­tion re­mained: how would the queen re­act? It was the sum­mer of 1579 when El­iz­a­beth was dealt the crush­ing blow of Dud­ley’s be­trayal. She her­self was en­gaged in ne­go­ti­a­tions for a po­ten­tial mar­riage with the Duc d’An­jou, but that did not make the news any eas­ier to swal­low. So in­can­des­cent with rage was she that her ini­tial re­ac­tion was to send Dud­ley to the Tower – a pun­ish­ment he was spared thanks to the in­ter­ces­sion of the Earl of Sus­sex. Nev­er­the­less, he re­tired from court in dis­grace, leav­ing his new wife to bear the brunt of the queen’s fury.

Let­tice was proud of her mar­riage – made for love – and even El­iz­a­beth’s rage could not pre­vent her from pre­tend­ing oth­er­wise. She was a spir­ited woman and, ac­cord­ing to one hos­tile source, rather than meekly re­gret­ting her con­duct, she now “de­meaned her­self like a princess”. Even when the queen con­fronted her dur­ing the lat­ter half of 1579 and ban­ished her from court, Let­tice showed no re­morse, re­main­ing, so we’re told, “as proud as ever”.

For all her anger, the queen could not bear to cut Robert Dud­ley out of her life al­to­gether. He was soon back at court, where he re­sumed his for­mer friend­ship with the monarch.

Let­tice en­joyed no such for­give­ness. After be­ing con­fronted by El­iz­a­beth, she had lit­tle choice but to re­tire to the coun­try, and would re­main es­tranged from both queen and court un­til El­iz­a­beth’s death in 1603. Not even the loss of Let­tice’s three-year-old son by Dud­ley, ‘the No­ble Imp’, in 1584 could soften the queen’s heart.

Lovers to the end

On 4 Septem­ber 1588, Let­tice was by her hus­band’s side when he died at Corn­bury Park in Ox­ford­shire. El­iz­a­beth was dev­as­tated, fully be­liev­ing that the loss was all her own. It wasn’t un­til Christ­mas Day 1634, aged 91, that Let­tice fol­lowed her hus­band to the grave. She was laid to rest be­side Dud­ley in St Mary’s Church, Warwick, where their dou­ble tomb still sur­vives.

Even in death, Let­tice’s tu­mul­tuous re­la­tion­ship with El­iz­a­beth was not for­got­ten. An epi­taph, thought to have been com­posed by her grand­daugh­ter’s hus­band, sum­marises the rea­son for her dis­grace: “She [Let­tice] was con­tent to quit her [El­iz­a­beth] favour for her favourite [Le­ices­ter].”

Love had won the day for Let­tice Knollys, though not for El­iz­a­beth.

When Let­tice Knollys (fore­ground) mar­ried Robert Dud­ley (above) without telling El­iz­a­beth I (top), sparks flew in the Palace of White­hall

Robert Dud­ley and El­iz­a­beth I en­joy one an­other’s com­pany at Ke­nil­worth Cas­tle, as de­picted in a 17th-cen­tury paint­ing. Their friend­ship set tongues wag­ging across Europe

When Amy Rob­sart, Robert Dud­ley’s first wife, died in 1560, many sus­pected that her hus­band was re­spon­si­ble

Robert Dud­ley and Let­tice Knollys lie side by side in St Mary’s Church, Warwick. Let­tice was with her hus­band when he died in 1588, and would out­live him by 46 years

El­iz­a­beth, shown in the 1580s. The queen soon for­gave Robert Dud­ley for his sec­ond mar­riage, and was bereft when he died

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