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  Lettice Dudley (1543–1634), attrib. George Gower Lettice Dudley (1543–1634), attrib. George Gower
Dudley [née Knollys; other married name Devereux], Lettice, countess of Essex and countess of Leicester (1543–1634), noblewoman, was the eldest of the sixteen children of , politician, and his wife, Katherine (c.1523–1569) [see ], daughter of William Carey of Aldenham, Berkshire, and his wife, . She was born on 8 November 1543 at the Knollys house, Rotherfield Greys, near Henley-on-Thames, Oxfordshire, and named after her paternal grandmother—hence the Anglicized form of Laetitia. Between 1544 and 1546 her father was master of the horse to Edward, prince of Wales, and it was probably in those years that the close family relationship with Princess Elizabeth was formed. The Knollys family took five of their children with them when they went into exile in Frankfurt from 1556 to 1558, but they are not identified, and it is possible that Lettice Knollys was left with Elizabeth at Hatfield in Hertfordshire. On their return in January 1559 Knollys was appointed vice-chamberlain, his wife one of the four ladies of the bedchamber, and Lettice Knollys a salaried gentlewoman of the privy chamber.

Marriage to Essex and affair with Leicester, 1560–1578

In late 1560 Lettice Knollys married , nobleman and adventurer, eldest son of Sir Richard Devereux and his wife, Dorothy. In the following year her privy chamber salary ceased. The probable reason was her withdrawal from the court to Chartley in Staffordshire, the principal Devereux house, where the majority of her five children with Hereford were born. However, she was presumably at court in summer 1565, for in September the Spanish ambassador, Diego Guzmán de Silva, was told that , courtier and magnate, had been paying court to her in a ploy to force Elizabeth I's hand. He described her as one of the best-looking women of the court and a favourite of the queen. She was also heavily pregnant with Leicester's godson, , who was born on 10 November, so too much should not be read into this episode.

In May 1572 Hereford was created earl of Essex and he resided at court until summer 1573, when his proposal for a plantation in Ulster was accepted. He departed for Ireland in the autumn, not to return until November 1575. He then appears to have remained at court until summer 1576, when he went back to Ireland via Chartley, only to die of dysentery in Dublin on 22 September. In December 1575 the resident Spanish agent, Antonio de Guaras, reported London gossip that Essex had discovered that his wife had given birth to two children by Leicester in his absence. Almost two years to the day after Essex died, his widow and Leicester married discreetly at Wanstead House in Essex on the morning of 21 September 1578, and their marriage gave retrospective credibility to both the earlier alleged adultery and rumours that Essex had been poisoned. Leicester's Commonwealth (1584) claimed that Essex was murdered because he was about to return to England to revenge himself on Leicester for having fathered a daughter by the countess. A later version (‘The letter of estate’) has Leicester encouraging Essex's Ulster expedition in order to separate him from his wife, like King David and Uriah the Hittite. Leicester was certainly among the initial supporters of the Ulster enterprise, but by 1576 Essex appears to have believed that he was trying to block his return to Ireland. The difficulties of reconciling adultery with the known political tensions are well illustrated by William Camden's account. Although Camden denied that Essex was poisoned, he saw his return to Ireland in 1576 as engineered ‘by the court subteltie of Leicester, who was afraid of him, and by the peculiar mysteries of the Court’ (Camden, 2.366).

Essex's references to his wife in his will are perfunctory, and they may well have been estranged in the years immediately prior to his death, but where she was living and her possible contacts with Leicester are not easy to establish. She may have accompanied Essex to court in 1572, but when he went to Ireland she seems to have retired to Chartley. Leicester had deer sent to her from Kenilworth Castle, Warwickshire, in 1573, and she hunted there with her sister Anne West, Lady De La Warr, in 1574. She was at Kenilworth again during the famous progress of 1575, which included a visit to Chartley at the beginning of August. It is not clear whether she joined her husband at court at the end of the year. The much quoted reference to her as Elizabeth's ‘nearest kinswoman’ in the entry for a letter from Elizabeth to Essex provisionally dated November 1575 in the Calendar of State Papers Relating to Ireland, 1575–84 (1860) is in fact an editorial interpolation. The letter itself does not mention her.

In 1576 the countess of Essex is found hunting at Kenilworth again and then attending her husband's funeral at Carmarthen on 26 November, but by the beginning of 1577 she had retired to Rotherfield Greys. From there she conducted a forthright correspondence with William Cecil, Baron Burghley, about her jointure. It was both too small to live on and excluded Chartley, thus forcing her to seek accommodation from her friends. To the fury of Essex's officers she threatened ‘by some froward advice’ to sue out a writ of dower if a compromise was not reached (Bath MSS, 5.249). The last letter in the series (30 April 1577) was written from Colshill in Warwickshire, the home of George Digby, who had been a ward of her father and was then a rising figure in Leicester's Warwickshire affinity. Leicester's Commonwealth specifically mentions Digby's house in its jibe that Leicester sent her ‘up and down the country from house to house by privy ways’ (Peck, Leicester's Commonwealth, 76, 208, n. 140). She hunted at Kenilworth in summer 1577 together with her daughter , and her brother and his wife, Dorothy. Thereafter, until her marriage at Wanstead, her movements are unknown. She may have gone to court, but it is also possible that she was living at Benington in Hertfordshire, a house assigned to her when her jointure was increased in the winter of 1577–8.

Marriage to Leicester, 1578–1588

The details of the Wanstead marriage are found in the depositions made by the witnesses before a notary on 13 March 1581. They included the officiating clergyman, Leicester's chaplain, Humphrey Tyndall, the countess's father, her brother Richard Knollys, , Henry Herbert, second earl of Pembroke, and Roger North, second Baron North. In March 1581 the countess was pregnant with Leicester's son Robert Dudley, Baron Denbigh (1581–1584), who was born at Leicester House on 6 June. The depositions were to ensure that his legitimacy would be beyond question. The witnesses confirmed that Leicester had discussed marriage to the countess with them for nearly a year prior to 1578, but what has attracted most attention is Tyndall's passing comment that she was ‘attired as he now remembereth in a loose gown’ (TNA: PRO, SP 12/148, fol. 83r). Leicester's Commonwealth claimed that the marriage ‘was celebrated twice—the first at Killingworth and secondly at Wanstead (in presence of the Earl of Warwick [etc.])’ (Peck, Leicester's Commonwealth, 95). Camden repeated this story and explained the second wedding as a demand by her father that the ceremony be repeated before a notary. In recent literature Tyndall's comment has been read as a hint that the countess was pregnant in September 1578. In 1981 Derek Wilson advanced an elaborate theory of a secret marriage at Kenilworth in spring 1578 forced by her pregnancy, Leicester informing Elizabeth about it in April, and a second marriage demanded by his wife and her father. However, the latest occasion Leicester and the countess could have been at Kenilworth together was in summer 1577, and the actual date of Denbigh's birth was unknown until it was discovered in 1992 in a document at Longleat House, Wiltshire. A failed pregnancy in 1578 cannot be ruled out entirely, but no reference to one survives.

The debate over these issues has obscured the fact that the Wanstead wedding fulfilled the two-year mourning for Essex almost to the day—in 1582 there was a portrait of the countess ‘in mourning weeds’ in Leicester House (Evelyn MS 264, unfoliated). The depositions also reveal that Leicester was worried about Elizabeth's reaction and wished to keep his marriage secret. Yet it was open knowledge practically from the start, Thomas Radcliffe, third earl of Sussex, informing the French ambassador, Castelnau de Mauvissière, about it early in November 1578. How and when Elizabeth found out and what the political consequences were have been no less debated. What can be said with assurance is that Leicester's marriage did not become an issue until December 1579, and that the immediate crisis—so far as he was concerned—was over in spring 1580. It is, however, very likely that what the queen ‘discovered’ was not simply that Leicester had married the dowager countess of Essex, but that he was supposed to be already married to Douglas Sheffield, dowager Baroness Sheffield. This is certainly the impression given by Sir Edward Stafford in 1604.

Over the next few years the countess of Leicester appears to have behaved very discreetly and continued to style herself only countess of Essex. Mauvissière reported in February 1580 that she was living with her father and was about to give birth. She was still at Rotherfield Greys in October, when she wrote to Burghley to excuse her keeping her brother, the younger Francis Knollys (c.1550–1648), with her. In September 1582 Mauvissière reported that she was ‘grosse de son segond enfant’, but the outcome of this pregnancy is unknown (TNA: PRO, PRO 31, 3/28/417). By 1584 she was living openly at Leicester House. She had obviously moved there for Denbigh's birth in 1581, but the report in summer 1583 that Elizabeth was angry with Leicester ‘abowt his maryage, for he opened the same more playnly then ever before’ suggests that she had recently taken up permanent residence as his wife (Bath MSS, 5.44). Mauvissière recorded being invited by Leicester to dine with them in December 1583 and that she had ‘toute puissance sur luy’ (Harley MS 1582, fol. 334v).

Leicester's household accounts and inventories supply many details of their domestic life, from the bed the countess gave him as a new year's present in 1585 to the cushions and close stool cover at Leicester House made from her old gowns. He had been close to her family since the beginning of the reign (several of her brothers were in his service), and he was no less benevolent to her children by Essex. Catholic sources paint a more lurid picture. Like Mauvissière, Leicester's Commonwealth emphasizes her influence over him, and adds the gratuitous innuendo that Sir Francis Knollys may not have been the father of all his children. The ‘addition’ to the 1585 French edition claimed that her influence over Leicester was for sale. Both Leicester's Commonwealth and ‘The letter of estate’ make much of her regal pretensions. The latter is the source of the story that Elizabeth banned her from the court for attempting to outdress her, and that she responded by parading round London in state. The Spanish ambassador, Bernardino de Mendoza, reported Elizabeth's explosion (‘se incendio en la materia’) in June 1583 over reports that Leicester was trying to marry Dorothy Devereux (1564?–1619) to James VI. She would not allow James to marry ‘the daughter of such a she-wolf’ (‘con hija de una loba’) and to stop the intrigue she would expose Leicester as a cuckold (Hume, 1580–6, 477; Coleccion de documentos, 92.507). A year later, both Mary, queen of Scots, and Leicester's Commonwealth claimed that Leicester and the countess were scheming to marry Denbigh to Arabella Stewart. The source for both these stories may have been Lord Henry Howard, on whom Mendoza and Mary relied for their court information in 1583 and 1584.

All speculation about Denbigh's future was brought to an end by his death at Wanstead on 19 July 1584. Leicester left the court for several weeks ‘to comfort my sorrowfull wyfe’, and received generous letters of condolence from his colleagues and friends (TNA: PRO, SP 52/36/7). Leicester's Commonwealth is the source for the story that Denbigh was a sickly child. There is a tradition that the small suit of armour with one thigh piece longer than the other, now in the Warwick Castle collection, was made for him, and it has been cited by Elizabeth Jenkins as evidence that he was deformed. However, the armour is probably of seventeenth-century manufacture, it is far too big for a child who died aged three and a half, and not a single bear and ragged staff (Leicester's device) adorns it.

The death of Denbigh, Mauvissière observed in October 1584, meant the end of Leicester's hopes for a legitimate heir, as the countess was ‘fort agée’; she would have been no older than forty-four (Chéruel, 341). In summer 1585 they went on holiday to Kenilworth together, triggering Elizabeth's anger again. Gossip (whether malicious or not) that the countess was planning to join him in the Netherlands in February 1586 ‘with suche a train of ladies … as hir majestie had none’ was one reason for the queen's furious reaction to his acceptance of the governor-generalship. The countess was ‘greatly troubled with the tempestuous newes she receaved from the court’ (Bruce, 112, 144). Ironically, they were innocent of this ambition, for it was precisely at this point (20 February) that Leicester drew up a commission for her to set and let his lands in his absence. When Leicester returned to the Netherlands in June 1587, her son the young second earl of Essex described her as in mourning.

The countess was with Leicester when he died at Cornbury House in Oxfordshire on 4 September 1588, and was given his last will immediately afterwards. She may also have been present at his funeral in Warwick on 10 October. Leicester appointed her executor of both his surviving wills (30 January 1582 and August 1587) and provided for her generously. In 1582 he left her a substantial jointure, which was augmented first on 15 July 1584 and again in 1587 when he added Drayton Basset in Staffordshire. She was nominally a very wealthy widow. Her combined jointures from Essex and Leicester gave her an income of £3000 a year, and she possessed £6000 worth of plate and household furniture. Set against her assets was the responsibility of settling Leicester's estate—a burden so great she was advised to refuse to act as executor. Only a month after his death her possession of Drayton Basset was challenged, and she had to call on her son for help. The inheritance of Kenilworth by Leicester's illegitimate son Robert Dudley in 1590 initiated a much more serious legal battle, for many of the adjacent manors were in her jointure. Even greater was the problem of Leicester's debts, which totalled some £50,000. Warwick, who was his immediate heir, helped the countess initially, but after his death in 1590 she was on her own. Paying off the debts cost her a large part of her jointure, including Leicester House, which she sold to her son, who renamed it Essex House in 1593.

After Leicester, 1588–1634

In July 1589 the countess suddenly married , soldier and conspirator, second son of Thomas Blount of Kidderminster, Worcestershire, and his wife, Margery, and Leicester's former master of the horse. She defended her marriage—which even her son termed ‘this unhappy choyce’—as a necessity for a defenceless widow (Hammer, 34, n. 120). The marriage soon inspired gossip that she had poisoned Leicester. By the Restoration a baroque tale (Leicester's Ghost) was in circulation: she had begun an adulterous affair with Blount in 1587, Leicester had found out about it and planned their murder, but she killed him first.

The countess was still an extraordinary gentlewoman of the privy chamber, and both her son and a number of her brothers and sisters remained at the centre of the court, but Leicester's death did not melt Elizabeth's hostility. In 1595 she retired to Drayton Basset, where she lived for the rest of her life. Her correspondence with Essex (whom she addressed as ‘Sweet Robin’) between 1595 and 1599 reveals that her retirement was in effect a strike. She would not return to court unless reconciled to Elizabeth: ‘to obtain that favour without which I live there as you know with greater disgrace’ (Craik, 1.30, 148–52). In late 1597 ‘my friends there make me believe that her majesty is very well prepared to hearken to terms of pacification’, and if Essex thought ‘it be to any purpose’ she was prepared to make ‘a winter journey’ (Birch, 2.362). She spent January to March 1598 at Essex House, but, despite Essex's attempts to arrange a meeting, Elizabeth avoided her. Her only concession was to allow the countess to kiss hands before she returned to Drayton Basset. Essex's imprisonment in 1599 caused his mother to come up to London again, this time to intercede for his release. Although she purchased a gown worth £100 as a present, Penelope Rich, Baroness Rich's, notoriously arrogant letter to Elizabeth doomed the appeal. Elizabeth refused to receive the gown or even let the countess kiss hands.

The countess was at Drayton Basset during Essex's revolt in February 1601, but has left no comment on the executions of her son and her husband (25 February and 18 March respectively). Their attainders led to a dispute over her remaining possessions in Essex House, and it was in the course of this that she claimed the penniless Blount had swindled her out of much of her wealth. However, the new reign brought a change of climate. Lady Rich was in favour with Anne of Denmark, and James VI and I restored the Essex lands to , in July 1603. On 18 August he waived repayment of the remaining £3967 of Leicester's debts. The benevolence of the court also helped her in the culmination of her legal battles with Sir Robert Dudley, ‘the great cause’ of 1603–5. If Dudley were to be successful in his attempt to prove himself Leicester's legitimate son, her marriage would be judged bigamous and her jointure overturned. She already had one not entirely comfortable ally in Sir Robert Sidney, who claimed to be the only legitimate male heir to Leicester and Warwick. By 1603 she had agreed with Sidney (under threat of litigation, she later claimed) that in exchange for his assistance in the defence of her jointure lands she would assign them to him on her death. Her most effective protector was Sir Robert Cecil, who decided that the existing settlement of Warwick's and Leicester's lands was too complex to be overturned. It was undoubtedly with his backing that she filed a bill of complaint against Dudley in the court of star chamber on 10 February 1604, alleging that he had defamed her by challenging the legitimacy of her marriage in his suit. As well as submitting the 1581 depositions on her marriage she cited fifty-six witnesses to testify that Leicester had never considered Dudley legitimate. In the course of delivering the judgment against Dudley on 10 May 1605, Cecil:
much commended the Countes of Lester, how well she lyved with him [Leicester] all his time notwithstanding all his humours, how for her marriage with him she was long disgraced with the Queene … & good Lady for her part he thoughte she weyghed not Sir Robert Dudlie's fine the garter upon her legge. (Hawarde, 220)
Of more immediate importance to her than this curious compliment was the decision that the evidence from the case be sequestered so it could not be reopened.The countess was very close to her daughters Penelope and Dorothy, whose stormy personal lives rivalled her own. Their deaths in 1607 and 1619 left her dependent on her surviving siblings and her grandchildren, especially the third earl of Essex. During the last fifteen years of her life he spent every winter with her either at Chartley or at Drayton Basset. She died at Drayton on Christmas day 1634, having enjoyed a robust good health almost to the eve of her death. When her brother William Knollys, first earl of Banbury, died in 1632, she was reported as still able to walk a mile a day. She was the last survivor of the great Elizabethans, and there was considerable public mourning at court and in London. She had made her will on 15 October 1622. Despite her disclaimer, ‘because I have lived all my life to my full proportion it cannot be looked for that I should have much to bestow’, she died a wealthy woman (TNA: PRO, PROB 11/167, sig. 1). Her probate inventory valued her possessions at £6645 11s. 4d. Essex was her executor and heir to her Devereux jointure lands and Drayton Basset, but her remaining jointure lands from Leicester (the Warwickshire manors of Balsall and Long Itchington) remained in dispute. In 1628 Sir Robert Dudley's abandoned wife, Alice, brought a fresh suit against her in the court of chancery. Her jointure was not at issue, but she was accused of conspiring with the Sidneys against Dudley's daughters. The legal battle over Balsall and Long Itchington continued until 1655, when the Sidneys finally admitted defeat.

In her will the countess requested to be buried without pomp ‘at Warwick by my deere lord and husband the Earle of Leicester with whom I desire to be entombed’ (TNA: PRO, PROB 11/167, sig. 1). After she was buried in St Mary's, Warwick, in February 1635, his effigy had to be shifted in order to fit hers onto his tomb. The verse inscription added for her—written by her grandson Gervase Clifton—makes no reference to her other husbands or even that she had been countess of Essex. The triangle she formed with Leicester and Elizabeth is possibly the central enigma of the queen's reign. If, as all the domestic evidence suggests, she and Leicester enjoyed a close and contented marriage, major questions are begged about his relations with Elizabeth. Elizabeth's animosity towards her after 1579 was bitter and unforgiving. It was also very specific; Leicester escaped most of its effects, and it did not do her son Essex any damage. Sexual jealousy is the obvious explanation, but Elizabeth did not display any towards Sheffield, whom she consistently regarded as a victim. Was it because she considered that the countess had deliberately seduced Leicester away from both of them?

Simon Adams

Sources  

C. H. Garrett, The Marian exiles: a study in the origins of Elizabethan puritanism (1938); repr. (1966) · wardrobe account, coronation of Elizabeth I, TNA: PRO, E 101/429/3 · cofferer of the house accounts, Elizabeth I, TNA: PRO, E 351/1795, mm 11–13 · M. A. S. Hume, ed., Calendar of letters and state papers relating to English affairs, preserved principally in the archives of Simancas, 4 vols., PRO (1892–9) · P. E. J. Hammer, The polarisation of Elizabethan politics: the political career of Robert Devereux, 2nd earl of Essex, 1585–1597 (1999) · D. C. Peck, ed., Leicester's commonwealth: the copy of a letter written by a master of art of Cambridge (1584) and related documents (1985) · E. Jenkins, Elizabeth and Leicester (1961) · CKS, Penshurst papers, U1475 [incl. Kenilworth game book, 1568–78, U1475/E 93 and Stafford deposition, [1604], U1475/L2/4, it. 3] · Calendar of the manuscripts of the marquis of Bath preserved at Longleat, Wiltshire, 5 vols., HMC, 58 (1904–80) · CSP Ire., 1574–85 · BL, Lansdowne MS 24, arts. 12, 13, 85 · S. Adams, Leicester and the court: essays on Elizabethan politics (2002) · D. C. Peck, ed., ‘“The letter of estate”: an Elizabethan libel’, N&Q, 227 (1981), 21–35 · W. Camden, Annales: the true and royall history of the famous Empresse Elizabeth, trans. A. Darcie (1625) · state papers domestic, Elizabeth, TNA: PRO, SP 12 · S. Adams, ‘The papers of Robert Dudley, earl of Leicester: III. The countess of Leicester's collection’, Archives, 22 (1996), 1–26 · D. Wilson, Sweet Robin: a biography of Robert Dudley, earl of Leicester, 1533–1588 (1981) · BL, Evelyn MSS · registre de Michel de Castelnau, seigneur de Mauvissière, 1578–81, Bibliothèque Nationale de France, MS français 15793 · TNA: PRO, 31, 3/28, French transcripts · misc. Mauvissière correspondence, BL, Harley MS 1582 · S. Adams, ed., Household accounts and disbursement books of Robert Dudley, earl of Leicester, 1558–1561, 1584–1586, CS, 6 (1995) · Longleat House, Wiltshire, Dudley MSS · Coleccion de documentos inéditos para la historia de España, 29: Correspondencia de Felipe II con sus embajadores en la córte de Inglaterra 1558 a 1584, V (1888) · state papers Scotland, Elizabeth I, TNA: PRO, SP 52 · A. Chéruel, Marie Stuart et Catherine de Médicis (Paris, 1858) · J. Bruce, ed., Correspondence of Robert Dudley, earl of Leycester, CS, 27 (1844) · The manuscripts of his grace the duke of Rutland, 4 vols., HMC, 24 (1888–1905) · Folger, La; Gb4; Xd63 [Bagot papers; Sir Michael Stanhope; collections relating to the trial of the earl of Essex] · CSP dom., 1547–1625 · Leicester's ghost, ed. F. B. Williams (Chicago, Ill., 1972) · G. L. Craik, The romance of the nobility, or, Curiosities of family history, 4 vols. (1848–9) · T. Birch, Memoirs of the reign of Queen Elizabeth, 2 vols. (1754) · H. Sydney and others, Letters and memorials of state, ed. A. Collins, 2 vols. (1746) · S. Freedman, Poor Penelope: Lady Penelope Rich, an Elizabethan woman (1983) · answer of the countess of Leicester to the complaint of Lady Alice Dudley, 5 May 1629, Warks. CRO, Arbury MS 1 [deposit by Viscount Daventry] it. 11 · Les reportes del cases in camera stellata, 1593 to 1609, from the original ms. of John Hawarde, ed. W. P. Baildon (privately printed, London, 1894) · V. F. Snow, Essex the rebel: the life of Robert Devereux, the third earl of Essex, 1591–1646 (Lincoln, Ne., 1970) · probate inventory, BL, Add. MS 18985 · will, TNA: PRO, PROB 11/167, sig. 1 · HoP, Commons, 1558–1603 · S. Varlow, ‘Sir Francis Knollys's Latin dictionary: new evidence for Katherine Carey’, Historical Research (2006), 9

Archives  

Longleat House, Wiltshire, Dudley MSS |  BL, corresp. with second earl of Essex, Sloane MS 4214 [transcripts]


Likenesses  

portrait, 1590–99, repro. in V. J. Watney, Cornbury and the Forest of Wychwood (1910), facing p. 84; formerly in possession of Lord St Leven, 1910 · attrib. G. Gower, oils, Longleat, Wiltshire [see illus.] · Hubbard, double portrait (with the young Lord Denbigh); at Leicester House in 1583 · portrait; 1582 Leicester House inventory

Wealth at death  

£6645 11s. 4d.: probate inventory of possessions, BL, 7 Jan 1635, Add. MS 18985, printed in J. O. Halliwell, ed., Ancient inventories … illustrative of the domestic manners of the English (1854)