STARRED REVIEW
March 06, 2018

The thorn in Her Majesty’s side

By Nicola Tallis

Living long and reasonably well is at least some sort of revenge. But the adage that best sums up the life of Lettice Knollys is that double-edged blessing: “May you live in interesting times.”

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Living long and reasonably well is at least some sort of revenge. But the adage that best sums up the life of Lettice Knollys is that double-edged blessing: “May you live in interesting times.”

Lettice Knollys, subject of Nicola Tallis’ biography Elizabeth’s Rival, lived to age 91—in effect, the entire Elizabethan age, as well as the first generation of Stuarts—and in her time was as famous and notorious as Queen Elizabeth herself. But her life has been nearly obscured since. Even this exhaustive profile, subtitled “The Tumultuous Life of the Countess of Leicester: The Romance and Conspiracy That Threatened Queen Elizabeth’s Court,” slides away from her name. Nevertheless, the “romance and conspiracy” were of crucial interest in the evolution of the Tudor dynasty.

Blood and romance were always in the mix for Lettice Knollys. Lettice was the daughter of Katherine Carey, the daughter of “the other Boleyn girl,” Mary. It was widely believed, if never acknowledged, that Katherine was the product of Mary’s affair with King Henry VIII, making Lettice not merely Elizabeth’s cousin but likely her niece, a theory bolstered by the women’s strong resemblance to each other.

As a young woman, Lettice was in the queen’s favor. Her first husband, Walter Devereux, Earl of Essex, led a royal army into Ireland not once but twice—expensively, ineffectually and eventually fateful, as he died of dysentery there. Conquering Ireland is just one of the instincts their son Robert Devereaux inherited.

Walter’s campaigns left Lettice in grave debt, but after his death, Lettice secretly married Queen Elizabeth’s longtime favorite suitor, Robert Dudley, Earl of Leicester, and all hell’s fury erupted. Elizabeth never forgave Lettice. After Dudley’s death, Elizabeth moved onto another favorite: Robert Devereaux, Lettice’s son. His relationship with the queen and his Irish war fared even worse that his father’s and stepfather’s similar designs. And it was he, in his spoiled self-confidence, who launched an insurrection that would doom himself and his second stepfather (Lettice’s third husband) to execution.

It was the queen mother of all soap operas, and the book is littered with expensive gifts, castles, gems, balls and pageants as well as armadas and invasions, to the extent that Lettice is almost obscured once again. Tudor newbies may be overwhelmed, but this tale of a vengeful monarch and her necessarily wily relative is a pleasure.

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Elizabeth’s Rival

Elizabeth’s Rival

By Nicola Tallis
Pegasus
ISBN 9781681776576

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