A Tudor love triangle: Elizabeth I, Lettice Knollys and Robert Dudley

When Lettice Knollys, Countess of Leicester, married Robert Dudley in 1578 without telling Elizabeth I, sparks flew in the Palace of Whitehall. Here, Nicola Tallis tells the story of the love triangle between the three Tudors

Lettice Knollys

This article was first published in the December 2017 edition of BBC History Magazine

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The atmosphere within the queen’s apartments at the Palace of Whitehall was icily cold when, in late 1579, Lettice Knollys stood before Elizabeth I. The queen raged at the woman in front of her in no uncertain terms. “As but one sun lightened the Earth, she would have but one queen in England,” Elizabeth seethed, before reputedly boxing Lettice’s ears and banishing her from court.

What could Lettice have possibly done to provoke such a volcanic reaction? She had entered into a secret marriage without the queen’s consent – reason enough to provoke royal outrage. But what really fanned the flames of Elizabeth’s fury was the identity of the groom: Lettice’s husband was none other than the queen’s favourite and one time suitor, Robert Dudley. It was a betrayal that Elizabeth would never forgive.

Scandalous gossip

“They say she is in love with Lord Robert and never lets him leave her.” So wrote the Spanish ambassador, the Count de Feria, two decades earlier in 1559, of the blossoming relationship between Elizabeth I and Robert Dudley. Nor was de Feria alone in his belief that matters were far from platonic between the queen and Dudley, and scandalous gossip about the pair began to circulate soon after Elizabeth’s accession the previous year.

De Feria had heard that “Her Majesty visits him in his chamber day and night”. Dudley was already married to Amy Robsart, but this did nothing to quell the rumours, and when Amy died in mysterious circumstances (she was found dead at the bottom of a flight of stairs) in September 1560, it was whispered that Dudley had ordered her murder in order to free himself to marry the queen.

Elizabeth had known Dudley since childhood, and from the beginning of her reign she showed him great favour. He was created her Master of the Horse, and in 1564 she granted him the title of Earl of Leicester. Their behaviour raised eyebrows, and although Elizabeth would later swear that nothing improper had ever passed between them, one thing is certain: Dudley was more than her favourite, and her relationship with him was arguably the most important of her life.

Handsome, clever and ambitious, it was little wonder that Dudley caught the queen’s eye. She herself was a tall, slim and fiercely intelligent woman – one described by the Venetian ambassador as “comely rather than handsome”.

When she ascended the throne, Elizabeth – scarred by her mother, Anne Boleyn’s tragic fate – publicly declared her intention to remain unmarried and a virgin. This was of little matter to the queen’s advisors, and no sooner had she taken her seat on the throne than the pressure on her began to mount: few people really believed that Elizabeth intended to remain single, and it was expected that she would marry in order to produce an heir.

Various European princes began to press their suit, but not all of those who proposed marriage were of royal blood. Following the death of his wife, Robert Dudley was a free agent. And, once the scandal surrounding Amy Robsart’s death had died down, he began to present himself as a serious contender for Elizabeth’s hand in marriage.

Dudley had already won Elizabeth’s heart, but romantic attachment was not her sole consideration. She was, after all, no ordinary woman but Queen of England. Dudley would spend more than a decade attempting to persuade her to become his wife. At times Elizabeth seemed to consider it, toying and tormenting him as she persistently refused to give him a definitive answer. This was such a source of frustration to Dudley that, in 1565, he resorted to provoking her jealousy in order to sting her into a decision.

The queen sees red

Described as “one of the best-looking ladies of the court”, Lettice Knollys was a kinswoman of the queen, to whom she had been a “darling” in her youth. Though 10 years younger than Elizabeth, the physical similarities between the two women were striking – notably their flame red hair.

Lettice’s grandmother had been the queen’s aunt, Mary Boleyn, and her mother was a close companion of Elizabeth. Lettice herself had briefly served in the queen’s household, and was referred to as one of her favourites. It was probably in 1561 that she married Walter Devereux, Viscount Hereford and left the court behind for leafy Staffordshire.

In the summer of 1565, Lettice was back. She was pregnant with her third child, and had travelled to London to attend her brother’s wedding. Elizabeth treated Lettice generously, but that summer the queen’s feelings for her kinswoman were put to the test. It was reported that Robert Dudley, now Earl of Leicester, “showed attention” to Lettice at the wedding celebrations – a very deliberate decision on Dudley’s behalf. Flirting with Lettice would, he hoped, produce more than dithering indecision from the queen in response to his suit for her hand.

It achieved no such thing. All Dudley succeeded in doing was throwing Elizabeth into a jealous rage. She admonished him, we’re told, for “his flirting with the viscountess in very bitter words”.

As the 1560s gave way to the 1570s, the queen remained unmarried – and, to many of her courtiers, it was becoming increasingly apparent that this would remain the case. She appeared to take the marriage offers of several of her European suitors seriously, before inevitably getting cold feet, and the prospect of her accepting Dudley’s overtures grew more remote with every passing year.

The realisation that the queen would not wed him came as a major blow to her old sweetheart. He had made enormous personal sacrifices to retain her favour, and later claimed that, since the death of his first wife, he “had for a good season forborne marriage in respect of her Majesty’s displeasure”. In the 1570s he had however become embroiled in an affair with Lady Douglas Sheffield – one of the queen’s ladies – resulting in the birth of a son, Robin Sheffield.

Lettice Knollys’s life had also reached a crossroads. For several years of the 1570s, her husband, Walter Devereux, now Earl of Essex, had been engaged in a protracted military campaign to colonise Ulster. The enterprise was a disaster, and had attracted a storm of condemnation back in England. One of Devereux’s fiercest critics was Robert Dudley – and so, when Devereux died of dysentery in Dublin in September 1576, whispers soon spread that he had been poisoned on Dudley’s orders. The rumours were baseless but, in light of consequent events, it is unsurprising that such gossip was circulating.

In the summer of 1577, the widowed Countess of Essex spent time hunting on Dudley’s Warwickshire estate, Kenilworth Castle. It may have been here that the seeds of a romance were sown, for that year the couple’s relationship became more than platonic. Whatever the circumstances, the love affair quickly became serious, and they resolved to marry. But there was one major obstacle: the queen.

Though Elizabeth would not marry Dudley, she was still fiercely jealous of the attention her favourite showed to other women, and was determined to keep him to herself. But Lettice and Dudley were in love, and he could sacrifice his personal happiness no longer. “For the better quieting of his own conscience” he was determined to “marry with the right honourable Countess of Essex.”

Marrying into trouble

Lettice and Dudley were fully aware that by entering a marriage they risked losing the queen’s favour permanently. Yet, so strong were their feelings for one another, it was a risk they were both prepared to take. Early in the morning of 21 September 1578, they were secretly married in front of just a handful of witnesses at Wanstead, Dudley’s Essex home.

The couple’s nuptials did not remain secret for long. Within a matter of weeks, word had started to spread. Just one question remained: how would the queen react? It was the summer of 1579 when Elizabeth was dealt the crushing blow of Dudley’s betrayal. She herself was engaged in negotiations for a potential marriage with the Duc d’Anjou, but that did not make the news any easier to swallow. So incandescent with rage was she that her initial reaction was to send Dudley to the Tower – a punishment he was spared thanks to the intercession of the Earl of Sussex. Nevertheless, he retired from court in disgrace, leaving his new wife to bear the brunt of the queen’s fury.

Lettice was proud of her marriage – made for love – and even Elizabeth’s rage could not prevent her from pretending otherwise. She was a spirited woman and, according to one hostile source, rather than meekly regretting her conduct, she now “demeaned herself like a princess”. Even when the queen confronted her during the latter half of 1579 and banished her from court, Lettice showed no remorse, remaining, so we’re told, “as proud as ever”.

For all her anger, the queen could not bear to cut Robert Dudley out of her life altogether. He was soon back at court, where he resumed his former friendship with the monarch.

Lettice enjoyed no such forgiveness. After being confronted by Elizabeth, she had little choice but to retire to the country, and would remain estranged from both queen and court until Elizabeth’s death in 1603. Not even the loss of Lettice’s three-year-old son by Dudley, ‘the Noble Imp’, in 1584 could soften the queen’s heart.

Lovers to the end

On 4 September 1588, Lettice was by her husband’s side when he died at Cornbury Park in Oxfordshire. Elizabeth was devastated, fully believing that the loss was all her own. It wasn’t until Christmas Day 1634, aged 91, that Lettice followed her husband to the grave. She was laid to rest beside Dudley in St Mary’s Church, Warwick, where their double tomb still survives.

Even in death, Lettice’s tumultuous relationship with Elizabeth was not forgotten. An epitaph, thought to have been composed by her granddaughter’s husband, summarises the reason for her disgrace: “She [Lettice] was content to quit her [Elizabeth] favour for her favourite [Leicester].”

Love had won the day for Lettice Knollys, though not for Elizabeth.

Nicola Tallis is a historian and researcher. She will be discussing Lady Jane Grey’s deadly inheritance at our History Weekend event at York. For more details, go to historyweekend.com/York

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Further reading: Elizabeth’s Rival: The Tumultuous Tale of Lettice Knollys, Countess of Leicester by Nicola Tallis (Michael O’Mara Books, November 2017)