December 25 – Christmas Day in Tudor times and the death of Lettice Knollys

A very Merry Christmas to you all!

I hope you have a wonderful time whatever you are doing today.

In the video and transcript below, I explain how the Tudors celebrated Christmas before moving on to an “on this day” event, the death of Lettice Knollys (married names: Devereux, Dudley and Blount), a woman Elizabeth I called the “she-wolf”…


Christmas Day in Tudor times

Merry Christmas! Today is of course Christmas Day, the official end of Advent and the start of the Twelve Days of Christmas which celebrate the birth of the Messiah, Jesus Christ. For Tudor people, the fasting was now over, and this was a day to celebrate.

Work for those who worked on the land would stop, and spinners were banned from spinning. Work would not start again until Plough Monday, the first Monday after Twelfth Night. The Twelve Days of Christmas were a time for communities to come together and celebrate. People would visit their neighbours and friends and enjoy the Christmas traditions.

The religious celebrations would begin first thing with a mass before dawn and then two further masses later in the day. Congregations held lighted tapers as the genealogy of Christ was sung, before heading home to eat, drink and be merry. Those families who could afford a Christmas feast would celebrate it in style with foods like roast goose, turkey or beef, and Brawn and Mustard (roast wild boar). Other foods enjoyed include the Tudor Christmas pie (a coffin shaped pie crust containing a turkey stuffed with a goose, stuffed with a chicken, stuffed with a partridge, stuffed with a pigeon), the mince pie, which contained 13 ingredients to symbolise Christ and his apostles, souse (pickled pig’s ears and feet), meat puddings, cheese, fruit and nuts, and sweet treats like marchpane, sugar plate, gingerbread, leech (which was a sweet made from milk, sugar and rose-water), tarts and custards. All washed down with plenty of ale or wine. Those Tudors knew how to celebrate in style!

Lettice Knollys

And now for an on this day in history…

On Christmas Day 1634, in the Stuart period, a woman who had been prominent during the reign of Queen Elizabeth I, died at the age of 91. Her name Lettice Blount, but she is also known by her other married names of Devereux and Dudley, and also her maiden name of Knollys.
Lettice died at her home at Drayton Bassett and was buried beside her second husband, Sir Robert Dudley, Earl of Leicester, in the Beauchamp Chapel of the Collegiate Church of St Mary in Warwick.

Here are some facts about Lettice Knollys:

  • She was born on 8 November 1543 at Rotherfield Greys in Oxfordshire.
  • Lettice was the daughter of Catherine Carey and Sir Francis Knollys, and her maternal grandmother was Mary Boleyn, sister of Queen Anne Boleyn, making her Queen Elizabeth I’s first cousin once removed.
  • When she was in her teens, she was appointed to serve Queen Elizabeth as a gentlewoman of the privy chamber.
  • She married Walter Devereux, Viscount Hereford and later Earl of Essex, in late 1560 when she was 17. Their children included Penelope, Dorothy and Robert Devereux, later second Earl of Essex and a favourite of Elizabeth I until his downfall and execution in 1601.
  • Walter Devereux died in Ireland in 1576 and in 1578 Lettice married the Queen’s favourite, Robert Dudley, Earl of Leicester, in secret, something which infuriated the queen, who referred to Lettice as a “she wolf”. In June 1581, Lettice gave birth to Leicester’s son, Robert, Lord Denbigh, but he sadly died in July 1584.
  • Leicester died in September 1588 and in 1589 Lettice married Sir Christopher Blount, her late husband’s Gentleman of the Horse and a man Lettice described as her “best friend”.
  • Blount ended up becoming involved in Lettice’s son’s rebellion in 1601 and was executed for treason on 18 March 1601. Lettice’s son had been executed on 25th February 1601.
  • There was upset for Lettice in 1604 when Sir Robert Dudley, her second husband’s son by Lady Douglas Sheffield, claimed that his mother had been married to the Earl of Leicester, thereby making Lettice’s marriage to Leicester invalid. However, there was no evidence to support this claim and Lettice’s marriage to Leicester was deemed legal and valid.
  • You can visit Lettice and Leicester’s beautiful tomb, complete with effigies, and that of their son, Lord Denbigh, the noble impe, at Warwick today. It’s a beautiful chapel.

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