The Tumultuous Life of the Countess of Leicester:
The Romance and Conspiracy that Threatened Queen Elizabeth's Court
by Nicola Tallis
Pegasus Books, 2018
Elizabeth's Rival, the new book from Crown of Blood author Nichola Tallis, tells the life story of Lettice Knollys, a favorite of Queen Elizabeth I until the two women had a permanent break in their relationship when Lettice married in secret the Queen's long-time platonic paramour Robert Dudley, Earl of Leicester, in September of 1578. Once Elizabeth learned of this marriage, she banished Lettice from Court, and it was only decades later that the lives of the two directly intertwined again, when Lettice's son Robert briefly became Elizabeth's favorite himself, led an armed rebellion against her, and was executed in 1601. Lettice lived to be a very old woman, and as Tallis rightly points out, she and her family were “at the very centre of events, watching and participating as the plots, politics and wars of the era unfolded.”
Tallis claims hers is the first full-length biography of Lettice Knollys, but even so cursory a summary of Lettice's life will strike many readers of a certain age as very familiar, and with good reason: this was the colorful material insanely prolific historical novelist Victoria Holt used for one of her best novels, 1979's My Enemy, the Queen.
Tallis may be writing straightforward history, but she knows her market. She bases her story on a good deal of research (Jean Wilson's recent brief review in the TLS implying that the book is full of “inaccuracies” is itself inaccurate on that score), but she also front-loads her most salacious bit of guesswork: that Lettice's mother, Katherine Carey, was in fact the daughter of Henry VIII and Mary Boleyn, the “other Boleyn girl” of bestselling fame. “In 1523, Mary Boleyn fell pregnant at exactly the same time as her affair with Henry VIII is likely to have been in full swing,” Tallis writes. “The following year she gave birth to a daughter, and the King was almost certainly her father ...” That “almost certainly” needs to carry a great deal of weight, but Tallis is certain:
Mary never attracted any attention, and no reference was made to her daughter's paternity. For this reason Katherine was easily passed off as William Carey's daughter. The King certainly never acknowledged Katherine Carey as his, and her sex rendered him unlikely to do so. Although those involved almost certainly knew the truth of the matter, Katherine was never acknowledged as anything more than Elizabeth's cousin.
The book tells in very engaging prose the long story of Lettice Knollys' life, hinging the narrative of course on that break with the Queen, which is trotted out with the customary ladling of psychodrama: “Though all notions of her marrying Leicester had long since vanished from her mind, she now no longer wielded the same power over him – a realization that shook Elizabeth to the core.” Tallis has done more than enough research to know this is simplistic; Dudley was a powerful counselor of state, and Tallis' innuendo notwithstanding, Lettice was legitimately kinswoman to the Queen – Elizabeth had ample reason to be furious with a secret marriage between these two, reasons that had nothing to do with romance novels, nothing to do with being shaken to the core of her being … reasons that didn't touch her heart. A monarch who'd never once flirted with Robert Dudley would have acted the same way Elizabeth did in 1578.
But Tallis is entirely right in her larger picture: Lettice Knollys is a pricelessly good narrative keyhole perspective through which to view Elizabeth's reign, and Elizabeth's Rival is consistently interesting and frequently thought-provoking, a prolonged portrait of a monstrously ambitious woman positioned by chance at just arm's reach of ambition's ultimate goal. Tudor fans will find it attractive reading – and readers who've already enjoyed My Enemy, the Queen will likely hurry back to it (and be impressed all over again by Victoria Holt's research). The story of Lettice, Dudley, and the Queen has always been just such an attractive melodrama, and it gets a full-dress performance in these pages.
Steve Donoghue was a founding editor of Open Letters Monthly. His book criticism has appeared in the Boston Globe, the Wall Street Journal, and the American Conservative. He writes regularly for the National, the Washington Post, the Vineyard Gazette, and the Christian Science Monitor. His website is http://www.stevedonoghue.com.