Lettice Knollys: Cousin vs Queen (Part 4 – The Conclusion)

Guest article by Karlie aka History Gal

Lettice Knollys portrait housed at Longleat House photo attained from: http://www.thepeerage.com/p257.htm
Lettice Knollys portrait housed at Longleat House photo attained from: http://www.thepeerage.com/p257.htm

Robert Devereux, the 2nd Earl of Essex, was known throughout the court for his military prowess, good looks and charisma. These qualities made him popular with the Queen and with the English people.

The titles and adulation that was heaped on Essex undoubtedly inflated the young Earl’s massive ego and made him hungry for more power and glory.

More than anything else, Essex wanted to be the head of a great and victorious army. So much so that in 1589, he defied Elizabeth’s orders to join Francis Drake’s navy in a counter attack against the Spanish Armada. Unfortunately for Essex, the quest was a complete disaster that resulted in a massive defeat for the English.

The year of 1589 was also an eventful year for Lettice Knollys. In a low-key ceremony, Lettice married Christopher Blount (she was 46 and he was 12 years her junior.)

Although Blount was a distinguished soldier he was much lower on the aristocratic scale than Lettice, having served as Dudley’s Gentleman of the Horse.

Lettice’s marriage caused a sensation at court. Not only was Lettice on her third marriage, she married Blount only a year after her second husband’s death.

According to William Haynes (Dudley’s gentleman of the bedchamber) Dudley discovered that Blount and Lettice were in love shortly before his departure to the Netherlands. He was so infuriated that he tried but failed to have Blount killed. When Blount found out about the attempt made on his life, he conspired with Lettice to do away with Dudley.

Haynes then relays that “The Earl (Dudley) not patient of his great wrong of his wife’s, purposed to carry her off to Kenilworth and leave her there until her death, by natural or violent means, but rather by the last. Lady Leicester (Lettice) had secret intelligence of his scheme, and before setting out on the journey provided herself with a poison which she had no opportunity to administer until they came to Cornbury. Here the Earl “after his gluttonous manner, surfeiting with excess of eating and drinking fell so ill that he was forced to stay there.” Haynes added that he “saw her (Lettice) give that fatal cup to the Earl which was his last draught and an end of the plot against the Countess and of his journey and of himself.” [1]

The story is cemented—but with an added twist –  in Notes of Ben Jonson’s Conversations with William Drummond of Hawthornden (circa 1842). Jonson writes that Dudley gave Lettice “a bottle of liquor which he willed her to use in any faintness, which she, not knowing it was poison, gave him, and so he died”.

The events that Haynes (and later Jonson) recounts is certainly fascinating, but very unlikely to be true. Furthermore, Dudley’s autopsy concluded that no malicious substances were present in his system.


(c) Trinity College, University of Cambridge; Supplied by The Public Catalogue Foundation
(c) Trinity College, University of Cambridge; Supplied by The Public Catalogue Foundation

Another marriage was to follow Lettice’s: in 1590 Essex secretly married Frances Walsingham (the daughter of Elizabeth’s secretary and spy master, Francis Walsingham).

It was déjŕ vu for the Queen who was used to seeing her courtiers marring without her knowledge or consent. She promptly upbraided Devereux for his marriage and demanded he leave court.

Sir John Stanhope reported to Gilbert, Lord Talbot that Queen Elizabeth considered Essex’s marriage “more temperately than was thought for, and God be thanked doth not strike all she threats.” [2] In the end, Elizabeth forgave Essex and lifted his ban.

In 1591-1592 Essex was made commander of a military sent to aid the French King in his war against Spain. The mission turned out to be a disaster but it did not curtail Devereux’s influence over the Queen.

In 1593 Elizabeth appointed Essex as a member of her Privy Council. This position caused great animosity within the council. Robert Cecil particularly resented Essex’s elevation, which was hardly surprising since the two rarely agreed on anything. One thing in which they disagreed on was the amount of money needed to fund an expedition to Cadiz. However, Essex won the argument and was subsequently made one of the commanders of the naval army sent to thwart and attack Spain’s counter strike against England.

With a fleet of 150 ships and over 6,000 soldiers, Essex and his men left Plymouth in early June 1596.  “While Essex attacked the town by sea, Howard [Lord of Effingham] landed his troops and completed the capture of the city.”[3]

The capturing of Cadiz marked Essex’s biggest military achievement, and he relished in the adulation of the English people.

However, Essex’s popularity and increasingly haughty demeanor incurred the displeasure of the Queen.

The strain on their relationship grew when –in 1597, acting as master of the ordnance in an “expedition against Spain, known as the Islands or Azores Voyage.” –Essex returned having only gained “some trifling successes…” [4]

Philip II of Spain portrait housed in Madrid, photo attained from http://www.historytoday.com/geoffrey-parker/philip-ii-spain-reappraisal
Philip II of Spain portrait housed in Madrid, photo attained from http://www.historytoday.com/geoffrey-parker/philip-ii-spain-reappraisal

Essex was forced to reside at Wanstead Hall until Elizabeth’s disappointment and anger finally abated. His failure in the Islands not only put a damper on his political and military career but it also weakened his chances of reconciling his mother and the Queen.

But Essex never gave up and when his banishment came to an end, his friends eagerly informed Lettice that the Queen was willing to grant her an audience….

“On Shrove Monday [1588], Lettice sent a jewel worth Ł300 to Elizabeth, who had promised to visit with her that day at her brother, Sir William Knollys’s house, but despite Essex’s pleads, Elizabeth refused to keep the appointment. On March 2, the Queen finally received her at court.” [5]

For the first time in 9 years the two cousins and rivals were to meet. But when it finally happened their exchange was brief and awkward, to say the least. The Queen could not bring herself to forgive Lettice no matter how much the latter flattered and cajoled her. And after “having greeted her and permitted her to kiss her hand and her breast and embrace her….” Elizabeth “returned the kiss but denied a second visit. [And Lettice] subsequently withdrew to Drayton Basset (her country estate.)” [6]

Lettice could be in doubt that her cousin was still her bitterest of enemies and would always remain so….

Queen Elizabeth’s affection for Lettice’s son was beginning to wane. His mother advised him on how to manipulate the Queen by reiterating the practices Dudley would use to get back into royal favor.

At his insistence (and against her better judgement) the Queen agreed to Essex’s appointment as Lieutenant and Governor General of Ireland.

In 1599 Essex and abt. 17,000 soldiers set out for Ulster to suppress the Irish uprising (with aid from Spain) led by the Earl of Tyrone. Tyrone and his men wanted to see the English driven out of Ulster in order to establish their own independence and government. If successful, Tyrone would rule over Ulster; but what England feared most was that Ireland would fall into the hands of Spain.

“Essex’s instructions were explicit. He was to march directly to the North and bend all his strength against Tyrone, who was only to be admitted to mercy on making a simple submission without conditions.” [7] But when word reached Essex that Tyrone’s clans had attacked “English supply lines and the Pale [ancient English territory] itself.” Essex ordered his troops south instead of north.

It was a disastrous start to Essex’s campaign, and after “delivering the town of Marlborough from siege,” Essex “left a large garrison in Carlow and an even larger one in Athy depleting his force by more than 1,000 men….” [8]

After a series of battles and a minor victory for Essex in Tipperary, the English forces began to dwindle from disease and from the bloody attacks by Tyrone’s clans. Essex was then forced to make a “peace treaty” with Tyrone….

After abandoning his post to return to England, the Queen upbraided Essex for knighting men without her permission and failing to effectively put down Tyrone.

For his treachery and insolence, Elizabeth placed Essex under house arrest. This vexed him greatly, whereby he “petitioned Queen Elizabeth with letters explaining how he was wonderfully grieved at her Majesty’s displeasure towards him”; and drew up a detailed explanation of what happened in Ireland and the arrangements he had put in place when he left.” [9] When that didn’t work, Essex complained of illness until the Queen sent a doctor to attend to his ailments.

In 1599 Lettice traveled to London to plead for her son’s release. “The following month she sent a gown for Elizabeth that was presented by Mary Scuda

The Earl of Essex housed at the National Portrait Gallery, photo attained from https://en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/Robert_Devereux,_2nd_Earl_of_Essex#/media/File%3ARobert_Devereux%2C_2nd_Earl_of_Essex_by_Marcus_Gheeraerts_the_Younger.jpg.
The Earl of Essex housed at the National Portrait Gallery, photo attained from Wikipedia

more, one of the Queen’s favored women who was sympathetic to Lettice’s cause and had known her from the time of the Queen’s service.” Elizabeth sent back a message that she did not recognize the gift but that “Things standing as they did, it was not fit for her [Lettice] to desire what she did, which was to come to her Majesty’s presence….” [10]

Eventually, Essex was released from confinement but was barred from court and Queen Elizabeth’s presence indefinitely. What made Essex’s dilemma more challenging was that his main source of income was from his positions at court.

The final straw came in 1600 when Elizabeth wouldn’t renew his monopoly on the import of fortified wine. Essex’s wine venture was his main and last source of income, it was enough to make the most patient of men’s blood boil…and Essex was not a patient man….

With the help of a few of his closest friends and family—which included his sister Penelope, his step-father Blount and Henry Wriothesley aka the Earl of Southampton— Essex planned a rebellion to overthrow Robert Cecil, seize the Queen and force her to agree to his terms.

In February 1601, Essex’s rebellion began but it was crushed soon after. “Essex was forced to surrender…” he was later “brought before a council of his peers, where he was summarily tried and found guilty of treason.” [11]

One can only imagine that if Lettice had not been at her country estate during the time her son and husband were in the midst of the rebellion, that the Queen wouldn’t have hesitated to have her imprisoned in the tower or condemned to death….


Essex’s only request was to be “executed privately, not in front of a mob on Tower Hill. This was granted and on the Wednesday morning he was taken out to the courtyard of the Tower, acknowledging with unaccustomed humility that ‘he was thus justly spewed out of this realm’.” [12]

On February 25th 1601, Robert Devereux, 2nd Earl of Essex was beheaded. He was only 35 years old. When Elizabeth was informed of Essex’s death she became silent, then resumed playing the virginals.

Despite her initial reaction, Queen Elizabeth was devastated at having to condemn Essex to death, so much so that she often retired to her bedchamber and wept.

If the Queen felt grief about the Earl of Essex, Lettice was completely heartbroken. Since 1569 Lettice had experienced one death after the other. First it was her mother Catherine, her husband Walter, then her son Lord Denbigh, followed by Dudley, her other son Walter, her father Francis, Essex and her husband Blount. (The latter was convicted of treason and beheaded on Tower Hill on March 18th 1601.)

Like Dudley before him, Blount amassed a great deal of debt at the time of his death. As his widow, the task of paying off those debts, once again, fell on Lettice’s shoulders. Unfortunately, Lettice no longer had a significant source of income because Blount sold off many of her precious jewels and estates…

Though Lettice was deeply in debt, and her reputation was tarnished as the wife and mother of two traitors, she still had her health. “An observer noted, in 1632, that Lettice could walk a mile a day.” [13]

Good health was not something Queen Elizabeth could boast of. In the winter of 1602, the Queen –who just a short time before was taking a leisurely stroll in the gardens—suddenly caught (what appeared to be) a cold. In early 1603, Elizabeth’s aches and pains were significant enough for her to retire to her rooms at Richmond palace.

With each passing day, the Queen’s health and melancholy worsened. She was deteriorating before everyone’s eyes and there was nothing anyone, (least of all her ladies in waiting) could do about it. Indeed, how could they force the Queen of England to eat or drink when she refused? Or see a physician when she expressed that she did not wish it? And how could they order her to rest when she preferred to stand (often for hours on end)? Not even her secretary, Robert Cecil could persuade her to retire to bed. Elizabeth’s response to him was: “The word must is not to be used to Princes…Little man! Little man! if your father had lived, ye durst not have said so much; but ye know I must die and that makes ye so presumptuous.”

Elizabeth l of England
Elizabeth l of England

Eventually, Queen Elizabeth became so weak that she was forced to “lay resignedly on her cushions in her private apartments, and could not be persuaded to leave them for the comfort of her bed.” Then delirium set in and the Queen “began to be plagued by ghostly visions of people she had previously known, including the late Scottish queen…” [14]

In the early morning hours of March 24th 1603 Elizabeth, Queen of England died, aged 69. She was buried at Westminster Abbey “in the vault of her grandfather, Henry VII, until she was moved in 1606 to her present resting place, a tomb in the Lady Chapel of Westminster Abbey which she shares with her half-sister Mary I.” [15]

The official cause of her death is unknown. But favored theories include a lung infection and/or blood poisoning (from the mixture of lead and vinegar that was used in her makeup)….


The feud between Lettice and her cousin was over. But a new feud for Lettice was just beginning, this time with: Douglas Sheffield….

Lettice had been vindicated by King James (the new King of England) when he pardoned the debts she owed to the royal treasury. But Douglas’s son Robert was raking up the past by insisting that Dudley and his mother had been married and that he was the legitimate son and heir to his father and uncle’s titles and their estates. If Douglas and Robert were successful in their claim, then Lettice would stand to lose the jointure left to her as the legal wife and widow of Dudley.

Lettice refused to go down without a fight, and in 1605 she petitioned the courts to hear her case against Robert’s. The court decided in Lettice’s favor because neither Douglas nor Robert could prove beyond a shadow of a doubt that Robert was entitled to his father and uncle’s earldoms and any additional estates.


Tomb effigies of Dudley and Lettice at the Collegiate Church of St Mary, Warwick.
Tomb effigies of Dudley and Lettice at the Collegiate Church of St Mary, Warwick.

After the Queen’s death in 1603, Lettice lived for another 33 years at her at estate at Staffordshire. Until finally, on December 25th 1634, Lettice died. She was 91 years old.

At her request, she was interred in a magnificent tomb beside her husband at the Beauchamp Chapel of the Collegiate Church of St Mary. Warwick

Lettice’s great grandson, Gervase Clinton wrote a verse about his grandmother that hangs beside her tomb that reads “….she was in her younger years matched with two great English peers, she that did supply the wars with thunder, and the court with stars. “

Lettice experienced several great triumphs and defeats during her 91 years on earth, as did her cousin and nemesis Queen Elizabeth. But between the two, who won “the war”? Lettice or Elizabeth?

Some might say Elizabeth won because she vindicated Lettice’s marriage to Dudley by crippling the former financially, humiliating her in public, forcing her to reside (often in disgrace) in estates far away from court and executing two people who were very dear to her.

In my opinion Lettice won because she married Dudley and was with him until the very end, she outlived the Queen to enjoy a long and healthy life, she also regained many of rights and dignity.


[1] “Hamlet’s Secrets Revealed: The Real Shakespeare, Volume 2” by Marilyn Gray

[2] “Illustrations of British History, 2: Biography and Manners in the Reigns of Henry VIII, Edward VI, Mary Elizabeth & James I Exhibited in a Series of Original Papers Selected from the Mrs. of the Noble Families of Horvard, Tallot and Cecil with Numerous Notes Observations”

[3], [13] “Encyclopedia of Tudor England, Volume 1” by John A. Wagner, Susan Walters Schmid

[4] “The Encyclopedia Britannica: A Dictionary of Arts, Sciences, Literature and General Information, Volume 9” by Hugh Chisholm

[5], [6] “Wicked Women of Tudor England: Queens, Aristocrats, Commoners” by R. Warnicke

[7] “A History of Ireland” by Eleanor Hull

[8] http://www.yourirish. com

[9], [10] “The Queen’s Bed: An Intimate History of Elizabeth’s Court” by Anna Whitelock

[11] http://www.britainexpress.com/History/tudor/essex-rebellion.htm

[12] http://www.historytoday.com/richard-cavendish/execution-earl-essex

[14]  http://www.elizabethi.org/contents/death/

[15] https://www.tudorsociety.com/28-april-1603-elizabeth-funeral/

About the Author:

kL16loFoI’m Karlie (also known as History Gal on Twitter)! I’m a pre-med student from the U.S. I have many interests including reading, writing, drawing and painting but my passion is History. I have read and love to read just about every period in history but I am most interested in the Tudor period. I’m intrigued, not just by the Tudor dynasty, but also by the world in which they lived: the people, the religion, the politics, the conflicts, the events, the castles, the beautiful clothes, just overall their way of life.

It should go without saying that I love England and its rich history. My dream is to go there and see as many Tudor related places as I can!

Follow on Twitter: @HistoryGal_

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Lettice Knollys: Cousin vs Queen (Part 3)

Guest article by Karlie aka History Gal

Lettice Knollys by Gower 1585
Lettice Knollys portrait housed at Longleat House photo attained from: http://www.thepeerage.com/p257.htm

Lettice Knollys’ flirtation and subsequent marriage to Queen Elizabeth’s favorite, Robert Dudley, saw her banished from court in 1569 and again in 1579.  Lettice had been forgiven once, but the Queen was not inclined to forgive her cousin again.

Dudley, on the other hand, was summoned back to court in a matter of weeks since Elizabeth banished him to Wanstead Hall (his estate in Essex). His favor with the Queen restored, the two spent more time together than they had in previous years….

For a while, Dudley was secure in Queen Elizabeth’s affections for him, until he was forced to compete with another man: Francis, the Duke of Anjou…

Elizabeth and the Duke had been corresponding for years through letters and through the Duke’s valet de chamber Jean de Simier. And in August 1579, the Duke arrived in England to woo the Queen into marriage.

It’s as hard to believe today as it was over 400 years ago that Queen Elizabeth and the Duke of Anjou got along so well…. On the surface, the two were as different as night and day. To begin with, the Duke was from France: England’s mortal enemy. He was Catholic (but with Protestant sympathies) and Elizabeth was Protestant. The Duke was only 23 years old and she was 24 years his senior at 47.

ART 246171
Elizabeth I Plimpton Sieve portrait housed in the Folger Shakespeare Library photo attained from http://www.luminarium.org/renlit/elizface2.htm

The Plimpton Sieve Portrait of Elizabeth –attributed to artist George Gower—was painted in 1579. This image of the Queen is likely an embellishment of her appearance. However, the portrait accurately portrays what contemporaries described as Queen Elizabeth’s most distinguishing features: pale skin, large forehead, small black eyes, a slight hooked nose, narrow lips and red hair. By stark contrast, the Duke of Anjou was described as “contemptible in intellect and character, and repulsive in appearance, with [an] ugly pock-marked face, [a] great head and harsh croaking voice.” [1]

Elizabeth was not put off by the Duke’s physical short comings or unseemly personality. She once stated—after dining with the Duke privately in Simier’s room, at Greenwich Palace –: “I have never in my life seen a creature more agreeable to me.” [2] A courtier relayed that the Queen even went so far as to “[give] out that [the Duke of Anjou] was actually handsome… and all agreed who wished to avoid her wrath.” [3]

Queen Elizabeth affectionately bestowed on the Duke a (rather belittling) moniker: Frog. Frog was possibly a reference to the Duke’s French nationality, his frog like appearance, and or an earring that he once gave to the Queen that was in the shape of a frog.

Francis Duke of Anjou by Hilliard 1577
The Duke of Anjou portrait housed at the V & A museum, photo from https://commons.m.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Nicholas_Hilliard_002.jpg#mw-jump-to-license

There was seldom a moment when Elizabeth and her “Frog” were not in each other’s company, much to the dismay of many at court who “hated [Francis] for being French, a Catholic, and the son of Catherine de Medici who was widely believed to have ordered the infamous St. Bartholomew’s Massacre of French Protestants in 1572”. [4] None loathed the Duke of Anjou and Simier more than Robert Dudley.

Dudley was angry with Simier for informing the Queen about his secret marriage to Lettice. This not only led to his wife’s permanent banishment from court, and his temporary banishment, but it threatened the validity of his marriage.

After the news was broken to her by Simier, Elizabeth declared Dudley should be charged with bigamy because she had it on good authority that he was already married to a lady named Douglas Sheffield….

Alleged portrait of Douglas Sheffield
Douglas Sheffield portrait attained from https://www.geni.com/people/Douglas-Sheffield/6000000006444632251

Douglas Sheffield (née Howard) served as maid of honor to her cousin Queen Elizabeth in 1559. Douglas left court – only a year into her position— when she married John Sheffield. Douglas bore two of John’s children: a son Edmund and a daughter Elizabeth. After John’s death in 1568, Douglas went back to court to serve the Queen as a maid of the privy chamber. In 1573 yet another wealthy, powerful and attractive man caught her attention…

Robert Dudley was not only the Queen’s favorite, he was also conducting an affair with Lettice (who was, at the time, married to Walter Devereux). To complicate matters, Douglas’s sister, Frances, had also fallen in love with Dudley.

Gilbert Talbot, the 7th Earl of Shrewsbury, wrote about Dudley’s predicament: “There are two sisters now in the court that are very far in love with him, as they have long been; my Lady Sheffield and Frances Howard. They (of like striving who shall love him better) are at great wars together and the queen thinketh not well of them, and not the better of him…” [5]

Whether Dudley carried on a relationship with Frances remains a mystery. What is certain is that for many years he had an affair with Douglas, as evident by a letter he later wrote to her, in which he sought to put an end to any notion she had about marrying him. Dudley used Elizabeth as his excuse, writing: “….if I should marry I am sure never to have [the queen’s] favour….” However, Dudley found that it wasn’t going to be that easy to get rid of Douglas….

Robert Robin Dudley by Hilliard 1590
Robert Dudley (Lecister’s son) photo attained from http://www.tudorplace.com.ar/Bios/RobertDudley(EWarwick).htm

On August 7th 1574, Douglas gave birth to a son, christened Robert. At the time, the child was the elder Dudley’s first and only living son. For a few years Robert resided with his father at his stately homes. A servant of Dudley’s, named Heyborne, relayed that he: “often tymes discover[ed [the] love and care [Dudley] had of the said Sir Rob. Dudley and the desire he had to have him receive good usage and educacion.”  [6]

Three decades later, Douglas claimed that she and Dudley entered into a pre-contract of marriage in 1571, before they finally married in secret at Esher, Surrey in 1573.  She added that Dudley wished to dissolve their relationship because he wanted to marry Lettice Knollys. Douglas reluctantly agreed to leave Dudley and take the allowance he offered her, after a meeting they had, which left her in fear of her life should she not heed his command. In late November 1579, Douglas made an advantageous marriage with politician and court favorite: Edward Stafford.

Regardless of the true status of Dudley’s relationship with Douglas, their affair had gone far enough that enraged Queen Elizabeth and jeopardized his marriage to Lettice.

The Queen ordered a full investigation and sent the Earl of Sussex to question Douglas about her supposed engagement and subsequent marriage to Dudley. Douglas became tearful during the inquiry, and is quoted as saying that “She had trusted the said Earl too much to have anything to show to constrain him to marry her.” [7]

No matter how upset Elizabeth was over Dudley’s clandestine dealings with Lettice and Douglas, without sufficient proof it wasn’t enough to annul his marriage to either lady. Nor was it enough to charge him with bigamy, which “was not yet a felony in English law.” [8]. In the end, Queen Elizabeth had to abandon her schemes and Dudley remained married to Lettice.

It was under these circumstances that Dudley decided to exact revenge against Simier. It’s alleged that he first attempted to have Simier poisoned. When that plan failed he “employed a man called Robin Tinder to lay in wait and shoot him as he came out of the garden gate at Greenwich. However, Tider baulked when he saw how well guarded Simier was.” [9]


In late 1581, “Anjou arrived back in England and presented Queen Elizabeth with a diamond ring.” In return, “she gave him a jewel encrusted arquebus and a key that fitted into every room of the palace.” [10]

On November 21st 1588 an incident occurred that was sure to excite even more anger and resentment within the Queen’s council….

As Elizabeth and the Duke were walking in the gallery of Whitehall Palace, “the French ambassador came to her and said “the King his master wanted to know the Queen’s intention from her own lips.” Queen Elizabeth shocked everyone (most of all Dudley, who had been trailing behind her) when she replied “You may write this to the King:

Portrait of François-Hercule de France, duke of Alençon and later of Anjou via National Gallery of Art

that the Duke [of Anjou] shall be my husband.” [11] The Queen then kissed the Duke and gave him her ring as a sign of her commitment.

It’s uncertain whether or not Elizabeth’s declaration of marriage to the Duke was given in true faith. Many have speculated that Queen Elizabeth purposely led the Duke on, to gain an ally with France.

Author and historian A.N. Wilson thinks that the marriage negotiations were never taken seriously by the Queen. And that she only “encouraged the wooing as a salve for the hurt caused her by Robert and Lettice.”

Others speculate that the Queen was too advanced in years to have a safe pregnancy. Something Elizabeth was fully aware of, and which made the whole idea of marriage between the two inconvincible from the very beginning.

Then there are some who point out that English hostility towards the Duke, France, and Catholicism dashed any hopes Elizabeth had of marrying him. Certainly the uprising against her sister’s (Queen Mary I) marriage to Philip of Spain in 1554 was enough to cause her to take precaution about entering into a foreign match of her own.

But perhaps the most likely reason of all is that Elizabeth wasn’t interested in becoming a submissive wife to her husband (as married women of the period were expected to do). She even once declared to Dudley: “I will have one mistress here and no master.”

Whatever the Queen’s true intentions were, her engagement to the Duke of Anjou was called off in 1582. The official reason given was that the Duke wanted Elizabeth to back his political exploits in the Netherlands and that the French King (Henri II) refused to enter into an alliance with England.

It seems certain from her actions that Elizabeth was genuinely fond of the Duke. The poem she wrote in 1582 entitled “On Monsieur’s Departure” certainly betrays that her fondness for him was borne from love….

On Monsieurs departure photo attained from https://ramblingsoftheclaury.wordpress.com/2015/06/25/on-monsieurs-departure/

When the Duke died on June 10th 1584 from a fever, Queen Elizabeth was inconsolable. “She wore black for six months and referred to herself as “a widow woman who has lost her husband.” [12]


With her reputation at court tarnished, her influence curtailed and her favor with the Queen gone forever, Lettice found out all too quickly that her advantageous marriage to the Earl of Leicester came with its disadvantages. With her husband away paying court to the most powerful woman in England, now her bitter rival, Lettice was forced to live the life of a disgraced mistress. The threat of Elizabeth’s wrath required Lettice to often reside at her estate in Beddington and with her family at Rotherfield Greys (their estate in Oxfordshire). Occasionally she stayed with her husband at Wanstead, Hall but the visits were kept secret lest Elizabeth should discover it….

Lettice Knollys, Countess of Leicester attributed to George Gower, c.1585.
Lettice Knollys, Countess of Leicester attributed to George Gower, c.1585.

Despite her title being the Countess of Leicester, Lettice was formally addressed as the Countess of Essex. It’s thought that Lettice did this to avoid a dressing down from the Queen.

Dudley attempted to ease his wife’s troubles by encouraging several notable peers to accept her into their inner circle.

In a letter written to the imprisoned Mary Queen of Scots, the French ambassador Michel de Castlenau wrote “I dined today with the Earl of Leicester and his lady, to whom he is much attached. They both received me kindly, made many offers of friendship, and expressed a wish that the countess and my wife might be on intimate terms.” [13] Unfortunately, the wife of the ambassador was not interested in pursuing a friendship with the disgraced Lettice.

In late 1580, Lettice discovered she was pregnant with Dudley’s child. For the birth, Lettice went to Leicester House (Dudley’s fashionable residence in London). On June 6th 1581, Robert, Lord Denbigh was born.  Dudley was thrilled with the birth of his son: his first legitimate heir.

Lord Denbigh became lovingly known as the noble imp.  He “was treated as an infant prince” with all the trappings of royalty. “His cradle at Leicester House was “draped in crimson velvet, with trains of velvet taffeta” and “his chair was upholstered in green and carnation cloth of tinsel.” At least “three portraits of him [Denbigh] were painted, one with his mother”. [14] A suit of armor which is said to have been commissioned by Dudley, was fitted for Lord Denbigh. The armor has survived and is on display at Warwick castle, in Warwickshire, England.

The stakes were raised now that Lettice had provided Dudley his son and heir. Which meant that Dudley could no longer reasonably continue to distance himself from his wife just to appease the Elizabeth.

Lettice was no longer content with being treated as her husband’s mistress, being shunned by society and moved from house to house. By summer 1583, Lettice settled in permanently at Leicester House.

In 1583 Dudley and Lettice allegedly arranged a marriage between their son Lord Denbigh and Arabella: the granddaughter of the Countess of Shrewsbury (aka Bess of Hardwick). If true, this was an extremely bold and controversial move on Dudley’s, Lettice’s and the Countess’ part. Arabella Stuart, then age 9, was a great-great-granddaughter of King Henry VII, and thus a possible contender for the throne of England. It is said that Queen Elizabeth “may at one time have thought of naming [Arabella] as her successor….

Alleged Armour of Lord Denbigh at Warwick Castle
Lord Denbigh’s armor photo attained from https://www.pinterest.com/pin/570760952751197198/

The Queen once said “to the French ambassador (speaking of Arabella): “Look at her well. She will one day be attired just as I am, and will be a great lady; but I shall have gone before her.” [15]

If Elizabeth died and Arabella became Queen it would mean that Dudley and Lettice would be the parents of the King Consort of England.

Doubtless, Dudley and Lettice were anxious to keep this engagement a secret from Queen Elizabeth. But unfortunately for them, their machinations were betrayed.  “Lord Paget [wrote] to the Earl of Northumberland: “A friend in office is verie desirous that the Queen should have light given to her of the practice between Leycester [Dudley} and the Countess [Bess] for Arabella, for it comes on very lustily, insomuch as the said Earl hath sent down the picture of his babie [Lord Denbigh].” [16] When the Queen was told of the engagement she become extremely angry. So much so that she, once again, demanded Dudley leave court.

The marriage between Denbigh and Arabella never materialized (Arabella eventually married William Seymour, the Duke of Somerset.)

Around the time of Lord Denbigh’s supposed engagement, the Spanish Ambassador reported that Dudley and Lettice were trying to secure a dynastic marriage for another member of their family. This time the proposal was between Dorothy Devereux (Lettice’s daughter from her first marriage) and the young James VI, the King of Scotland. Once again the secret and underhanded ambitions of Dudley and Lettice was revealed to Elizabeth. The latter declared that she would “rather allow the King to take her crown away than see him married to the daughter of such a she-wolf,” she added that “if she could find no other way to repress her ambition and that of the traitor Leicester [Dudley] she would proclaim her all over Christendom for the bad woman she was, and prove that her husband was a cuck-hold.” [17] Dudley and Lettice were forced to abandon their schemes, and in July 1583 Dorothy eloped with Thomas Perrot.
In the summer of 1584 tragedy struck the Dudley household when Lord Denbigh became ill. He died from a fever at Wanstead Hall on July 19th 1584. He was only four years old. Dudley and Lettice were heartbroken over the loss of their son. Dudley unceremoniously left court without asking for the Queens permission in order to grieve and, in his own words: “to comfort my sorrowful wife for the loss of my little son, whom God has lately taken from us.”

Despite her famous temper Queen Elizabeth was not void of tender feelings. Christopher Hatton, wrote a letter to Dudley following his sudden departure from court. In it, he states that he took the liberty to inform the Queen of his circumstances and that she was “very sorry” for his loss, and that she promised to write and to visit him in the near future.

(Elizabeth never visited Dudley during this time, nor did she write a letter of condolences. Instead, she sent her diplomat and ambassador Sir Henry Killigrew in her place. Queen Elizabeth most likely avoided the situation because she wished to avoid Lettice.)

Dudley was grateful to Hatton for his handling of matters, as relayed in a letter he wrote to him towards the end of July 1584.

“Mr. Vice-Chamberlain, “he wrote, “I do most heartily thank you for your careful and most godly advice at this time. Your good friendship never wanteth…“I must confess I have received many afflictions within these few years, but [none] greater [than Denbigh’s death] …. I beseech the same God to grant me patience in all these worldly things, and to forgive me the negligence’s of my former time, that have not been more careful to please Him…”

For appearances sake, at least, Dudley was not affronted by Elizabeth’s absence, he added:“…preserve her Majesty forever, whom on my knees I most humbly thank for her gracious visitation by Killigrew. She shall never comfort a more true and faithful man to her…” He closed his letter with an ode to the Queen: ..”for I have lived and so will die only hers.” [18]

The last words are interesting. Naturally it was the duty of a courtier to appease their Monarch, but it also shows that Dudley still had feelings for the Queen (as one might have for their mistress or their wife). What’s more he would always be hers and hers alone. It’s quite possible that Lettice felt that she could, in a sense, never have the utter love and devotion from her husband….

Lord Denbigh’s tomb photo attained from https://www.flickr.com/photos/32157648@N08/4529952201

Lord Denbigh’s funeral was held at Wanstead Hall on August 1st 1584. “He was buried on the south side of the Beauchamp Chapel, at St. Mary’s Church, Warwick under a splendid alter-tomb with a life-size effigy. [19]

Lord Denbigh’s death had a profound effect on Dudley’s legacy. Not only did he lose his legitimate heir, but “the death of this child meant that both the earldoms held by the Dudley family now faced extinction – for the marriage of Leicester’s [Dudley’s] elder brother, Ambrose, earl of Warwick, was also childless.” This fact was not lost on Dudley, Lettice or anyone. A doggerel libel entitled Leicester’s Ghost–published sometime in 1584 after Denbigh’s death –alludes to Dudley’s plight.

“First I assayed Queene Elizabeth to wed,

Whom divers princes courted in vaine;

When in the course unluckily I sped,

I sought to the Scot’s Queen’s marriage to obtaine;

But when I reapt no profit for my paine,

I sought to match Denbigh, my tender childe,

To Dame Arabella, but was beguiled.

“Even as Octavius with Marke Antony

And Lepidus the Roman Empire shared,

That of the world these held the sovereignty,

So I a new triumvirate prepared,

If Death awhile young Denbigh’s life had spar’d,

The granddame, uncle, and the father-in-law,

Might thus have brought all England under awe.” [20]

In late 1582, Lettice was reputed to have been pregnant with her 7th child, but nothing came of it, and for the rest of her marriage to Dudley she bore no other children. Dudley’s elder brother Ambrose had only one child: a daughter (born to his first wife Anne Whorwood) who died in 1552. Thus the Dudley family Earldoms of Leicester and Warwick were inherited by their sister’s son: Robert Sidney, who became the Earl of Leicester in 1618), and Robert Rich (the husband of Lettice’s daughter Penelope) who became the Earl of Warwick in 1618.


Sometime in August 1585 Lettice and Dudley went to Kenilworth Castle. Time and death had not healed the deep wounds between the two cousins; in fact it exacerbated it…. When Elizabeth discovered that Lettice and her husband were on holiday together, she became angry and immediately summoned Dudley to return to his duties at court.

Robert Dudley, Earl of Leicester in the robes of the Order of the Garter by an unknown artist. @Yale Center for British Art
Robert Dudley, Earl of Leicester in the robes of the Order of the Garter by an unknown artist. @Yale Center for British Art

Despite being reconciled with the Queen, the latter was still angry with him and threatened to prevent one of his life-long ambitions: to become the head of the army in the Netherlands. The pains that Elizabeth took to undermined him had not gone unnoticed by Dudley.

In a letter written to Elizabeth’s secretary Francis Walsingham, Dudley said of Queen Elizabeth: “she doth take every occasion by my marriage to withdraw any good from me.”

In the end, public opinion at home and in the Netherlands persuaded the Queen to declare Dudley Lieutenant General. In December 1585 Dudley and abt. 6,000 soldiers sailed to the Netherlands, in an effort to assist the Protestant Dutch in their war against the unwelcomed invasion and rule of Philip II of Spain.

Unfortunately, Dudley’s time in the Netherlands was not very successful for the Protestant cause or for his career. In January 1586 Dudley accepted the position of Governor General of the United Provinces. Elizabeth was extremely angry when she discovered that Dudley had accepted this position without royal permission. Dudley’s appointment “made it appear that England was actually seeking to gain land claimed by Spain instead of fortifying an ally, and this constituted an act of war in Spain’s eyes.” [21]

The Queen wasted no time in letting Dudley know how displeased she was with “his treacherous ambition against her own sovereignty.”

During this time, there were rumors at court that Lettice was set to join her husband in the Netherlands “with such a train of ladies and gentleman, and such rich coaches, litters and side saddles as her Majesty had none…” [22] with the specific intention of setting up a vice-regal court. The very thought of Lettice being treated as a Queen in the Netherlands was enough to send Elizabeth into a rage.

In a letter dated to his brother on March 6th 1586 the Earl of Warwick wrote further about the matter concerning Lettice “[Queen Elizabeth’s] rage doth increase rather than any way diminish…Her malice is great and unquenchable.” [23] An Elizabethan contemporary reported that before she could even ascertain if the rumors were true, Elizabeth shouted: “with great oaths, she would have no more courts under her obeisance than her own.” [24]

Lettice was so overcome with fear at the Queen’s impending wrath that Dudley’s personal messenger William Davison, had to assure her that he approached the Queen with the matter in the most delicate way possible.

Elizabeth I, painted by John Bettes the Younger, c1580s
Elizabeth I, painted by John Bettes the Younger, c1580s

The rumors about Lettice joining her husband in the Netherlands was never established as fact nor did it come to pass. Nevertheless, Elizabeth was shaken by the entire incident, so much so that the Privy Council and had to persuade her not to order Dudley to rescind his governorship in the Netherlands. They insisted that his “action represented the only viable way ahead in the Low Countries.” [25]

At any rate, there were other pressing matters at court…It was discovered that the imprisoned Mary Queen of Scots was complicit in a plot to escape captivity and to have Queen Elizabeth assassinated, whereby she would became Mary II, Queen of England. The plot was genuine in that many wanted to see Protestant England and Queen Elizabeth destroyed, so that the Catholic faith could be restored. But there were other forces at play in the plot, namely men (like Robert Poley) who were recruited to restore Mary but were in fact working for Francis Walsingham. The latter’s main goal was to rid England of a Catholic thorn in its side by seeking the total destruction of Mary.

Known as the Babington Plot, its chief conspirator: Anthony Babington, was found guilty of treason and was executed at St Giles Field. His death was followed by seven others including the Jesuit priest John Ballard, and Mary Queen of Scots who was beheaded on February 8th 1587 in the Great Hall at Fotheringhay Castle. Mary’s death became a blight on the Queen’s conscious, as well as her reign….

Dudley left the Netherlands briefly in 1586 to attend Mary’s trial; he was one of many who pressured Elizabeth to kill God’s anointed Queen (as Mary was proclaimed).

When Dudley returned to the Netherlands “in June 1587, the English-held port of Sluis was lost to Parma.” [26] This was a devastating blow to Dudley whose troops in the previous year loss claim and control of the capital of Grave to the Duke of Parma, in a battle known as The Siege of Grave.

The next few months after Sluis was conquered “the English army [was] wasted  in fruitless military campaigns…which had no real effect on helping the Dutch rebellion.”

Dutch opinion was beginning to sour against Dudley when he “introduce[ed] new taxes that impinged on local privileges”. This was made worse when “two of his commanders betrayed Deventer and a fort at Zutphen to the Spanish in 1587.” [27]

Dudley was eventually forced to resign his governorship in the Netherlands. He returned home in late 1587 in severe debt and under a cloud of humiliation.

Helping the Protestant Dutch suppress Catholic and Spanish rule proved to be much more trouble than it was worth. Philip II was angry that Queen Elizabeth had dared to interfere in his conquest. He was furthered annoyed by the attacks against his fleet and the looting of Spanish treasure by the Queen’s men, led by Francis Drake. When Mary Queen of Scots was executed, this gave Philip the additional ammunition he needed to launch an attack and invasion against England.

Philip’s war became known as the Enterprise of England. The Spanish King’s main goal was to unseat Queen Elizabeth and replace her with his daughter Isabella: effectively making England, Catholic.

The Queen and the whole of England became aware of Philip’s impending attacks in early 1587. Indeed, the Spanish took very little pains to keep it secret in the hopes of frightening Elizabeth and her subjects into submission.

At first, Queen Elizabeth dismissed the invasion as another threat issued by Philip, but her Privy Councilors urged her that this time the threat was real. “Francis Drake [then] led a primitive strike on Spanish ships gathering at Cadiz in April 1587 and a number [of them] were destroyed.” This bold and ingenious attack by Drake and his men “delayed the Armada for a year and allowed the Queen to mobilize England’s defenses.” [28]

Despite his failure in the Netherlands, Elizabeth appointed Dudley as Lieutenant and Captain General of the Queens Armies and Companies, in July 1588.  With great enthusiasm he accepted the title and set up camp at Tilbury.

A few months before Dudley’s advancement, a fleet of 130 ships and 22 galleons, known as the Spanish Armada was spotted advancing across the English Channel. After a series of minor failures and accomplishments by the English forces, there came a decisive win….

Known as the (second) Battle of Gravelines, the English successfully attacked Philip’s fleet which caused the Spanish to retreat towards the north “where many ships were sunk by storms”. [29] On July 29th 1588 the English were declared the victors.

However, England remained very much on the defense as the threat of counter attacks by Spain loomed over them.

In August 1588, Queen Elizabeth visited her soldiers at Tilbury. A contemporary letter written by Dr. Leonel Sharp to the Duke of Buckingham relays the Queen’s actions shortly after her arrival at Tilbury. “The Queen rode through all the squadrons of her army, as armed Pallas, attended by noble footmen, Leicester [Dudley], Essex, and Norris, then lord marshal, and divers other great lords, where she made an excellent oration to her  army…” [30]

A service of Thanksgiving was held at St. Paul’s Cathedral on August 20th 1588, to celebrate England’s most triumphant victory since the Battle of Agincourt. Queen Elizabeth was hailed as Gloriana and she gave great thanks to England’s victory by having a medal struck “…showing her proud face on one side and the Spanish ships bobbing up and down on the waves on the other. The medal carried these words: “God breathed and they were scattered.” [31]

Elizabeth’s jubilation didn’t last long….


After a triumphant procession through London in which Dudley relished in the adulation of the people, he and Lettice made their way towards Buxton to partake in the rejuvenating and luxurious baths.

older Robert Dudley by unknown artist 1580
Robert Dudley portrait housed at the Weiss Gallery photo attained from http://spartacus-educational.com/TUDdudleyR.htm

Dudley’s health soon began to deteriorate and the couple was forced to remain at Cornbury Park (their estate in Oxfordshire).

In the early morning hours of September 4th 1588, Robert Dudley, the Earl of Leicester, died, aged 56. The official cause of death is unknown but the general consensus is that he died from Malaria. He was laid to rest on October 10th 1588 in the Beauchamp Chapel of St. Mary’s at Warwick (near where his son Lord Denbigh was buried.)

Queen Elizabeth was utterly and completely shattered when she was informed of Dudley’s death. In a flood of tears, she locked herself in her room at Whitehall palace and refused to come out or speak to anyone. Her only solace was this last letter that Dudley wrote to her, dated August 29th 1588:

“I most humbly beseech your Majesty to pardon your poor old servant to be thus bold in sending to know how my gracious lady doth, and what ease of her late pain she finds, being the chiefest thing in the world I do pray for, for her to have good health and long life. For my own poor case, I continue still your medicine and find that [it] amends much better than any other thing that hath been given me. Thus hoping to find perfect cure at the bath, with the continuance of my wonted prayer for your Majesty’s most happy preservation, I humbly kiss your foot. From your old lodging at Rycote, this Thursday morning, ready to take on my Journey, by Your Majesty’s most faithful and obedient servant,

Even as I had writ thus much, I received Your Majesty’s token by Young Tracey. [31]

The Queen only emerged from her solitude when her adviser William Cecil had the doors to her bedchamber forced open.

Robert Dudley was the one man that Queen Elizabeth loved above all others…How far their love went we do not and probably will never know. But their close relationship was certainly more like that of a married couple rather than a Queen and her subject.


Dudley and Elizabeth’s bond caused England and its councilor’s annoyance and fear for their monarch’s reputation.

The only one who survived the inappropriate and turbulent relationship between the Queen and her favorite, was Lettice Knollys.

Lettice was, as Dudley described her — a most “faithful and very loving and obedient careful wife”; (even when he had betrayed and transferred his affections elsewhere). For the genuine love and affection Dudley had for Lettice, he made her the sole executer and chief benefactor of his will, which resulted in Lettice raking in an estimated Ł25,168. However, Dudley was in a considerable amount debt at the time of his passing. As his widow, it fell on Lettice to pay his expenditures. Elizabeth rather callously transferred Dudley’s debts to the crown onto Lettice, which forced her to sell off three of her late husband’s estates….

Queen Elizabeth and Lettice Knollys’ epic feud lasted throughout the latter’s marriage to Dudley. Their animosity seemed destined to last for eternity. That is until the Queen began to spend more and more time with Lettice’s son, the young, handsome and dashing Robert Devereux, the 2nd Earl of Essex…

Finish the story here with Part 4 – The Conclusion


[1] “History of England: From the accession of Henry VIII to the revolution of 1689” by T. F. Tout, M.A. 1908
[2], [10], [32] “Elizabeth and Leicester: The Truth about the Virgin Queen and the Man She Loved” by Sarah Gristwood
[3] “The Twilight Lords: Elizabeth I and the Plunder of Ireland” by Rowman & Littlefield
[4] “Queen Elizabeth I” by Susan Doran
[5] “Love, Lust, and License in Early Modern England: Illicit Sex and the Nobility” by Johanna Rickman
[7,] [23] “Elizabeth I” by Anne Somerset
[8] “The Voyage of Robert Dudley, afterwards styled Earl of Warwick and Leicester and Duke of Northumberland, to the West Indies, 1594-1595” by Warner, Wyatt and Dudley.
[9], [11] “The Queen’s Bed: An Intimate History of Elizabeth’s Court” by Anna Whitelock
[11], [17] “Calendar of Letters and State Papers Relating to English Affairs: Volume 3: Preserved Principally in the Archives of Simancas” by Martin A. S. Hume
[12] “Royal Affairs: A Lusty Romp Through the Extramarital Adventures That Rocked the English Monarchy” by Leslie Carroll
[13], [14] “Contributions to Modern History from the British Museum and the State Paper Office: Queen Elizabeth and Mary Queen of Scots” by Friedrich von Raumer
[14] “Wicked Women of Tudor England: Queens, Aristocrats, Commoners” by R. Warnicke
[15] “Annals of the Seymours” by Richard Harold St. Maur
[18] “Memoirs of the Life and Times of Sir Christopher Hatton, K.G., Vice-Chamberlain and Lord Chancellor to Queen Elizabeth: Including His Correspondence with the Queen and Other Distinguished Persons” by Sir Nicholas Harris Nicolas
[20] “The life and letters of Lady Arabella Stuart: including numerous original and unpublished documents” by Elizabeth Cooper
[21] “A Body Politic to Govern: The Political Humanism of Elizabeth I” by Ted Booth
[22] “Lives of the Queens of England: From the Norman Conquest, Volume 3” by Agnes Strickland and Elisabeth Strickland
[23] “Elizabeth” I by Anne Somerset
[24] “History of England from the Fall of Wolsey to the Death of Elizabeth, Volume 12” by James Anthony Froude
[25] “Elizabeth I” by David Loades
[26] http://www.liquisearch.com/robert_dudley_1st_earl_of_leicester/governor-general_of_the_united_provinces
[27] “The European Reformation, 1500-1610” by Alastair Armstrong
[28] http://www.rmg.co.uk/discover/explore/elizabeth-i-road-war
[30] “A Collection of Scarce and Valuable Tracts, on the Most Interesting and Entertaining Subjects: Prior to the reign of Queen Elizabeth. Reign of Queen Elizabeth” by Sir Walter Scott, Baron John Somers
[31] “Queen Elizabeth and England’s Golden Age” by Samuel Willard Crompton


About the Author:

kL16loFoI’m Karlie (also known as History Gal on Twitter)! I’m a pre-med student from the U.S. I have many interests including reading, writing, drawing and painting but my passion is History. I have read and love to read just about every period in history but I am most interested in the Tudor period. I’m intrigued, not just by the Tudor dynasty, but also by the world in which they lived: the people, the religion, the politics, the conflicts, the events, the castles, the beautiful clothes, just overall their way of life.

It should go without saying that I love England and its rich history. My dream is to go there and see as many Tudor related places as I can!

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Lettice Knollys: Cousin vs Queen (Part 2)

Guest article by Karlie aka History Gal
READ: Cousin vs Queen - Part 1 Here

Portrait of Lettice Knollys, George Gower, 1595
Portrait of Lettice Knollys, George Gower, 1595

By the summer of 1565, Robert Dudley was not the only one who had rivals at the English court it was Queen Elizabeth too, by way of her own cousin Lettice Knollys. When Elizabeth discovered that Dudley had been wooing her beautiful and much younger cousin she became irate. Dudley attempted to deflect his licentious behavior by reminding the Queen of the overly affectionate attention she was lavishing on a married man at court, by the name of Thomas Heneage. Not one to be outdone, Dudley went directly to Heneage and quarreled with him over the nature of his relationship with the Queen.

According to the Spanish Ambassador Diego Guzmán de Silva, after Elizabeth refused Dudley’s plea to leave court, she “…upbraided him [Dudley] with what had taken place with Heneage, and his flirting with the Viscountess [Lettice] in very bitter words.”[1] It was the Queen of England who ended up placating an insolent courtier: “Heneage was sent away, and Robert returned to his own apartments where he stayed for three or four days while Cecil and Sussex sought a reconciliation.” De Silva wrote that a short while later, “…both the Queen and Robert shed tears and he has been returned to favor.” [2]

Lettice, on the other hand, didn’t fare as well as Dudley. Elizabeth dismissed her from her presence and demanded she leave court. This may have curtailed Lettice’s influence at court but, as the Queen later found out, Lettice was as obstinate as she was resilient.

On November 10th 1565 Lettice fulfilled one of her main duties as a wife: she delivered a son. He was christened Robert, born at another of the Devereux family estates, in Herefordshire. Even in his youth Robert Devereux’s very existence was surrounded by intrigue, courtly machinations and gossip. Many of his contemporaries suspected that Robert was actually the biological son of Robert Dudley, and not Walter Devereux’s. Whether the rumors were true or not we will never know. The elder Devereux accepted Robert as his own as well the other two male children that were to follow: Walter in 1569 and Francis.

Portrait of Mary Queen of Scots, Francois Clouet, 1588
Portrait of Mary Queen of Scots, Francois Clouet, 1588

Despite Elizabeth’s negative feelings towards Lettice, she was quite pleased with her husband. In 1568, Devereux was selected as one of the men in charge with keeping Mary Queen of Scots in custody. After being installed as Lord Lieutenant of Staffordshire in 1569, he became high marshal of the field and helped his fellow men successfully repress the northern insurrection. Also known as the Rising of the North and the Earl’s Rebellion, the insurrection was made up of men of high, middle and low birth. Their main objective was to restore the Catholic faith, and have Mary Queen of Scots released. For his accomplishments and contributions to the crown, Devereux was created the Earl of Essex and made a Knight of the Garter in 1572.

By 1573, Devereux had become “…so great a favorite that Leicester [Dudley] and others [were] jealous of his increasing influence.” [3] Further solidifying his status as one of the Queen’s favorites, Elizabeth granted Devereux permission to “…embark in a scheme for subduing part of Ulster, expelling the Scotch and islesman, and colonizing it with English[man].”[4]

According to the 17th century historians Thomas Fuller and William Camden, it was Dudley who suggested to Devereux that he should help suppress Ireland’s rebellion:  “…he [Devereux] was “put upon this adventure by Leicester who loved the Earl’s nearest relation [Lettice] better than he loved the Earl himself…” and that Devereux, “…followed therein the counsel of those who desired above all things to have him further off, and plunge him into dangers under pretense of procuring him honor.”[5]

With Devereux away from England and in Ireland, Lettice and Dudley resumed their acquaintance. The supposed ‘lovers’ took up residence in close proximity to each other.

During this juncture in their relationship, it’s almost certain that Lettice and Dudley were having an affair. Even when Dudley was away he thought about Lettice: that great beauty of the court. In 1573, he sent her some venison from his chief residence at Kenilworth castle, in Warwickshire. To those of us in the 21st century, venison seems like an odd gift for a man to give a woman. However, in Tudor times, “Gentry families who owned game parks frequently sent venison to those in positions of power, their friends and relations…” [6]

Thereafter, Lettice became a frequent visitor at Kenilworth, where she and Dudley enjoyed hunting together.

Kenilworth Castle in Warwickshire, England
Kenilworth Castle in Warwickshire, England

In 1575, Lettice joined Dudley and her cousin Elizabeth during the latter’s progress. She witnessed alongside them, the spectacular and legendary merry making events that were held at Kenilworth Castle, that same year. The incident between Dudley and Lettice in 1565 had—at least on the surface –been forgiven by Queen Elizabeth, if not forgotten about.

Edward Arden former High Sheriff of Warwickshire, found it hard to forgive or forget Dudley’s indecent behavior with Lettice. Arden refused to wear Dudley’s livery for the revelries at Kenilworth. The final insult came when Arden told everyone and anyone who’d listen, that he didn’t appreciate “…the Earl’s private access to the Countess of Essex [Lettice]”, before finally referring to Dudley as a “whore-master”. [7] In 1583, Arden ended up paying a heavy price –  not just for his Catholic convictions and his personal connection with a man who plotted to execute Elizabeth I, but also for incurring Dudley’s displeasure – he was executed.

Meanwhile, rumors at court were that Lettice and Dudley had not only been having an affair but that she had delivered two of his bastards: a girl who was being raised in another household and a baby who had been aborted.

Walter Devereux
Walter Devereux, 1572

If any clandestine meetings took place between Lettice and Dudley it was put to an abrupt end in late 1575. After two years in Ireland, and “…ignominiously failing as Governor of Ulster…” [8], all Devereux wanted was to “live henceforth an untroubled life”. However, it was not meant to be. The salacious rumors about his wife and Dudley had reached him. The Spanish ambassador Antonio de Guaras reported that “As the thing is publicly talked of in the streets, there can be no harm in my writing openly about the great enmity between the Earl of Leicester and the Earl of Essex [Devereux], in consequence, it is said, of the fact that while Essex was in Ireland his wife had two children by Leicester…Great discord is expected in consequence.” [9]

Fortunately for Dudley, Devereux never exacted his revenge (if we are even to believe he found credence in these rumors). The Queen “granted Essex lands in Ireland and appointed him the Earl Marshal of Ireland, although he had to sell his English estates to satisfy his creditors.” [10] On the surface, Lettice didn’t appear to take much interest in her husband’s business or private affairs. On one occasion it’s noted that she went to Buxton to see Dudley.

On September 22, 1576, Devereux died in Dublin, Ireland. In the days leading up to his death he had complained of a “grief in his belly” before he succumbed to worse afflictions. On his death bed, Devereux’s last words were: “Lord forgive me and forgive all the world, Lord, from the bottom of my heart, from the bottom of my heart even all the injuries and wrongs that any have done unto me! Lord forgive them, and I forgive them from the bottom of my heart.” [11] It is quite possible, that in these words, Devereux was referring to the Earl of Leicester and the Countess of Essex…

Though the cause of death was ruled as dysentery (aka the flux) there was talk that Dudley paid someone to poison Devereux. This is relayed in depth in a book written about the Queen’s favorite called ‘Leicester’s Commonwealth’ published in 1584. In it, it claims that “…when he [Devereux] was coming home from Ireland with intent to revenge himself upon my Lord of Leicester for begetting his wife with child in his absence (the child was a daughter and brought up by the Lady Shandoies, W. Knooles’ his wife), my Lord of Leicester hearing thereof, wanted not a friend or two to accompany the deputy, as among other, a couple of the Earl’s own servants, Crompton (if I miss not his name), yeoman of his bottles, and Lloyd, his secretary, entertained afterward by my Lord of Leicester. And so he died in the way, of an extreme flux, caused by an Italian recipe, as all his friends are well assured, the maker whereof was a surgeon (as is believed) that then was newly come to my Lord from Italy. A cunning man and sure in operation, with whom if the good lady had been sooner acquainted and used his help, she should not have needed to have sitten so pensive at home and fearful of her husband’s former return out of the same country, but might have spared the young child in her belly, which she was enforced to make away (cruelly and unnaturally) for clearing the house against the goodman’s arrival.”

Dudley was never charged with any crime committed against his lover’s husband, as Devereux’s autopsy concluded that no malicious substance was present in his system.

With her spouse gone and not much to live on, Lettice was forced to rely on the charity and hospitality of her family and friends while she recovered some of the money that rightfully belonged to her as Devereux’s widow. Even during this uncertain time in her life, Lettice still yearned to be with Dudley. He made it possible by sending her “…up and down the country, from house to house, by privy ways thereby to avoid the knowledge of the Queen.” [12]

Robert Dudley, Earl of Leicester, 1575, aged about 43
Robert Dudley, Earl of Leicester, 1575, aged about 43

After a thirteen year courtship, Lettice and Dudley were married. Though she was said to have been pregnant on her wedding day, there is no record of Lettice bearing a child shortly after her marriage to Dudley.  We can only surmise that either Lettice was never pregnant, or what’s more likely, she suffered a miscarriage.

For a while, Lettice and Dudley were forced to keep their marriage a secret lest Elizabeth should find out. They spent time whenever they could, usually at one of the Knollys family estates.

Lettice and Dudley did their best to behave normally around the Queen; with Dudley “fawn[ing] over [her], as much as usually he did” [13], and Lettice presenting her cousin with “a greate cheyne of Amber slightly garnished with [a] golde and small perle.” during the Christmas festivities at court in 1578. [14]

Word had begun to spread around court of the Queen’s favorite and her cousin’s marriage. The Earl of Sussex, Thomas Radcliffe, had informed the French ambassador, de Castlenau of it as early as November 1578.

It is generally accepted that Elizabeth did not find out about her cousin’s marriage to Dudley until almost a year later, in August 1579. However, many historians debate over the time frame: it seems improbable that most of the English court should know of Lettice and Dudley’s marriage shortly after it had taken place but that Elizabeth did not hear of it until much later.

The Duke of Anjou’s representative Baron Jean de Simier is credited with having broken the upsetting news to the Queen.

Upon hearing that Dudley had married Lettice, Elizabeth is said to have been filled with “rage, vexation and disappointment”. Not only was she upset that “Leicester, the dearest of her favorites, should form such a connection, such an indissoluble tie, and that too with her own relation,” but he hadn’t even consulted her, implored her sanction or begged for forgiveness. [15]

by Unknown artist, oil on panel, circa 1575
by Unknown artist, oil on panel, circa 1575

Queen Elizabeth was so infuriated that she wanted to have Dudley locked away in the tower of London. It was the Earl of Sussex who dissuaded her from doing so. He reminded her that, “no man was to bee molested for lawfull Marriage, which amongst all men hath ever been honest and honoured.” [16] Elizabeth may not have thrown him in the tower, but she was determined that Dudley should be dismissed from court and her presence. She ordered for him to return immediately return to Wanstead Hall, his estate in Essex, where he would remain until she decided, if ever, to forgive him.

To Elizabeth, her cousin’s marriage to the man she loved and had risked her reputation for, was the ultimate betrayal. Things came to a head when Elizabeth spotted her cousin looking resplendent in an ornate gown, with a train of servants behind her. That Lettice came to court with all the glitz and trappings befitting that of the Countess of Leicester only infuriated the Queen even more. “In the presence of several courtiers and ladies, [Elizabeth] strode up to Lettice and boxed her ears.” The Queen then allegedly said to her , “As but one sun lights the East, so I shall have but one queen in England!” [17] Lettice was promptly banished from court and from ever coming into the Queen’s presence again.

Lettice Knollys learned that to cross the Queen of England’s path was not only a foolish venture but also a dangerous one with far reaching consequences. As it turns out, Elizabeth was not done exacting her revenge on Lettice….

Continue the story here with Part 3!

[1], [2] “Elizabeth I: The Voice of a Monarch” By Ilona Bell
[3], [4] “A Compendium of Irish Biography: Comprising Sketches of Distinguished Irishmen, and of Eminent Persons Connected With Ireland by Office or by Their Writings” By Alfred Webb
[5] “Transactions of the Leicestershire Architectural and Archaeological Society, Volume 2” By The Society, 1870 of Leicestershire, England’
[6] “Hunting, hawking and the Early Tudor Gentleman” By Williams, James, History Today
[7] “The Elizabethans” By A. N. Wilson
[8] “Ulster Journal of Archaeology, Volume 10”, Issue 3
[9] “Elizabeth and Leicester” by Elizabeth Jenkins
[10] “Encyclopedia of Tudor England, Volume 1” By John A. Wagner, Susan Walters Schmid
[11] “Lives and letters of the Devereux, earls of Essex, in the reigns of Elizabeth, James I., and Charles I., 1540-1646” By Walter Bourchier Devereux
[12] “Oberon’s Vision in the Midsummer-night’s Dream: By a Comparison with Lylie’s Endymion” By Nicholas-John Halpin
[13], [14] “Royal Pains: A Rogues’ Gallery of Brats, Brutes, and Bad Seeds” By Leslie Carroll
[15] “The Queens of England and Their Times: From Matilda, Queen of William the Conqueror, to Adelaide, Queen of William the Fourth, Volume 2” By Francis Lancelott
[16] “Love, Lust, and License in Early Modern England: Illicit Sex and the Nobility” By Johanna Rickman
[17] “Royal Affairs: A Lusty Romp Through the Extramarital Adventures That Rocked the British Monarchy” By Leslie Carroll

Note: Robert, Lord Denbigh was not— as some disreputable texts may claim—born in 1579. He was born in June 1581. Re: “The Polarisation of Elizabethan Politics: The Political Career of Robert Devereux, 2nd Earl of Essex, 1585-1597” by Paul E. J. Hammer

About the Author:

kL16loFoI’m Karlie (also known as History Gal on Twitter)! I’m a pre-med student from the U.S. I have many interests including reading, writing, drawing and painting but my passion is History. I have read and love to read just about every period in history but I am most interested in the Tudor period. I’m intrigued, not just by the Tudor dynasty, but also by the world in which they lived: the people, the religion, the politics, the conflicts, the events, the castles, the beautiful clothes, just overall their way of life.

It should go without saying that I love England and its rich history. My dream is to go there and see as many Tudor related places as I can!

Follow on Twitter: @HistoryGal_

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Lettice Knollys: Cousin vs. Queen (Part 1)

Guest article by Karlie

It was in the early hours of the morning on September 21st 1578, when a woman of 34 years and a man of 46 years were joined together in holy matrimony. The setting of the ceremony was idyllic: at a country manor called Wanstead Hall, in Essex. The bride was dressed simply and looked demure in a ‘loose [fitting] gown’. The chaplain, a learned and pious man named Humphrey Tyndall, was there to officiate the nuptials. To witness this happy occasion were the bride’s father and brother, two of the groom’s friends and brother.

But not all was as it seemed…The first wedding (according to Catholic propagandist 1) actually took place in private, at another of the groom’s residents: Kenilworth castle, in Warwickshire. But when the bride’s father, Francis Knollys, found out about the affair, he demanded that the two have a more formal wedding amongst witnesses. As for the bride’s ‘lose gown’, as later remarked by the chaplain, it was seen by many as a curious choice of clothing to wear. In Tudor times, a woman (particularly one of high rank) typically wore an ornate gown on her wedding day. This ‘lose gown’ gave way to gossip that the bride was pregnant and that a marriage only took place to avoid the bride delivering a bastard. What was worse is that it was a forbidden marriage. One that incurred the wrath of Elizabeth I, Queen of England.

This was Lettice Knolly’s second marriage; her first one took place sometime in the early 1560’s to Walter Devereux, Viscount Hereford, aka the Earl of Essex. They met at court, when Lettice was fulfilling her duties as maid of the privy chamber to Elizabeth I.  Lettice was given such a prominent role at court, because of her family’s unwavering faith and devotion to Elizabeth and Protestantism and because of a shared ancestry.

Lettice’s mother was Catherine Carey, who served as Elizabeth’s chief lady of the bedchamber. Catherine was the daughter of King Henry VIII’s infamous mistress Mary Boleyn. That same Mary Boleyn was the sister to Henry’s second wife Anne Boleyn, who was executed on trumped up charges of adultery, incest, witchcraft and plots against the King on May 19th 1536.

Anne Boleyn was the mother of Elizabeth I. Which made Catherine, Elizabeth’s first cousin, and Lettice her first cousin once removed. As there was talk in the 16th Century, there is still talk in the 21st Century that Catherine Carey and her brother Henry were really the illegitimate children of Henry VIII. If true, that would have made Catherine the half-sister of Elizabeth, and Lettice, Elizabeth’s niece and the granddaughter to Henry VIII.

Lettice’s father was Sir Francis Knollys, who Elizabeth made Vice Chamberlain and a member of the Privy Council. Francis had served in various capacitates under Henry VIII, and Elizabeth’s brother Edward VI. His father had also been a servant under the Tudors: acting as an usher to Henry VIII and his father Henry VII.

Catherine and Francis had a total of 15 children together. Lettice was their third child, born on November 8th 1543. She grew up at her father’s estate: Greys Court in Rotherfield Grey’s in the county of Oxfordshire and at his town house (Abbey House) in Reading. From all accounts, Lettice’s life was peaceful and idyllic. It wasn’t until 1553 when Mary I became Queen of England, when Lettice was forced to face the harsh realities of life for those whose faith weren’t acceptable to those in power.

In an instant, the family was uprooted. Francis took his wife and children to live in Basel, Switzerland and then to Frankfurt, Germany where they would go unprosecuted for their Protestant beliefs. No one knows which of the five children Francis and his wife took with them when they self-exiled. It is generally thought that Lettice stayed in England and joined the household of a then 19 year old Elizabeth.

On November 17th 1558 Mary I died from a long bout of illness (historians today think the most likely cause was uterine or ovarian cancer). Her demise was bad news for Catholics, but joyous news for Protestants who had witnessed the horrific burnings of people of their faith during the tumultuous 5 years that Mary reigned.

It was then that Elizabeth became Queen, which meant that Lettice and her family could once again unite and prosper in England.

Lettice flourished in the court of her cousin’s. Not least because of her striking resemblance to Elizabeth but also because of her beauty. Lettice had the ever fashionable red-gold hair, and skin so fine and fair it was described as resembling porcelain. She also had impeccable style and a flair for fashion, which didn’t go unnoticed by the men at court. Even the Spanish ambassador Diego Guzman de Silva wasn’t immune to her charm and beauty, he once wrote, in 1565, that she was “One of the best looking ladies at the court”.

The Great Beauty of the court (as Lettice came to be known) was married off to Walter Devereux, when she was just 17. It was assumed she would spend the rest of her life as a dutiful wife to Devereux at his Staffordshire estate: Chartley Hall.

Lettice fulfilled many of her duties. She gave birth to two children during her absence from court: Penelope in 1563 and Dorothy in 1564. But in the summer of 1565 Lettice was back at court: pregnant with her third child and still a great beauty. Though many of the male courtiers were enamored with her, there was one man in particular that could court infinite danger: and that was Robert Dudley, the Queen’s favorite…Who shamelessly flirted with the latter’s cousin in public. What was worse was that Lettice was reciprocating his advances.

Though foolhardy, it was not impossible to see why Lettice would risk her reputation to flirt openly with the Queen’s favorite. Robert was described by contemporaries as tall and handsome. He had a fine figure in which he wore the latest and most expensive fashions, he had brown hair, dark skin and blue eyes. He was called a Gypsy by many at court but Elizabeth lovingly referred to him as her Eyes.

Dudley and Elizabeth had known each other in their youth, having been tutored side by side by the scholar and humanist Roger Ascham. Their paths crossed again in the summer of 1553 when Dudley was arrested for taking up arms against Mary I on behalf of his sister in law Lady Jane Grey. Edward VI along with Dudley’s father, the Duke of Northumberland, had installed Jane as Queen of England upon the young King’s death; thus ousting Mary I’s rightful claim to the throne.

But the people of England wanted to see Mary not Jane as their Queen, and after only 9 days Jane and her husband Guildford were overthrown. Dudley was then thrown in the Tower of London, with his brothers and father, where he was sentenced to death.

In 1554 Elizabeth became a prisoner as well, when it was thought that she was complicit in an attempt overthrow her sister in a coup known as Wyatt’s Rebellion. Elizabeth was sectioned in the Bell tower, Dudley the Beauchamp Tower but during their walks they would see each other. Soon, the two– who bonded over their imprisonment and shared misery– solidified their devotion to each other…

In 1555 Dudley — having lost his father and brother Guildford to the executioner– was released from the Tower and straight back into the arms of his wife Amy Robsart (whom he married five years previously, on June 4th 1550). It wasn’t until 1558 –when Elizabeth inherited the throne—that Dudley’s life, much like that of Lettice’s, changed for the better.

Having formed a special attachment to Dudley, Elizabeth made him the Master of the Horse. This high ranking position meant that both Elizabeth and Dudley had an opportunity to see each other, many times a day, sometimes in private, on a regular basis. Gossip at court and abroad was that the Queen and Dudley were lovers and that they had known each other carnally, which seemed perfectly plausible as his rooms at court adjoined hers!

This 1559 account given by the Count of Feria, perfectly describes the nature of Elizabeth and Dudley’s relationship: “During the last few days Lord Robert has come so much into favor that he does what he likes with affairs and it is even that her Majesty visits him in his chamber day and night. People talk of this so freely as to say that his wife has a malady in one of her breasts and the Queen is only waiting for her to die so she can marry Robert…” 2

Sadly, Amy did die on September 08th 1560 at Cumnor Place in Oxfordshire. She was found dead at the bottom of a flight of stairs. Though Dudley was for a long time suspected of having murdered his wife to marry Queen Elizabeth, he was eventually cleared of all charges. Amy’s death being ruled as “Misfortune”, the general consensus being that she fell down the stairs. After some time out of favor with the Queen he was reinstated back at court where they resumed their close relationship. Much to the chagrin of his rivals….

Part 2 to come!


1 Encyclopedia of Tudor England by John A Wagner and Susan Walters

2 Elizabeth’s Bedfellows: An Intimate History of the Queen’s Court by Anne Whitelock

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