To celebrate the release of my Elizabethan-set book The Winter Queen this month, I've decided to spend November looking at some fascinating Tudor-era women! First up--Lettice Knollys, cousin of Elizabeth I, wife of Robert Dudley, Earl of Leicester, and mother of the Earl of Essex and Penelope Rich (and she outlived them all).
Lettice was born ca. November 1543 to Sir Francis Knollys and his wife Catherine Carey at their estate at Rotherfield Grays in Oxfordshire. (Catherine was the daughter of Mary Boleyn, sister of Anne, and thus Lettice was Elizabeth's first cousin once removed on the maternal side). Sir Francis was a Puritan in his convictions, and lived in Switzerland with his family during the reign of Queen Mary, only returning to England when Elizabeth ascended the throne in 1558. Catherine was then made a senior Lady of the Bedchamber, Sir Francis a vice-chamberlain of the Household, and Lettice a Maid of the Privy Chamber. She was one of the prettiest, wittiest, and most sought-after ladies at Court.
She married Walter Devereux, Viscount Hereford (later Earl of Essex), in 1560, and the couple went to live at the estate of Chartley in Staffordshire, where their first 2 children were born, daughters Penelope and Dorothy (who would resemble their mother in their beauty and willfulness, as well as their penchant for scandal!). Lettice sometimes returned to Court, and it was on one of these trips she started a flirtation with Robert Dudley, the Queen's favorite. When Elizabeth found out, Lettice was sent back to Staffordshire, where she gave birth to her first son Robert Walter (1569), and his brother Francis (1572). Francis died in infancy, and soon after in 1573 the earl joined the first Ulster Project, a plantation of Englishmen in Ireland. While he was gone, Lettice got involved with Dudley again amid great scandal. The earl died in Ireland of dysentery in September of 1576, and 2 years later Lettice married Dudley in a tiny, secret ceremony at Wanstead, their home near London. When the Queen learned of this, the results were predictable--Lettice was banished permanently from Court, and the Queen publicly called her a "she-wolf" and her husband a traitor and a cuckold. Their only child, Robert, Baron Denbigh, was born in 1581. Though they doted on their "Noble Imp" he died in 1584.
Lettice didn't let banishment from Court crimp her style. She held a glittering social life at Wanstead and a house in London, and was much sought-after. She was also very close to her grown children. Dudley died soon after the defeat of the Armada in 1588, and 10 months later Lettice married Sir Christopher Blount, who was 12 years her junior (though she was still called the Dowager Countess of Leicester). He got involved with his stepson Essex's ill-considered rebellion in 1601 and both of them were executed. Lettice, however, went on, indominitable. She lived at her fine estate of Drayton Bassett, raising her grandchildren and doing good deeds for the poor of the neighborhood. James I restored the title Earl of Essex to her grandson in 1603.
Lettice lived to be 91 years old, dying on Christmas Day 1634, and was buried next to Dudley in the Beauchamp Chapel of the Church of St. Mary in Warwick, near their little son. She's said to be an ancestor of many modern famous people, such as Darwin, Churchill, the Queen Mother, and Princess Diana.
I have a very battered copy of Judith Saxton's Cousin to the Queen: The Story of Lettice Knollys (1972) which I picked up at a library booksale once. There's also a great deal of information about her in bios of her daughter Penelope (who we will look at next week!), and in Derek Wilson's Sweet Robin: A Biography of Robert Dudley Earl of Leicester. And I love the old Victoria Holt novel My Enemy the Queen!
What an interesting woman and what an amazingly long life she led. Considering all that happened around her and to those she loved, it is hard to believe she wasn't charged with something and executed.
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