Lettice in the Theatre

On 4 September 1588 Lettice, Countess of Leicester (née Lettice Knollys), became a widow for the second time. She was never to regain Queen Elizabeth’s favour, but was still left a wealthy lady. Robert Dudley had appointed her executrix of his will, and her income from both her husbands’ jointures amounted to £3,000 annually, to which came plate and movables worth £6,000. However, her jointure was to suffer greatly from paying off Leicester’s debts, which at some £50,000 were overwhelming.

Lettice Knollys by George Gower or his school, c.1590s

Perhaps partly to deal with with her husband’s legacy of debts, in March or April 1589 Lettice married Sir Christopher Blount. Blount had been the Earl of Leicester’s Gentleman of the Horse and a trusted friend of his; he was 12 years her junior and a Catholic. He was relatively poor, though.

In 1593 Lettice Knollys sold Leicester House to her eldest son, Robert Devereux, Earl of Essex, and it now became known as Essex House. She moved to Drayton Bassett near Chartley in Staffordshire, her main residence for the rest of her life. Although it was not entirely to her liking, she thought that “a country life is fittest for disgraced persons”.

In December 1597 Lettice heard that “Her Majesty is very well prepared to hearken to terms of pacification”, and was prepared to do a journey to London if her son Essex thought it worthwhile. She travelled in January 1598.

Penelope Lady Rich by Nicholas Hilliard, c.1589

She stayed at Essex House from January till March. On Wednesday, 15 February, 1598, Rowland Whyte wrote to Sir Robert Sidney:

“Sir Gille Meyricke made at Essex House yesternicht a very great Supper. There were at yt, my Ladies Lester, Northumberland, Bedford, Essex, Rich; and my Lords of Essex, Rutland, Monjoy, and others. They had 2 Plaies, which kept them up till 1 a Clocke after Midnight.”

Lady Leicester was of course Lettice herself; Lady Northumberland was Dorothy, her younger daughter, who had married Henry Percy, the 9th Earl of Northumberland (the “Wizard Earl”, 1564-1632); Lady Essex was Lettice’s daughter-in-law, Frances Devereux née Walsingham; Lady Bedford was the 17-year-old Lucy Russell (née Harington), Countess of Bedford, a future performer in court masques and poet, and a good friend of Lettice’s daughters Penelope and Dorothy. Lady Rich was none other than Penelope Rich, née Devereux, Lettice’s eldest child.

The male audience of the theatre evening included the Earl of Essex himself, his friend Francis Manners, 6th Earl of Rutland, and Charles Blount, Lord Mountjoy, Penelope’s lover. The evening was organized by Sir Gelly Meyrick, Essex’ steward.

Lettice Knollys in a portrait miniature by Nicholas Hilliard, c.1595

Rowland Whyte does not inform us which troupe of players performed on 15 February 1598 at Essex House.

Lettice in fact as a female patron of players was a pioneer. She had her own troupe; after the death of her husband the 1st Earl of Essex in 1576, his company of actors continued to perform as “the Countess of Essex’s Men” until in 1579 the secret marriage of Lettice to Leicester came to the queen’s attention.

Simon Adams (2008): “Dudley, Lettice, countess of Essex and countess of Leicester (1543–1634)”. Oxford Dictionary of National Biography. Online edition.

Annaliese Connolly and Lisa Hopkins (2013) (eds.): Essex: The Cultural Impact of an Elizabethan Courtier. Manchester University Press.

Arthur Collins (1746): Letters and Memorials of State, Written and Collected by Sir Henry Sidney. Vol. II.

Sylvia Freedman (1983): Poor Penelope: Penelope Rich. An Elizabethan Woman. The Kensal Press.


About Christine Hartweg

Hi, I'm the author of "Amy Robsart: A Life and Its End" and "John Dudley: The Life of Lady Jane Grey's Father-in-Law". I blog at www.allthingsrobertdudley.wordpress.com
This entry was posted in Elizabeth I, Lettice Knollys, Robert Dudley and tagged , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

1 Response to Lettice in the Theatre

  1. John bird says:

    Please type the words “DUDLEY CASTLE JOHN BIRD” into Google image Search and you will receive my history book (blog) with the title (MY JOURNEY BACK IN TIME BY JOHN BIRD) the book has much to say about the Dudley family.
    Please let me know if you find it interesting.

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