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Lettice Knollys, great-niece of Anne Boleyn, Granddaughter of Mary Boleyn, circa 1590

Laetitia Knollys, Countess of Essex and Leicester (November 1543[1] - 25 December 1634), normally referred to as Lettice Knollys, was born in Rotherfield Greys, Oxfordshire. She was the mother of Robert Devereux, 2nd Earl of Essex, Queen Elizabeth I's famous courtier, she was also the mother of the remarkable Penelope, Lady Rich. In her second marriage, Lettice Knollys was wife to Robert Dudley, Earl of Leicester, Elizabeth's great favourite. Being a relative of Elizabeth on her mother's side, the Queen came to hate her greatly due to this marriage. After the death of the Earl of Leicester, Lettice married Sir Christopher Blount. As Dowager Countess, she continued to be styled Lady Leicester.

 

Her father was Sir Francis Knollys, a gentleman pensioner of Henry VIII. Her mother was Lady Catherine Carey, the daughter of Lady Mary Boleyn. Catherine thus was the first cousin, and Lettice the first cousin once removed, of Elizabeth I of England who was the daughter of Mary's younger sister Anne Boleyn. Lettice grew up on her father's country estate at Greys Court in Rotherfield Greys and at his town house in nearby Reading.

 

Sir Francis was an early Puritan, a fact that forced him and his family to flee to Switzerland, probably Basel, during the reign of Mary I of England. Upon the accession of Elizabeth, on November 17, 1558, the Knollys family returned to England. Francis was made Treasurer of the Household, Catherine became Chief Lady of the Bedchamber to the new queen, while her daughter Lettice was appointed Lady-in-Waiting.

 

Around 1560, Lettice married Walter Devereux, Viscount Hereford. Walter was raised to the earldom of Essex in 1572. The couple lived at the Devereux family seat of Chartley in Staffordshire, where Lettice bore her first two children: daughters Penelope (born 1563) and Dorothy Devereux (born 1564). Lettice sometimes returned to court. It was there in the summer of 1565 that she flirted with Robert Dudley, Earl of Leicester, the great favourite of Queen Elizabeth. The Queen found out at once, and succumbed to a prolonged fit of jealousy.[2] Lettice went back to Staffordshire, where she gave birth to her first son, Robert. Walter (born 1569) and Francis (born 1572) followed. Francis died as an infant.

 

In 1573, Walter Devereux, Earl of Essex joined the first Ulster Project, the attempted plantation of dispossessed Englishmen in Ireland. In this time, Lettice resumed her love-affair with the Earl of Leicester, and when Earl Walter returned to England in December 1575, there was a scandal.[3] He returned to Ireland in August and died in September 1576 of dysentery. Widowed, Lettice married Leicester on 21 September 1578[4] with only six other people present in Wanstead, their new home near London. When Elizabeth learned of this many months later, she banished Lettice permanently from court. The Queen termed Lettice "that She-Wolf" among other things in 1583 before ambassadors.[5] She never forgave Lettice, nor could she ever get over the marriage of her favourite. The only child that was born to this marriage was Robert, Baron Denbigh, the "Noble Impe." This son was born in 1581,[6] but died at the age of three in 1584.

 

Though Lettice was banished from court, she resided with her husband in London and Wanstead. It was said (by the French Ambassador Mauvissiere) that if Leicester introduced someone to his wife, this was a mark of particular favour; this was, however, a veiled way to say that Lady Leicester was practically banished from social life.[7]

 

In 1586, Leicester was made Governor-General of the United Provinces and wanted Lettice to follow him to that country. When Elizabeth heard of this plan, she forbade Lettice to leave England. Leicester eventually resigned the position in 1587. Leicester died shortly after the defeat of the Spanish Armada on 4 September 1588. It was said sixty years later that Lettice had had him poisoned, because he had found out about her lover, Sir Christopher Blount, but this is clearly nonsense: it is not even known if she was with him when he died, although, on evidence, it seems rather probable.[8] Ten months later Lettice married Sir Christopher Blount, thirteen years[9] her junior, a trusted official and friend of the late Earl of Leicester - his Gentleman of the Horse. Hence the later rumours. Lady Leicester (she continued to be styled thus) and Sir Christopher had a lot to do repaying the Earl of Leicester's huge debts, and they were engaged in numerous law-suits and the like proceedings because of this.[10] Save for one brief meeting in 1598, engineered by her son, Essex (the Queen's new favourite), who hoped to reconcile his mother and the Queen, Lettice's banishment from court held.[11]

 

Essex and Blount, who by now had become the Earl's right hand, attempted to redeem the failure of the elder Essex in Ireland, but entered into an ignominious truce with the Irish rebels, returning home in disgrace. In 1601 Essex led an ill-conceived and unsuccessful rebellion against the Queen. The result was his, and Blount's, arrest and execution.

 

Lettice lived on, raising her grandchildren and doing good deeds for the poor in the neighbourhood of her home Drayton Bassett (next to Chartley).[12] It was certainly a personal triumph for her, when her grandson was restored in blood and became the third Earl of Essex when the new King James I stopped at Chartley on his way to London in 1603.[13] Lettice lived to be ninety-one, dying on 25 December 1634. She is buried beside "the best and dearest of husbands"[14], Robert Dudley, in the Beauchamp Chapel of the Collegiate Church of St Mary in Warwick, near the tomb of their son, the little Baron Denbigh.

 

Lettice is an ancestor of many notables, including Charles Darwin, Winston Churchill, Elizabeth Bowes-Lyon, Diana, Princess of Wales and Sarah, Duchess of York.

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Taken on October 12, 2004
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