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Portrait of Lettice Knollys, Elizabethan Beauty
Lettice Knollys (1540-1634)

Lettice Knollys was born in 1540 at Rotherfield Greys in Oxfordshire. 1 She was the daughter of Sir Francis Knollys and Catherine Carey, Lady Knollys, first cousin to Queen Elizabeth I (she was the daughter of Mary Boleyn, Anne Boleyn's sister). Lettice's childhood was uneventful, except during the reign of Mary Tudor (r.1553-8), when the family's puritannical leanings forced them to go into exile on the continent, first to Basel and then to Frankfurt. 2 Sir Francis brought the family back to England upon the accession of Elizabeth, and was promptly made Treasurer of the Royal Bedchamber. Lettice was made a maid of honour (the title for an unmarried attendant) to Elizabeth.

Lettice exemplified the Tudor ideal of beauty with her porcelain skin and red-gold hair. The Spanish ambassador de Silva wrote of her in 1565, that she was "one of the best-looking ladies ladies of the court." 3  She was also very fashion-conscious, and soon drew a lot of interest from the courtiers. Queen Elizabeth grew increasingly jealous of the attention paid to her, and gladly consented to her match to Walter Devereux, Viscount Hereford, later Earl of Essex. They were married around 1560 4 and left court for Chartley Hall in Staffordshire. There, Lettice gave birth to five children. 5  Walter Devereux was made Earl of Essex in May, 1572. He served a first tour of Ireland as Lord Deputy, and a second as Earl Marshal of Ireland, while Lettice and the children stayed behind.

Not only had Lettice inherited the good looks of the Boleyn girls, she had apparently also inherited "their fascination of manners," that is, their promiscuity. 6  There is record of flirtation between Lettice and Robert Dudley, Earl of Leicester already in 1565. 7  Rumour had it that Lettice had begun an affair with Leicester in 1575, when she came with the court to Kenilworth on Queen Elizabeth's progress. When Essex died in Ireland of dysentery 8 on 22 Sept 1576, suspicions ran rife that he had been poisoned by an underling of Leicester. The autopsy, however, showed that "all his inwarde parts were sound." 9  Rumors, however, were hard to quell, and the following libellous accusations surfaced in 1584 in Leicester's Commonwealth:

The like good chance had he in the death of my Lord of Essex (as I have said before) and that at a time most fortunate for his purpose; for when he 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. 10

Rumours aside, Leicester married the dowager Countess of Essex, now pregnant with his child, in secret. The first wedding was at Kenilworth, the second at Wanstead, September 21, 1578, in front of witnesses, on the insistence of her father, Sir Francis Knollys. 11  Their son, Robert, was born four months later, in January, 1579.  They were able to keep their marriage secret from the Queen for almost a year. The courtiers knew full well how things stood, but nobody wanted to be the one to tell the Queen. In August 1579, French ambassador de Simier told the Queen of the marriage, 12 in an attempt for leverage in the negotiations for Elizabeth's possible marriage to the Duke of Alençon.  Elizabeth was shocked and furious:

The rage, vexation, and disappointment of the Queen, on hearing the Frenchman's disclosure of the marriage of her favourite, Leicester, exceeded all bounds of decency and decorum.  That Leicester, the dearest of her favourites, should form such a connection, such an indissoluble tie, and that too with her own near relation, without even consulting her, imploring her sanction, or supplicating her forgiveness —and that, after having formed it, he should have concealed the horrid fact from her, when known to the whole court;—appeared, to her eyes, the very acme of ingratitude, perfidy, baseness, and insult! 13

The Queen ordered Leicester imprisoned, 14 and even threatened to put him in the Tower, but was dissuaded by the Earl of Sussex; instead, she ordered him to retire to his estate at Wanstead. Leicester was out of favour for a few months, and restored a year later. Lettice, whom Elizabeth called a "she-wolf", 15 she never forgave. Lettice was permitted to come to court only once after this, and that for a private interview. 16

Robert Dudley, the son of Leicester and Lettice Knollys, died at the age of five, in 1584. There is a monument to him in the Beauchamp Chapel in Warwick, that reads he was "a childe of greate parentage, but of farre greater hope and towardness." 17  They had no more children together. Leicester died at his manor at Cornbury, Oxfordshire, in September 1588. He appointed Lettice the sole executrix of his will, which he had made the previous year:

I do heere appoint my moste deere and welbeloved wyfe, the Counteisse of Leicester, to be my sole executrix of this my laste will and testament, and do require her, of all love betweene us, that she will not only be content to take it upon her, but also to see it faythfullye and carefully performed . . . . .
Next her Majestye I will now returne to my deere wyfe, and sett downe that for her, which cannot be so welle as I would wyshe it, but shalbe as well as I am able to make it, having alwaies founde her a faythfull and verie loving and obediente carefull wyfe, and so do I truste this will of myne shall fynde her no less myndfull of me beinge gone, than I was alwaies of her being alyve.  I do gyve and bequeath to my said deere wyfe, over and besides the joyneture I have made her, the lease of Drayton Bassett, freely to gyfe and dispose at her will.  Item, there be certeine parsells of grounds which I bought of the Earle of Oxenforde, being sometime belonging to the house of Crambroke, § and I reserved purposely to be joyned to the parke of Wanstead, as also the parcell of groung called Waterman's, which I bought of the lorde of Buckhurste, which I do also freely gyve and grante to my said wyfe for ever, with the mannor of Wansted already assured unto her.  Item, I do give to my said wyfe, during her lyfe, all other lands and tenements which I did purchase in the lordship of Wansted, besydes that is past by deede with the howse and mannour to her before. . . . 18

Lettice did indeed execute the will, which was no easy thing to do, since Leicester died in great debt. She had a monument built for him in the Beauchamp Chapel, an effigy of the two of them lying side by side, with a latin inscription which spoke of their fidelity and love for each other. Despite the dissreputable beginnings of their relationship, this had been a loving and happy marriage.

Even after Leicester's death, the Queen continued to be vindictive towards her cousin. She seized some of the properties left to Lettice, and forced a sale on them, to pay Leicester's debt to the Crown. 19  The following year, after Lettice married Sir Christopher Blount, a friend of her son, Robert Devereux, Earl of Essex, the Queen forced a sale of Lettice's jewellery. Nor did Elizabeth's hatred of Lettice abate with time. There are reports of several occasions on which the Queen refused to see her, or come to parties, if she knew Lettice would be present.

Even when Essex was imprisoned and under house arrest, Lettice was not permitted an audience to plead for her son. After almost a year of being confined to the Essex house, Essex and his friends finally made their rush to the palace. Blount took part in the ill-conceived insurrection of Essex, and was executed alongside him in 1601.

There are few records pertaining to Lettice Knollys after this date. She retired to Drayton Bassett in Staffordshire, because Blount had sold Wansted, her dowager house. 20 Lettice Knollys died on Christmas morning, 1634. She was survived by her two daughters; Penelope Devereux, Lady Rich ('Stella' of Sir Philip Sidney's Astrophil and Stella), and Dorothy, Lady Percy. Lettice Knollys was buried with her beloved Leicester.

  1. Palmer, Alan. Who's Who in Shakespeare's England.
    New York: St. Martin's Press, 1999. 150.
  2. Cross, Claire. Church and People: England, 1450-1660.
    Oxford: Blackwell Publishing, 1999. 111.
  3. Jenkins, Elizabeth. Elizabeth and Leicester. London: Phoenix Press, 1962. 124.
  4. The Complete Peerage of England, Scotland, Ireland, Great Britain and the United
    Kingdom, Extant, Extinct or Dormant
    , Vol 5. G. E. Cokayne et al., eds.
    Gloucester, U.K.: Alan Sutton Publishing, 2000 volume V, page 141.
  5. Urban, Silvanus. "Lettice, Countess of Leicester."
    Gentleman's Magazine, March 1846. 251.
    Online facsimile at Google Books.
  6. Strickland, Agnes. Lives of the Queens of England. Vol VI.
    Philadelphia: Blanchard and Lea, 1852. 20.
  7. Somerset, Anne. Ladies in Waiting: From the Tudors to the Present Day.
    London: Phoenix Press, 2005. 85
  8. Wilson, Deker A. The Uncrowned Kings of England: The Black History of the Dudleys
    and the Tudor Throne
    .  New York: Carroll & Graf, 2005. 314.
  9. Whyte, Nicholas. "Letter to Lord Burleigh, Sept 30, 1576." Ms. Lansdowne 21.
    Queen Elizabeth and Her Times. Vol II. Thomas Wright, ed.
    London: Henry Colburn, 1838. 35.
  10. Anonymous. Leicester's Commonwealth. Dwight Peck, ed.
    Athens and London: Ohio University Press, 1985. 58.
    Online facsimile [.pdf]
  11. Wilson, 315.
  12. Somerset, 86.
  13. Lancelott, Frances. The Queens of England and Their Times. Vol II.
    New York: D. Appleton and Co., 1858. 583.
  14. Thomas, Jane R. Behind the Mask: The Life of Queen Elizabeth I.
    New York: Clarion Books, 1998. 146.
  15. Hume, Martin A. S. The Courtships of Queen Elizabeth.
    London: T. Fisher Unwin, 1896. 210.
  16. Massey, Gerard. The Secret Drama of Shakespeare's Sonnets.
    London: Gerald Massey, 1888. 446.
  17. Urban, 253.
  18. Ibid.
  19. Sir. R. Baker's Chronicle, quoted in Urban, 254.
  20. Urban, 256.

    Other Local Resources:

    Books for further study:

    Somerset, Anne. Ladies in Waiting: From the Tudors to the Present Day.
               London: Phoenix Press, 2005. 85

    Turner, Judy. Cousin to the Queen: The story of Lettice Knollys.
               Constable, 1972.

    Lettice Knollys on the Web:

    Article Citation:

    Jokinen, Anniina. “Lettice Knollys.” Luminarium.
                    17 January 2007. [Date when you accessed the page].

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    Portrait from the collection of the Marquess of Bath, at Longleat House.

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Sir Thomas Egerton, Viscount Brackley
Sir Francis Knollys
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Lettice Knollys, Countess of Leicester
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Chart of the English Succession from William I through Henry VII

Medieval English Drama

London c1480, MS Royal 16
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