Historian Nicola Tallis’ latest book, Elizabeth’s Rival: The Tumultuous Life of the Countess of Leicester, offers a fascinating glimpse into the interpersonal relationship between Elizabeth I and her kinswoman Lettice Knollys. Tallis presents a compelling view of their complicated bond, which despite the famous people involved, resembles most dysfunctional, familial relationships. It had its highs. It had its lows. Unfortunately for Lettice, the lows outnumbered the highs and included being banished from Court, twenty-five years of silence from her sovereign, and the execution of her beloved son, the 2nd Earl of Essex.
Tallis presents no clear evidence which suggests these two intelligent, strong-willed women started off as rivals. Most historians agree Lettice’s marriage to Elizabeth’s favourite, Sir Robert Dudley, the Earl of Leicester, was the reason for their twenty-five-year estrangement. While it’s true the manifestation of their conflict didn’t occur until after Elizabeth learned of the marriage, this writer contends the last Tudor monarch viewed Lettice as a rival long before Sir Robert arrived on the scene. The marriage, if you will, was the final nail in the coffin of their relationship, but by no means was it the first or only nail. Elizabeth’s prolonged, ill-treatment of Lettice fuels this writer’s assertion that the Queen was insanely jealous of her younger cousin because, except for the crown, Lettice possessed everything Elizabeth probably wanted but could never have.
The first possible area of contention between the two women stems from the stark difference in their upbringing. Lettice was born into a large, loving family of sixteen children whose close ties grew increasingly stronger through one crisis after another. Her childhood provided her with a deep-rooted sense of security that enabled her, in later years, to proceed with a stiff, upper lip even in the face of banishment, regal silence, and the deaths of loved ones.
In contrast, Elizabeth was born into a small, dysfunctional family where the dynamics of marriage and physical passion more than once ended in divorce or execution. Her deceased mother was unable, and her absentee father was unwilling to give her the security she needed to form a stable foundation, let alone shower her with love as Lettice’s parents had done. Elizabeth, more than likely, viewed Lettice’s happy childhood as a painful reminder of her own empty and neglected days as an unwanted child.
The second point of contention derives from the relationship each of these women had with her father. Lettice was fortunate to have had an extremely wonderful relationship with hers, but poor Elizabeth, she did not. Sir Francis Knollys was a pious Protestant who gained Court prominence while serving under Henry VIII. His loyal service continued through the reign of Edward VI and reached its zenith during Elizabeth’s. He was devoted to both his wife and his children. He stood beside Lettice through thick and thin, even when his own livelihood and favour at Court were at stake. It was actually Sir Francis who had insisted his daughter and Sir Robert Dudley marry after he grew weary of their flirtations and the rumours surrounding them. Lettice reciprocated her father’s love, and she remained loyally devoted to him throughout his life.
Elizabeth, on the other hand, was seen from her birth as a disappointment to her father who desperately wanted a son. To the great Henry VIII, she was but a mere speck on his radar. After her mother’s execution, her father immediately and unceremoniously declared her illegitimate, removed her from the line of succession, and demoted her from princess down to lady. This last dishonour, regardless of how trivial it sounds, was actually a big demotion. It would have been similar to when, in 1996, Diana, Princess of Wales lost her HRH (Her Royal Highness) status and all the entitlements attached to her royal title. Unlike Lettice, Elizabeth rarely received her father’s favourable attention, and to compensate for his neglect she spent her entire adult life demanding she be the centre of everyone’s universe. In those early, lonely years, Elizabeth learned to trust only in herself, and as a result, when she ascended the throne, she eventually became a virtual prisoner within her own majesty.
The most compelling reason for Elizabeth to envy or even hate Lettice, aside from Sir Dudley, happens to be their strongest point of connection; Catherine Carey. Documents from the 1500’s show Elizabeth held her cousin, Catherine (Lettice’s mother), in very high esteem. The Queen expressed this lofty regard when she awarded Lady Carey the most coveted position at Court; Chief Lady of the Bedchamber. This position was highly sought after because of its proximity to the Queen, and any lady fortunate enough to secure the role was considered the monarch’s BFF (best friend forever). It’s telling that Catherine Carey served as the chief lady of Elizabeth’s bedchamber from the time the unlikely princess ascended the throne until the day Catherine died. In other words, Lettice’s mother was Elizabeth’s best friend.
Since Catherine Carey was so beloved by her royal cousin, it’s natural to assume Elizabeth would feel the same way about Catherine’s family, namely her daughter Lettice. Yet, the despicable way in which Elizabeth treated Lettice for two and a half decades shows the Queen’s love did not automatically extend from mother to daughter. Having lost her own mother, Anne Boleyn, to lies, treason, and the executioner’s sword, when she was just two years old, Elizabeth was cruelly robbed of any chance of experiencing a loving mother-daughter relationship. It is little-to-no wonder why she attached herself so firmly to the next best thing, her cousin Catherine. It’s also understandable that the Queen would harbour jealousy toward Lettice for having a mother’s constant presence in her life, which is something Elizabeth did not and could not have.
The first two contentions presented in this article contrasts Elizabeth I and Lettice Knollys’ childhood environments and their relationship with their fathers while the last one highlights their common bond in Catherine Carey. This writer believes these three contentions strongly influenced Elizabeth’s feelings of ill will towards her kinswoman. They were almost certainly in simmer mode long before the Earl of Leicester made Lettice his Countess. So, whereas Lettice’s marriage to Elizabeth’s favourite most definitely sealed her fate as the Queen’s rival, it was undoubtedly not the only point of contention between these two gorgeous redheads.
By Carmen D. Dandridge 2018