Lettice, Viscountess Hereford, ‟one of the best-looking ladies of the court“, was 21 and pregnant with her third child, when she attracted the attentions of Robert Dudley, Earl of Leicester, Queen Elizabeth’s great favourite and long-term suitor (and lover, it was whispered). It was the first time in seven years that he had openly dared to set eyes on another woman, and Elizabeth promptly ‟was in a great temper and upbraided him“ about ‟his flirting with the Viscountess in very bitter words“. After a few days of sulking on the earl’s and some shedding of tears on both parts, all seemed well again between queen and favourite. It was reported by the Spanish ambassador that Leicester had turned to Lettice only for the politics of courtly love – out of jealousy about Elizabeth’s own flirting with Sir Thomas Heneage.1 Whatever the exact causes of the crisis, it left a deep impression in each of the involved lovers’ hearts.
Lettice Devereux returned home to Staffordshire, where she gave birth to her first son, Robert, in November 1565. His godfather was the Earl of Leicester, but all other speculations about his paternity have been caused by a 17th century error about the future Earl of Essex’ birth year. The daughter of Sir Francis Knollys and his wife Catherine Carey, Lettice Knollys was a granddaughter of Mary Boleyn and thus a first cousin once removed of Queen Elizabeth. She possibly had spent much of her childhood and youth in the future queen’s household, and she certainly was one of her favourite ladies in the early years of her reign. In 1560, aged 17, Lettice married Walter Devereux, who became Earl of Essex in 1572. By the time he went to Ireland in the next year, the couple had had five children, two daughters and three sons, the last of whom had died as an infant.2
Lettice Knollys was 29 when her husband disappeared into the Irish fog and – lacking evidence notwithstanding – one has the feeling she soon remembered her exciting experience with Robert Dudley and perhaps sought his company for consolation. She visited London regularly, staying at Durham House, not far from Leicester House.3 Unremarkably enough, Leicester sent her a present of venison in 1573 from his seat Kenilworth Castle in Warwickshire, where she went for hunting visits in the following years. Lettice was also present in July 1575, when Dudley entertained the Queen with a 19-days festival at the castle in what arguably was the most elaborate show event of the reign. A few weeks later the Countess of Essex was host to Elizabeth, Leicester, and the rest of the court at Chartley in Staffordshire.4
During the summer progress Elizabeth ignored any scandalous talk, though she may have sensed that love was in the air at Kenilworth. Meanwhile some of the Warwickshire gentry voiced the opinion that their lord was a ‟whore-master“, and when Walter Devereux returned to England in December 1575 the Spanish agent in London, Antonio de Guaras, reported:
As the thing is publicly talked of in the streets, there can be no harm in my writing openly about the great enmity between the Earl of Leicester and the Earl of Essex, in consequence, it is said, of the fact that while Essex was in Ireland his wife had two children by Leicester. … Great discord is expected in consequence.
Nothing spectacular ensued, but it is interesting that Essex kept himself away from court over the Christmas festivities, while his wife apparently attended them; Leicester certainly did.5 The street talk about two children born to the supposed lovers was certainly just that – street talk.
In July 1576 Walter Devereux sailed back to Dublin; allegedly Leicester had pushed for his return to Ireland, yet the evidence in council papers is contradictory on this issue.6 Even before Essex had left England his wife travelled to Buxton in Derbyshire – Robert Dudley was there, taking the baths.7
At Buxton Lettice engraved a most interesting line onto a window pane, on which many prominent guests immortalized themselves: Between the contributions of Mary Queen of Scots and the Earl of Leicester we read: ‟Faythfull, faultelesse, yet sumway unfortunatt. Yet must suffer. L. Essex.“8 Obviously, Lady Essex thought the gossip about her relations with the earl to have no basis in fact; Leicester was of similar opinion, although he admitted that he might be living in sin when lectured by a Puritan friend about the certainty of hell fire, should he not immediately repent of his lifestyle:
I will not justify myself for being a sinner and flesh and blood as others be. And beside, I stand on the top of the hill, where I know the smallest slip seemeth a fall. But I will not excuse myself; I may fall many ways and have more witnesses thereof than many others who perhaps be no saints neither, yet their faults less noted though someways greater than mine. … And for my faults, I say, they lie before Him who I have no doubt but will cancel them as I have been and shall be most heartily sorry for them.9
The earl’s chief problem was that his love life became increasingly complicated, all because Queen Elizabeth would not allow him to enter into a permanent bond with any other lady – that would lead to his ‟utter overthrow“, he was convinced.10
Walter Devereux died of dysentery on 22 September 1576 at Dublin, ‟lamenting the time that is so vain and ungodly considering the frailness of women”.11 Rumours of poison, allegedly administered on Leicester’s behalf, were immediately abroad. Sir Henry Sidney, Dudley’s brother-in-law, investigated and found no indications of foul play but “a mere flux, a disease appropriate to this country and whereof … died many … and some of mine own household “.12
Following her husband’s death Lettice was faced with considerable financial difficulties, and she and her four children had to seek accommodation with family and friends. The extremely hostile satire, Leicester’s Commonwealth, claimed that Leicester had her move “up and down the country from house to house by privy ways”.13 The libel also rhymed: ‟At Digby’s house in Warwickshire Dame Lettice lay, and some other such pieces of pleasure“14 – the Digby family was part of Leicester’s local affinity, and Lettice indeed stayed with them in March 1577.15
During the 1576 parliament Queen Elizabeth had declared that she would rather be a milkmaid with a bucket at her arm than give up her single state. It seems Leicester saw this as one of several signals that he was finally ‟acquitted and delivered“ from any hope of marrying Elizabeth.16 Cautiously he initiated negotiations with Lettice’s father and brothers and finally drew a line under his relationship with Douglas Sheffield, his earlier mistress and mother of his young son.
In the evening of Saturday 20 September 1578 the Earl of Leicester welcomed his good old friend Lord North at his country house Wanstead in Essex. He confided that he intended to be married the next morning, as ‟there was nothing in this life he more desired than to be joined with some godly gentlewoman“;17 to Mr. Tindall, his chaplain, the earl had further explained ‟that he had for a good season forborne marriage in respect of her Majesty’s displeasure and that he was then for sundry respects and especially for the better quieting of his conscience determined to marry with the right honourable Countess of Essex“.18 The actual ceremony occurred on Sunday, between seven and eight in the morning, and Mr. Tindall later remembered that the bride had worn a ‟loose gown“. This last observation has led many authors to claim that she was pregnant, and that therefore the match was a gun-shot marriage, forced on Leicester by Sir Francis Knollys.
While Lettice may indeed have been pregnant – and why else should the chaplain feel urged to remember this particular detail – there is no other trace of that baby. The notion, however, that the gentleman Francis Knollys should have been in a position to force the great Earl of Leicester to do anything is preposterous; what is more, Robert Dudley had been a good friend of Sir Francis since the days of King Edward VI, and several of Lettice’s brothers had been in the earl’s service. The marriage between Lettice and Robert only reinforced an already close connection between the families.19
Elizabeth could never accept the fact that there was now a Countess of Leicester, even when she visited the Earl of Leicester’s houses. And so Lettice Dudley continued to style herself Countess of Essex for several years into her new marriage and lived very discreetly, often with her relatives at the Knollys family home in Oxfordshire. Her husband still loved her, though, and she went through three further pregnancies, only one of which came to a success with the birth of Robert, Lord Denbigh in June 1581. In the summer of 1583 Elizabeth was once again furious with Dudley “about his marriage, for he opened the same more plainly than ever before”, the reason being that Lettice lived now openly at her husband’s London residence. Michel de Castelnau, the French ambassador, was a guest at Leicester House around this time: “He especially invited me to dine with him and his wife, who has much influence over him and whom he introduces only to those to whom he wishes to show a particular mark of attention.”20 The philosopher Giordano Bruno equally noticed that there was no better way to win the earl’s goodwill than by dedicating a book to his disgraced wife.
The little Lord Denbigh died unexpectedly from a fever on 19 July 1584. This was a terrible blow to his parents. Without asking for leave Leicester deserted his court duties “to comfort my sorrowful wife.” He also thanked Lord Burghley for – unsuccessfully – pleading with the Queen “on behalf of my poor wife. For truly my Lord, in all reason she is hardly dealt with.” To avoid their son’s funeral the bereaved couple went on a trip to the countryside; they stopped by at Burghley’s great house of Theobalds, where they “made some … stags afraid, but killed none”, as Leicester informed his absent hosts.21
When Leicester went to the Netherlands a year later it was out of the question that his wife could go with him. The queen exploded at the very thought of ‟another court“ with ‟another queen“ overseas. While abroad Leicester fell into disgrace and Lettice became seriously concerned. William Davison, whom Dudley had sent to England to plead with Elizabeth, described a visit to the countess during the crisis: “I found her greatly troubled with tempestuous news she received from court, but somewhat comforted when she understood how I had proceeded with Her Majesty.” Another visitor observed: ‟My lady your wife is well, but had now no cause to write. I waited upon her yesterday to know her pleasure“.22
As is apparent from these reports, Lady Leicester was of a wholly practical nature. The earl would very much have welcomed any letter from England,23 but he certainly valued his wife’s common sense after his earlier experiences with ladies who had been marked by a streak of hysteria. And Lettice still loved her husband; she was distraught at his second departure to the Netherlands in June 1587 after he had already been away for almost a year the first time.24 It is often implied that she did not mourn him enough after his sudden death in September 1588 because she soon married again – Sir Christopher Blount, the earl’s much younger Gentleman of the Horse and relative. With Blount, whom she described as her ‟best friend“, she enjoyed a both loving and practical partnership, coming to terms with Leicester’s difficult financial legacy. Robert Dudley, though, remained the ‟best and dearest of husbands“.
The story of the love between Robert Dudley and Lettice Knollys was remarkable for its passion and endurance. Knowing each other from a young age, they later became irresistibly drawn to each other against all conventions. They have often been maligned as a womanizer and a voluptuous seductress, respectively, and both paid a high price for seeking to make their union respectable through marriage. For Lettice this meant banishment from social life and being stigmatized as a ‟she-wolf“ and ‟bad woman“ by the queen herself.25 For the earl it meant risking his position and unique relationship with Elizabeth as well as heavy financial penalties imposed by the irate monarch;26 it also meant to be publicly called a ‟cuckold“ by Elizabeth – his unique relationship with the queen survived unscathed, though, as his wife acknowledged.27 Lettice had risked a lot when she decided to follow her heart, ‟she that in her youth had been darling to the Maiden Queen, till she was content to quit her favour with her favourite“.28
1 CSP Span I p. 472
2 Adams 2004a
3 Varlow 2009 p. 43
4 Adams 2004a
5 Varlow 2009 p. 46; Adams 2004a
6 Adams 2004a
7 Varlow 2009 p. 48
8 HMC Bath II p. 22
9 Collinson 1960 p. 14
10 Read 1936 p. 24
11 Freedman 1983 p. 23
12 Freedman 1983 pp. 33 – 34
13 Adams 2004a
14 Burgoyne 1904 p. 100
15 Adams 2004a
16 Adams 2002 p. 146
17 Jenkins 2002 p. 234
18 HMC Bath V pp. 205 – 206
19 Adams 2004a; Adams 1995 p. 49
20 Adams 2004a; Jenkins 2002 p. 280
21 CSP Domestic II p. 192
22 Leycester Correspondence pp. 112, 144, 176
23 Leycester Correspondence p. 34
24 Adams 2004a
25 CSP Span III p. 477
26 Adams 2004b
27 Chamberlin 1939 p. 385
28 Chamberlin 1939 p. 386
Calendar of State Papers, Domestic Series, of the Reign of Elizabeth, 1581–1590. (ed. by Robert Lemon, 1865).
Calendar of … State Papers Relating to English Affairs … in … Simancas, 1558–1603. (ed. by Martin Hume, 1892–1899).
Correspondence of Robert Dudley, Earl of Leycester, during his Government of the Low Countries, in the Years 1585 and 1586. (ed. John Bruce, 1844). Camden Society.
Manuscripts of The Marquess of Bath, Volume II. (Historical Manuscripts Commission, 1907).
Manuscripts of The Marquess of Bath, Volume V: Talbot, Dudley and Devereux Papers 1533–1659. (Historical Manuscripts Commission, 1980).
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Adams, Simon (2002): Leicester and the Court: Essays in Elizabethan Politics. Manchester University Press.
Adams, Simon (2004a): “Dudley, Lettice, countess of Essex and countess of Leicester (1543–1634)”. Oxford Dictionary of National Biography. Oxford University Press.
Adams, Simon (2004b): ‟Dudley, Robert, earl of Leicester (1532/3–1588)“. Oxford Dictionary of National Biography. Oxford University Press.
Bossy, John (1991): Giordano Bruno and the Embassy Affair. Yale University Press.
Burgoyne, F. J. (ed.) (1904): History of Queen Elizabeth, Amy Robsart and the Earl of Leicester, being a Reprint of “Leycesters Commonwealth” 1641. Longman.
Chamberlin, Frederick (1939): Elizabeth and Leycester. Dodd, Mead & Co.
Collinson, Patrick (ed.) (1960): “Letters of Thomas Wood, Puritan, 1566–1577″. Bulletin of the Institute of Historical Research. Special Supplement No. 5. November 1960.
Doran, Susan (1996): Monarchy and Matrimony: The Courtships of Elizabeth I. Routledge.
Freedman, Sylvia (1983): Poor Penelope: Lady Penelope Rich. An Elizabethan Woman. The Kensal Press.
Jenkins, Elizabeth (2002): Elizabeth and Leicester. The Phoenix Press.
Read, Conyers (1936): “A Letter from Robert, Earl of Leicester, to a Lady”. The Huntington Library Bulletin. No. 9. April 1936.
Varlow, Sally (2007): The Lady Penelope: The Lost Love and Politics in the Court of Elizabeth I. André Deutsch.
Wilson, Derek (1981): Sweet Robin: A Biography of Robert Dudley Earl of Leicester 1533–1588. Hamish Hamilton.
First published on 27 November 2011 at thehistoryfiles.com