Thursday, July 19, 2012

On This Day in Elizabethan History: The Death of Sir Francis Knollys

On this day in Elizabethan history, 1596, Sir Francis Knollys, a Privy Councillor, Knight of the Garter, and Vice-Chamberlain of the household of Queen Elizabeth I, died.

Francis Knollys was born c.1514 to Robert Knollys, a court official of Henry VIII, and his wife, Lettice. After receiving some schooling at Oxford University, Francis began to earn favor at King Henry's court, becoming one of Henry VIII's esteemed gentleman-pensioners. In 1540, Francis' future wife Katherine Carey, daughter of Mary Boleyn, arrived at court. She was secured a place in Queen Anne of Cleves household by Henry VIII. (Historian Alison makes a convincing case based on ample primary and secondary sources that Katherine Carey was the illegitimate daughter of King Henry VIII, though her brother Henry Carey, later 1st Baron Hunsdon, was almost certainly Mary's child by her husband, William Carey.) Francis was now in almost daily contact with his future wife, and if their eventual happy marriage is any indication, they perhaps fell in love before they were even wed.

This Portrait of a Pregnant Lady, 1562, by Steven van der Muelen  is most likely of Katherine Carey-Knollys. For further information on this portrait, and the controversy surrounding Katherine's paternity, please see Alison Weir's biography, Mary Boleyn: The Mistress of Kings. Picture acquired through Wikimedia Commons. Image public domain.

In 1542 Francis was admitted to The House of Commons (Dictionary of National Biography), and in 1546 he married Katherine Carey. By an act of Parliament, the couple would be joint owners of the estate of Rotherfield Greys.

By all accounts, Francis Knollys was always an outspoken champion for the reform movement in the Church of England. His opinions resonated with the young King Edward VI, and  Francis became an important member of his government (Wagner, 174). His dedication to King and country paid off, as he was knighted in 1547.

A detail of a portrait of King Edward VI. Picture acquired through Wikimedia Commons. Image public domain.

Things changed for Sir Francis and his family upon Mary Tudor's accession in 1553. The Knollys's fled to the Protestant state of Germany with their children rather than face persecution for their faith (Wagner, 174). This was especially wise in their case, as Sir Francis had long been ardently defending and promoting his beliefs. 

Upon the accession of Elizabeth I in 1558, the Knollys's could breathe a sigh of relief. Sir Francis had been a loyal servant of Queen Elizabeth's father and brother, and longing to serve the new Queen, he had returned to England before his wife and children, in the hopes of securing an appointment and setting up a household. Katherine Carey-Knollys was the Queen's first cousin, if not her half sister; the two had become acquainted in their in youth and had developed an unbreakable bond. Katherine Carey-Knollys and the children followed Sir Francis home to England.

As he had hoped, Sir Francis did earn one of the first appointments of Queen Elizabeth's reign, becoming a member of the Privy Council in 1558. Shortly thereafter he was made Vice-Chamberlain of her household, a post that would later on be held by his son (Wagner, 175).

A detail of the Clopton Portrait of Elizabeth I c.1560-65, shortly after she became Queen of England. Picture acquired through Wikimedia Commons. Image public domain.

By the 1560's, Sir Francis's Protestant beliefs had developed into Puritan ones, and he often spoke in favor of Puritan causes in the Elizabethan Parliament's (Wagner, 175). This was problematic, as anything perceived as religious extremism during Elizabeth's reign, be it on the conservative Catholic side or the reformist Protestant side of the spectrum, was monitored closely. Nothing could threaten the moderate, largely tolerant Anglican Church Queen Elizabeth and her administration had worked so hard to establish (please see Religious Policy under Elizabeth I). Still, Sir Francis' personal beliefs were never a threat to the realm, and true to Elizabeth's declaration of wishing "not to open windows into men's souls", and perhaps due in part to her great love for both Francis and Katherine, the Knollys's were left in peace. 

In 1568, Sir Francis was entrusted with keeping Mary Stuart, the so-called Queen of Scot's under house arrest, after she had provocatively crossed over into England without permission. Francis would guard Mary Stuart on and off, along with George Talbot, the Earl of Shrewsbury.

A detail of a portrait of George Talbot, the Earl of Shrewsbury, one of the men who guarded Mary, the so-called Queen of Scots in England. He was also Bess of Hardwick's last husband. Picture acquired through Wikimedia Commons. Image public domain.

This duty kept him away from court, and thus away from his wife and children, of whom his personal letters and life choices proved he loved very much.  Sir Francis would frequently ask permission from Queen Elizabeth to give his wife leave so that she could come and visit him, but usually his requests were denied (Weir, 271). Katherine Carey-Knollys was one of about five women that Elizabeth ever developed a close friendship with, and she preferred to keep her close. According to Ambassador Fenelon, the Queen "loved Lady Knollys above all other women in the world." Thus, Sir Francis was often at odds with his sovereign concerning quality time with his wife.

A miniature of Mary, Queen of Scots, painted by Nicholas Hilliard while she was under house arrest in England. Picture acquired through Wikimedia Commons. Image public domain.
Sadly, Katherine Carey-Knollys died on January 15th, 1569 at Hampton Court Palace with Queen Elizabeth, while Sir Francis was away guarding Mary Stuart at Bolton Castle (Weir, 271-72). Katherine was given a lavish, nearly royal burial at Westminster Abbey, paid for in part by Queen Elizabeth herself. Francis wrote of his grief over the loss of his wife while they were separated, and the Queen was equally devastated. Sir Francis never remarried.

The Western facade of Westminster Abbey. Picture acquired through Wikimedia Commons. Image public domain.
In 1572, just three years after his wife's death, Sir Francis received another honor, being appointed Treasurer of the Royal Household , a position he would hold until his death (Dictionary of National Biography).

The eldest of Sir Francis and Katherine Carey-Knollys's thirteen children, Lettice (likely named for Francis' mother) secretly married Queen Elizabeth's closest friend and favorite, Robert Dudley, Earl of Leicester in 1578. When Sir Francis found out about the nuptials, he demanded to be a witness at a second ceremony. This is understandable, given Leicester's controversial marital history, but also somewhat dangerous, seeing as it was inevitable the Queen would find out about it.

A portrait of Lettice Knollys as Countess of Leicester, c. 1585 by George Gower. Picture acquired through Wikimedia Commons. Image public domain.

And find out about it, she did. The Queen's wrath was two-fold, having been betrayed by the only man she ever loved as well as of the Knollys children, who had been like surrogate children to her (Weir). Sir Francis's new son-in-law was briefly imprisoned, and Lettice was banned forever from the royal court. Luckily, Sir Francis was not held responsible for the the poor judgement exercised by his daughter and Leicester, although his grandson, Robert Devereux, Earl of Essex, was to become a thorn in his side.

A miniature by Hilliard of Francis Knollys and Katherine Knollys's grandson, Robert Devereux, the Earl of Essex. Picture acquired through Wikimedia Commons. Image public domain.
From the 1580's through the 1590's. Knollys's Puritan beliefs put him at particular odds with Queen Elizabeth I's Archbishop of Canterbury, (1583-1603) John Whitgift (Palmer, 32). The Archbishop was entrusted with suppressing Puritan and Presbyterian non-conformity in England (Wagner, 175).

In 1593 Sir Francis Knollys entered into a prestigious brotherhood, being made a Knight of the Garter. Just three years later Sir Francis Knollys died, bringing his long and illustrious career to a close. Sir Francis and his brother-in-law, Henry Carey, 1st Baron Hunsdon died within a week of each other. The loss of two of the people Elizabeth was closest to in such a short amount of time truly devastated her (Weir, 266). Sir Francis was laid to rest at Rotherfield Greys; a memorial to his wife was erected there as well, though her body still resides in St. Edmund's chapel, Westminster Abbey.

Henry Carey, 1st Baron Hunsdon in his old age, wearing his chain of office. Picture acquired through Wikimedia Commons. Image public domain.
Sir Francis Knollys certainly enjoyed the distinction of being a part of Queen Elizabeth's family, having married one of her maternal relations, but he also earned every honor bestowed upon him. Unlike her father, Queen Elizabeth was not one for sycophancy, and "was never prone to handing out offices and favors to the undeserving, however close they were to her in blood." (Weir, 234). When Sir Francis disagreed with Queen Elizabeth on matters of state, which happened on more than one notable occasion, he did not mince words, always giving her his honest opinion. Since her accession, Elizabeth I had demanded that her Councillors always tell her the truth, even if it was not something that she necessarily wanted to hear; Sir Francis consistently lived up to that expectation, and he was rewarded because of it.


"Knollys, Francis." Dictionary of National Biography. London: Smith, Elder & Co. 1885-1900.

"Francis, Knollys." The Historical Dictionary of the Elizabethan World. Print. (By John A. Wagner)

Weir, Alison. Mary Boleyn: The Mistress of Kings. New York: Balantine Books, 2011. Print.

Palmer, Michael. Reputations: Elizabeth I. London: The Bath Press, 1988. Print.