Apart from glorying in a memorable name, Lettice Knollys has chiefly been known for her connections — with her second husband, Robert Dudley, first Earl of Leicester; with the woman who was deeply in love with Dudley, Queen Elizabeth I; and with her hot-headed son who, as Earl of Essex, for a time enjoyed a flirtatious closeness to the older Queen. Until now, there has been no biography of the Countess of Leicester in her own right.
Elizabeth, having been close to Lettice in her youth, was enraged and embittered by her marriage to Dudley, the one man in the Queen’s life who was ‘completely off limits’, according to Nicola Tallis. In an extraordinary scene Elizabeth dines with Lettice two days after the latter’s secret marriage to Dudley, knowing nothing about it — a tense meal, before a very considerable storm.
When she did find out, the Queen never forgave Lettice, regarding her (a perception which has infected much historical writing) as a scheming temptress and she-wolf, though there is little evidence for this. The curious triangle of love, hate and allegiance which bound the three of them has been called the central enigma of Elizabeth’s reign.
Lettice’s physical resemblance to Elizabeth has often been noted. She had the same thin face, the same shock of thickly curled, fiery red hair. The fact that in portraits they wear the similar fashions of high-class late Tudor women makes them look strikingly alike. And certainly they shared a headstrong, unbending personality — one that first endeared them to each other, then irreparably divided them. That they were kinswomen is undoubted. It is common knowledge that Lettice’s grandmother was Mary Boleyn, sister to Anne, Elizabeth’s mother. But Tallis is persuaded that the blood relationship was even closer than this.
Henry VIII had an affair with Mary Boleyn prior to his better known marriage to Anne. This intimacy came at the right time for Lettice’s mother, Katherine, to have been the result, though the baby took the surname of Mary’s husband and her official father, William Carey. It has often been politely assumed (by the DNB, for instance) that Carey was indeed her father, for lack of proof otherwise. But Tallis is adamant that he was not. Henry VIII, she insists, was Lettice’s illegitimate grand-father. ‘She could not declare it, but Lettice was a Tudor.’ It is a theory which seems even more plausible, given that this is not a sensationalist book.
Lettice’s life was a very long one (she lived into her nineties, surviving three husbands and all of her children, as well as the Queen); so her biography, initially so central to the politics of Tudor England, inevitably becomes thinner and more tangential during its final, secluded decades under Stuart rule. But for much of it, this account provides a fascinating insight both into Lettice herself and into the wider stories and life of the age.