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Birth of Lettice Knollys: A Woman Who Suffered the Wrath of Elizabeth I

Updated on February 10, 2014
Lettice Knolly's married Elizabeth I's court favourite and love, Robert Dudley.
Lettice Knolly's married Elizabeth I's court favourite and love, Robert Dudley.

On November 8, 1543, Lettice Knollys was born. She grew up as a close friend to Elizabeth I and they were cousins through Elizabeth’s mother, Anne Boleyn. However, that close friendship wasn’t enough to save her from Elizabeth’s hatred after Lettice married Robert Dudley, Elizabeth I’s true love. She lived to the grand (very grand for Tudor times) age of 91; living to see two Stuart monarchs come to the throne.

The Early Life of Lettice Knollys

Lettice grew up at court. She was the daughter of Catherine Carey, Mary Boleyn’s daughter, and Sir Francis Knollys. It was because of her father that she had an upbringing close to court. Francis was a member of parliament and Edward VI’s Master of the Horse. They were raised with the protestant religion and it definitely caused problems after Edward VI’s death.

When Mary I became Queen of England and started the persecutions against the protestants, Francis managed to escape with his family to Germany. Five children went with him but it is unclear whether Lettice was one of them. It is possible that she remained in England as part of her cousin’s household. From the mid 1540s, she and Elizabeth formed a friendship and remained that way up until Lettice’s mistake of marrying Robert Dudley.

When Elizabeth I became queen, Francis and his family returned. Francis was made Vice-Chamberlain, Catherine Carey became the senior Lady of the Bedchamber and Lettice was one of Elizabeth’s Maids of the Privy Chamber. It all seemed perfect for the Knollys family.

Lettice Knollys Marries Walter Devereux

It was a happy time for the family. Lettice found herself married at 17—a good age at the time—to the Viscount Hereford, Walter Devereux. It didn’t stop her flirting though and Robert Dudley was already in her sights by 1565. However, Lettice and Walter had five children together.The first two were girls but the third was a boy, Robert Devereux, 2nd Earl of Essex.

On one occasion, Diego Guzman de Silva, the Spanish ambassador, announced that Lettice was the most beautiful woman at court. This didn’t incur the wrath of Elizabeth. It is possible the Queen knew that her cousin was beautiful and was proud that this beauty ran in her family. During that time at court was when Lettice started flirting with Robert Dudley. Elizabeth went into a rage about that and made sure her cousin was sent back to her Staffordshire home.

Two sons followed after Robert Devereux, Walter and Francis. However, Francis died just after his birth, with a date that isn’t even recorded. Very little is mentioned about Walter, except that he died sometime in 1591 while on a military duty.

Elizabeth Finds Out About Robert and Lettice's Marriage in The Virgin Queen

Robert Dudley came between two cousins and friends.
Robert Dudley came between two cousins and friends.

Lettice Knollys has an Affair with Robert Dudley

In 1572, Walter Devereux was made the Earl of Essex. The year later, he helped convince Elizabeth that she needed to station men in Ireland. The Queen agreed and he went there for two years. Lettice didn’t follow. She remained in England and it is possible that she had an affair with Robert Dudley during this time.

There were rumours that Lettice had a daughter and then aborted a child, both by Robert Dudley, during these two years. However, no evidence supports either of these and they may have been fabricated by enemies of Robert. Antonio de Guaras, a Spanish agent based in London, reported about the two children after Walter’s return in 1575. It was clear that there was some tension between Robert and Walter.

Walter died the year after, while back in Ireland, of dysentery. Straight away, rumours spread that Robert Dudley had poisoned him but this is unlikely. Dysentery was going around at the time and an official investigation made it clear that Walter’s death was through natural causes. Hi death caused problems for Lettice; she didn’t have enough money to survive on from his lands, despite his title and wealth. He owed debts to the Crown and Lettice failed to have these forgiven, which meant her son’s inheritance was instantly burdened.

Elizabeth Shows Her Anger at Lettice in The Virgin Queen

Lettice Knollys and Robert Dudley Marry

Lettice really had no choice. She needed to find another husband, with three children to look after. Now was the time for her and Robert Dudley to finally marry and declare their love for each other openly. However, there are possibilities that this marriage wasn’t just for herself and for love. She wore a loose gown for her wedding, which was possibly because she was pregnant at the time. Her father may have put pressure on her to marry Robert. If she was pregnant, there was no child until 1580, so she either miscarried or there wasn’t a pregnancy after all.

For whatever reason, they married on September 21, 1578 but Elizabeth didn’t find out for a year. Lettice was instantly banished from court. She refused to accept the marriage and never forgave her cousin for this. It was clear that Elizabeth loved Robert Dudley; she had done for a very long time. While she refused to marry, the Queen wanted nobody else to marry her love. The fact that it was a cousin was the biggest betrayal possible.

The anger and resentment even passed onto Lettice’s children. At one point in 1583, Elizabeth asked if Robert had been trying to arrange a marriage between King James VI of Scotland and Lettice’s youngest daughter, Dorothy. She was extremely happy when the Scottish ambassador she was talking to denied it.

They did have one child together, Robert Dudley, but he died when he was just three years old. It devastated both Lettice and Robert. Elizabeth showed no sympathy at this time. She would never forgive her cousin, even after Dudley’s death in 1588.

It wasn’t long until Lettice married again. This time it wasn’t to a wealthy man. It was to a friend of Robert’s and a soldier who was not only younger than her but a Catholic. It proved to be a happy marriage, very much like her marriage to Robert. However, Elizabeth’s feelings towards her cousin never changed. This made it difficult for her elder son, who was imprisoned for returning from Ireland without license. Lettice tried to help her son but it seemed to make it worse and Robert Devereux was executed in February 1601. Her third husband was executed just a month later.

James I brought a good change for Lettice Knollys.
James I brought a good change for Lettice Knollys.

A Change of Monarch Meant Better Chances for Lettice Knollys

The death of Elizabeth I should have been a time of mourning for Lettice and it possibly was in some aspect. However, it meant a complete change and new start for her. When James VI of Scotland became James I of England, Lettice’s debts (Robert Dudley’s debts) were forgiven and her grandson gained her son’s title of Earl of Essex.

She was also lucky that an legal battle was found in her favour. Another Robert Dudley, the son of Robert Dudley and Lady Douglas Sheffield, tried to claim that he was a legitimate son of the two. This would have made Lettice’s marriage to Robert invalid and would have caused various problems for her lands. However, Robert’s affair with Lady Douglas was just that: an affair. They never married.

Lettice outlived all her children but did get to see her grandchildren grow up. She died on December 25, 1641, and was buried next to her second husband, Robert Dudley, as she requested in her will. It just happened that her son to Robert Dudley was also buried there so the three now rest in peace together.


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    • aingham86 profile image

      Alexandria Ingham 4 years ago from UK

      Thanks...I love Elizabeth I. This jealousy reminded me so much of her mother.

    • amiebutchko profile image

      Amie Butchko 4 years ago from Warwick, NY

      This is like reading a Philippa Gregory novel... I love it!!! Just the shot of drama I needed for the day.