At 7 o’clock in the morning on 21 September 1578, a wedding ceremony was conducted within the privacy of a country house in Wanstead. The groom was Robert Dudley, Earl of Leicester, favourite and one-time suitor to Queen Elizabeth – but the monarch was not the bride. Dressed in a ‘loose gown’, in a possible indication of pregnancy, the woman who exchanged marital vows with the Earl was the Queen’s cousin, the widowed thirty-four-year-old Lettice Knollys, then Countess of Essex. With Lettice described by the Spanish ambassador as ‘one of the best-looking ladies of the court’ and resembling as she did Elizabeth in looks, it was little wonder that her enticing allure had enthralled Leicester.
Plans for the couple’s marriage had been underway for almost a year, but there was a cloud to the newlyweds’ bliss: the wedding was a closely guarded secret, and Leicester was determined that it ought to remain that way for as long as possible. The reason? Queen Elizabeth had not given the royal consent necessary for such a marriage, and neither was she likely to. Though she would not marry him herself, since the death of Leicester’s first wife in 1560 Elizabeth was fiercely jealous of any woman who showed an interest in her favourite. However, just two months after the clandestine ceremony at Wanstead, the secret was out. Elizabeth was incandescent with rage, and Lettice was permanently banished from court. The Queen never forgave her cousin for her perceived betrayal, and Lettice was to suffer the consequences of Elizabeth’s fury for the rest of her life.
Two decades later Leicester was dead, and another man with whom Lettice was closely linked assumed his place as Queen Elizabeth’s favourite: Lettice’s son, Robert Devereux, Earl of Essex. However, the success of this ‘unruly beast’ was cut short when he led a rebellion against the Queen, and was executed for high treason in 1601. Though his mother had played no part in her son’s treason, her third husband, Sir Christopher Blount, had been a co-conspirator, and was beheaded alongside Robert.
All this once more served to intensify Elizabeth’s dislike for her cousin, though by now one thing had already become startlingly clear: from the moment of Lettice’s marriage to Leicester, she had become Queen Elizabeth’s adversary – but more than that, she was her rival.
In March 1603, Queen Elizabeth died at Richmond Palace. Her cousin Lettice, still alive, rejoiced at the Queen’s death, for it signalled a period of rehabilitation under the new monarch, James I. For the first time in decades, Lettice was no longer forced to hide in the background, and enjoyed the favour of King James. Her grandson remembered her, when she died on Christmas Day in 1634 at the remarkable age of ninety-one, as ‘she that did supply the wars with thunder, and the court with stars’. Lettice was the last of the great Elizabethan survivors.
Nicola Tallis graduated from Bath Spa University with a first class BA Hons. degree in History, and has an MA in Public History from Royal Holloway College, University of London. She is currently conducting research for her PhD at the University of Winchester, where her thesis investigates the jewellery collections of the queens of England between 1445 and 1548.
She has been passionate about English history all of her life, and has worked as a historical researcher, and with Historic Royal Palaces and the National Trust. Nicola currently works as the Curator at Sudeley Castle, and featured...
More about Nicola Tallis