Publication date: March 2018
Review, short version: Four roses out of four.
Review, long version:
I highly recommend Elizabeth’s Rival, with this caveat:
It helps if you’re crazy for English royal history, as I am.
Otherwise the focus of this biography, Lettice Knollys Devereux Dudley Blount, may appear just another bewigged, smothered-in-clothes, aristocratic but obscure Elizabethan Englishwoman.
Well, the wig, the clothes, aristocratic – yes. But obscure? Lettice was anything but that.
The book is subtitled The Tumultuous Life of the Countess of Leicester: The Romance and Conspiracy That Threatened Queen Elizabeth’s Court.
This extraordinarily long subtitle is appropriate for a woman who, in an age where the average life expectancy was about 40, lived an extraordinarily long life – 91 years.
Born in 1543, in those 91 years Lettice arrived in one reign, survived five more and lived into a seventh:
- Henry VIII, reigned 1509-1547
- Edward VI, reigned 1547-1553
- Jane Grey, reigned 1553
- Mary I, reigned 1553-1558
- Elizabeth I, 1558-1603
- James VI, 1603-1625
- Charles I, 1625-1649
Just that fact that Lettice managed to keep her head on her shoulders when throughout these reigns, people all around her were – literally – losing theirs, is also extraordinary.
Especially after Lettice secretly married Queen Elizabeth’s long-time favorite, Robert Dudley, in 1578. Elizabeth could have had Lettice’s head – or at least imprisoned her for life – for this (to Elizabeth) heinous offence.
As it was, Elizabeth never forgave Lettice, though she forgave Dudley easily enough. Perhaps it was the fact that Lettice and Elizabeth were blood relatives that stayed Elizabeth’s hand?
Lettice was the daughter of Katherine Carey, who was the daughter of Mary Boleyn, and Katherine may have been Elizabeth’s half-sister as it’s highly likely that Katherine and Elizabeth were both fathered by Henry VIII, when Mary Boleyn was his mistress prior to his marrying Mary’s sister Anne.
And if you followed all that, then I know you’re crazy for English royal history.
Biographies can range from semiarid to Sahara dry, but Tallis has written one that, while full of information about Lettice and her times, is not at all dry and is easy to read.
Tallis doesn’t pull any punches, though. Early on she describes Lettice, when portrayed in a 1971 movie, as “outspoken, haughty, arrogant and unrepentant,” and concedes that Lettice “did display some of these traits.” Tallis also portrays Lettice as a loving daughter, sister, wife and mother, a woman who wasn’t afraid to take risks, and to speak up for herself in a time when women were barely supposed to speak at all.
And above all else – Lettice was a survivor.
She survived her three husbands, all six of her children, and six monarchs including Elizabeth, who didn’t hesitate to behead, or hang, draw and quarter, or at least imprison people who pissed her off. Elizabeth did behead another blood relative – Mary Queen of Scots – as well as Lettice’s oldest son, and her third husband, but…
Lettice survived. And not just survived:
In the book’s introduction Tallis notes that Lettice “has never been the subject of a full-scale biography.”
I think Tallis did Lettice justice…
Even if Elizabeth never did.