Robert Dudley, Earl of Leicester was the earliest and – apart from Queen Elizabeth herself – the most important English patron of Nicholas Hilliard. In 1578 the earl had married Lettice Devereux, the widowed Countess of Essex, and from 1582 onwards the couple (as well as some of the countess’ children) most probably stood as godparents to several of Hilliard’s children: Their names, Lettice, Penelope, and Robert are unlikely to have been mere coincidences. A number of Hilliard’s portraits of the family members survive: of Robert Dudley himself, of his stepson Robert Devereux, 2nd Earl of Essex, of his stepdaughter Lady Penelope Rich, and also at least two of his wife, Countess Lettice. The earlier one of the latter was made probably around the time of her marriage to Leicester (top); the ruff and dress clearly indicate a date in the late 1570s.
Around 1585 George Gower made a grand portrait of Lettice Dudley, now at Longleat House and the best known of her likenesses. The facial details seem compatible enough with the two Hilliard miniatures of the countess, and the portrait certainly bears a striking resemblance to some of those of her son, the Earl of Essex. A portrait purportedly of the Countess of Leicester found in some older publications, such as Milton Waldman’s Elizabeth and Leicester, is now believed to be of her daughter Dorothy Perrot (the parrot prominent in the picture being a pun on her married name).
By the 1590s Lettice Knollys had been widowed for the second time – and had remarried once again. She was still Lady Leicester, though, her third husband being just Sir Christopher Blount. Hilliard made another miniature of her (above), some 12 to 17 years after his first one: The beholder is struck by both her precious jewellery and her serene and benign expression.
Freedman, Sylvia (1983): Poor Penelope: Lady Penelope Rich. An Elizabethan Woman. Kensal Press.
Haynes, Alan (1997): Untam’d Desire: Sex in Elizabethan England. Stackpole Books.
Hearn, Karen (2005): Nicholas Hilliard. Unicorn Press.
Jenkins, Elizabeth (2002): Elizabeth and Leicester. The Phoenix Press.