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

~~

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.

Advertisements

A Cromwell Adventure – Part 4: Cardinal Thomas Wolsey

Sampson Strong’s portrait of Cardinal Wolsey at Christ Church (1610)

Most people know Thomas Wolsey – Cardinal, Lord Chancellor, de-facto ruler of England. For the twenty years of Henry VIII’s reign which was not filled with wife drama, it was Wolsey there every day, earning him the nickname of alter rex, meaning the other king. This was a blessing and a curse.

Wolsey’s birth is not recorded, but estimated at around 1473 to his butcher-father Robert and his wife Joan. Wolsey received a quality education at Ipswich School, Magdalen College School and then Magdalen College in Oxford. He became a priest in 1498 in Wiltshire, though he stayed at Oxford as Master at Magdalen College School and dean of divinity, before entering several households as a personal chaplain.

By 1507, Wolsey entered the household of King Henry VII, who preferred commoners to entitled nobles, and became the royal chaplain, and secretary to Edward Foxe, a bishop and the Lord Privy Seal. In just one year, Wolsey was trusted enough to be sent to Scotland to renew an alliance with King James IV.

When Henry VII died in 1509, young Henry VIII wanted many changes, and Wolsey was named almoner (charged with distributing money to the poor in England), which was also a seat on the Privy Council. Henry VIII was an excitable young man with no experience and no lover of details, and Wolsey’s dedication to bearing the weight of responsibility soon made him one of Henry’s favourites.

Wolsey had one difference to others in Henry’s inner circle; he was not conservative like the other councillors Henry inherited, and Wolsey would change his stance to suit Henry’s whims. Henry wanted war with France in 1512, and those who did not agree slowly lost their places at court, but Wolsey’s mind-changing saw him elevated all the way to the highest post in the land, Lord Chancellor, in 1515.

Along with Lord Chancellor, he was also a Canon of Windsor, Bishop of Lincoln, and a member of the Privy Council in a short space of time, and would amass titles over his reign. The Pope also made him a cardinal in 1515, setting Wolsey up for endless success, as Henry let Wolsey do as he pleased. Wolsey controlled Henry’s rage when his sister, Mary, Dowager Queen of France (who had been sold off to help with a peace treaty) secretly married Charles Brandon, Duke of Suffolk, when the French king dropped dead. Wolsey saved the Duke’s head from the block, generosity which was never returned. Wolsey’s endlessly raised taxes on the commoners, earning him derision from them, while the nobles derided him as a commoner rising too high at the court.

England’s delicate peace with France held after Mary returned to England in 1515, and then the King of Spain died in 1516 and the Holy Roman Emperor in 1519. With Wolsey named Papal Legate (Pope’s representative), it allowed him to promote peace treaties between these countries, culminating in the Field of Cloth and Gold treaty between England and France in 1520 and the Treaty of Bruges with Charles V, King of Spain/Holy Roman Emperor, one year later.

By now, Wolsey was all-powerful on all fronts and independent from the Pope in Rome, making decisions at home and abroad, and ruled England with King Henry. He was now one of the wealthiest men in England. While small wars continued to break out around Europe, the peace treaties between England and other nations remained largely intact throughout the 1520’s.

Trouble appeared in 1527 when Henry wanted an annulment from his Queen Katherine, aunt to the Holy Roman Emperor/King of Spain. As Katherine refused to agree, the Pope had to get involved, but the Pope was trapped during the Sacking of Rome by the Holy Roman Emperor’s soldiers. The Pope could either side with Henry VIII or Charles V, and Wolsey desperately pleaded for his King. Several failures led to Wolsey and Cardinal Campeggio (fresh from Rome), as papal legates, being intent on settling the issue in London. Campeggio stalled the decision for around a year, before suspending it indefinitely in mid-1529. By now, Henry was so desperate to ditch Katherine for Anne Boleyn, that all the work Wolsey had done meant nothing. All Wolsey’s peace efforts, taxation laws, reformation of the justice system, inspections to crush corruption and abuses by the Church, and building of huge colleges meant nothing. Henry wanted Anne Boleyn.

By October 1529, Wolsey was stripped of his titles, lands and power. He sat ill and poor for six months outside of London before being sent to York. But by November 1530, Henry was ready to crush Wolsey, who was arrested on treason charges, to be brought back to London. Wolsey had been writing to the Pope behind Henry’s back, promising that Anne Boleyn would never been queen. Halfway back to London to be put on trial, Wolsey fell ill and died on his sickbed at Leicester Abbey on 29 November 1530, leaving behind a mistress of ten years, and two adopted-out adult children.

Also left behind was his lawyer and advisor Thomas Cromwell, who would go on to fill Wolsey’s place beside Henry VIII go further than Wolsey in terms of change in England and also break down the Catholic Church.

Up next… Katherine of Aragon…