For historians, the secrets of the Tudor dynasty are like an onion. There are so many layers of family dysfunction for one to peel away. I recently discovered a new layer while reading Nicola Tallis’ book, Elizabeth’s Rival: The Tumultuous Life of the Countess of Leicester. This biography looks at the life of Lettice Knollys, a “kinswoman” of Elizabeth I. Looking deeper into their kinship, one finds these two vivacious, ginger-headed women were related through their mothers. Elizabeth’s ambitious, ill-fated mother, Anne Boleyn, and Lettice’s less ambitious grandmother, Mary Boleyn Carey, were sisters.
Elizabeth, having been deprived of her mother’s love, support, and presence at the tender age of 2 years and eight months, understandably favoured her Boleyn relations once she ascended to the throne. She kept them close to her by giving them prominent positions at court, like in the case of Lettice Knollys and her mother, Katherine. For Elizabeth, keeping her Boleyn relatives near was the next best thing to having her mother at her side. While history acknowledges Elizabeth and Lettice were related through their mothers, Nicola Tallis’ book also suggests these two women were probably also related through Henry VIII as well.
Although Henry Tudor never publicly acknowledged Lettice’s mother, Katherine, as his illegitimate child, there is strong speculation, and the timeline of when she was conceived suggests she was indeed his daughter. I can’t say I was shocked to find this hidden layer within the Tudor story because their family kept plenty of shocking secrets that have eventually come to light. Henry VIII’s legacy has always included, among other things, adultery, divorce, mendacity, and murder. Now that another layer has been peeled away from the Tudor onion, we see because of Henry’s indiscretions not only were Elizabeth and Lettice cousins once removed they were, in all probability, aunt and niece as well.