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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Guest Author Lettice Knollys

5 Comments Leave a comment

    • I reread the article, but gracious, I wasn’t looking for tiny flaws. I love British history and so enjoyed the writer’s narrative. I look forward to Karlie’s future history articles very much.

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