Lettice Knollys was 29 when her husband disappeared into the Irish fog and – lacking evidence notwithstanding – one has the feeling she soon remembered her exciting experience with Robert Dudley and perhaps sought his company for consolation. She visited London regularly, staying at Durham House, not far from Leicester House.3 Unremarkably enough, Leicester sent her a present of venison in 1573 from his seat Kenilworth Castle in Warwickshire, where she went for hunting visits in the following years. Lettice was also present in July 1575, when Dudley entertained the Queen with a 19-days festival at the castle in what arguably was the most elaborate show event of the reign. A few weeks later the Countess of Essex was host to Elizabeth, Leicester, and the rest of the court at Chartley in Staffordshire.4Share
During the summer progress Elizabeth ignored any scandalous talk, though she may have sensed that love was in the air at Kenilworth. Meanwhile some of the Warwickshire gentry voiced the opinion that their lord was a ‟whore-master“, and when Walter Devereux returned to England in December 1575 the Spanish agent in London, Antonio de Guaras, reported:
As the thing is publicly talked of in the streets, there can be no harm in my writing openly about the great enmity between the Earl of Leicester and the Earl of Essex, in consequence, it is said, of the fact that while Essex was in Ireland his wife had two children by Leicester. … Great discord is expected in consequence.Nothing spectacular ensued, but it is interesting that Essex kept himself away from court over the Christmas festivities, while his wife apparently attended them; Leicester certainly did.5 The street talk about two children born to the supposed lovers was certainly just that – street talk.
In July 1576 Walter Devereux sailed back to Dublin; allegedly Leicester had pushed for his return to Ireland, yet the evidence in council papers is contradictory on this issue.6 Even before Essex had left England his wife travelled to Buxton in Derbyshire – Robert Dudley was there, taking the baths.7
At Buxton Lettice engraved a most interesting line onto a window pane, on which many prominent guests immortalized themselves: Between the contributions of Mary Queen of Scots and the Earl of Leicester we read: ‟Faythfull, faultelesse, yet sumway unfortunatt. Yet must suffer. L. Essex.“8 Obviously, Lady Essex thought the gossip about her relations with the earl to have no basis in fact; Leicester was of similar opinion, although he admitted that he might be living in sin when lectured by a Puritan friend about the certainty of hell fire, should he not immediately repent of his lifestyle:
I will not justify myself for being a sinner and flesh and blood as others be. And beside, I stand on the top of the hill, where I know the smallest slip seemeth a fall. But I will not excuse myself; I may fall many ways and have more witnesses thereof than many others who perhaps be no saints neither, yet their faults less noted though someways greater than mine. … And for my faults, I say, they lie before Him who I have no doubt but will cancel them as I have been and shall be most heartily sorry for them.9The earl’s chief problem was that his love life became increasingly complicated, all because Queen Elizabeth would not allow him to enter into a permanent bond with any other lady – that would lead to his ‟utter overthrow“, he was convinced.10 (Read more.)