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.

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A Cromwell Adventure – Part 5: Queen Katherine

Katherine of Aragon was the Queen of England for 24 or 27 years, depending on how you look at history. Either way, Katherine is one of history’s most profound queens.

Portrait by Juan de Flandes thought to be of 11-year-old Katherine

Katherine of Aragon was born at the Archbishop’s Palace in Alcalá de Henares outside Madrid on 16 December 1485, the youngest child of the mighty Queen Isabella I of Castile and King Ferdinand II of Aragon, the two monarchs who brought modern Spain together. Unlike the stereotypical Spanish look, Katherine had red hair and blue eyes to go with pale skin, a possible throwback to her English ancestry from her mother. Named after Catherine of Lancaster, her great-grandmother, Katherine was third cousins with her father-in-law Henry VII of England, and fourth cousin to her mother-in-law, the extraordinary Elizabeth of York. By age three, Katherine was already betrothed to Henry and Elizabeth’s son, Prince Arthur, heir to the English throne.

Katherine received an excellent education, especially for a girl, in both canon and civil law, history, languages, religion, literature, theology and genealogy. Her strong Catholic faith was the focal point of her upbringing, and spoke Spanish, Latin, Greek and French. Even with all these academic studies, she also mastered all the ‘female’ subjects, like dancing, sewing, mannerisms, weaving, and lace-work.

Katherine and Arthur married by proxy in mid 1499, but she needed to wait to travel to England until Arthur was 15, the agreed age he should be with his bride. Katherine arrived in England in November 1501 to meet her husband and married officially on November 14 at Old St. Paul’s Cathedral. While Katherine’s dowry was 200,000 crowns, her parents paid only half upfront, an issue which would rear its head later on. While both Katherine and Arthur could speak Latin, they could not understand each other with their accents and pronunciations.

Prince Arthur was an intelligent and kind boy raised to be a leader but suffered constant ill-health. The marriage was never consummated (as sworn by Katherine and her ladies), and they moved to Ludlow Castle in Wales, 150 miles from London. Arthur was Prince of Wales, the title for the future King, but Arthur fell ill months later, possibly of the sweating sickness. Katherine too caught the illness, and awoke from fighting the disease to find Arthur had already died, aged only 15, on 2 April 1502. This was a devastating loss for the Spanish princess, Arthur’s parents and the country who had a good king-in-waiting to keep the country at peace.

Portrait of Katharine of Aragon by Michael Sittow, c1502

Sending Katherine home to Spain meant Henry VII had to return the 100,000 crowns in dowry to the Spanish monarchs. He wanted to keep the money, and potentially get the other half of the dowry payment. When Elizabeth of York died in 1503, Henry considered marrying Katherine for the money, but instead betrothed Katherine to Henry, Arthur’s younger brother and new heir to the throne. But with Katherine’s mother now deceased in Spain, her ‘value’ was less than before. As Henry was not old enough to marry, only 11 at the time, Katherine had to wait. Her father would not pay the rest of her dowry, Henry would not send her home, and Katherine resorted to living in poverty in London, selling all she had to feed herself and her attendants. Despite all this, she was the Spanish ambassador to England in 1507, and seen as a weak negotiator, being female. Only everyone had underestimated Katherine.

Henry VII died in 1509, and the new Henry VIII promptly married Katherine by choice, rather than by any pre-contract or agreement. The Pope consented to her marrying her brother-in-law due to non-consummation with Arthur. Katherine was now aged 23, considered old for a bride, and Henry was just about to turn 18. They had a private wedding but huge double coronation at the Tower of London, with days of celebrations for all and the people of England were thrilled with their young new king and perfect bride at his side.

Within months, Katherine was already pregnant, only to lose her daughter during a premature birth. One year later she gave birth to her son, Henry, who died of unknown causes (possibly stomach related) at only 52 days old. Just a few months into her third pregnancy in 1513, Katherine was alone in England as regent while Henry fought in France. She led the country and a led an army in full amour against Scotland, killing the Scottish king, while Henry failed in his French invasion. Sadly Katherine’s son died in premature labour that November.

By January 1515, Katherine gave birth yet again, another stillborn son. She got pregnant soon after, following her typical pattern of ease in getting pregnant, but hopes were low after four losses. But in February 1616, Katherine gave birth to Mary, strong and healthy, lifting Henry’s hopes for a healthy male heir. Katherine had an early miscarriage in 1517, and then in November 1818 she gave birth one more time, to another daughter who died just after birth. Katherine was at her end after extraordinary pressure on her body to produce the male heir.

Katherine portrait by Lucas Hornebolte

Katherine turned to her Catholic faith and her studies once more as she aged, and promoted education in women, which started to increase in popularity. The Princess Mary was titled Princess of Wales in a male heir’s place, but the issue of no son loomed. Henry had taken several mistresses during the marriage, and Bessie Blount, one of Katherine’s ladies, gave birth to a son in 1518, not considered for the throne by illegitimacy. Henry would not give his throne to a woman, thanks to a history of wars under female rule (basically men not able to get their crap together led by a woman).

Katherine’s nephew, Charles V, King of Spain, became the Holy Roman Emperor, making him in control of much of Europe. She tried to broker a peace deal with him, then instead encouraged Henry to sign the famous peace treaty with France at the Field of Gold and Gold in 1520. It lasted a short time, and England aligned with Charles, and Mary was considered as a wife for the Emperor.

Henry had a mistress, Mary Boleyn, but after two pregnancies (a daughter and son, maybe Henry’s, maybe not), in 1525, Henry changed his mind and wanted Mary’s sister, Anne Boleyn. A non-sexual relationship began sometime in 1526, and Katherine assumed it would be another flirtation, a woman Henry would bed and then marry off. But Anne was young enough to give birth, potentially to a male heir, and in 1527 Henry petitioned the Pope for an annulment, but was denied. As the law stated a woman could not marry her first husband’s brother, Katherine was in trouble despite gaining dispensation years ago. Thanks to a siege in Rome and the Pope a prisoner, the annulment was not granted. By 1529, Henry set up a legatine court in London, with English Cardinal Wolsey and Cardinal Campeggio from Rome, to settle the matter for good. Katherine was on trial as a wife and queen.

Wolsey was a champion of Henry and had ruled alongside Henry for twenty years. They stated the laws, civil and God’s law, that a man could not marry a brother’s wife, and dispensation could not change that. They also stated that Katherine lied, and that she had slept with Arthur almost thirty years earlier. Katherine had powerful allies – her nephew the Emperor pressured the Pope not to give an annulment, and in England the most celebrated powerful religious minds of the age – Bishop John Fisher and Sir Thomas More supported her claim, along with Princess Mary Tudor, Henry’s sister.

The court case quickly crumbled and no result was given, the decision handed back to Pope Clement in Rome. Cardinal Wolsey, Henry’s greatest friend, was arrested for colluding with the Pope to keep Katherine on the throne, and he died on the way to trial in late 1530. Katherine would to give up her throne, the only life she knew.

In 1531, Henry left Katherine at Windsor Castle, to live with Anne Boleyn by his side, though it was said Anne refused to sleep with him until an annulment was finalised. Katherine was moved to The More in Bedfordshire in late 1531, a small manor with few staff, to be forgotten about while Anne Boleyn took her place. Henry had Thomas Cromwell, Wolsey’s successor, change laws making the Pope unable to grant an annulment, and instead was able to gain an annulment through English clergy, the new Archbishop Cranmer, a Protestant reformer. Henry secretly married Anne Boleyn in Calais in November 1532 and again in England in January 1533, when she found herself pregnant. Katherine was titled Katherine, Dowager Princess of Wales, but she refused to believe the claims her marriage was over.

Katherine was moved between palaces several times and reduced to poverty once more. By 1535, she lived at Kimbolton Castle, in a single room, and forbidden to be with her daughter, despite Mary’s ill-health. Katherine and Mary could be reunited if they acknowledged Anne as queen and neither women would give in. Katherine continued to grow ill, and begged Charles the Emperor to protect the Princess Mary on her behalf. Katherine died on 7 January 1536, not seeing her daughter in four years. Poison was claimed, as her heart was black, though cancer is a more likely option. Henry and Anne celebrated, then claimed their yellow outfits were Spanish mourning colours, a fact never true in any time period.

The day of Katherine’s funeral at Peterborough Cathedral, seen by her last followers, Anne miscarried a son. Princess Mary was not allowed to attend her funeral, and the life of the greatest English queen was over, aged only 50. The people of England loved Katherine until her dying day and never accepted Queen Anne, who would be beheaded only a few months after Katherine’s death. Mary would continue her Catholic mother’s fight, and became Queen in 1553.

Up next… Anne Boleyn