Elizabeth's Rival: The Tumultuous Life of the Countess of Leicester: The Romance and Conspiracy that Threatened Queen Elizabeth's Court

Elizabeth's Rival: The Tumultuous Life of the Countess of Leicester: The Romance and Conspiracy that Threatened Queen Elizabeth's Court

A kinswoman to Elizabeth I, Lettice Knollys had begun the Queen’s glittering reign basking in favor and success.  It was an honor that she would enjoy for two decades. However, on the morning of September 21st, 1578, Lettice made a fateful decision.  When the Queen learned of it, the consequences were swift. Lettice had dared to marry without the Queen’s consent.  But wors...

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Title:Elizabeth's Rival: The Tumultuous Life of the Countess of Leicester: The Romance and Conspiracy that Threatened Queen Elizabeth's Court
Author:Nicola Tallis
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Elizabeth's Rival: The Tumultuous Life of the Countess of Leicester: The Romance and Conspiracy that Threatened Queen Elizabeth's Court Reviews

  • Adrienne Dillard

    Three little words.  When separate or combined with nearly any other words in the English language, they seem innocuous.  Downright innocent, even. When you string them together, well that’s when they become the hardest words to say: I was wrong.  Yes, you read that right.  I was wrong.  In my defense, this brilliant new biography by Nicola Tallis wasn’t available when I was researching the illusive Lettice Knollys for my novel on her mother.  In fact, there was almost nothing out there on Letti

    Three little words.  When separate or combined with nearly any other words in the English language, they seem innocuous.  Downright innocent, even. When you string them together, well that’s when they become the hardest words to say: I was wrong.  Yes, you read that right.  I was wrong.  In my defense, this brilliant new biography by Nicola Tallis wasn’t available when I was researching the illusive Lettice Knollys for my novel on her mother.  In fact, there was almost nothing out there on Lettice - or her mother for that matter.  What we did have often amounted to the worst kind of history - the kind that we take as gospel without considering that it has been perverted by the writer’s own opinions and biases.  Which in turn perverted my portrayal of Lettice in the novel.  It’s an easy trap to fall into.  I’m not the first writer to fall prey, and I won’t be the last, but thankfully we have historians out there, like Tallis, who aim to set the record straight.  In her hands, the grime and grit of five centuries of slander is stripped away so that the real Lettice Knollys can finally step out of the shadows. 

    Temptress, harridan, she-wolf.  Lettice Knollys has been called those names and worse; oftentimes by her own kinswoman, Queen Elizabeth I.  What horrible acts did she commit to earn such abuse?  Well, nothing really, save dare to capture the attention of the queen’s most entirely beloved, yet always out of reach favorite, Robert Dudley.  At least, that’s the view Tallis takes – and she’s right.  However, just because Lettice turns out to be far less sinister than her reputation implies, it doesn’t mean that her story is any less interesting.   

    Tallis begins with the early years Lettice spent, doted upon by loving parents and surrounded by a boisterous brood of brothers and sisters, at Rotherfield Greys.  While exploring how this loving environment shaped Lettice’s relationship with her own children, Tallis also emphasizes the outside influences: her father’s career at court, the family’s exile in Germany, and her mother’s ancestry. Historians have debated Catherine Carey’s paternity for centuries, but Tallis makes it clear from the outset that Henry VIII, and not William Carey, was Catherine’s biological father.  While I wholeheartedly agree with her assessment, this is the one and only place where I caution a light tread.  Though the circumstantial evidence is plentiful, there is nothing conclusive.  This is one instance in which there are no certainties (as much as I desperately wish there were). 

    After the death of Mary I, Lettice’s story picks up with her debut at Queen Elizabeth’s court, and her marriage to the first of three husbands, Walter Devereaux, the Earl of Essex.  It is here where Tallis picks up speed on her quest to demolish every myth that has dogged Lettice since her death.  Rather than the disastrous marriage popular history would have us believe, Tallis shows us a couple with deep admiration for each other.  Still, one can’t help but feel horrible for poor Essex.  Not because of his marriage to Lettice, but because of his marriage to Ireland.  When the country finally claims the last it can from Essex – his life – Tallis brings us to the heart of her subject:  Lettice as a survivor.  It is this ‘last great Elizabethan survivor’ who manages to outlive husbands, children, and rivals all while ever more retaining her substance and dignity.  Far from being the villainous trope detractors would like her to be, Tallis gives us an indomitable matriarch, who deserves well-earned admiration.   

    Jam packed with first-rate research and built upon the strongest of foundations, Elizabeth’s Rival is a tour de force.  Tallis’ style is thorough yet engaging.  She delivers an immense amount of information in a way that is utterly accessible, proving that popular ‘narrative-type’ history need not preclude true academic research.  I fiercely hope more historians follow her lead. My little history-geek heart literally sang at the abundance of detailed footnotes – and from truly impeccable sources.   

    I cannot stress enough how much I sincerely enjoyed Elizabeth’s Rival, both as an historian and as someone who has come to adore the entirety of the Knollys family through my own research.  Sometimes we care so deeply for an historical figure, we set our expectations at unreasonably high levels; it can often make reading about them torturous.  I held such expectations for the first true biography of Lettice Knollys, and Nicola Tallis far surpassed every one of them.  Expertly researched and beautifully written, this book was really a treat.  I look forward to more great work from this rising star.  

  • G. Lawrence

    Excellent book, well written and researched. A treat for any Tudor fan.

  • Helen Carolan

    An interesting read about Lettice Knollys, the woman who managed to steal the earl of Leicester from under queen Elizabeth 1st's nose. Considering she lived a long life through an incredible period very little has been written about her before. Here Tallis gives a wonderful account of a woman who was totally hated by the queen and spent the whole of her marriage to the queen's favourite banished from court. Elizabeth had her revenge when she took Lettice's son the earl of Essex as her favourite

    An interesting read about Lettice Knollys, the woman who managed to steal the earl of Leicester from under queen Elizabeth 1st's nose. Considering she lived a long life through an incredible period very little has been written about her before. Here Tallis gives a wonderful account of a woman who was totally hated by the queen and spent the whole of her marriage to the queen's favourite banished from court. Elizabeth had her revenge when she took Lettice's son the earl of Essex as her favourite and had him executed for treason after a failed uprising. This was a terrific read.

  • Mike Shoop

    Excellent, readable, well-researched biography of Lettice Knollys, Elizabeth I's greatest romantic rival. She was the queen's own close kinswoman and even resembled her, yet when Lettice dared to marry in secret in 1578, she incurred the wrath of the queen, especially because she wed the queen's own favorite, Robert Dudley, Earl of Leicester. Elizabeth never forgave her. The author has sifted through the sources to compile an accessible narrative of Lettice's long life, replete with challenges,

    Excellent, readable, well-researched biography of Lettice Knollys, Elizabeth I's greatest romantic rival. She was the queen's own close kinswoman and even resembled her, yet when Lettice dared to marry in secret in 1578, she incurred the wrath of the queen, especially because she wed the queen's own favorite, Robert Dudley, Earl of Leicester. Elizabeth never forgave her. The author has sifted through the sources to compile an accessible narrative of Lettice's long life, replete with challenges, despairs, intrigues, triumphs, and pleasures: she married 3 times, bore 6 children, survived 7 monarchs (including Lady Jane Grey), navigated multiple political and financial storms, and died on Christmas Day 1634 (at age 91!) having outlived all the greatest Elizabethans and the world that she knew. A remarkable character who led a colorful life during a golden age of English history, Lettice's descendants include Sir Winston Churchill, Prince Charles and Lady Diana Spencer. Tallis has done a beautiful job with this bio--even her endnotes are terribly interesting and informational. It reads like the best historical fiction.

  • Orsolya

    Readers of Elizabethan history are familiar with the figurehead of Lettice Knollys: a kinswoman of Elizabeth, Lettice became Elizabeth’s direct rival by marrying her royal favorite and husband-in-everything-but-name, Robert Dudley. Lettice lived a life of intrigue which more-than merits a full-biography yet has not been executed. Nicolla Tallis, the resident historian of the Alison Weir tours, focuses her sophomore history release on spotlighting Lettice once and for all in, “Elizabeth’s Rival:

    Readers of Elizabethan history are familiar with the figurehead of Lettice Knollys: a kinswoman of Elizabeth, Lettice became Elizabeth’s direct rival by marrying her royal favorite and husband-in-everything-but-name, Robert Dudley. Lettice lived a life of intrigue which more-than merits a full-biography yet has not been executed. Nicolla Tallis, the resident historian of the Alison Weir tours, focuses her sophomore history release on spotlighting Lettice once and for all in, “Elizabeth’s Rival: The Tumultuous Life of the Countess of Leicester, The Romance and Conspiracy that Threatened Queen Elizabeth’s Court”.

    Attempting to present a full-biography of Lettice is quite ambitious in nature but Tallis attacks it with zeal. Tallis’s approach is that of an academic-scholarly angle but with a flowing-illustrative prose that reads well and entertains while educating, resulting in a composed text.

    Unfortunately, Tallis doesn’t fully meet her thesis or portrait Lettice as intended. Tallis begins “Elizabeth’s Rival” with a background look at Lettice’s family tree and childhood environment. However, due to the lack of an abundance of resource material; the pages focus more on everyone and everything

    Lettice, herself, causing her to be shrouded in the background and leaving an empty spotlight. This continues throughout the entirety of “Elizabeth’s Rival” darkening the piece.

    That being said; it is beyond evident that Tallis has dived deep into both primary and secondary research and holds personal knowledge on the topic presenting it with a desirous passion. Even though Lettice isn’t the main focus, as is the point of the book; readers still gain new and poignant information and therefore learn about this woman’s life (even if from the sidelines). Tallis succeeds at beautifully written text that is supplemented by copious direct quotes from primary documents and ample sleuth work that debunks certain myths and false facts.

    Yet, Tallis infuses “Elizabeth’s Rival” with an overload of speculative “could of” and “should have”- statements. “Elizabeth’s Rival” can be taken with a grain of salt and should have its merits questioned. Furthermore, Tallis makes statements that are in complete opposition to the generally-accepted historic cases without arguing them, thus, coming off as simply incorrect rather than enlightened.

    Although the book title claims Lettice to have led a ‘tumultuous’ life; none of the text truly emphasizes such a description. Even Lettice’s marriage to Robert Dudley is discussed sort of off-handedly and without detail. However, on a positive note, when is Lettice

    the subject of the text, “Elizabeth‘s Rival” is enticing, enough.

    “Elizabeth’s Rival” falls victim to repetition of facts and chronological confusing breaking up the text and creating a general feel of disjointed disorganization. Although this doesn’t impede the overall piece too much, a stronger editor would have been welcomed.

    Once past the halfway mark; “Elizabeth’s Rival” overly focuses on the lives and movements of Lettice’s children and relations both politically and socially. Talli’s focus and knowledge of such day-to-day detail is remarkable; but, it still puts Lettice in the background and doesn’t reveal her character or life. Tallis receives credit for attempting to highlight Lettice but it seems the proper amount of information concerning her simply doesn’t exist.

    The conclusion of Elizabeth’s Rival” waxes poetic about the life and legend of Lettice and eulogizes her presence. However, this is merely Tallis simply building up the figure but leaving a large shadow in the text. In other words, Tallis wraps up the piece indicating Lettice’s importance but this isn’t solidified anywhere in “Elizabeth’s Rival”.

    Tallis supplements “Elizabeth’s Rival” with appendices that include Lettice’s epitaph on her tomb and a list of the places currently in existence from Lettice’s lifetime. “Elizabeth’s Rival” also includes two sets of color photo plates and annotated notes ideal for the staunch fact-lovers.

    “Elizabeth’s Rival” is a lofty attempt by Tallis to present a first-ever full-biography on Lettice Knollys. The text is detailed with a smooth narrative and positive prose. However, “Elizabeth’s Rival” fails at Tallis’s thesis and doesn’t fully reveal Lettice which is a heavy disappointment for those seeking a heavy academic piece living up to its title. Despite these complaints, “Elizabeth’s Rival” is suggested for readers of Tudor and Elizabethan England, especially those new to the topic.

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