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  • Kristin Bundesen, PhD

Elizabeth Knollys Leighton

In 1593, Elizabeth Knollys Leighton wrote Julius Caesar, judge at the Court of Admiralty suggesting that he rule in favor of one Lambert, a victim of the Beggars of New Haven. In case Judge Caeser should have any doubts about the outcome she helpfully enclosed letters from the Privy Council regarding this matter. As a trusted and senior lady-in-waiting, she was part of the well-oiled political machinery of the Elizabethan court and used her position to advantage including staying on top of Privy Council business.

Sir Francis Knollys. Note the elephant atop the Garter Arms in the upper left hand corner.

Elizabeth Knollys the year before she wed Thomas Leighton. In the upper left hand corner, is the Knollys badge of an elephant surrounded by her initials and under that, the Knollys coat of arms, three red roses on a chevron.

Elizabeth was the daughter of Sir Francis Knollys and Katherine Carey Knollys. Her grandmother was Mary Boleyn. If you believe that William Carey was the father of Mary Boleyn’s children then Elizabeth was not only the queen’s god-daughter but her first cousin once removed. However, if you believe Mary Boleyn’s children were fathered by King Henry VIII, then Elizabeth Knollys was the queen’s half-neice.

Elizabeth Knollys was nine years old when she was granted livery for the queen’s coronation as a maid of the court. She was promoted to Lady of the Privy Chamber when she was not quite 16.  Eleven years later, Elizabeth married Sir Thomas Leighton on 10 May 1578. Theirs was one of only two marriages that took place in the Chapel Royal during the queen’s reign. It is likely the queen was in attendance. Their relatively advanced years for a first marriage, she was 28, he was 43, suggests that this was not a match based on youthful passion or parental strategy but on mutual respect and friendship that had grown over time spent together at court.  The couple split their time between court and the Isle of Guernsey of which Thomas was governor. They had three children, two who lived to maturity.

Elizabeth Knollys, later Leighton, daughter of Sir Francis Knollys and Katherine Carey Knollys. Katherine Carey is shown as daughter of Mary Boleyn and Henry VIII as I maintain Mary’s children were fathered by the king.

Elizabeth carried on extensive correspondence covering broad areas of administration and supply with her husband’s deputy on Guernsey, Edward Zouche. These letters fill several volumes in the British Library archives and include evidence of her ordering military supplies for the Isle. When her father’s job as comptroller of the royal household was in jeopardy, it was Elizabeth’s timely advice that allowed her father to mount a successful defense of his position resulting in the appointment of two additional deputies to manage his workload. She was Robert Devereux, earl of Essex’s strongest advocate with the queen, who relied on her to maintain his special relationship with the aging monarch.

In the run-up to the Armada, she received funds to support the military efforts, issuing receipts for the sums in her own name on behalf of the queen. She also managed the more traditional lady-in-waiting task of receiving New Year’s gifts on behalf of the queen for over 20 years.

In the aftermath of the queen’s death, Elizabeth’s family was caught in the rush to gain household posts and honors from the new monarch. However, Elizabeth and Thomas seemed to have either avoided this or were overlooked as their role in the new Stuart monarchy was much diminished perhaps due to their Puritan sympathies.

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