(Born November 8, 1543- Died December 25, 1634)
Daughter of Sir Francis Knollys and Catherine Carey.
Married to Walter Devereux, 1st Earl of Essex, Robert Dudley, 1st Earl of Leicester, and Christopher Blount.
Mother of Penelope Rich, Dorothy Percy, Countess of Northumberland, Robert Devereux, 2nd Earl of Essex, Walter Devereux, Francis Devereux, and Robert Dudley, Lord Denbigh.
Lettice Knollys was one of Elizabeth I’s favorites at court, but when she married Elizabeth’s favorite Robert Dudley, she was banished from court.
Lettice Knollys was born on November 8, 1543 at Rotherfield Greys, Oxfordshire to Sir Francis Knollys and Catherine Carey. Sir Francis Knollys was a member of Parliament and Master of the Horse under King Edward VI. Her mother, Catherine Carey, was the daughter of Mary Boleyn, which made Lettice Knollys and Elizabeth I first cousins once removed. The Knollys were Protestants and in 1556, during the reign of Mary I, they fled with five of their children to Frankfurt, Germany. We do not know if Lettice was in Germany with her family or if she spent the years her family was in exile with her cousin Elizabeth. Lettice’s family returned to England in January 1559, after the death of Mary I and the accession of Elizabeth I. Sir Francis Knollys was appointed Vice-Chamberlain of the Royal Household, Catherine was made a senior Lady of the Bedchamber, and Lettice was made a Maid of the Privy Chamber.
In the early 1560’s Lettice married her first husband Walter Devereux, Viscount Hereford. They lived at Chartley in Staffordshire, where the two eldest of their five children, Penelope and Dorothy, were born in 1563 and 1564. It is said that when Lettice was pregnant with her first son that she flirted with Robert Dudley at court, but there is no proof to support this rumor. In November 1565, Lettice gave birth to her first son Robert Devereux. In 1569, she gave birth to her son Walter Devereux and her son Francis shortly after, but Francis would die shortly after his birth.
Walter held no position at court, but following the outbreak of the Northern Rebellion in 1569, he became known for his loyal military service to Elizabeth I. Elizabeth rewarded this loyalty by making Walter Devereux the Earl of Essex in 1572. In 1573, Walter Devereux successfully convinced Elizabeth to send him to Ulster so that he could colonize it for England. He was gone for two years, leaving Lettice alone to take care of her five children. Lettice during this time visited friends at court and at Kenilworth Castle, where Robert Dudley lived. Rumors began to spread that Robert Dudley and Lettice were having an affair while her husband was away. In December 1575, Walter Devereux returned to England, but he would leave again for Ireland in July 1576. Walter died of dysentery on September 22, 1576 in Dublin, but rumors began to swirl that Robert Dudley had him poisoned so that he could marry Lettice. Walter’s death left Lettice deep in debt and she had to move in with her friends and into her family home. She tried to convince the crown to lower the debt for her son, the new earl of Essex, but Elizabeth did not agree to this agreement.
Lettice did marry again in secret, to Robert Dudley Earl of Leicester, on September 21, 1578. There were only a few witnesses to this ceremony. When Elizabeth found out about the marriage the following year, in July 1579, she was absolutely furious. Elizabeth focused all her anger on Lettice and banished her forever from court and Robert fled from court in disgrace. Lettice continued to style herself Countess of Essex for several years into her new marriage. She lived very discreetly, often with her relatives at the Knollys family home in Oxfordshire. Lettice’s son with Leicester, Robert, Lord Denbigh, was born in June 6, 1581, at Leicester House. Three years later, on July 18, 1584, Lord Denbigh tragically died. Lettice and Robert would not have any more children.
In 1585 Leicester led an English expedition to assist the rebellious Netherlands against Spain. He incurred Elizabeth’s wrath when he accepted the title of Governor-General in January 1586. At this same time the Earl was giving his wife authority to handle certain land issues during his absence, implying they had no plans to meet in Holland.
The Earl returned to England in December 1586, but was sent again to the Netherlands in the following June. Leicester eventually resigned his post in December 1587. Lettice was with him when he died unexpectedly, possibly of malaria, on 4 September 1588 at Cornbury Park, Oxfordshire. Leicester’s death left Lettice deeper in debt and she had to marry again in order to repay her two deceased husbands’ debts.
In March or April of 1589, Lettice married her third husband Sir Christopher Blount. Blount was a man who came from a lowly gentry family and he served in the Leicester household. Lettice’s son the Earl of Essex was not thrilled about her choice of husband, however Blount would prove extremely loyal to Essex. Blount was so loyal to his stepson, that he became one of the key conspirators in Essex’s rebellion in February 1601. The rebellion, which aimed to depose the Queen’s government, was a disaster ,and both Essex and Blount were imprisoned. Though Blount begged for mercy he was condemned for treason. Essex was executed in February 1601 and Blount was executed on March 18, 1601.
When Elizabeth I died in 1603, King James I decided to cancel all of the debts that Lettice owned through her husbands and restore her grandson, the third Earl of Essex, to his father’s title and estate. Also in 1603, Ambrose Dudley, the son of Robert Dudley and Douglas Sheffield, claimed that he was the legitimate son of his parents and thus the heir to the earldoms of Warwick and Leicester. If successful, this claim would not only have implied that Lettice Knollys’ union with Leicester had been bigamous, but would also have nullified her jointure rights. In February 1604, Lettice filed a complaint against Dudley in the Star Chamber, accusing him of defamation. The other side was unable to cite clear evidence and the King’s chief minister, Robert Cecil, thought it unwise to rake up the existing property settlement, so the outcome was in favour of Lettice. Lettice would die at the age of 91 on December 25, 1634. She was buried next to Robert Dudley at St Mary’s Church, Warwick.