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