Queen Elizabeth I and Robert Dudley are probably very familiar names. Lettice Knollys may be familiar, but you probably don’t know a lot about her. This is a really cool story that I’ll be having a hard time writing because I noticed that my computer autocorrects Lettice to “lettuce”. By the way, Lettice Knollys’s name isn’t supposed to be pronounced the way it looks; it’s pronounced “Letise Nohlz”.
Lettice was born on November 8th, 1543 (during the reign of Henry VIII), in Oxfordshire, England. Now, to get a very clear idea of what sort of family she came from, let’s talk about that in a fair amount of detail. Lettice was the third out of Catherine Carey’s sixteen kids. Catherine Carey was the first cousin of Queen Elizabeth I of England through her mother. So, who was Catherine Carey’s mother? Oh, just an insignificant woman from an insignificant family with insignificant siblings named Mary Boleyn. That made Lettice one of Mary Boleyn’s many, many grandchildren.
It’s also possible that Lettice was related to Elizabeth through Elizabeth’s father, the infamous Henry VIII. Henry had an affair with Mary Boleyn before marrying her sister, Anne Boleyn (does that name sound familiar?). Around the time that Mary was Henry’s mistress, Mary had two children, Catherine and Henry Carey. They were claimed by Mary’s husband, hence their surname of “Carey”, but it’s possible that they were Henry VIII’s illegitimate children. So on the Tudor side, Lettice was Elizabeth’s niece, and on the Boleyn side, she was Elizabeth’s cousin’s daughter (so first cousin-once-removed? Or does that make her Elizabeth’s niece?). Lettice’s father, Sir Francis Knollys, was a little less interesting in my opinion—he was a member of Parliament, and was knighted in 1547 during the reign of the boy-king, Edward VI.
After the boy-king’s death, his Catholic half-sister, Mary, became Queen of England. The Knollys family were Protestants, and Mary was known for burning Protestants, so it wasn’t that safe for them in England during Queen Mary’s reign. Lettice’s parents fled England and went to Germany in 1556, and took only a few of their sixteen children. We don’t know if Lettice was one of the children they took, but if they didn’t take her, she probably spent those years in Princess Elizabeth’s household.
As we might know, Mary’s reign only lasted five years, and once the Protestant Elizabeth became Queen, there was no reason for the Knollys family to stay in Germany, as they were really close to Queen Elizabeth. Elizabeth was fond of her cousin/maybe half-sister, Catherine Carey, and made her a Lady of the Bedchamber. Lettice also got a super-cool new position and became a Maid of the Privy Chamber.
So, the Queen loved her family, and Lettice was a super-beautiful young woman. That meant, of course, that it’s already marriage time. When she was seventeen, she was married off to the thirty-two-year-old Walter Devereux, Viscount Hertford. He later became Earl of Essex, making Lettice also briefly Countess of Essex.
So, Lettice Devereux, Viscountess Hertford, had two daughters after a few years of marriage: Penelope and Dorothy Devereux. While she was pregnant for the third time, she began flirting with the Queen’s favorite, a certain Robert Dudley. You may be familiar with him, and his unfortunate first wife, Amy Robsart, who died after a fall down the stairs that was maybe-probably-plausibly orchestrated by Robert himself, so he could be ready if the Queen proposed (which never happened because Elizabeth has common sense). This was after the whole falling down the stairs thing, which had happened about five years ago.
Elizabeth found out that her super good-looking cousin and her favorite were flirting with each other—and she had only heard rumors that they were like, getting along really well or something—and got really, really angry. Lettice decided to leave, have the baby, and give her hot-headed cousin a little time to cool off. She had a son, followed by two more children with Walter.
In 1572, Walter was made Earl of Essex and went to Ireland to, I don’t know, do some diplomatic stuff. The important thing is that he was gone, so Lettice was free to start an affair with Robert Dudley. While Walter was in Ireland, Lettice had two children, including one named Robert, which is only a teensy bit suspicious.
In 1576, while he was in Dublin, Walter died of dysentery, leaving Lettice a widow in her early thirties. Everyone thought Dudley had poisoned Walter, and there was even an official investigation, but just like when he’d maybe possibly plausibly killed his wife, they decided that Walter had died of natural causes. But did Walter leave her a huge inheritance? Oh, no, he didn’t.
Instead of a boatload of money, Walter had left Lettice with a heap of debt and not a lot of actual money. She couldn’t get a good place to live anywhere, because she had no money. So, she spent the next few years just living in other nobles’ houses and also fighting for more money from her husband. Her family helped her a little bit, but she was just one of their daughters and they had, like, a lot of sons, so there was no way Lettice would get much from them, either. After seven months, Lettice finally got more money and asked Queen Elizabeth to forgive her husband’s debts. But the Queen, who probably had heard of Dudley and Lettice’s affair, decided, “hmm, no” and she continued on with her day.
Lettice, finally, had enough money, but it still wasn’t enough. So, Lettice decided to marry Robert Dudley, two years after her husband died. They didn’t have a lot of guests at the wedding, and it took a surprisingly long amount of time for Elizabeth to find out that her favorite and her cousin had gotten married without her permission. When you married in secret and didn’t tell Elizabeth, she wasn’t going to be happy. Katherine Grey and Mary Grey, the younger sisters of Lady Jane Grey herself, both married in secret, and Katherine ended up dying imprisoned, and Mary ended up being imprisoned for a fairly long amount of time before finally being released.
So, yeah. Getting married secretly in Elizabethan England—especially while you were as close to the Queen as Lettice was—was not a good idea. Elizabeth didn’t give her cousin a particularly harsh punishment, considering what she did to Katherine and Mary Grey, but to Lettice, it was still horrible. She banished Lettice and Robert from court, but because Robert was the one she had a huge crush on, she allowed Robert to come back, and Lettice sort of stayed back and lived without her husband for a long, long time.
Lettice and Robert did end up spending at least a little time together because Lettice gave birth to Robert Dudley Jr., who died when he was a toddler. So, Lettice’s first husband has died, and two years later, she married the Queen’s favorite in secret. The Queen used to like her, but doesn’t anymore, because of the whole marrying her favorite thing.
Then, the craziest thing happens: Robert Dudley became Governor-General of the Netherlands. Lettice, just how Robert’s first wife had done while he was off doing stuff, helped manage Robert’s estates and money, and important things like that. Robert did end up coming back to England, where he died in 1588, very unexpectedly. Lettice, as you can imagine, was pretty devastated.
Widows were supposed to wait for at least two years before remarrying if they wanted to at all. Before marrying again this time, Lettice waited a very long six months. You can imagine what people thought of that. So, who was husband #3? This guy named Christopher Blount, who was about a decade younger than the now middle-aged Lettice.
Elizabeth’s son, Walter Devereux, whom she’d had with her husband, Walter Devereux because everyone is named after everyone at this time, died in 1591. That made Lettice a bit worried for the safety of her eldest son, named Robert Devereux, whom we’ll come back to in a short moment.
So, now that Robert was dead, Elizabeth was a little bit like, “okay, we can be friends again, but like, I don’t really know— should I or should I not?” Lettice did end up meeting Elizabeth again, after a really long time, but she didn’t just become friends with her cousin again. I really don’t think Elizabeth is a good character in our story today. During the meeting, Elizabeth kissed Lettice, and Lettice kissed Elizabeth, but nothing else significant really happened.
Lettice’s son, Robert, who we just mentioned, wasn’t exactly the best type of guy. Elizabeth liked him, even though he was the son of the lady she didn’t like, and gave him a bunch of jobs and stuff. He wasn’t amazing, so, when Elizabeth had him in Ireland, he just sort of, well, left. I’m not even kidding, he literally just left, but was promptly arrested. We all learn from our mistakes, even people who literally just leave their command in Ireland.
Lettice pretty much begged Elizabeth to let her son go, but Elizabeth wouldn’t really do much. Then, her husband and son did something extra horrible that Lettice’s connection to Elizabeth couldn’t get them out of jail. They got caught up in Essex’s Rebellion, yet another of the many, many rebellions that took place during Elizabeth’s reign, and they were both executed. Nice job, Christopher and Robert Devereux.
Then, because Lettice can never get a break, something else happens. Robert, before he married Lettice, had had an illegitimate son with a woman named Douglas Sheffield. All the women in this story have good, not confusing names, but all the men are named Robert and Walter. So, Douglas’s son’s name was, you guessed it, Robert Dudley. Because we called the other Robert Dudley “Robert”, we’ll just call this one “Dudley”.
Douglas claimed that, when she’d given birth to Dudley, she had actually been married to Robert. If she had been married to him at the time of Dudley’s birth, it made Dudley legitimate. This also meant that Robert had probably married Douglas before Lettice, which made Robert a bigamist and his marriage to Lettice invalid. If the marriage was invalid, that would mean that Lettice could never have inherited Robert’s estate.
Now, Dudley, who liked money, argued really hard, and eventually, there was this whole trial sort of thing, where everybody said that yes, Robert’s marriage to Lettice was valid, so no, you don’t get his money. So, Lettice ended up winning, and everything was amazing. Except it wasn’t.
So, being married three times to guys who liked to spend money meant that Lettice had a huge pile of debt. The whole reason she’d married Christopher Blount was that he said that he could pay off Robert Dudley’s (Lettice’s husband) debts. Turns out, he didn’t. Lettice owed a lot of money to Elizabeth.
But then, Elizabeth dropped dead. Considering Lettice’s situation with the whole debt and Elizabeth hating her thing, nothing better could’ve happened. Because Elizabeth had no children, they went with Mary, Queen of Scots’s Protestant son, James.
King James I liked Lettice and decided, “Hey, this old lady is pretty cool, why don’t I just give her a break and let her not pay off her debts”. And there we have it, something even better than Elizabeth dying: Lettice finally getting a break.
Lettice’s son, Robert Devereux, had lost his title “Earl of Essex” after the whole rebellion and being executed stuff, but James, who wanted to try and be nice to the nobles, because he was smart, decided to give the title back to Lettice’s son’s son, also confusingly named Robert Devereux.
Lettice lived the rest of her years in peace, getting to meet her grandchildren and being taken care of by her children. She was very close to her daughters, Penelope and Dorothy Devereux, who stayed by her side until both of their deaths. Yes, Lettice outlived her daughters. She was also very close to her grandson, Robert Devereux, who spent a lot of time with her.
Lettice never really became an old lady, and, even when she was ninety, it didn’t seem like she was going to die. At this point, you can imagine some people worrying that she was immortal. Eventually though, at the age of ninety-one, Lettice died on December 25th, 1634. I hope we can all agree that nobody was poisoned, Lettice died of natural causes. She’s buried with her second husband, Robert Dudley, and near her son who died in childhood, also named Robert Dudley.
So, what ended up happening to Lettice’s family? Well, her grandson, Robert Devereux, married a woman named Frances Howard, and this whole story is long, complicated, and interesting, but she wanted to get the marriage annulled because apparently, Robert Devereux was impotent. There was a whole public trial sort of thing, and it was really interesting. He fought against King Charles I during the English Civil War and died a little bit after that. He had no children, so there was no Earl of Essex until the title was given to Arthur Capel after the monarchy was restored. At least Arthur wasn’t named Robert. Oh, and another interesting fact about Robert: his mother was Frances Walsingham, and if that name sounds familiar, she was the daughter of Francis Walsingham, who was the one who got Mary, Queen of Scots, executed.
So, what did we learn today? Don’t name too many people Robert, you’ll make things confusing for everyone, and, if you hold out long enough, you’ll definitely get to enjoy a few peaceful and happy years. Lettice got a whole thirty years of peace, which I hope she enjoyed.