Chartley Manor in Elizabethan England, was a place of mystery with historians still arguing over what happened when Mary Queen of Scots was imprisoned there. But even more mysteries surround Lettice Devereux, nee Knollys, the chatelaine of the Manor in the middle years of Elizabeth 1’s reign who lived there at least until Queen Elizabeth 1, her cousin, visited in 1575. Thereafter with the death of her first husband Walter Devereux the miasma of rumour and misinformation affecting her becomes a fog.

It is difficult to bring her life at Chartley into focus as Lettice- short for Letetia – has only recently had proper attention paid to her – via Nicola Tallis’s 2018 biography ELIZABETH’S RIVAL – and her focus is on the second marriage to Robert Dudley, triggerin Elizabeth’s fury- Dudley was her favourite. Yet the first marriage, which produced her son Robert Devereux later executed for high treason, should not be neglected. Lettice was important in the life of the Court, with major issues of evidence and interpretation to resolve. Was Lettice the model for Hamlet’s murderous mother as has been alleged?

It is only possible to gain some hard fact of the life Lettice lived with her first husband,the aristocratic Walter Devereux who was Viscount Hereford when they married, when they were at Court .Their meeting at court and marriage gives some evidence though when precisely in the early 1560s this happened is yet to be discovered. That they went to Chartley, the Devereux main house lying next to Chartley Castle in Staffordshire, is not in dispute. Walter was made an Earl and was one of the nobles trying Norfolk in 1572 and the birth of children indicated a healthy marital life. In 1575, Queen Elizabeth 1 visited Chartley and saw what seemed to be a happy domestic scene.

But rumours developed that Lettice was too close toEarl of Leicester. Mutual attraction is undeniable – they married after her first husband, the Earl of Essex, Walter Devereux, died in 1576 – but whether they were lovers and she provided the inspiration of the adulterous wife for Shakespeare and the fictional death of Hamlet’s father is an enduring controversy.

The rumours that Lettice was having an affair with the Earl of Leicester, Robert Dudley have cast a shadow on her life with her first husband at Chartley. Indeed, it is sometimes assumed that she was always unhappy. Derek Wilson in his biography of Robert Dudley SWEET ROBIN (Alison & Busby 1997) claimed

“The couple lived quietly in the countryside, but it seems there was little domestic harmony” (p227)

Something did go wrong with the marriage, but until he became an Earl and invaded Ulster, it is a mistake for historians to see the marriage as a failure. In fact Devereux was a rising star in Elizabeth’s court for the first dozen years of their marriage and till he went to Ireland seeking conquest was well regarded by Queen and other courtiers. Yet the Oxford Dictionary of National Biography entry on Walter Devereux only devotes a single paragraph to their marriage, and gets several facts wrong. For example, the Dictionary writer, J J N McGurk says Walter

“married Lettice (1543-1634)… both were in their early twenties. For the next seven years they lived at Chartley Hall in Staffordshire. It was during this period that their eldest child, Penelope Rich, was born. His first call to public service came in 1568 when ordered to keep a body of horse in readiness to prevent any attempt to release Mary Queen of Scots from Tutbury…”

Five mistakes in only four sentences. Firstly, Lettice was 18 if they married in 1561, still a teenager. They lived at Chartley together till 1573 when Walter went soldiering in Ireland – twelve years in which Lettice bore five children, of whom the first four are unlikely to be fathered by anyone but Walter. The last died and was buried at the local church at Stowe by Chartley. Penelope was Penelope Devereux while at Chartley, Rich was her married name. And while Walter did guard Queen Mary, it was 1569. Mary did not reach the castle till February 3rd 1569 as Antonia Fraser records (MARY QUEEN OF SCOTS 2002 p509). While neglecting the other children is not an error, it is odd that McGurk ignores Robert Devereux, who as Earl of Essex was executed for high treason in 1601 – a major event in Elizabethan history, and both Dorothy and Wat lived eventful lives. A more serious error is noted below*.

It is a common error to see Walter’s life at Chartley as not very important but Lettice was unsurprisingly impressed when she met him and marriage, which meant leaving the Queen’s paid service, was clearly a step up for a girl whose father was a knight – Sir Francis Knollys – but had not great social position. Walter belonged to an old aristocratic family, with a Norman background. He had been born in Camarthen Castle, to a wealthy family with Welsh roots though their main house was at Chartley. His father died before his grandfather allowing Walter to inherit his grandfather’s title of Viscount Hereford at age 19. He inherited a substantial fortune on maturity aged 21, plus the chief family home at Chartley, and spent his money on brushing up his image. His tailor’s bill survives and Nicola Tallis in her book ELIZABETH’S RIVAL estimates that the total of £150 spent before coming to court is £34,000 at today’s prices.

When Lettice first met him at Elizabeth’s court, where she was an attendant of the Queen as Gentlewoman of the Privy Chamber, he had great prospects. This was confirmed when Walter was involved in defending Mary Queen of Scots in 1569 at Tutbury, twenty miles from Chartley, then raised an army from Staffordshire to join the battle against the Earl’s revolt in 1569. For this the Queen promoted him to become Earl of Essex and made him a Knight of the Garter. This confirmed his prospects, and Lettice would have seen this as confirmation she had married a man with a bright future. The portrait of Walter painted around the time he came to Court shows him handsome and well turned out in dress armour. There is no reason to think the first dozen years of the marriage were unhappy.

As late as 1574 Walter was satisfied with his marriage and when he went soldiering in Ireland still thought about looking after his wife. He wrote back to say he wanted Lettice to have one third of the estate if he died. He did not have to do this and when his will was revised later it was not as generous. He had changed his mind, and we don’t know why.

What happened to damage the marriage probably happened in 1575 when he was in Ireland, and it is not yet known what it was. Significantly only one letter to her three hubands she outlived survives, and as many other have been found the fact that as Nicola Tallis says (page xxix) Lettice had all her letters at Drayton Bassett, the house on the Staffordshire Warwickshire border she moved to when forced out of Chartley after Walter’s will was shown to give her no right to live there. The fact that her correspondence with her husbands has vanished suggests she destroyed them. This strongly suggests she had something to hide, though whether this was the case while her children were being born and Walter lived at home is a different matter.

Unless the dozen years Lettice and Walter spent at Chartley are seen as important, and not written off as a disaster, we will never know. Chartley was remote and a backwater, later used as a prison for Mary Queen of Scots – but we cannot assume that this meant that Lettice and Walter were unhappy so Walter wanted to leave. We know that Lettice married the Earl of Leicester after her husband died in 1576. But what happened in the last two years of Walter’s life remains to be discovered – and it did not happen at Chartley

*McGurk states that Walter Devereux was “first Earl of Essex”. He was first Earl in the eighth creation, the first having been in c1139. There have been nine creations, each creation having a first Earl, the best known apart from Robert Devereux of the Essex rebellion being Thomas Cromwell, made famous by Hilary Mantel. Walter, who had no connection with the county of Essex, chose the title from a remote connection with the Bourchier family who had held it earlier in the Fifth creation. The title is still alive in the ninth creation, which was created in 1661 and has managed to keep going through to the present day.

It is remarkable that the Oxford Dictionary of National Biography does not seem to know the history of the English aristocracy.

21st March 2021