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 déjà 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 £300 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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