On 3 March 1600 Rowland White wrote from the court that “[y]esterday the Countess of Leicester sent the Queen a most curious gown.” He reported that “Her Majesty liked it well.” Alas, she “did not accept or refuse it[,] only answered that things standing as they did it was not fit for her to desire what she did.”
This was to say that Elizabeth was not prepared to accept anything from Lettice, Countess of Leicester, the woman who had hurt her so deeply many years before. Lettice Devereux, Countess of Essex, née Knollys, had secretly wed Robert Dudley, Earl of Leicester, on 21 September 1578, and the queen had found out by by June 1579. From this point in time Lettice, the queen’s first cousin once removed (on her mother’s side), had lived in disgrace.
Twenty-one years on, there had not changed a lot; except that Robert Dudley had died in 1588, and Lettice was now the Dowager Countess of Leicester (although she had remarried in 1589). For the sake of her son’s, the great Earl of Essex’, career, Lettice would have tried to reconcile Elizabeth, but it turned out to be an impossible path.
She was even prepared to do “a winter journey” if Essex thought “it be to any purpose”. Lettice had moved out of Leicester House in 1593, the great residence on the Strand, and was living for the rest of her life at Drayton Bassett near Chartley in Staffordshire. She sometimes, especially in the winter season, travelled to London, staying again at what was now Essex House (Leicester House, which she had sold to her son despite Leicester having left it to his stepson Essex in his will).
The only problem was to meet the queen, as Rowland White reported to Sir Robert Sidney on 1 March 1598:
I acquainted you with the care to bring Lady Leicester to the Queen’s presence; it was often granted, but the Queen found occasion not to come. Upon Shrove Monday, the Queen was persuaded to go to Mr Controller’s at the Tilt End, there was my Lady Leicester with a fair jewel of £300. A great dinner was prepared by my Lady Chandos, the Queen’s coach ready and all the world expecting Her Majesty’s own coming; when upon a sudden she resolved not to go and send so word. My Lord of Essex that had kept his chamber the day before, in his night gown went up to the Queen the privy way; but all would not prevail and as yet my Lady Leicester hath not seen the Queen.
However, it was all resolved very quickly, or so it seemed, for on the following day “My Lady Leicester was at Court” and kissed the queen’s hand, “and the Queen kissed her.” Very soon, Elizabeth changed her mind again, though. Elizabeth did not want to see Lettice another time.
It appears that really the only reason why Lettice cared to get again into Elizabeth’s graces was her son Essex. There is evidence that she personally did not care a lot for Elizabeth (who had been, after all, her great rival for the love of Robert Dudley). An inventory of 1596 shows that as Leicester’s widow Lettice retained a large number of the earl’s very impressive picture collection, and even added new ones, like the portrait of Robert Cecil – the coming power behind the throne.
It is intriguing to know that by the mid-1590s Lettice had removed all the queen’s portraits from her rooms.
Sylvia Freedman (1983): Poor Penelope: Penelope Rich. An Elizabethan Woman. The Kensal Press.
Linda Levy Peck (2005): Consuming Splendor: Society and Culture in Seventeenth-Century England. Cambridge University Press.