Elizabeth I’s Love Rival
Lettice Knollys was a darling of the Elizabethan court – until she snatched her Queen’s sweetheart for herself. As Nicola Tallis reveals, hell hath no fury like a monarch scorned...
Why Lettice Knollys’s marriage saw her go from court darling to banishment...........
You may not know the name Lettice Knollys, but at one time she was one of the most important members of Elizabeth I’s court. Grandniece of Anne Boleyn – and thus kin to the Queen herself – she was a woman of extraordinary beauty, passion and wit. Yet in 1579, she was cast out of Elizabeth’s good graces and banished from the palace. Her crime? She had secretly married the one man in England who was closest to the Queen’s heart, Robert Dudley, Earl of Leicester. Lettice had risked her liege’s enmity for love, and she paid the price. Later in her tumultuous life she would discover the taint of treason, and watch those closest to her succumb to the headsman’s axe – all the while remaining subject to Elizabeth’s bitter hatred.
BOUND BY BLOOD
Lettice Knollys was born on 6 November 1543, the third child of Francis Knollys by his wife Katherine Carey. Though she had little to boast of on her father’s side, through her mother Lettice had inherited prestigious connections. Katherine Carey purported to be the daughter of William Carey and Mary Boleyn, the sister of Henry VIII’s infamous second wife Anne – Elizabeth I’s mother. It is just possible, however, that Katherine was not William Carey’s daughter at all, but the result of Mary Boleyn’s affair with Henry VIII. Though by no means conclusive, the evidence is suggestive. If it’s true, Lettice was the King’s illegitimate granddaughter, making her closer in blood to Elizabeth I than either she or her family could openly acknowledge.
Lettice was raised at Greys Court in the heart of the Oxfordshire countryside, and was fortunate enough to be born to parents who were both loving and interested in the welfare of their children. The Knollys family was large – Lettice was one of 16 children, although not all of them survived infancy. She was close to her siblings, and remained so for the rest of her life. The politics and policies of the country would, however, have a profound impact upon their happy family life.
When Mary I became queen in 1553, she immediately took steps to undo the religious policies that had begun when Henry VIII broke from the Catholic Church in Rome – policies which had, as time progressed, begun to turn England into a Protestant nation. Mary was determined to return England to Catholicism, and for Protestant families such as Lettice’s this signalled disaster. It was with this in mind that her parents decided to abandon their home and flee to Europe.
Taking five of their children with them, the couple settled in Frankfurt. The names of the five children who joined them in exile are unknown, but it is unlikely that Lettice was one of them. More probable is that she remained in England, perhaps as a member of the household of her kinswoman, the Lady Elizabeth. Lettice’s parents would not remain abroad for long, however, for in November 1558 Mary I died and, at the age of 25, Elizabeth came to the throne. Her accession was met with great rejoicing across the country.
Lettice had just turned 15. She revelled in Elizabeth’s success, and her parents
“She may have been Henry VIII's illegitimate granddaughter”
and siblings were immediately able to return to England to join her. The family was now fortunate enough to be recipient of the Queen’s favour, and Lettice was appointed a member of Elizabeth’s household. She was a favourite of the Queen’s, and remained in her service until her marriage to Walter Devereux, Viscount Hereford. This probably took place in 1561, after which Lettice bid farewell to the bright lights of the court in favour of a life of domesticity in rural Staffordshire.
She took up residence at Chartley, the attractive moated manor house not far from Stafford that was her husband’s main residence, and it was here that she would spend much of her time for the next decade and beyond.
Lettice provided her husband with four surviving children: two boys and two girls, on whom she doted. Many of her letters are addressed to her eldest son, Robert, and demonstrate the possessive love that she felt for him.
In 1573, Lettice’s husband Walter, now Earl of Essex, sailed for Ireland in an attempt to colonise Ulster. It was a campaign doomed to failure and left him in crippling debt. During his absence Lettice busied herself with caring for her children, as well as attending court. She also spent time with her friends, including the Queen’s favourite, the Earl of Leicester. Rumours would later circulate that the two were conducting an illicit affair, but this is unlikely to have been true.
In late 1575, Lettice’s husband returned home from Ireland, but his reunion with his family was short-lived. Having secured a promise from the Queen to lend him more money, in July 1576 Walter left for Ireland once more. Soon after his arrival he fell sick – an illness from which he would never recover. On 22 September, Walter died of dysentery. Lettice was now a widow, left with four young children. Under the terms of Walter’s will, her daughters and youngest son became the wards of the Earl of Huntingdon, whilst her eldest son, Robert, joined
the household of Lord Burghley. Lettice now had herself to consider.
It was almost certainly at some time in 1577 that Lettice began a romantic relationship with Leicester. Since the death of his first wife in 1560, he had been pursuing the Queen’s hand in marriage, but his efforts had failed to bear fruit. Nevertheless, the Queen was still fiercely protective of her favourite, and had fallen into a jealous rage following a report in 1565 that he had flirted with Lettice, who was then heavily pregnant. By 1577, however, whatever sparks of attraction there were between Leicester and Lettice had developed into something more serious. By the beginning of 1578 – if not before – they had resolved to marry.
They did so on the morning of 21 September 1578, in a secret ceremony at the Earl’s house in Wanstead. Secrecy was vital, for the couple knew that the Queen was unlikely to give her royal consent to their marriage, and they were determined to be together. Just a handful of witnesses were present, all of whom were family or close friends. Now man and wife, their relationships with the Queen would be permanently changed.
The newlyweds had just 10 months to enjoy their marriage in peace before news of their secret wedding reached the Queen. Her reaction was predictable. The Earl of Leicester was told to absent himself from court (after being threatened with the Tower), but it was not long before he was restored to his former favour; for Lettice, the outcome was worse. A dramatic confrontation with the Queen ensued, during which Elizabeth told her kinswoman in no uncertain terms that she was no longer welcome; Lettice was banished. From now on she would be forced to live in the shadows, no longer the Queen’s beloved kinswoman, but instead her rival.
LIFE IN THE MARGINS
Lettice remained on the sidelines for the next two decades, contenting herself with her domestic arrangements. In June 1581, she bore Leicester a son, also named Robert, but both parents were distraught when the child died just after his third birthday. She also travelled with her husband, on one occasion holidaying with him at Kenilworth Castle.
By 1588, Leicester’s health had begun to decline dramatically. Left exhausted by a campaign to the Netherlands aimed at crushing the Spanish forces there, it was clear that he needed rest. It was with this in mind that at the end of the summer of 1588, the Earl set out for Buxton in order to take the medicinal waters. Lettice accompanied her husband, but the couple only made it as far as Cornbury Park in Oxfordshire
“They knew that the Queen was unlikely to give her royal consent”
STRIKING BEAUTY Lettice was described as one of the bestlooking ladies in Elizabeth’s circle
COUNTRY IDYLL Elizabeth’s future love rival grew up in this suitably regal manor in Oxfordshire
FAST FRIENDS Elizabeth in her coronation robes; the new Queen kept Lettice close early in her reign, only letting her depart court after her friend married Walter Devereux, Earl of Essex (inset)
UNCANNY LIKENESS Lettice not only bore a close resemblance to the Queen, she was also ten years younger, fuelling Elizabeth’s resentment