Note on pronunciation: The name Lettice is not meant to be pronounced like the name of the vegetable Lettuce. It should be pronounced “la-teeess”, sounding like the name of that eyelash treatment. Also, the surname Knollys is meant to be pronounced the same way as Beyoncé’s surname of Knowles, with a silent “k” at the beginning and without pronouncing the “y” at the end. So in your head, you can pronounce her name as Latisse Nowls.
Lettice Knolly’s unusual name was a tribute to her grandmother, who was named Letitia, which is the Latin word for “happy.” In a time where every other woman was named Mary and Anne, Lettice stands out by virtue of her first name. The only other people with this given name were some of her descendants, who were named in tribute to her. And as a historian and a fan of names, I’m already on her side because all of the Janes and Elizabeths are getting even me confused.
So who was she? Lettice was born in 1543, the granddaughter of Mary Boleyn. This made her the grand-niece of Anne Boleyn, and the first cousin once removed of Queen Elizabeth I. More controversially, there have always been rumours that Lettice’s mother, Catherine Carey, was secretly an illegitimate child of King Henry VIII. If that is also the case, then Lettice was related to Queen Elizabeth I on both the Boleyn and Tudor sides. However many ways the two women were related, there was an uncontested resemblance between the two. Lettice, born ten years after Elizabeth, had the same red hair, pale skin, and striking features as her cousin. And given Elizabeth’s vanity, having a slightly-younger clone of herself came to be more than a little annoyance. But Lettice was not just a beautiful woman with a really cool name; she lived a long and wildly interesting life, entirely on her own terms.
Lettice was the third of sixteen children born to Catherine Carey (Mary Boleyn’s daughter; maybe Henry VIII’s illegitimate daughter) and a totally average courtier named Sir Francis Knollys. I will now just mention how interesting it is that Henry was so obsessed with having legitimate children, meanwhile his possible illegitimate children were just having tons of kids all over the place. Just interesting, is all. If Henry had married Mary rather than Anne Boleyn, maybe there would have been much less crises of succession. Anyway, the Knollys family were Protestant, which was great as long as Henry was King but less appealing when Queen Mary I took over and set about burning non-Catholics. For a time, the Knollyses lived in Germany with some of their children, returning two months after Elizabeth took over and Protestantism was more welcome again. We don’t know if Lettice was among the Knollys children to spend time in Germany; if not, she almost certainly would have been sent to live in the household of her slightly older cousin, Princess Elizabeth.
When Elizabeth became Queen, she honoured her Knollys relatives with positions in her household. Both Lettice and her mother were given roles as high ranking ladies in waiting, Catherine as senior lady of the Bedchamber and Lettice as a Maid of the Privy Chamber. At age 17, Lettice was married to a 32-year-old man named Walter Devereux. This was almost definitely one of those marriages arranged between families without consideration for her feelings about the matter. Lettice returned to court only a few times during her years with Walter; she was a favourite of Queen Elizabeth, maybe for the whole “she looks just like me and is potentially related to me in two ways” thing. Lettice was also written about as a legendary beauty, with the Spanish ambassador describing her in 1565 as “one of the best-looking ladies of the court.”
During this same visit, when Lettice would have been pregnant with her first child, she is said to have flirted with Robert Dudley. Remember him? He was Queen Elizabeth’s childhood friend and longtime favourite, sort of her obsessive crush, the man who she could never marry because everyone sort of thought he had thrown his wife down a flight of stairs. He was also the worst. Robert dearly loved Elizabeth, so maybe part of this attraction was him flirting with a woman who looked like his true love but a bit younger, and a bit prettier, and a bit more attainable. When Elizabeth heard that her lookalike cousin had flirted with Robert, she launched into a rageful fit of jealousy. Lettice headed back with Walter to their home in the countryside and didn’t visit court again for awhile. She and Walter had five children altogether, including Lady Penelope and Lady Dorothy, about both of whom I’ll write later because they were also pretty great. Interestingly, her first son — the one who had been in utero when she flirted with Robert Dudley — was named… Robert. This may mean something, or maybe not; as we go on, you’ll see that a lot of men in Lettice’s life happened to be named Robert.
In 1572, Walter was sent by the Queen to Ireland for some political reasons, where he stayed for two years. It is possible during this time that Lettice took up with Robert Dudley, this time for real — not just flirting, but a full-on affair. Walter stayed in Kenilworth Castle in Ireland, where Lettice visited him every now and then. In 1575, Robert Dudley held a 19-day festival in honour of the Queen at Kenilworth Castle, so she and he would have for sure been in the same place at the same time at least then. And it was also apparent that Walter and Robert did not enjoy one another’s company; rumour had it that the two children Lettice had during this Ireland sojourn may have been fathered by Robert, not her husband. I mean, we’ll never know either way for sure, but she did call one of the babies born during this time “Robert” so like: potentially significant.
And then, wouldn’t you know, in 1576 Walter died of dysentery. Now, there was a big epidemic of dysentery going around there anyway but people found it sort of convenient the way that people standing in the way of Robert Dudley’s love life kept falling down flights of stairs and dying of dysentery with such useful timing for Bobby D himself. Perhaps coincidentally, a woman named Alice Draycott — who had shared the same cup as him at the same gala — died of similar causes shortly afterwards. Once again, Robert Dudley was put under investigation for potential murder, and he was again found not guilty. But this did nothing for the fact that everybody basically thought he was a serial killer. But know who didn’t care? Elizabeth, and her niece, Lettice. So, it was the convention at the time that widows shouldn’t remarry until their husbands had been dead for two years. And two years to the day of Walter’s death via “dysentery”, guess who got married? Lettice and, yes, Robert Dudley.
We know why he did it: he was the worst, and Lettice looked like his one true love Elizabeth but younger and more available, and also probably for financial reasons. But what was in it for her? Lettice was 33 years old and gorgeous, the widow of a fairly prominent guy who had left her some money. Wait, scratch that. In fact Walter hadn’t left her quite as much money as she needed for her and her two children to live comfortably, including he didn’t leave them a house to live in. So Lettice and her children sort of couch surfed around, staying for awhile in her father’s house, sometimes with friends, just sort of wandering around aimlessly. This was a shitty situation that happened a lot to widowed women, because at the time women could only own property if they’d inherited it from their spouse or father. And as Lettice had so many siblings, her family couldn’t leave her anything, and Walter — maybe out of spite and jealousy?? — hadn’t left her much, either.
But Lettice wasn’t the sort of woman to just meekly accept a shitty situation. She went to court to plead with Walter’s executors to get more of his estate, the whole time arguing that it was in her children’s best interests, not for her at all. And after seven months of negotiations, she was granted more funds. Which was great, but Walter had died with substantial debts to the crown which sort of negated any inheritance that their son would get. So, Lettice went to her cousin and former good friend, Queen Elizabeth, to request that Walter’s debts be forgiven. Elizabeth was unmoved, and refused the request.
So, we have Lettice — now 34 years old, gorgeous and wildly fabulous, widowed mother of four, younger lookalike of a gorgeous Queen, and somewhat in need of a house and some more money. And we have Robert Dudley, 46 years old, lifelong unrequited lover of Queen Elizabeth, dirtbag, possibly multiple murderer, person who had flirted with Lettice a few years back and who possibly fathered at least some of Lettice’s children. Yes, friends, these two seem to have gotten married… for love. And also, money, and so Lettice would have someplace to live. But honestly, it really seems like it was that very rare motivation for marriage among rich people in the Renaissance: actual love. Because if they weren’t actually in love, marrying each other would have been otherwise an incredibly terrible decision. And it was a terrible decision, and what other reason is there for terrible decisions than love?
Anybody as rich as them, especially anyone related to Elizabeth or who she was in love with, needed to get the Queen’s permission to get married. Lettice and Robert had already witnessed how much Elizabeth freaked out at rumours that they’d been flirting behind her back, so they couldn’t ask her permission. They had to get married… in secret.
So, Lettice Knollys married Robert Dudley exactly two years after Walter’s death, in a secret ceremony on September 21, 1578. This wasn’t a last-minute surprise thing, even just getting their guests in town and preparations made would have taken probably about a year — during which time everybody kept it secret, to Elizabeth had no idea. There were only six guests at the wedding, all family members. Even after the marriage, everybody continued to keep it a secret, because obviously, Elizabeth would lose it when she found out, and maybe they thought they could hide the news from her forever? Unfortunately, this was Elizabethan England, and there were spies and courtiers everywhere spilling secrets, so about two months later the Queen found out her favourite niece had married her favourite guy and, as predicted, lost her shit.
Elizabeth banished Lettice from court permanently and refused to accept the marriage even existed. But what of Robert? Just like nowadays, Elizabeth blamed the woman but found the man blameless. Of course, she was mad and felt betrayed by what Robert had done, and she initially banished him from court too, but she couldn’t stay mad and eventually allowed him back — but only him, not his wife, Lettice. So Robert got to hang out at court all the time, being Elizabeth’s favourite and pretending like he wasn’t married, while Lettice was stranded back at home.
So, Lettice rolled with the hand she’d been dealt by life. She lived mostly with her Knollys relatives in the countryside until, figuring Elizabeth must have calmed down by now, moving into Robert’s family home in 1583. But in fact, Elizabeth was not any calmer about any of this, because she’d been doing a very good job of pretending Robert and Lettice hadn’t gotten married and now she was reminded about the whole thing. But there wasn’t anything she could do; she’d banished Lettice from court, not from England, and there was no way to stop her cousin from living with her husband. Lettice and Robert had one child together, a boy named Robert, who died at age three from old-timey health reasons. As a clue to Robert’s priorities, he did manage to take some time away from being Elizabeth’s lap boy to be with Lettice during this time of grief. So, while Elizabeth couldn’t let go of him, he was loyal and devoted to Lettice.
As I wrote about a bit in my essay on Elizabeth’s reign, the Queen put Robert in charge of a number of military campaigns that he was not at all qualified to lead. Did she do this to separate him from Lettice? Maybe. In a series of events I don’t totally understand, Robert wound up being declared the Govenor-General of the Netherlands. A rumour spread that Lettice was planning to head over there with an entourage and set up a sort of kangaroo court there over which Lettice would act as sort-of Queen. This was not true, but Elizabeth thought it was, and really she would take any excuse to rage about Lettice. In fact, what was really going on was that Robert was planning to hand over authority to Lettice to look after his affairs in England while he was away. He only kept up this Netherlands job for about two years, and was in England again when he suddenly died — likely from malaria. He and Lettice had been in the middle of a trip between estates at the time, and she was with him when he passed.
Remember the thing about widows usually waiting two years to get married again? And also remember about how when women were widowed they were sometimes left with no money or place to live? So basically, Lettice got married again just six months after Robert’s death. The reasons for this were pretty apparent: Robert Dudley had died and left her with a bunch of debt, and her new husband — Christopher Blount — was able to help her pay off these debts. And honestly at this point, Lettice was 46 years old and really just wanted to be able to settle down in one house, and not have debts, and just relax. Christopher was about 10 years younger than her, and had been a soldier alongside and a friend of Robert Dudley.
Because she’d ignored the whole “wait two years” thing, some people thought this was a very scandalous thing for Lettice to do, but she was like, get over it, I’m Lettice Knollys, I’m 46 years old, and I do what I want.
At this point, Lettice had been banished from court for so long she didn’t even really care anymore. There was no point of her even returning to London, so she left the house she’d shared with Robert Dudley and moved to a new home in the countryside. In 1597, almost 20 years after her marriage to Robert Dudley had caused her banishment, word reached her that Elizabeth was maybe open to a reconciliation. So Lettice headed back to London for the first time in years, where she was finally granted a short meeting with her cousin, the Queen. All that happened there was that she kissed Elizabeth and Elizabeth kissed her, but she was still banished and Elizabeth still didn’t forgive her. I imagine this meeting had a lot of meaningful eye contact and maybe some foreboding drinking of tea and, given the reputation of both women, some truly excellent outfits.
The reason that Lettice got this meeting with Elizabeth was likely due to the intervention of her son, Robert Devereux. Remember him? Walter Devereux’s son, the one who Lettice went to court to ensure he would inherit some money? Well, he had grown up to become Queen Elizabeth’s new favourite, in this post-Robert-Dudley world. I’m so sorry that everybody in this story is called Robert all the time, that’s what we get for finally having a woman with a name as cool and unusual as Lettice. I’ll call this guy Devereux, just to be clear. So, Devereux was — just like his step-father Robert Dudley — the worst. Like: Elizabeth sent him off to lead military campaigns, and he fully wandered off when he got bored, because he was terrible. Just as a hint if you lose track of all the Roberts in this story: anybody named Robert in this story is terrible.
So, when Devereux wandered off of a command in Ireland randomly, he was put in jail for being absent without leave/a terrible person. Lettice did her best to plead with Elizabeth to forgive him, including sending her a gift of a new gown, which you’d think would work given Elizabeth’s love of fashion. But! Elizabeth neither accepted nor refused the gown, and apparently Lettice’s intercession made Elizabeth even more mad about the whole thing. And then a whole thing happened where Devereux conspired with Christopher Blount and some others to do a thing called Essex’s Rebellion which wound up with both of them being put on trial and then executed for treason. I told you: Robert Devereux was the worst.
But, he was also Lettice’s beloved son. During the whole scenario — the revolt, the trial, the execution — Lettice remained in London to support him. She lost both her son as well as her husband Christopher, a man who she referred to as her best friend.
But wait there’s more!
I know, how can there possibly be more? How much more wildly interesting things can happen to this woman’s life? Well, buckle up. So, before Robert Dudley married Lettice, he’d had an illigitimte son with a woman named Douglas Sheffield, because apparently “Douglas” was a woman’s name back then, who knew? This illigitimate child was named Robert Dudley, just to make this story all the more confusing, so we’ll call him Robert Dudley Jr. just to be clear.
Now, Jr.’s mother, Douglas, claimed later in life that she had actually been married to Robert Dudley when Jr. was born, making him not illegitimate at all. But the thing is, Douglas had also been married to someone else at the same time so like, what was she talking about? But Jr. took this to heart, and since Henry VIII had long ago shown that you could call any marriage illegitimate if you try hard enough, and he took Lettice to court because he thought that he, Jr., should have inherited Robert Dudley’s estate, not Lettice. Because if Robert Dudley had been married to Douglas, then that meant his marriage to Lettice wasn’t valid, which meant that Lettice shouldn’t have inherited anything from him; but, again, Douglas was already married to someone else when she said she married Robert Dudley, and also all that Lettice inherited from Robert Dudley was a shit ton of debt so: what are you even doing, Jr.? Anyway, Lettice finally won this case, like at last, she can go two weeks without being in court!
BUT NOT SO FAST, LETTICE: she had to go back to court again because now it looked like perhaps Christoper Blount had messed her around when he claimed to be paying off Robert Dudley’s debts, and so now Lettice owed more money to the crown, and just like Robert Dudley and his debts took up far too much of this poor woman’s life, for goodness sake. But finally, Lettice won this case against Jr.
So, in the midst of this latest debt-related litigation, Queen Elizabeth I passed away. Her successor, James I, was like, “What’s all this mess? Lettice seems like a cool lady. Why did Elizabeth hate her so much? Tell you what, I’ll just cancel all the debts she and her family owe to the English crown.”
And then finally, Lettice got to have some peace and quiet. She was by all accounts a loving mother to her children, being particularly close to her daughters Penelope and Dorothy, both of whom I hope to write about at a later date, and both of whom she outlived. Among her eighteen grandchildren, she was closest with Devereux’s son, also named Robert (because: of course), who lived much of his life with her at her country estate. She remained in excellent health up to about the age of 90, and was said to walk a mile a day. She passed away on Christmas Day, 1634, at the age of 91, following a quick illness. Lettice Knollys, Coutess of Essex (via Walter Devereux) and Countess of Leicester (via Robert Dudley), was buried as per her request next to Robert Dudley Sr., in the Beauchamp Chapel of Collegiate Church of St Mary, Warwick; opposite their shared tomb is the burial place of their son, Baby Robert Dudley, who had died at age three.
If you want to learn more about the fabulous life of Lettice Knollys, you’re in luck! The first-ever biography about her was just published. It’s called Elizabeth’s Rival: The Tumultuous Life of the Countess of Leicester: The Romance and Conspiracy that Threatened Queen Elizabeth’s Courtby Nicola Tallis and you should be able to find it at your local library or bookstore or online. Nicola Tallis is also the author of one of my favourite books about Lady Jane Grey, so you know this is going to be a readable and fascinating retelling of Lettice’s weird and wonderful (and lengthy!) life.
Ann Foster is a writer and historian with a research interest in the intersection of women, history, and pop culture, especially the lives and stories of figures both well-known and half-forgotten. patreon.com/annfosterwriter