Elizabeth's Rival: The Tumultuous Tale of Lettice Knollys, Countess of Leicester by Nicola Tallis

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Elizabeth's Rival: The Tumultuous Tale of Lettice Knollys, Countess of Leicester by Nicola Tallis

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Category: Biography
Rating: 5/5
Reviewer: John Van der Kiste
Reviewed by John Van der Kiste
Summary: The thrice-married Lettice Knollys, successively Countess of Essex and Countess of Leicester, has had to wait a long time for her own biography. A close relation as well as rival of Queen Elizabeth, her life included good fortune, disgrace and sadness. This biography is a beautifully written, lively and colourful ride through the Tudor years and their Stuart postscript with their conspiracies and religious turmoil - a tremendous read, very well supported with a timeline and various appendices.
Buy? Yes Borrow? Yes
Pages: 400 Date: November 2017
Publisher: Michael O'Mara
External links: Author's website
ISBN: 978-1782437499

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Lettice Knollys was closely connected with some of the pivotal characters at the court of Elizabeth I. Thrice married, successively Countess of Essex and Countess of Leicester, she led a long and very full life that included good fortune, disgrace and sadness. It seems remarkable that she has had to wait so long for her own biography.

Born in 1543, the third of sixteen children, her father was Master of the Horse to Prince (soon to be King) Edward, and her mother a niece of Anne Boleyn, thus making her a cousin once removed of Queen Elizabeth. There is speculation that her mother Katherine may have been the illegitimate daughter of Mary Boleyn and Henry VIII. It was inevitable that part of her career would be spent at court. Being Protestants, the family had to lie low during the reign of Mary but enjoyed the favours of Elizabeth after she became Queen. Lettice's parents were appointed to senior positions in the household, while she became a Maid of the Privy Chamber, and at the age of seventeen she married Walter Devereux, 1st Earl of Essex.

Scandal reared its head when her husband was sent on military service to Ulster, and in his absence she became romantically involved with Robert Dudley, Earl of Leicester. He had been one of the Queen's favourites and formerly a possible suitor for her hand, until his first wife Amy Robsart died in suspicious circumstances. The Earl of Essex died of dysentery in Ireland in 1576, and when Lettice secretly married Leicester two years later, the angry Queen banished her from court for life. In spite of this inauspicious beginning it proved a happy marriage, although overshadowed by the death of their only child in infancy. Leicester died in 1589 and a few months later she married one of his household officers, the soldier Sir Christopher Blount, but continued to call herself the Countess of Leicester.

The effort of discharging her second husband's debts cast something of a pall over her later years, and it says much for the astute management of her affairs that she was still substantially wealthy at the end of her long life. Far greater sorrows came with the executions of her third husband and her eldest son from her first marriage, the 2nd Earl of Essex, both of whom were among those who were found guilty of treason in a rebellion against Elizabeth in 1601. Even after this her family were not completely untainted by scandal, although she was never directly involved. Her grandson, the 3rd Earl of Essex, made a brief and unhappy first marriage, and after it was annulled his wife and her second husband were involved in the notorious Overbury murder plot. Fortunately she had wisely kept her distance from the whole episode, and enjoyed a peaceful old age, surviving into her early nineties.

The story of her life and times, the rival of the first lady of the realm as its title reminds us, takes us on a lively, colourful ride through the Tudor years and their Stuart postscript. There have been several excellent biographies of her contemporaries, and this life is every bit as compelling. Ms Tallis pilots her way splendidly through the decades of conspiracies, scandals, religious turmoil and the roller-coaster changes of fortune of those who were close to their sovereigns, and it is difficult to avoid the conclusion that had she lived to maturity during the lifetime of the second Tudor King, she might well have paid for her indiscretions by sharing the fate of two close members of her family. The reader is steered very well through the sequence of events with a Dramatis Personae, family trees and timeline at the front of the book, and a brief note on places to visit at the end. Two sections of plates, largely portraits, effigies and locations, are the icing on the cake. One could hardly ask for more.

If you enjoy this, we can also recommend Death and the Virgin: Elizabeth, Dudley and the Mysterious Fate of Amy Robsart by Chris Skidmore, the story of Lettice's first husband; The Six Wives & Many Mistresses of Henry VIII: The Women's Stories by Amy Licence and Elizabeth's Women: The Hidden Story of the Virgin Queen by Tracy Borman, two more general surveys of Tudor women at court. For the life of another interesting and often overlooked contemporary, The Lost Tudor Princess: A Life of Margaret Douglas, Countess of Lennox by Alison Weir is also well worth adding to your list.

Buy Elizabeth's Rival: The Tumultuous Tale of Lettice Knollys, Countess of Leicester by Nicola Tallis at Amazon You can read more book reviews or buy Elizabeth's Rival: The Tumultuous Tale of Lettice Knollys, Countess of Leicester by Nicola Tallis at Amazon.co.uk


Buy Elizabeth's Rival: The Tumultuous Tale of Lettice Knollys, Countess of Leicester by Nicola Tallis at Amazon You can read more book reviews or buy Elizabeth's Rival: The Tumultuous Tale of Lettice Knollys, Countess of Leicester by Nicola Tallis at Amazon.com.

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