In the hours following his very private wedding ceremony in the morning of Sunday, 21 September 1578, the Earl of Leicester changed the agenda and started preparing the household for the queen’s visit two days later. The new Countess of Leicester had to vanish from the scene, for Elizabeth could and would never accept the fact that there was now a Countess of Leicester. And so Lettice Dudley continued to style herself Countess of Essex for several years into her second marriage.1
This was still the case when the seafaring chaplain Richard Madox visited Leicester House in March 1582 and observed ‟ther was Robin my lords bastard by my lady Esex.“2 He was speaking of Robert Dudley junior, the Earl of Leicester’s illegitimate son by Lady Douglas Sheffield, and the lady of the house, who obviously was still content to be regarded as the earl’s mistress rather than his wife, although the court had found out about the marriage soon enough. Not before the late summer of 1582 did she apparently decide to live in her husband’s residence as Lady Leicester, a circumstance that once more sparked an outburst of royal anger.3
Due to the queen’s displeasure Lettice was practically banished from society life, including in her own residences. Leicester House and Wanstead, the Essex country seat, saw many illustrious visitors, from the queen to ambassadors and the philosopher Giordano Bruno. ‟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.“ – Thus the French ambassador expressed elegantly that Lady Leicester was rarely seen and never in the company of other guests. Leicester tried his best to seek companions for her, but unsurprisingly no-one wanted to be associated with a disgraced person: ‟I dined today with the Earl of Leicester and his lady to whom he is much attached. They both received me very kindly and … expressed a wish that the Countess and my wife should be on intimate terms“, the same French ambassador, Michel de Castelnau, informed Mary Stuart, adding, ‟the Earl has never promised me more for your Majesty’s service, and the means to keep him in this humour is to gain his wife and assure her that you will be her friend.“4 Lady Castelnau for her part preferred to visit Sir Philip Sidney’s wife Frances; at 16 the latter was over 20 years younger than her, while Lady Leicester was of her age and the two women would even have shared a sad history of miscarriages.
One of the very few persons of rank willing to socialize with Lady Leicester turned out to be the Earl of Derby, Leicester’s good friend, who used to play cards with her.5 Lettice regularly went to places in and near London by boat, perhaps to visit relatives, for she had always been in close contact with her many brothers and sisters, some of whom had been in Leicester’s service. Sir Francis Knollys, Lettice’s father, had been a friend of the Dudley family since the days of King Edward VI.
Many modern writers believe that Lettice Knollys was pregnant at the time of her wedding to Robert Dudley, because she wore a morning dress or ‟loose gown“ for the occasion. While a pregnancy is entirely plausible, there is no other evidence to support it. In February 1580 she was about to give birth at her father’s house in Oxfordshire, where she had often retired since her widowhood; nothing else is known of this child, though. Finally, in June 1581 Leicester’s heir, Robert, Lord Denbigh, was born in Leicester House, and a further advanced pregnancy was reported in September 1582 by the French ambassador, yet the outcome is again unknown.6
The little Lord Denbigh’s cradle at Leicester House was draped with crimson velvet, ‟with trains of crimson taffetta“, his little chair was ‟upholstered in green and carnation cloth of tinsel“,7 and at some point in the following years he was with his mother on holiday; their host later reminded the countess of ‟the great charge I was at when you with the young lord and other your honour’s friends and company lay with me“.8
Lettice Dudley financed her personal expenses and servants out of her revenue as Dowager Countess of Essex, but the couple made each other seasonal presents: In late 1584 Robert Dudley paid 22 pounds for ‟two doublets for my lady“, and was rewarded with a new bed on New Year’s Day.9 The countess had two maids, Bridget Fettiplace and another Lettice, Lettice Barrett. Mrs. Barrett regularly sent boxes of preserved fruit to the earl when he stayed at court.10
As a member of the high nobility Lettice would not have had much to do with cookery, although she would have prepared any of the elaborate Elizabethan sugarwork herself – it was too costly to be left in the hands of servants. The countess would also have learnt how to prepare food as a young girl. A highly educated person, it is reasonable to assume that she would have read books and made music; it is unknown whether the Earl of Leicester actively played any instruments as late as the 1580s, but in 1558 he certainly employed a man to tend to his virginal.11 His household also boasted its own musicians and a little orchestra.
Leicester House was a palatial residence with 20 apartments and a beautiful terrace garden towards the Thames; the earl’s household comprised about 150 people, many of whom lived at the house. Lettice’s children from her first marriage, the daughters Penelope and Dorothy and the sons Robert and Walter, naturally had their own rooms as well, and frequently resided with their mother. In the great gallery there was a major art collection, displaying many portraits, including the earl in ‟full proportion … with Boy his dog by him“ and ‟my lady’s whole proportion … and my young lord standing by her“. Of the little Lord Denbigh, who to the greatest grief of his parents died aged three in July 1584, there were further pictures as a baby (naked) and a toddler (dressed).
Lettice’s own family circle was certainly well-represented: alongside her elder children there were her brothers, her father, and Earl Walter, her first husband, who was remembered with ‟one small picture of the Earl of Essex father“. Her maid, ‟Mistress Lettice Garrett“, had no less than two pictures to herself. Of Leicester’s family there were portraits of his brother Ambrose, Earl of Warwick and his nephew Philip Sidney ‟when he was a boy“.12 Both Ambrose and Philip were extraordinarily close to Robert Dudley, and both were regular residents at his houses.
Perhaps the most intriguing portrait of all is ‟the picture of my Lady with blackamoors by her“.13 Indeed a ‟blackamoor“, or moor, belonged to the Leicester household, and he received five shillings in April 1584 ‟by your lordship’s commandment“. – The previous year he had been given a new mattress. Very often these moors were children, and they were certainly fashionable in court circles, for Sir Walter Raleigh’s ‟blackamoor“ was also given 20 shillings by the Earl of Leicester in 1585.14
In August 1585 the Earl and Countess of Leicester for the first time visited Kenilworth Castle as a married couple; it was planned as a short summer trip. Stopping for the night at Abingdon, they gave small rewards to the ‟three singers under my lady’s window in the morning“.15 However, Elizabeth became extremely angry when she found out that Leicester was holidaying with his wife, and the earl had to return as soon as possible. Lady Leicester’s return caused another crisis: ‟I see not her Majesty disposed to use the services of my Lord of Leicester [in the Netherlands expedition]. There is great offence taken at the conveying down of his lady,“ Francis Walsingham observed. Lettice did not completely give in to the royal fury, though, and when Leicester returned once more from a short trip – a baptism to which he, as was usual, could not take his wife – she went to Barnet to await him with a welcome committee.16
A Great Love: Lettice and Robert Dudley
1 Adams 2004a
2 Donno 1976 p. 92
3 Adams 2004a; Adams 2004b
4 Jenkins 2002 pp. 280 – 281
5 Adams 1995 p. 259
6 Adams 2004a
7 Jenkins 2002 p. 252
8 HMC Bath V pp. 220 – 221
9 Adams 2004a; Adams 1995 pp. 198 – 199
10 Adams 1995 pp. 28, 205, 306
11 Adams 1995 pp. 58 – 59, 62
12 HMC Bath V pp. 207, 222
13 HMC Bath V p. 207
14 Adams 1995 pp. 178, 210
15 Adams 1995 p. 290
16 Adams 1995 pp. 389 – 390
Manuscripts of The Marquess of Bath, Volume V: Talbot, Dudley and Devereux Papers 1533–1659. (1980) Historical Manuscripts Commission. HMSO.
Adams, Simon (ed.) (1995): Household Accounts and Disbursement Books of Robert Dudley, Earl of Leicester, 1558–1561, 1584–1586. Cambridge University Press.
Adams, Simon (1996): “At Home and Away. The Earl of Leicester”. History Today. Vol. 46 No. 5. May 1996.
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, Sir Robert (1574–1649)”. Oxford Dictionary of National Biography. Oxford University Press.
Bossy, John (1991): Giordano Bruno and the Embassy Affair. Yale University Press.
Donno, E. S. (ed.) (1976): An Elizabethan in 1582: The Diary of Richard Manox, Fellow of All Souls. Hakluyt Society.
Jenkins, Elizabeth (2002): Elizabeth and Leicester. The Phoenix Press.
Sim, Alison (1997): Food and Feast in Tudor England. Sutton Publishing.