Described as ‘one of the best-looking ladies of the court’, the vivacious and charming Lettice Knollys was always going to turn heads. With a head full of flame red hair, dark eyes and a seductive curve of the mouth, Lettice was a true Tudor beauty. The daughter of Sir Francis Knollys and his wife Katherine Carey – Elizabeth I’s kinswoman – Lettice also had prestigious links with the royal court, and following Elizabeth’s accession to the throne in 1559, sixteen-year-old Lettice joined her kinswoman’s household as one of her ladies. Here she was exposed to a whole host of fawning courtiers who were all eager to catch the Queen’s eye, and the royal court became a stage on which court flirtations were hosted. Queen Elizabeth, though, was very much the star of the show.
Elizabeth’s court attracted a vast array of young men who were eager to ingratiate themselves with the monarch, and Walter Devereux, Viscount Hereford, was no different. At nineteen, Walter was a handsome man with dark hair, and could also boast of descent from an ancient noble family. Soon after Elizabeth’s accession, Walter journeyed to London from his home county of Staffordshire in the hope of making his fortune and a name for himself at court. He had spent lavishly on clothes in an attempt to make a good impression, and soon after his arrival his sights fell on the beautiful Lettice Knollys. Nothing is known of their courtship, but at some time an arrangement was made for the couple to marry. It was a good match for Lettice, who was the first of her parents’ sixteen children (thirteen of which survived infancy) to marry. The details, and indeed the date, of their wedding are unknown – it took place some time between 1560 and early 1562 at the very latest, the likeliest date being 1561. Equally, no letters between husband and wife survive, but there is no reason to believe that it was not a love match that was based as much on personal feelings as it was on family policy. More than two decades after his death a portrait of Walter was still in Lettice’s possession, and in his will Walter would refer to Lettice as ‘my right well beloved wife’.
Following their marriage Walter and Lettice left the intrigue and excitement of the court behind as they travelled to Staffordshire to begin their married life together. It was in Staffordshire that Chartley, a moated manor house that was Walter’s family seat, stood, and here Lettice would spend much of her time in the coming years. Now Viscountess Hereford, following her arrival at Chartley, Lettice devoted herself to domestic duties, chiefly providing her husband with an heir. She had a successful track record, and together Lettice and Walter would sire five children – four of which survived infancy. Of these Penelope, born in January 1563 and Queen Elizabeth’s goddaughter, was the eldest, and Dorothy, Robert – his father’s heir - and Walter, followed her.
Despite their success in producing a family, Walter and Lettice’s marriage was by no means stable. As the 1560s drew to a close, the family was rocked by both Walter’s ambition and the uncertainties of the time. Walter held no position at court, but following the outbreak of the Northern Rebellion in 1569, he had distinguished himself in his loyal military service to the Queen. His star continued to rise, and in 1572 he was created Earl of Essex – making Lettice a countess. Though he had been rewarded with a distinguished title, Walter had greater ambitions for glory. It was with this in mind that in 1573 he placed a brave proposal before the Queen. Ireland was a land that had long caused the English problems, and in an attempt to curry favour and prestige, Walter had hatched a daring plan to attempt to colonize Ulster. Having received the Queen’s support for his venture, in the summer of 1573 Walter left his wife and children behind as he set sail for Ireland. It was a campaign that would be fraught with problems, and was ultimately doomed to dismal failure.
Though her husband was absent and she was charged with overseeing the care of both his estates and their children, Lettice also took full advantage of opportunities to enjoy herself: she visited court, and she travelled to the fashionable spa town of Buxton, where she made merry with her friends – numerous caskets of ale were delivered for their enjoyment. She could not have known that it would not be until the autumn of 1575 that Walter would return home, his campaign having achieved nothing. Moreover, whilst he had been gone rumours of an unsavoury nature about Lettice had begun to circulate, and they involved another man.
Robert Dudley, Earl of Leicester, was, in his lifetime, Queen Elizabeth’s friend, advisor, and suitor. It was the latter for which he would gain the most fame, for following the death of his first wife in 1560, he would spend more than ten years persistently attempting to win the Queen’s hand in marriage. His efforts were in vain, and in the early 1570s he became embroiled in a love affair with Douglas Sheffield, one of the Queen’s ladies. Nevertheless, rumour also had it that he had set his sights on the beautiful Countess of Essex, and her husband’s absence from England gave him the perfect opportunity to pursue her. The rumours were almost certainly false, but when Walter Devereux died on 22 September 1576, just weeks after returning to Ireland to resume his disastrous campaign, it was whispered that Leicester had had him poisoned. A post mortem revealed that Walter had in fact died from dysentery, but it was not the last time that Leicester and Lettice would find themselves the subject of malicious gossip.
The death of her husband left Lettice a widow when she was just shy of her thirty-third birthday. Thanks to Walter’s Irish campaign, she was racked with debt and wrote repeatedly to Lord Burghley begging his assistance. She had four young children to consider, and her daughters and her younger son, Walter, now became the wards of the Earl of Huntingdon, travelling north to join his household in York. Her elder son Robert, who now inherited the earldom of Essex, enjoyed a brief sojourn in Burghley’s household before beginning his studies at Cambridge. Lettice meanwhile, was still young and attractive, and though widows were by no means obliged to remarry, given the state of her finances marriage seemed like a sensible course. But there was more to it than that.
It is uncertain precisely when or where the origins of Lettice’s relationship with the Earl of Leicester lay. What is certain is that within a short space of time after her husband’s death, the two had begun a romantic relationship that quickly became serious. They agreed to marry, knowing full well that such a marriage would never receive the Queen’s consent. It is a testament to the strength of their feelings for one another, however, that losing their sovereign’s favour was a risk that they were both prepared to take.
On 21 September 1578, almost two years to the day after the death of Walter Devereux, the couple were married secretly at Leicester’s country home at Wanstead. Just a handful of witnesses, including Lettice’s father and one of her brothers, were present, and their marriage cemented their love for one another: Leicester was the true love of Lettice’s life. But their marital bliss was soon cut short. Shortly after, the Queen, on her way back to London following the end of her summer progress, descended on Wanstead with her retinue. She was completely unaware of what had so recently taken place in her favourite’s home, but it was not long before she found out.
It was almost certainly in July 1579 that Elizabeth was finally delivered the news that Leicester had secretly wed her kinswoman. She was crushed, and was only prevented from sending Leicester to the Tower through the intervention of the Earl of Sussex. Nevertheless, he fled from the court in disgrace, leaving his new wife behind in London. It was there that at some time shortly after, Lettice was forced to undergo a frosty meeting with the Queen. Lettice was left in no doubt of her former mistress’s feelings, for Elizabeth raged that ‘she would have but one Queen in England, boxed her ears, and forbade her the court’. Thus Lettice retired from court and the capital in disgrace: her love for Leicester had destroyed her relationship with the Queen, and she would never receive her favour again.
Lettice was no longer welcome at court, and instead installed herself in her new husband’s residences at Wanstead and Leicester House on the Strand. By contrast, Leicester was soon forgiven and restored to his former favour, and as such was frequently by the Queen’s side. He was nevertheless delighted when, on 6 June 1581, Lettice gave birth to a son at Leicester House. Both parents doted on the child, named Robert after his father, and styled Lord Denbigh. Lettice once more contented herself with domestic matters, and oversaw the care of her baby son. Tragically however, Lord Denbigh’s life would be cut short when he was just three years old, and he died at Wanstead on 19 July 1584. Both parents were overcome with grief, and Leicester was determined to do all her could to support ‘my sorrowful wife’. However, the couple would have no more children.
Although Leicester’s presence was often required at court, he did also make an effort to spend time with his wife. In 1585 they travelled to Kenilworth Castle together to enjoy a holiday, although it was cut short when Leicester was summoned home to attend to the Queen’s business. At the end of the year he led an expedition to the Netherlands, and it was rumoured that Lettice was planning on joining him. The rumours served to inflame the Queen’s animosity towards Lettice once more, and were quickly quashed.
When Leicester returned from the Netherlands permanently in 1587, he was worn out and ill. By the following year his health had still not improved, and in the hope of finding the ‘perfect cure’, he left London behind as he travelled towards Buxton, taking Lettice with him. They never made it, and Lettice was by her husband’s side when he died on 4 September 1588 at Cornbury Park. She was devastated and mourned him deeply, but there was little time to dwell. For the second time in her life, Lettice was left with large debts that Leicester had accumulated. It may have been this that once more prompted her to set aside her grief and look for a male companion. This time though, her sights fell on somebody very different.
Sir Christopher Blount was an interesting character with a murky past involving spying and double-dealing. He came from a minor gentry family, and had served in Leicester’s household. Though he was by far Lettice’s social inferior, and was also her junior by more than ten years, in July 1589 the couple were married. Her son, the Earl of Essex, initially described it as an ‘unhappy choice’, but it is clear that the couple were happy. Of her three husbands, Blount is the only one for whom a letter from Lettice survives. Although short and relating to business, it is warm in tone and signed ‘Your most faithful wife’. Similarly, in time, Blount became one of Essex’s most loyal adherents, and seems to have been a caring stepfather to her other children.
So loyal was Blount to his stepson, that he foolishly became one of the key conspirators in Essex’s rebellion in February 1601. The rebellion, which aimed to depose the Queen’s government, was a dismal failure, and both Essex and Blount were imprisoned. It was at this point that Lettice appears to have abandoned her husband, for she made no move to intercede on his behalf. Though Blount begged for mercy he was condemned for treason, and both he and his stepson were executed.
Following Blount’s execution, Lettice resolved not to marry again. She was now fifty-seven years old, and would spend the rest of her life devoting her time to her friends and family – she had always been close to her daughters, and took great delight in the company of her numerous grandchildren. On Christmas Day 1634, at the age of ninety-one, the thrice married Lettice Knollys died. In her time she had been one of the most beautiful women at court, and it had been her beauty, charm and character that had made her such an alluring prospect to men. Though she had married three times and proved to be a loyal wife to all of her husbands, it was Leicester whom she chose to be buried with at St Mary’s Church, Warwick. He was the true love of her life, and it is he whom she lies entombed besides to this day.