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...

History Revealed - - CONTENTS -

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.


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.


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

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