Lettice Knollys

Lettice Knollys
Lettice Knollys1.jpg
Lettice Knollys as Countess of Leicester, c. 1585 by George Gower
Born8 November 1543
Rotherfield Greys, Oxfordshire, England
Died25 December 1634 (aged 91)
Drayton Bassett, Staffordshire, England
Resting placeThe Beauchamp Chapel of the Collegiate Church of St Mary, Warwick, Warwickshire, England
TitleViscountess Hereford
Countess of Essex
Countess of Leicester
Spouse(s)Walter Devereux, 1st Earl of Essex
Robert Dudley, 1st Earl of Leicester
Christopher Blount
ChildrenPenelope Rich
Dorothy Percy, Countess of Northumberland
Robert Devereux, 2nd Earl of Essex
Walter Devereux
Francis Devereux
Robert Dudley, Lord Denbigh
Parent(s)Sir Francis Knollys
Catherine Carey

Lettice Knollys (z/ NOHLZ, sometimes latinized as Laetitia, alias Lettice Devereux or Lettice Dudley), Countess of Essex and Countess of Leicester (8 November 1543[1] – 25 December 1634), was an English noblewoman and mother to the courtiers Robert Devereux, 2nd Earl of Essex, and Lady Penelope Rich, although via her marriage to Elizabeth I's favourite, Robert Dudley, Earl of Leicester, she incurred the Queen's unrelenting displeasure.[2][3]

A grandniece of Anne Boleyn and close to Elizabeth since childhood, Lettice Knollys was introduced early into court life. At 17 she married Walter Devereux, Viscount Hereford, who in 1572 became Earl of Essex. After her husband went to Ireland in 1573 she possibly became involved with Robert Dudley, Earl of Leicester. There was plenty of scandalous talk, not least when Essex died in Ireland of dysentery in 1576. Two years later Lettice Knollys married Robert Dudley in private. When the Queen was told of the marriage she banished the Countess forever from court, effectively curtailing her social life. The couple's child, Robert, Lord Denbigh, died at the age of three, to the great grief of his parents and ending all prospects for the continuance of the House of Dudley. Lettice Knollys' union with Leicester was nevertheless a happy one, as was her third marriage to the much younger Sir Christopher Blount, whom she unexpectedly married in 1589 only six months after the Earl's death. She continued to style herself Lady Leicester.

The Countess was left rich under Leicester's will; yet the discharge of his overwhelming debts diminished her wealth. In 1604–1605 she successfully defended her widow's rights in court when her possessions and her good name were threatened by the Earl's illegitimate son, Robert Dudley, who claimed that he was his father's legitimate heir, thus implicitly declaring her marriage bigamous. Lettice Knollys was always close to her large family circle. Helpless at the political eclipse of her eldest son, the second Earl of Essex, she lost both him and her third husband to the executioner in 1601. From the 1590s she lived chiefly in the Staffordshire countryside, where, in reasonably good health until the end, she died at age 91 on Christmas Day 1634.

Family and upbringing

Lettice Knollys was born on 8 November 1543 at Rotherfield Greys, Oxfordshire.[1] Her father, Sir Francis Knollys, was a Member of Parliament and acted as Master of the Horse to Prince Edward.[4] Her mother, Catherine Carey, was a daughter of Mary Boleyn, sister to Anne Boleyn. Thus Catherine was Elizabeth I's first cousin, and Lettice Knollys her first cousin once removed.[5] Lettice was the third of her parents' 16 children.[6]

Sir Francis and his wife were Protestants.[6] In 1556 they went to Frankfurt in Germany to escape religious persecution under Queen Mary I, taking five of their children with them.[6] It is unknown whether Lettice was among them, and she may have passed the next few years in the household of Princess Elizabeth with whom the family had a close relationship since the mid-1540s.[1] They returned to England in January 1559, two months after Elizabeth I's succession.[1] Francis Knollys was appointed Vice-Chamberlain of the Royal Household; Lady Knollys became a senior Lady of the Bedchamber, and her daughter Lettice a Maid of the Privy Chamber.[6]

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