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.