The Knollys family were about as close to Elizabeth I as it was possible to be.
Katherine Knollys was her first cousin, the daughter of Mary Boleyn, and possibly even her half sister. There is a much disputed rumour that Katherine was the product of her mother’s affair with Henry VIII. The King, however, did not acknowledge Katherine as his daughter, but he did put a lot of opportunities and wealth in her way. Perhaps neither Mary nor the King could be entirely sure, but there is no denying a strong physical resemblance.
Katherine’s husband Sir Francis Knollys served three Tudor monarchs in roles varying from Privy Councillor to Governor of Portsmouth and guardian of Mary, Queen of Scots. A staunch puritan, he worked tirelessly for Elizabeth I at great personal sacrifice.
Katherine served in the young Princess Elizabeth’s household before she acceded to the throne and records reveal that Katherine and her husband Francis took part in the ceremony and celebrations for Elizabeth’s coronation and that coronation livery was granted to Lettice and another sister, Elizabeth Knollys. From 1558 Katherine served as a Lady of the Bedchamber, accompanied by her daughters, including young Elizabeth Knollys, then aged just nine years old, who served as a Maid of the Chamber.
The Queen’s relationship with the couples children was also close and complicated and in the case of their daughter Lettice, well quite frankly, a little weird.
Lettice had an affair with and later married the Queen’s favourite Robert Dudley, Earl of Essex, causing the Queen to call her a She-Wolf, among other insults, and to banish her from Court.
At the end of her life the Queen’s last favourite was none other than Robert Devereux, 2nd Earl of Essex and Lettice’s son, by her first husband Walter Devereux, 1st Earl of Essex. I know, bizarre, and the Queen never forgave the beautiful red head who bore a passing resemblance to herself.
But let’s return to the life and times of Katherine’s seventh child and fourth daughter, Elizabeth born upon ‘trynte even’ 1549. Henry VIII’s 12 year old son was on the throne, although the boy’s uncle, Edward Seymour, Duke of Somerset, was Protector and called all the royal shots.
Sir Francis was a Justice of the Peace in Oxfordshire at this time, so it is most likely Elizabeth was born at the Knollys family home Rotherfield Greys. In 1557, during the reign of Mary Tudor, Katherine left the country to join her husband in religious exile in Germany, taking her five youngest children with her; most probably Elizabeth, Robert, Richard, Francis and Anne.
A year later the family returned – Katherine was appointed Chief Lady of the Privy Chamber and the future looked safe – well as safe as it ever looked in Tudor times.
Elizabeth spent pretty much her whole life in the confines of the claustrophobic court where the women employed to care for the Queen’s every need had to apply for a licence to be absent from court for more than two weeks.
Positions at court were all about status with the top posts reserved for ladies from the upper echelons of society.
By 1566 Elizabeth was one of the Gentlewoman of the Privy Chamber, the day room where the Queen spent much of her time. Elizabeth had daily access to the Queen, to confide in and to influence her and it is known that she was involved in privy council business and decision making.
In 1578 Elizabeth married Thomas Leighton; a somewhat late marriage for both of them. she was 28 and he was 43.
Thomas had been a Gentleman of the Household for ten years before which he had served as a soldier and had seen service at the Seige of Rouen in 1562 and in defence of the garrison at Le Havre a year later. In 1569 he had commanded 500 harquebusiers during the Northern Rebellion and in 1570 he was appointed Governor of Jersey and Guernsey.
Elizabeth, however, remained at court for most of their married life. She had three children, a son Thomas and two daughters, Elizabeth born in 1583 and Anne in 1587.
When Catherine Middleton became engaged to Prince William in 2010 a family tree was published purporting that both Catherine and William could trace their common ancestry to Elizabeth Knollys, Lady Leighton and her husband Sir Thomas. William descended from their younger daughter Anne who married Sir John St John 1st Baronet and Catherine from the elder one Elizabeth.
Unfortunately, in a pamphlet written in 1890 by an over zealous family historian, Canon James Davenport, who jumped to one too many conclusions, as it is so easy to do, and traced the Davenport family through the Talbots to the elder Leighton daughter. Then in 2010 it was republished all over again, this time in the Daily Mail, and I for one became very excited – a second, sideways link from the young Royals to Lydiard House and the St John family.
Sadly the error was quickly exposed – but the good news is there still remains a St John, Lydiard Park link between William and Anne!