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.