Oh those Boleyn Girls! Students of history know all about Mary Boleyn, mistress of Henry VIII, thanks to Philippa Gregory and her bestselling novel who refashioned Mary from a good-time girl who graced the beds of several men before landing in Henry's to some kind of feminist heroine. Like her great-granddaughter, Mary then defiantly married a man she loved after her husband Will Carey died, pissing off her sister Anne, who didn't think Will Stafford was aristocratic enough to marry a Boleyn. We also know plenty about her sister Anne Boleyn who replaced Mary in Henry's bed. But what about the descendents of these remarkable women?
Painting of Penelope on the right and her sister Dorothy
Well, everyone knows that Anne's daughter Elizabeth became Elizabeth I, Gloriana, one of the greatest monarchs ever in English history. Celebrated in films, television, fiction, and opera. But Anne's sister Mary descendants lives were completely entwined in the life of her sister's child.
While Mary's daughter Katherine Knollys led a virtuous and blameless life, selflessly serving her cousin, Elizabeth, Mary's granddaughter Lettice Deveraux, the Countess of Essex had the cheek to marry Elizabeth's great love, Robert Dudley, Earl of Leicester secretly in 1578. Rumors abounded while Lettice's husband Walter, the Earl of Essex was in Ireland, that Lettice and Leicester were lovers. Walter Deveraux had already cause to believe that Dudley was stabbing him in the back while he was off in Ireland, fighting off rebels and attempting to create a fortune for himself in Irish land. This despite the fact that Lettice and Walter's oldest son Robert was named after Dudley and Leicester stood as his godfather.
After Walter's death in 1576, Lettice honored his memory by waiting two years before marrying Leicester. While there is now proof that Lettice and Leicester were lovers before her husband's death, the fact Lettice was pregnant on their wedding day was proof that they certainly hadn't waited for the marriage vows. The marriage ceremony was conducted in secret because Elizabeth was notorious for hating it when her favorites got married. It meant that their attention was divided instead of being focused soley on her.
Many of her favorites such as Sir Walter Raleigh ended up in the Tower for marrying against her wishes. As the Queen aged, and her looks began to fade, she became more and more jealous and attached to her favorites. She may not want to marry them, but she would be damned if anyone else did. That went double when it came to Robert Dudley. Dudley had long wanted to marry Elizabeth. Unfortunately he was married to Amy Robsart, who conveniently and mysteriously died early in Elizabeth's reign. However because the death was so mysterious, Elizabeth couldn't risk marrying Dudley, not when she was still busy trying to keep her hold on the throne. Plus, Dudley was arrogant and had made many enemies at court as he flaunted his close relationship with the Queen in the faces of her courtiers and council members.
When Elizabeth found out Dudley had married, she flew into a rage, which she took out not on Dudley but on Lettice who was banished from court. It was more than ten years before Lettice was allowed to set foot at court. Lettice didn't stop there, after Leicester's death in 1588, she waited only a matter of months before taking her next husband, Sir Christopher Blount, a young courtier who was twelve years her junior. Of course, rumours abounded that Blount and Lettice were lovers before Leicester's death. Not only was Blount part of Sir Francis Walsingham's group of spies involved in the Babington plot against Mary, Queen of Scots (the Babington plot is so convoluted I suggest everyone head over to Wikipedia to read about it) but he may have also been a double agent since he was Catholic. Blount would find himself involved in his step-son's schemes and find himself on a scaffold in 1601.
Despite her enmity for her cousin, Elizabeth still doted on Lettice's children Penelope and Robert, the new Earl of Essex. Penelope was married off at the age of 18 to Robert Rich, Baron Rich. The Rich family were not only rich but known for being venal weasels. His grandfather Richard Rich had been testified against Sir Thomas More at his trial, perjuring himself. Penelope's marriage to Rich was a miss-match from the beginning. Penelope was beautiful and vivacious, with red-gold hair like her mother's and flashing dark eyes. She loved dancing, partying, and card games. Her husband came from an ultra-Protestant family that shunned the very things that gave Penelope pleasure.
Penelope would have preferred a few years of flirting at court before marrying but her guardians were insistant on her marrying Rich. While Penelope had a dowry of two thousand pounds, her father's estate was tied up in legalities and debt. Her marriage to Rich would also move her further away from the throne, which was something Elizabeth devoutly wished. She kept tabs on those family members who might have a claim to throne. Penelope was not only descended from Edward III through her father, but there was a very good chance that her grandmother had been Henry VIII's child (Sally Varlow presents a convincing case that Katherine and possibly Henry Carey were Henry VIII's children in her biography of Penelope). Marriage to Rich would also help her brother to advance at court, and Penelope was a devoted sister to Essex, even naming her second daughter after him.
Penelope was a dutiful daughter, and married Rich but in eight years of marriage, she only gave birth to three children, so either she had trouble conceiving or she found any excuse that she could not to share a bed with her husband. Her father's choice for a husband, Sir Philip Sidney had fallen madly in love with Penelope but his father was against the marriage, and he had no money as well. Instead he composed some of the most beautiful love poems in English literature to his Stella before dying bravely while England was at war in the Netherlands against Spain.
Despite her lack of love for her husband, Penelope was involved along with him and Essex in corresponding with James VI in Scotland, supporting his claim to the throne of England, should he perhaps not want to wait for Elizabeth's death to mount the throne. Despite their treasonous implications, Elizabeth forgave them their indiscretion. She was quite taken with Lord Essex, somewhere between maternal love and the romantic love.
By 1590, Penelope fallen in love with Sir Charles Blount (descended from a different branch of the same family as Sir Christopher Blount, Penelope's step-father.) Blount was very much like Penelope's father Walter, handsome, bookish, shy, scholarly, modest and reserved. The few portraits of Mountjoy show a man with a sweet face, blunt nose, and a suprised look on his face as if couldn't quite believe his luck. No knows for sure when they exactly when they became lovers, but Penelope was soon pregnant with Blount's child. She had already provided Lord Rich with the requisite heir and spare, and now she felt free to live her own life. She moved to the manor of Leighs where she spent most of her time, but Lord Rich allowed her to have unlimited access to her children.
Penelope and Sir Charles were very discreet when it came to their love affair. Elizabeth was notorious for punishing adulterers, throwing them into prison for their pains. Lord Rich surprisingly turned a blind eye to the relationship. Perhaps he thought that the affair would eventually die out. He was also very aware that his marriage had been very advantageous to him, given Penelope's closeness to the throne, and he was a strong supporter of her brother Lord Essex. She had acted as her brother's hostess since his wife Frances was shy and retiring. Essex had created his own spy network, and Penelope became good friends with the Bacon brothers and the Earl of Southampton who married her cousin Elizabeth. Accordingly, Rich accepted the five children that Penelope bore Blount as his.
The only wrinkle in her love affair with Blount came when Penelope began to have pangs of conscience about their relationship. She felt that she was doing him a disservice, keeping him from marrying and having a legitimate heir. She came into contact with a Jesuit priest named Father Gerard, who she discussed the relationship with. Penelope's friendship with Father Gerard was potentially dangerous if she had been found out. Harboring a jesuit priest could have ended up with Penelope being arrested. When Mountjoy found out that Penelope was about to make her confession and become a Catholic, ending the relationship. Mountjoy managed to convince Penelope that he had no desire to marry, and Penelope ended her flirtation with Catholicism.
It was her brother Essex who turned out to be the greatest danger. Over the years his influence with Elizabeth had waned as that of the Cecils grew. While Penelope was able to keep up a friendly pretense with both Lord Burghley and his son Robert Cecil, Essex couldn't contain his contempt. Essex didn't help his cause by running off in a snit whenever he felt that Elizabeth was not showing him the proper appreciation for his talents. While he was off rusticating in the country, it was left to Penelope and his supporters to keep his cause alive with Elizabeth. Both Penelope and her brother had a strong sense of their Deveraux identity, their closes ties to the Queen, as well as several other nobles houses, including the Earl of Northumberland (the second husband of their sister Dorothy) and the Earl of Southampton, as well as the Sidneys.
His unauthorized return from Ireland was the beginning of the end of Essex. He had been sent to take over as Lord Lieutenant, to try and subdue the Irish rebels Tyrone and O'Connell. Instead, he lacked the necessary men and funds to keep the fight going and he set up an unauthorized meeting with Tyrone alone with no witnesses. Gloriana was not pleased. His subsequent arrest set in motion a series of blunders that ended up with Essex on trial and his eventual death.
Penelope spent time pleading for her brother's life. A letter that she wrote the Queen, equating her father's situation in Ireland with her brothers was secretly published, ticking off the Queen. The role Penelope played in the aborted coup has long been debated. Essex himself said at this trial that Penelope actively encouraged him to raise an army against the Queen, with the notion of putting James on the throne. At her trial, Penelope's defense was that she was blinded by her love for her brother. She did hold off the Earl of Nottingham, while Essex burned as many incriminating papers as he possibly could. Her lover, now Baron Mountjoy after his brother's death, was also heavily involved in Essex's plans, but Elizabeth needed Mountjoy in Ireland where he was proving himself as one of the greatest soldiers of the Elizabethan age, so he was spared. Although Elizabeth didn't want to have Essex executed, she did nothing to save him. His death saddened her greatly.
When James VI became James I of England, Penelope and Mountjoy both enjoyed a good relationship with the new sovereign. Penelope became one of Queen Anne's lady's in waiting, and Mountjoy was made the Earl of Devonshire after his return from Ireland. Now that she and Mountjoy had such high favor from the King, Penelope decided now was the time to get rid of her husband Lord Rich. Accordingly they were divorced, although they were not allowed to marry while the other spouse was still alive. However, Penelope and Mountjoy married three months later, an act that would have serious reprecussions.
James I was furious at both Penelope and Mountjoy and refused to consider the marriage legal. There has been speculation as to why Penelope and Mountjoy took such a dangerous action. Given that Mountjoy's health had deteriorated since his return from Ireland, they probably thought it was worth the risk to finally be man and five after 15 years together. Mountjoy and Penelope were only married for a few months when Mountjoy took ill and finally died at the rather young age of 44 in April of 1606, leaving Penelope a widow with five children. He provided amply for her and their children in his will, but as soon as he was buried his relatives came out of the woodwork, demanding that the will be put aside, that Penelope had unduly pressured him to leave her his wealth, and that he was wearying of the relationship. The case dragged on for months, and Penelope had won the first round, although her reputation was dragged through the mud.
Penelope unfortunately died in July 1607, after a short illness. No one knows where her body is buried. Her mother Lettice managed to out survive them all, not just Elizabeth and James I, but all of her children. She finally died at the age of 92, buried next to Lord Leicester in St. Mary's Church in Warwick. Penelope's children from both her marriages prospered over the years. Her son Lord Rich, a puritan like his father, supported Cromwell during the Civil Wars, living to see his grandson marry Cromwell's daughter. Mountjoy Blount became the Earl of Newport in his own right.
Penelope if she is remembered at all, it is for her part in her brother's rebellion, although historians writing just after her lifetime, seemed to write her out of the life of her lover Sir Charles. No mention is made of the writers she supported during her lifetime, or the work she inspired such as Sir Philip Sidney's poetry. Nor of her place as one of the amazing Boleyn women.
The Lady Penelope - Sally Varlow, Andre Deutsch books
My Enemy, the Queen by Victoria Holt - this was my introduction to the story of Lettice and Lord Leicester, and her son Essex.
The White Devil by John Webster - this play is supposed to be partly based on the life of Lady Penelope Deveraux