HISTORICAL BOOK REVIEW SERIES: ‘Elizabeth’s Rival: The Tumultuous Tale of Lettice Knollys, Countess of Leicester’ by Nicola Tallis

The first biography of Lettice Knollys, one of the most prominent women of the Elizabethan era.

Cousin to Elizabeth I – and very likely also Henry VIII’s illegitimate granddaughter – Lettice Knollys had a life of dizzying highs and pitiful lows. Darling of the court, entangled in a love triangle with Robert Dudley and Elizabeth I, banished from court, plagued by scandals of affairs and murder, embroiled in treason, Lettice would go on to lose a husband and beloved son to the executioner’s axe. Living to the astonishing age of ninety-one, Lettice’s tale gives us a remarkable, personal lens on to the grand sweep of the Tudor Age, with those closest to her often at the heart of the events that defined it.

In the first ever biography of this extraordinary woman, Nicola Tallis’s dramatic narrative takes us through those events, including the religious turmoil, plots and intrigues of Mary, Queen of Scots, attempted coups, and bloody Irish conflicts, among others. Surviving well into the reign of Charles I, Lettice truly was the last of the great Elizabethans.

cover and blurb via amazon

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Lettice Knollys is such an interesting person, a life filled with enough drama and excitement that anyone would envy her. One of the few women of the English court not to be named Katherine, Anne, Elizabeth or Mary, Lettice Knollys was the daughter of Catherine Carey, the so-called love child of Henry VIII and Mary Boleyn.

While Catherine Carey wasn’t formally recognised as Henry’s love-child, the odds are high, making Carey the half-sister of Queen Elizabeth, and thus Lettice was Elizabeth’s niece, rather than cousin. The two women looked much alike, and as Lettice was only 10 years younger than her aunt, she was the younger gorgeous redhead. Dressed in clothes of the period, Queen Elizabeth and Lettice look much alike, same hair, face, smile. The author of this book leans closely to the fact that Henry VIII was Lettice’s grandfather, and had she been male, would have been an illegitimate heir to the throne. Lettice was a Tudor, something fast disappearing from the world.

Lettice married well at 17 to Walter Devereux, Viscount Hereford and bore him four surviving children (out of five, pretty good). Lettice was young, happy and known as the most beautiful woman at the English court. Elizabeth, ever-vain, needed to be centre stage and could have been annoyed, but yet she and Lettice were close. Elizabeth had her own love – Robert Dudley, Earl of Leicester, whom she could not marry. This is how two Tudor women became bitter rivals.

Lettice’s husband, now Earl of Essex, shipped out to Ireland at the queen’s behest in 1573, and Lettice started an affair with the queens’ favourite, Dudley. While nothing could be confirmed and most accounts are long-lost, the book tells of how rumours swirled of the affair and Lettice carrying and bearing children while her husband was away. Devereux came home after two and half years away, having heard all about his wife’s behavior. But Devereux left for Ireland again six months later, only to die soon after of dysentery while complaining about women being frail.

Lettice fought hard for an inheritance for herself and her children, and her affair with Dudley continued despite him being Elizabeth’s favourite. Dudley had wanted to marry Elizabeth, but was unable to for many reasons, and so had instead gone to the bed of the younger Tudor model. He married Lettice in secret in 1578, two years after she was widowed, he himself a widower for some 18 years at this point. Just two days later, Lettice sat with the queen at dinner, the secret safe, as it would be for  years, with Lettice and Dudley moving about regularly, usually separated. Lettice lost a  baby in 1580, gave birth to a son in 1581, and lost another in 1582. Their precious only son died in 1584, causing great grief to the pair.

But in 1583, all hell had broken loose. Elizabeth found out her favourite had married Lettice, and was living openly with her in his own home. A bond which had almost certainly begun in childhood was broken; Lettice was banished from Elizabeth’s presence, furious the man she wouldn’t marry had married someone else. Dudley was sent on several trips abroad, before he fell ill, possibly with malaria in September 1588 and he died with Lettice at his side.

Lettice remained out of favour with the queen, living a country life with a new husband, a young soldier named Sir Christopher Blount, former attendant to her late second husband. She struggled with the loss of her eldest son and suffered many financial troubles, and did not see her queen again until 1598, where the meeting remained icy a decade after Dudley’s death. The love triangle between Dudley and the two red-headed Tudor women never healed.

Thanks to the Essex revolt of 1601, Queen Elizabeth beheaded Lettice’s precious remaining son and her new husband , both for treason. She spent much time fighting over inheritances with a bastard son of Robert Dudley, and then lived with her daughters and their children, outliving them. She lived quietly under King James and King Charles, dying at her grandson Robert’s home in December 1634, aged 91, a symbol of  bygone age.

Lettice’s life, born under Henry VIII, a bastard grandchild to the great king, grew up under him, King Edward, Queen Mary, lived through Queen Elizabeth’s reign, then King James and King Charles, is a story of wonder, drama, intrigue, heartache and love. Why there aren’t many books on such an incredible woman is a mystery. Thank you so much to Nicola Tallis for the book I have been waiting for, a perfect read on a riveting subject.

HISTORICAL BOOK REVIEW SERIES: ‘The Temptation of Elizabeth Tudor: Elizabeth I, Thomas Seymour, and the Making of a Virgin Queen’ by Elizabeth Norton

A power-hungry and charming courtier. An impressionable and trusting princess. The Tudor court in the wake of Henry VIII’s death had never been more perilous for the young Elizabeth, where rumors had the power to determine her fate

England, late 1547. King Henry VIII Is dead. His fourteen-year-old daughter Elizabeth is living with the king’s widow, Catherine Parr, and her new husband, Thomas Seymour. Seymour is the brother of Henry VIII’s third wife, the late Jane Seymour, who was the mother to the now-ailing boy King.

Ambitious and dangerous, Seymour begins and overt flirtation with Elizabeth that ends with Catherine sending her away. When Catherine dies a year later and Seymour is arrested for treason soon after, a scandal explodes. Alone and in dreadful danger, Elizabeth is threatened by supporters of her half-sister, Mary, who wishes to see England return to Catholicism. She is also closely questioned by the king’s regency council due to her place in the line of succession. Was she still a virgin? Was there a child? Had she promised to marry Seymour?

Under pressure, Elizabeth shows the shrewdness and spirit she would later be famous for. She survives the scandal, but Thomas Seymour is not so lucky. The “Seymour Scandal” led Elizabeth and her advisers to create of the persona of the Virgin Queen.

On hearing of Seymour’s beheading, Elizabeth observed, “This day died a man of much wit, and very little judgment.” His fate remained with her. She would never allow her heart to rule her head again.

cover and blurb via amazon

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While Edward Seymour, the eldest brother of Jane, Queen of England, was well-connected, respected, and Lord Protector of King Edward VI, there was the just as well-known brother, Thomas. Thomas Seymour had his own interesting, but definitely not as prestigious, history. Seymour was the brother of one of the Henry’s queens, and uncle to the young King Edward. Because of this happy accident, Seymour had a high sense of importance, and felt he was owed a place close to the young king and parliament.

Seymour wandered his way through the latter part of Henry’s reign (after the death of Jane) and was madly in love with Catherine Parr. When her second husband died, Seymour and Parr were keen to marry; but King Henry decided he needed a sixth wife and took Catherine for himself.

Seymour had previously tried to get himself a bride in the form of Henry’s daughter, Princess Mary, without success. When Henry dropped dead, Thomas’ paramour was no longer a queen, and Seymour married Parr just four months after Henry was buried. With Edward Seymour the child king’s Protector, Seymour was now married to the king’s stepmother, and got himself the title of Lord High Admiral.

That was when the self-entitled younger brother started to show off his creepy in a more obvious way. Before the hurried marriage to Catherine, Seymour had asked to marry 13-year-old Elizabeth, without success. Now, married to the dowager queen, Seymour had access to little Elizabeth every single day.

June 1547 was only months after her father’s death, and Elizabeth started receiving early morning visits from Seymour, coming into her room half-dressed while she was in her nightgown, even once climbed into her bed, and was known to smack her butt when given the chance. She was only 13, he was married and beneath her, and for a man to do such things in a girl’s rooms was considered shameful. Poor Elizabeth had no say, and Catherine soon started to be suspicious. With Catherine pregnant, Seymour would have had a wandering eye – and it seems all he ever wanted was little Elizabeth, and more importantly, the power she held.

By mid 1548, things were out of hand and Catherine found her husband with Elizabeth in his arms, and Elizabeth was banished. Sent away, Elizabeth spent months sick after the acts – some whispered pregnancy, though more likely shock of the abuse and then banishment.

Poor Catherine Parr died a week after giving birth to a daughter, in September 1548. Seymour sent a nephew to Elizabeth’s new household to spy on her, and asked whether or not her butt had grown any since he had last grabbed it. Talk about a pervert.

Luckily for Elizabeth, she did not have to suffer Seymour’s abuse again, and in January 1549, Seymour got arrested for conspiring to marry Elizabeth, kidnap Elizabeth’s brother, the King Edward, and rule England himself. Elizabeth testified against Seymour, as did two servants to Elizabeth, and Seymour was beheaded in March 1549.

Given the lack of evidence, the abuse suffered by Elizabeth is questioned, sometimes written off as play or harmless games. This book is a great read for anyone who wants to know more about these years of Elizabeth’s early life. To me, Seymour comes across as a classic abuser; makes a girl feel shamed and claims all is in jest, which mocks the victim further. Catherine Parr knew something was happening, and didn’t scorn her stepdaughter, but never lived long enough to speak out.

I enjoyed reading this book, and the author did not try to lean the reader in either direction in terms of outcome, but I certainly got my own conclusion on the ugly subject. It could be easy to call this gossip or scandal, when it seems more like an ugly situation many girls and women find themselves in, with few who believe them.