Royal Rival LETTICE KNOLLYS
Desperate Housewife, Survivor—and Cougar?
To celebrate the release of my 14th book, ROYAL PAINS: A Rogues’ Gallery of Brats, Brutes, and Bad Seeds (NAL Trade, March 2011), I was trying to think of a special way to write a guest post on Queen Elizabeth I’s lookalike cousin Lettice Knollys, something really different for Liz, and then it occurred to me that Lettice was so beautiful and had such a strong personality that if she were alive today there’s only one place she would be: no, not the throne. As Mary Boleyn’s granddaughter, she wasn’t in the line of succession and that wouldn’t have been an option.
No—I’m fairly certain Lettice would have her own reality TV show. Because her life was far juicier than fiction!
Lettice Knollys’s mother was Lady Catherine Carey, the daughter of Mary Boleyn Carey, Anne’s older sister—making the two feisty and formidable redheads first cousins once removed. In 1559, at the age of eighteen or nineteen, Lettice was appointed to a plum position at court as a Gentlewoman of the Queen’s Bedchamber. In December of the following year she wed Walter Devereux, 2nd Viscount Hereford, who would be made 1st Earl of Essex in 1572. Lettice left court after her marriage and bore Devereux five children in quick succession, reappearing in 1565 when she was very pregnant with her son Robert. Even in her delicate condition she completely captivated the Earl of Leicester—the queen’s favorite, Robert Dudley.
The Spanish ambassador, Diego Guzmán de Silva, who found Lettice to be one of the prettiest women at court, cheerfully sent his employer a dispatch announcing that Dudley was utterly smitten with Her Majesty’s gorgeous cousin. Ten years separated the two women; and every time the queen looked at Lettice, she saw a younger, prettier, and equally vain and arrogant version of herself. Lettice possessed the same dark sparkling eyes as her late great-aunt, Anne Boleyn, and the abundant auburn hair, rosebud pout, and flawless, pale complexion of the Tudors, an enviable bonus in an age of smallpox. She was seductive and knew how to use her charm to maximum effect. Although she had been eager to become a handmaid to Her Majesty, she had also inherited the Boleyns’ ambitious streak and saw the queen as a cousin, not as a boss. Consequently, she refused to show the deference due to Elizabeth as her sovereign. In Lettice’s mind, the two women were equals. It was a war she couldn’t win, but it would never deter her from trying.
Throughout her reign, the queen toyed with the prospect of wedding a foreign prince, or even one of her own subjects, but it was all politics and prevarication. However, the Earl of Leicester, Robert Dudley, remained the love of her life. She heaped him with honors, and risked her reputation (and consequently her own value on the marriage market) to spend hours alone with him. But it came with a price. Dudley’s job was to worship and adore her and her alone. In that respect, he betrayed her three times by wedding other women. The last Countess of Leicester would be Elizabeth’s own envious cousin, Lettice Knollys.
Dudley had wed Amy Robsart in 1550, but a decade later, suffering from cancer, Amy died under mysterious circumstances after a fall down a shallow flight of stairs, having dismissed her servants for the day to attend a country fair. Then, in 1573, Dudley secretly wed one of Elizabeth’s waiting women, the widowed Douglas Sheffield, after she tired of being his mistress and insisted on a ring. But Dudley was a ladies’ man and wanted it all. He was also politically ambitious. He still hoped that Elizabeth (who was always the love of his life) would give in and decide to marry. And, failing that, he also still carried a torch for her redhaired cousin.
During the mid 1570s, instead of focusing his attentions on his new wife, Douglas, and their young son, the earl turned in another direction entirely. If he couldn’t have Elizabeth, her look-alike cousin Lettice might make an appealing substitute. Their flirtation soon blossomed into a full blown affair and Dudley realized that he needed to ditch Douglas. He would begin by insisting that they had never legally been married. Fearful of Elizabeth’s reprisals if she ever learned of their union, Douglas agreed to Dudley’s terms: if asked, she would admit their affair, but pretend that they had never been legally wed (which also meant that they’d never get a divorce, making Dudley’s subsequent marriage to Lettice bigamous!)
The Earl of Essex died in 1576, making Lettice available. Like her predecessor Douglas Sheffield, Lettice insisted on legalizing their relationship.
But even bestowing her sexual favors, particularly as it was generally surmised that the queen withheld them, wasn’t getting Lettice any closer to an “I do.” So, relying upon Dudley’s honor as a gentleman, the less-than-ladylike Lettice employed the oldest trick in the book. She made certain she got pregnant. Lettice knew that the earl was tired of Douglas and that he desperately wanted a legitimate heir.
Just as Lettice had hoped, her lover caved as soon as she informed him of her pregnancy. She and Dudley were wed in a secret ceremony at Kenilworth in the spring of 1578—with the precondition that the earl sever all ties with Douglas Sheffield. Once Dudley had complied with Lettice’s demand, her next move was to insist on a formal wedding ceremony with witnesses present to attest to its legality. But Dudley had his terms, too: the marriage would have to remain a secret.
The “Tudor cub,” as the queen referred to herself, emitted a mighty roar when she eventually discovered the couple’s treachery, announcing that she would send Dudley to “rot in the Tower.” And when Lettice ostentatiously arrived at court arrayed in finery that rivaled the queen’s, Elizabeth literally boxed her cousin’s ears in public for daring to cross her—and then flaunting her triumph. “As but one sun lighten[s] this earth, [she] would have but one Queen in England,” she thundered. After berating Lettice, Elizabeth demanded that the “flouting wench” quit her sight and never darken a royal doorstep again. So irked was Elizabeth by Lettice’s existence that her cousin didn’t even need to be present to provoke the royal wrath. Even in her exile, Lettice managed to send the queen into a paralytic frenzy at the mere mention of her name.
On September 4, 1588, just weeks after England’s naval triumph over Spain’s Armada, Dudley died, possibly from a malarial infection. Queen Elizabeth was utterly devastated and took to her bedchamber for days. Lettice was saddled with her late husband’s massive debts, amounting to about £50,000 (well over $16million today), half of which was owed to the crown. Under the circumstances, Elizabeth had no intentions of forgiving even a penny of it.
But like a cat (or perhaps more specifically, a cougar), Lettice always managed to land on her feet. Described by a contemporary as having “a light, easy, healable nature,” in July 1589 she took a third husband—a boy toy twelve or thirteen years her junior named Christopher Blount. Blount had been Dudley’s Master of the Horse. He was also a hellraising friend of her oldest son Robert Devereux, who was now the 2nd Earl of Essex.
No stranger to scandal, Lettice had once again set tongues wagging; even her own son tsk-tsked over his mother’s “unhappy choyce.” The rumor mill churned up lurid tales that Lettice had become Blount’s lover in 1587 and had poisoned Dudley so that she could wed her young stud. By then the fifty-something Queen Elizabeth had been exacting further revenge on her cousin for stealing Dudley, by taking the young Earl of Essex under her wing when he was in his late teens. Elizabeth gave the young man something his mother never could: power, prestige, and the indulgent, lavish attention of a queen.
In January, 1598, Lettice, who had spent the past two years rusticating at her Staffordshire estate, heard that Elizabeth might be willing to welcome her back to court. It was the event of the decade for the courtiers who eagerly anticipated the reunion of the two formidable redheaded cousins. But the queen purposely kept postponing their encounter. When she finally deigned to meet Lettice, the two women were civil, though hardly cordial. Lettice remained unforgiven, and persona non grata at court.
In 1599, Lettice once again petitioned her cousin for an audience, but this time she was pleading for clemency for her son. The hotheaded Earl of Essex, having successfully secured a commission to command a military expedition in Ireland, had mucked everything up by flouting Elizabeth’s orders and negotiating an ill-advised treaty with the enemy. He was incarcerated on his return to English soil; and the queen refused to permit his mother to visit him.
The following year, Essex tried to raise an army against Elizabeth, intending to topple her from the throne. One of his conspirators was his stepfather and drinking buddy, Christopher Blount. They were sent to the Tower; and on February 25, 1601, Essex was executed for treason. On March 18, Lettice’s young husband was also beheaded.
Essex’s execution broke Elizabeth’s heart as well as Lettice’s. Once again, the two cousins had something in common: the love of the same man, and the aching void left by his demise. But they never met again. According to Elizabeth’s Principal Secretary Sir Robert Cecil, “for her marriage with him [Leicester] Lettice “was long disgraced with the Queene” and their rift was a permanent one.
Elizabeth died on March 24, 1603. Lettice outlived her by thirty-one years, a lifetime in itself in the seventeenth century. She died a wealthy woman at the age of ninety-three on Christmas Day, 1634. At her request, Lettice was buried at St. Mary’s, Warwick, “by my deere lord and husband the Earle of Leicester” Reposing beside him for all eternity, which Elizabeth (who was interred at Westminster Abbey) could never do, it was Lettice Knollys who had the last, celestial, laugh.
So, if Lettice, with her larger-than-life personality, her colorful life, and her propensity to always land on her feet, had her own reality TV show today, what would you call it? And would you watch it?
Wow that was a great post Leslie and in my world I think if Lettice had her own reality show it would have to be titled house wives of Leicester or something along those lines. For more on Leslie and her hilarious style you can check out her website, Twitter, and her blog. As Leslie as stated before "history is so juicy you do not even have to make this stuff up" and now for the GIVEAWAY!
Okay everyone this one is for ONE autographed finished copy of Royal Pains: A Rogues' Gallery of Brats, Brutes, and Bad Seeds.
Sorry but the giveaway is only open to US residence and to be entered you MUST fill out the form below for your entry to count.
Giveaway will end on March 22nd 2011
Good luck to everyone and I will draw the winner on March 23rd