Lettice Knollys was a well-known figure in the Tudor court, though she spent little time actually there.
Her mother, Catherine Carey, was a daughter of Mary Boleyn, born about 1524. That was near the time that Mary Boleyn was mistress to Henry VIII, and gossip claimed that the King had fathered Catherine, though he never acknowledged her or her brother Henry, born in 1526, as his children the way he did with Henry Fitzroy (of course, he was pursuing Mary’s sister at the time!). Catherine was a Maid of Honor to both Anne of Cleves and Catherine Howard, then wed Sir Francis Knollys and retired from court. She returned in 1559 when her first cousin (or half-sister…) Elizabeth acceded to the throne, and was appointed Chief Lady of the Bedchamber. Acknowledged as one of the new queen’s favorites, she also secured a place for Lettice as Maid of the Privy Chamber.
Lettice quickly caught the eye of Walter Devereux, Viscount Hereford. They married in late 1560 and Lettice retired from court. She did visit from time to time, enough that in the summer of 1565, the Spanish Ambassador Diego de Silva describe her as “one of the best-looking ladies of the court.” Unfortunately, during that same visit she got herself sent away for flirting with Robert Dudley, the Earl of Leicester…
The affair with Leicester seems to have continued. In 1573, he sent her a present of venison from his seat in Kenilworth Castle in Warwickshire – and apparently she also visited Kenilworth to hunt in 1574 and 1576 while her husband was in Ireland. Devereux, who by that point had been raised to the Earldom of Essex, was said to despise Leicester. Unfortunately, there was little he could do about it. He died of dysentery on September 22, 1576, “bemoaning the frailness of women.”
Lettice observed the traditional two-year mourning period, then on September 21, 1578 married Leicester in a secret ceremony. When the Queen discovered it two months later, Lettice was banished from court for life. She was allowed a single visit back – it occurred in 1598, after Leicester had died and before her son, who had inherited the Essex title, launched the revolt that led to his execution – but nothing changed.
Only 45 when Leicester died, Lettice married a third time: Sir Christopher Blount, a trusted friend of her late husband’s. Gossip followed this union – since the marriage took place only six months after Leicester’s death, Lettice was rumored to have poisoned Leicester so that she could be with her new lover. She claimed it was just hard to be a woman alone.
Blount was caught up in her son’s treasonous revolt against Elizabeth, so Lettice lost both of them in 1601. She herself lived on until 1634, dying on Christmas Day at the age of 91. She chose to be buried with Leicester.
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