The court of Elizabeth I was full of jealousy and rivals, but an argument could be made that Elizabeth’s greatest rival was her cousin, Lettice Knollys. The two were similar in looks and personality and probably hated each other as hard as they could.
Lettice was the daughter of Catherine Carey and Sir Francis Knollys. Catherine was the daughter of Mary Boleyn, Anne Boleyn’s sister, and rumored to be Henry VIII’s bastard. This was never proved, but she was definitely related to the Queen through her mother. Catherine and Elizabeth were close and when Elizabeth ascended the throne, she and her family were given plumb roles at court. They had escaped to the Protestant strongholds of Baste then Frankfurt while Catholic Mary had been in power. They were returning to England in triumph.
Catherine became a Gentlewoman of the Bedchamber, Sir Francis the Treasurer of the Royal Bedchamber and Lettice a maid of honor. Lettice made a stir from the very start as she was the ideal of Tudor beauty and bore a striking resemblance to her royal cousin. The Spanish ambassador named Lettice “one of the best-looking ladies ladies of the court.” This did not please Elizabeth, and she was happy to ship her off to marry Walter Devereux, 2nd Viscount Hereford, who would be made 1st Earl of Essex in 1572. She retired from court and had several children in quick succession. That should have been that.
However, Lettice appeared back at court in 1565 and apparently the two cousins had similar taste in men. Lettice made a play for Elizabeth’s favorite, Robert Dudley. Even though she was still married and heavily pregnant, she reportedly enraptured him. Retha Warnicke argued that this was a joke pulled on the Spanish ambassador by Dudley himself. Others suggest this was in retribution for Elizabeth’s attentions to Sir Thomas Heneage. Something must have happened because both William Cecil and the Spanish ambassador make reference to a spat between the two and the Queen’s temper. Cecil even references a note written by Elizabeth in a book at Windsor.
The inscription read:
No crooked leg, no bleared eye
No part deformed out of kind,
Nor yet so ugly half can be
As is the inward, suspicious mind
Your loving mistress, Elizabeth R
As Elizabeth played the marriage game, Dudley waited and waited and finally it became clear as much as Elizabeth may have loved him, and despite everything I believe she did love him, she could not marry him. Dudley remarried though in secret to Lady Douglas Sheffield and had a son. However, he could not keep away from the lovely Lettice. Their flirtation developed into a full blown affair, and Dudley decided to ditch poor Douglas. He insisted their marriage wasn’t valid and their son illegitimate. Even though he was free, Dudley was still reluctant to risk the Queen’s wrath and remarry. Lettice pushed the issue and turned up pregnant. Not making Douglas’ mistake, she and her canny father insisted there be witnesses to their wedding. The marriage remained a secret at Dudley’s request. Everyone at court knew but the Queen.
Things went along swimmingly until Dudley began squawking about Elizabeth’s potential marriage to the Duke of Anjou. Jean de Simier, the envoy conducting the negotiations, decided to discredit the Queen’s favorite in the most effective way. He spilled the beans on the secret marriage. Elizabeth lost her mind. She declared Dudley could “rot in the tower”. Lettice took this unfortunate moment to appear at court, in dazzling finery that rivaled the Queen’s. This would not stand. Elizabeth literally boxed “the flouting wench”’s ears and informed her “As but one sun lighten[s] the earth, [she] would have but one Queen in England.” She then informed her not to let the door hit ya where the good lord split ya and never show her smug face at court again. Not an exact quote, but you get the gist. Yes dear reader, I’m a bit partisan, but Lettice sounds like a right pain. Dudley was under house arrest for a while, but avoided the tower. Lettice was not allowed at court again, and it merely took the sound of her name to send Elizabeth into a fit of apoplexy.
This was the state of affairs until Dudley’s death in 1588. After Elizabeth emerged from her deep mourning, she took her revenge on Lettice in earnest. Lettice was ordered to pay her husband’s debts to the crown which amounted to about 15 million pounds in today’s money. There was no chance of any debt forgiveness.
Instead of retiring to her country estates, Lettice rebounded and married Christopher Blount, a man twelve years her junior and something of a hell raiser. Blount was actually a friend of her son, the Earl of Essex, who was less than thrilled about his mother’s choice. Rumors flew that Lettice had Dudley poisoned to marry her young lover. She had to console herself with her young husband as her son, the Earl of Essex, became the new favorite of the Queen and left his mother for court.
The two cousins stayed out of each others’ way until 1598 when there was an awkward meeting. Elizabeth was not about to forgive so Lettice went back to her country estate. She petitioned again in 1599 this time to beg for her son’s life. Essex had grown arrogant in the Queen’s favor and raised an army to depose her. Part of the conspiracy was his stepfather, Christopher Blount. There was no forgiveness and both men were sent to the Tower and beheaded in early 1600.
Essex’s death was hard on both women, but they could not come together in their grief. The wounds between them were too deep. Elizabeth died in 1603, and Lettice outlived her by thirty-one years. On Lettice’s death, she was interred next to Dudley, the only place Elizabeth wanted to be and the one place she could not be.