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Dr. Nicola Tallis on Queen Elizabeth’s Surprise Rival

As a lover of history, I was delighted to catch up with Nicola at this year’s Emirates Literature Festival. We talked about the Tudor period in general, and then dived deeper into various pivotal characters of the era… Did you know that Lady Jane Grey was Queen of England for 13 days and then executed at the age of 17? Shocking stuff.

Nicola’s first book, Crown of Blood: The Deadly Inheritance of Lady Jane Grey, was published in 2016 after five years of research.

Her more recent book, Elizabeth’s Rival: The Tumultuous Tale of Lettice KnollysCountess of Leicester, is the first biography of the extraordinary and scandalous Tudor lady. Lettice Knollys was Queen Elizabeth’s cousin and she went on to marry the love of Elizabeth’s life, Robert Dudley. In secret. What happened next surprised me…

You can find Dr. Nicola Tallis on Twitter and at

Please get in touch and let us know what you think of the episode or the show. By email, Instagram, Twitter or LinkedIn. Thank you!

Read the Transcript

Note: While When Women Win is produced as an audio recording, we are delighted to produce transcripts for those who are unable to hear. Kindly note that these are generated using a combination of speech recognition software and human transcribers, and may contain errors. Media is encouraged to check the corresponding audio before quoting in print.

Rana Nawas: (00:00)
Good morning from Saudi Arabia. Today’s intro is coming to you from my hotel room while I’m on a business trip. So this episode is for lovers of history, specifically English Tudor history, the period of King Henry VIII and his daughter, Queen Elizabeth. This was a really tumultuous period where the immense power of the Catholic Church started to crack as Britain broke free and established their own church. Lots of heads were chopped off during this period and there was a ton of institutional change too. My personal relationship with King Henry VIII began at birth. I was born in an English town called the royal town of Sutton Coldfield which has a population of about a hundred thousand and its closest city is Birmingham. If you Wiki it, you’ll see that Sutton has a lot of history and one of the people who helped set its course and actually rescue it from decay was King Henry VIII. Later in life, I got my university degree from Oxford, specifically Christ Church College. It was King Henry VIII who founded Christ Church College in 1546. I’m a lover of history and always have been. It was one of my favorite subjects at school. So when I heard the British historian, Nicola Tallis, was going to be at the Emirates Literature Festival, I was really eager to interview her. Nicola is a Lecture and Historical Researcher who’s written two books about the Tudor era. We’ll talk about them both during this interview, but the big surprise for me was that Queen Elizabeth had a cousin who may actually have been her half-sister. We’re not sure. And this Lady Lettice secretly married Queen Elizabeth’s favourite Coacher, Robert Dudley. What happened next? It may not surprise you, but I didn’t know that Queen Elizabeth actually punched her ladies in waiting if they made her angry. Wow! In Tudor terms, she bucked their ears. So let’s get into it.

Rana Nawas: (02:05)
Nicola, I am delighted to welcome you on When Women Win while you’re here in Dubai for the Emirates Literature Festival.

Nicola Tallis: (02:12)
Thank you so much for having me!

Rana Nawas: (02:13)
Before we start talking about your incredible work, we need to set the record straight on timelines in British History. So what years do people mean when they say Tudor era or Elizabethan era?

Nicola Tallis: (02:27)
Yeah. Okay. So Tudor era is technically 1485 to 1683 when Elizabeth I died and Elizabethan is 1558, when Elizabeth succeeded, to 1683.

Rana Nawas: (02:41)
Gotcha. Okay. Thank you for that. All right, now you’re here, the lymph has to talk about your second book; Elizabeth’s Rival: The Tumultuous Tale of Lettice Knollys. It’s the first ever biography of this Lady. Who was she?

Nicola Tallis: (03:01)
Well, on the surface at least, she reported to be Elizabeth I’s cousin because her mother, Catherine Carey, was the daughter of Mary Boleyn, who was the sister of the infamous Anne Elizabeth I’s mother. But there is actually good evidence to suggest that Catherine, Lettice’s mother, was the product of her mother’s affair with Henry VIII. So if that was actually the case, then Lettice and Elizabeth were more closely related than either of them would have been able to openly admit to.

Rana Nawas: (03:35)
Okay. And so apart from this relation, how do they live or interact together?

Nicola Tallis: (03:39)
Certainly during their childhoods, although it’s important to say that Elizabeth was 10 years older than Lettice, they got on really well together and were very close to one another. Unfortunately in 1578, it all went badly wrong.

Rana Nawas: (03:56)
What happened?

Nicola Tallis: (03:57)
So that was when Lettice made the drastic decision to marry the Queen’s favourite and one time suitor, Robert Dudley, Earl of Leicester. And both she and Leicester knew that they were taking a huge gamble by marrying because of the favour that Leicester was held in by the Queen. And so for that reason, they married in secret. And, unfortunately, the secret was very badly kept almost from the beginning. It was probably about 10 months after it took place that Elizabeth dealt with the crushing blow of the news that her favourite was married to a kinswoman and she was utterly heartbroken and outraged at the same time.

Rana Nawas: (04:47)
Why would they marry? I thought Robert Dudley was in love with Elizabeth.

Nicola Tallis: (04:51)
Well, was he in love with her or…? We don’t know. I think he probably did, he did love her in some respects. And you’re quite right. He actually spent about 20 years chasing after her to try and persuade her to marry him, a bit less than 20 years actually, but as we all know, Elizabeth remained unmarried until the end of her life. And so Robert Dudley was unsuccessful with this but it didn’t prevent him and Elizabeth from having some kind of relationship, but the precise nature of that we don’t really know. But I think by 1578, he had pretty much given up all hope.

Rana Nawas: (05:32)
Well, he’d waited 20 years so…

Nicola Tallis: (05:34)
Yeah, it wasn’t going to happen. So exactly, if you can’t marry the Queen then who better than her kinswoman and I’m sure there was a bit more to than that. I think it certainly helped that Lettice was believed to be one of the best looking ladies of the court. That was how she was described by the Spanish ambassador. And so I think that she did very strongly resemble Elizabeth in looks. But I think that there was a true passion between them and they fell in love and wanted to marry.

Rana Nawas: (06:09)
Married in secret, secret got found out, Elizabeth heartbroken. What happened next?

Nicola Tallis: (06:13)
So Leicester was immediately banished from court and told to lie low, but forgive him within a matter of months, very quickly. For Lettice, there was to be no such luck because she was summoned into the Queens presence at the palace of Whitehall and we’re told that this dramatic confrontation between the two women played out where Elizabeth, in no uncertain terms, told Lettice that as but one sun lightened the Earth, she would have but one Queen of England, she box her ears and forbade from the court.

Rana Nawas: (06:51)
When you say “boxed her ears”, you mean she punched her?

Nicola Tallis: (06:53)
So we’re told yeah, she was punched, by the Queen. And Elizabeth, we do know that she did do this to some of her ladies on occasion. So it would not surprise me one bit if that part of the story is true.

Rana Nawas: (07:06)
I did not know Queen Elizabeth punched her ladies in waiting.

Nicola Tallis: (07:09)
Yeah, yeah, yeah. She has been named; she was known to do that.

Rana Nawas: (07:14)
Okay. So what surprised you most while researching this book?

Nicola Tallis: (07:18)
I think it was that I got to see a completely different side to Elizabeth because we see so much of Elizabeth as Elizabeth, the Queen, the celebrated Tudor monarch, one of the first and most successful female monarchs in our history. But when you strip all that away, she was a human being, like the rest of us. And I got to see more of Elizabeth the woman and it was not always a pretty picture. So yeah, I definitely got to see a more human side to her, which really surprised me and it was quite refreshing.

Rana Nawas: (07:56)
I’d like to ask you about your first book as well, “A Crown of Blood: The Deadly Inheritance of Lady Jane Grey.” Who was Lady Jane Grey? You can see here that I am a history buff myself. So who was Lady Jane Grey?

Nicola Tallis: (08:10)
So Lady Jane Grey was a cousin of Elizabeth II and Elizabeth’s two half siblings, Edward VI and Marry I. She was the great niece of Henry VIII. And that’s a really good question actually, who was she? Because actually, she was proclaimed Queen in 1553, lots of people were asking exactly the same question because nobody really had any idea who she was or where she came from. And you know, it’s not surprising really because in an age when people very rarely travelled more than a couple of miles outside their town or their city and of course there was no social media or television in the same way that we have today. Nobody had any idea who this woman or this girl was, who’d been proclaimed Queen. But yeah, she did have royal blood, but she was of “lesser value,” you can say, than Elizabeth.

Rana Nawas: (09:05)
And what was her story?

Nicola Tallis: (09:07)
So she was the granddaughter of Henry VI’s younger sister, Mary. She had a quite childhood in The Bradgate Park in the Leicestershire countryside, where she was raised with her two younger sisters, Katherine and Mary. And she was fiercely intelligent, lots of people writing about how clever this girl was. And that’s quite remarkable in itself because at a time when women very rarely feature in the sources, let alone teenage girls in distant Leicestershire, the fact that people were writing as far away as Europe about her and her intelligence is really quite astonishing. So, she was a very intelligent girl and also very pious. She was a great advocate of Protestantism and she didn’t really come to the fall until 1553 and that was when Edward VI, who was then 15 years old, fell greatly ill and because he wasn’t married and didn’t have any children of his own, thoughts began to turn to the succession and who is to succeed him. Edward was a fervent Protestant and he’d spent his whole reign trying to impose all of these stringent religious reforms on his subjects and he was well aware that the next in line to the throne technically was his half-sister Mary, who was a Catholic. And he didn’t want to give Mary the opportunity to reverse all of his good work for the cause of Protestantism, so technically lots of people say that even if he overlooked Mary, why couldn’t he have appointed Elizabeth? But he couldn’t really get rid of one half-sister without also getting rid of the other. And so both sisters were written out of Edwards will and instead he made Lady Jane Grey, his cousin, his heir and he felt confident that with her enthusiasm for Protestantism as well, she would continue all of his good work. But unfortunately, it all went very badly wrong for Jane. She didn’t have any support really, certainly not from the English people because like I said, nobody really knew who she was. And unfortunately, people often say that she was “the 9 days Queen,” but actually, she reigned for 13 days.

Rana Nawas: (11:36)
Oh my.

Nicola Tallis: (11:36)
Not that that makes it any better. But yes, after 13 days, her reign came to an end when she was crushed by Mary, Henry Gate’s daughter, and Mary’s forces. She was imprisoned in the Tower of London. She was made to stand trial for her life as was her husband. They were both, bear in mind though, only 16 or 17 at that time, probably 17. So they were very young. They were both condemned for treason. So, Lady Jane Grey became the youngest royal woman to be condemned for treason. But despite this, it seems like there was still hope for, not a happy outcome, but a more positive outcome because Mary seemed determined to spare Jane. But unfortunately for Jane, just a few months after Mary’s succession, her father became embroiled in a rebellion to topple Mary I. And this really sealed Jane’s fate on, so unfortunately she was executed at the age of 17 in 1554.

Rana Nawas: (12:48)
Oh wow!

Nicola Tallis: (12:48)

Rana Nawas: (12:48)
Oh my. And so Mary was queen at the time and when did Elizabeth come to this one?

Nicola Tallis: (12:54)
Elizabeth came to the throne not that long after, in 1558.

Rana Nawas: (12:58)
Gosh, this is morbid stuff you deal with on a daily basis.

Nicola Tallis: (13:03)
I know. It could so easily have ended that way for Elizabeth as well, actually.

Rana Nawas: (13:06)
Yeah? Tell me more about that.

Nicola Tallis: (13:07)
Well actually, on the same day, so this same rebellion that Lady Jane Grey’s father had become embroiled in the plan, which was to topple Mary and replace her with Elizabeth. And on the same day that Lady Jane Grey was executed, Elizabeth was not exactly arrested, but she began on the first stage of her journey to the Tower of London, to be interrogated over her involvement in this conspiracy. And so, she too spent some time in the tower as a prisoner. But fortunately for her, she survived to tell the tale because there was no evidence found against her and she was eventually released into sort of house imprisonment to start with, before Mary eventually set her at her liberty. So she had also had quite a turbulent time before she became Queen.

Rana Nawas: (13:57)
It’s interesting that Mary chose to spare her.

Nicola Tallis: (14:00)
Yeah, I think that there would have been a huge outcry if she had decided to execute her, more so than with Jane because Elizabeth was extremely popular with the English people and she was also very clever and the likelihood is that she certainly knew about this rebellion, which her name had been linked with, but she had never committed any of her thoughts to paper and she’d been very noncommittal in her verbal answers. So, I think there was nothing that Mary could pin on her really. So she had no choice but to let her go.

Rana Nawas: (14:33)
And something I’ve read, you talk about Lady Jane Grey’s mother. Why was she interesting?

Nicola Tallis: (14:39)
Very many reasons. That was where it all started for me actually – with her. Over the centuries, her reputation has been somewhat blackened and it’s because there were accusations that she was a terrible mother who beat Jane and her daughters. So that was something that really drew my attention to her because I wanted to find out if there was any truth to this. For my own part, I don’t think that there was actually, but again, she is the only one actually who really survived from the scandal around Lady Jane Grey, unscathed and went on to live the rest of her life quite happily.

Rana Nawas: (15:20)
You mentioned something about rumours or you know, certain things being used to blacken the reputation of women. We know what happens today. We know what happens today, whether it’s presidents or leaders in business, using women’s sexuality against them or you know, just making demeaning remarks or reducing a woman’s whole contribution to society, to something physical. Did this happen back in the day? Back in the 1500’s?

Nicola Tallis: (16:02)
Yeah. Yeah. Very much so. More say with a woman’s morals. That was the easy way for a man to take a great woman really was to say that she was promiscuous. And you know, we see evidence of this with Elizabeth I as well where somebody, one source even claimed at one point that she wasn’t this Virgin Queen she had set herself up to be and that she actually had an illegitimate son. And at one point, this son actually emerges and claims that he was the result of Elisabeth’s affair with one of her coaches. Complete nonsense.

Rana Nawas: (16:43)
Oh, really?

Nicola Tallis: (16:44)
Yeah. Yeah. No evidence at all that that was the case, but it was the easy way to blacken a woman’s reputation, I suppose, by saying that she had lots of sexual partners or that she had been promiscuous in some way.

Rana Nawas: (17:00)
It’s funny, you know, the concept survives through the centuries, but the words have changed.

Nicola Tallis: (17:04)

Rana Nawas: (17:05)
Like in the 16th century, she was degraded by being called promiscuous. You know, in the 1980s, she’s degraded by being called ambitious and aggressive.

Nicola Tallis: (17:18)
Yes. Yeah, that’ true.

Rana Nawas: (17:19)
Today, there’s more. It just takes on a different sort of disguise.

Nicola Tallis: (17:24)
Yeah, yeah. Absolutely.

Rana Nawas: (17:24)
How do you choose the subjects of your books? You know, how do you decide who to write about?

Nicola Tallis: (17:30)
With Lady Jane Grey, that was something that had been a labour of love of mine for a really long time. So, that one was quite an easy one for me. And she is somebody who lots of people recognize the name but don’t really know a lot about, so hadn’t been over commercialized, I suppose. With Lettice, anyone who reads Tudor history will know that finding a subject in that period that hasn’t been written about is gold dust. It is amazing. And so I sort of stumbled across that whilst I was writing Lady Jane Grey and I was visiting St Mary’s Church in Warrick, which is where Lettice is buried. And I was admiring this wonderful double team that she shares with Robert Dudley and thinking I don’t know anything about this woman and I’m really interested to know more about her. And that was how it all came about. It turned out that there was a good reason why I didn’t know anything about her. And I was really shocked because it’s a really explosive story. So that was how I came to that.

Rana Nawas: (18:35)
Yeah. Queen Elizabeth’s cousin, who married Queen Elizabeth’s love. That’s pretty explosive.

Nicola Tallis: (18:41)
Yeah, absolutely.

Rana Nawas: (18:42)
How do you actually physically research these historical figures? I mean, we’re talking about stuff that happened 400 years ago or 500 years ago.

Nicola Tallis: (18:50)
Yeah. Yeah. It’s always a challenge when working with the past because in some cases there is more evidence than others and there’s always frustrating gaps in the sources. So you’ve just got to try and work with what you’ve got to try and build up as accurate of a picture as you possibly can. Lady Jane Grey was more difficult because I think, about two or three of her letters survived, but there were lots of other people that were writing about her, but not very much about her, like sometimes you might see an ambassador who wrote that Lady Jane Grey was executed on this day and that’s it. A lot of what was written about her came after her death, so that was quite challenging. But with Lettice, we’ve got about 30 of her surviving letters, which is quite extraordinary. And from those, you know, we can get a pretty good idea of what her character was like. And again, that in itself is quite interesting because most of her letters were written to her eldest son Robert. And so we can see what she was like as a mother, which was quite annoying on occasion because she was constantly nagging at him for not coming to visit her enough, not responding to her letters, he was being really lazy and…

Rana Nawas: (20:07)
Oh My God, these are conversations that happen today.

Nicola Tallis: (20:09)
Exactly. Exactly. So again, I think that’s another thing with the Tudor period. It’s just really relatable. But yeah, you’re exactly right. That is so typical of what we see today with mothers and their teenage sons, so it’s really interesting. And then you can see, if you look at her letters, you’ll see that she writes about business. She was very forceful and definitely a force to be reckoned with. She wasn’t a pushover by any means.

Rana Nawas: (20:33)
Lady Jane Grey?

Nicola Tallis: (20:33)
Sorry, no. Lettice.

Rana Nawas: (20:36)
So you get a lot of your information from letters that these people wrote. What are the historians of 200 years from now going to do when there’s no written evidence of anything? And we’re all writing e-mails and sending voice notes…

Nicola Tallis: (20:48)
You know, that is such a good question. Such a good question because you’re right, historians in the future are going to have to be looking at people’s social media accounts and all sorts of things. And it is quite sad in some ways that we don’t write letters anymore and that everything is so technology based. So, the simple answer is I don’t know, I really don’t know.

Rana Nawas: (21:13)
Your thesis was entitled “All the Queen’s Jewels: 1445 to 1548.”

Nicola Tallis: (21:18)

Rana Nawas: (21:20)
What was the role of jewelry during this period?

Nicola Tallis: (21:23)
It has such a pivotal role to play because it really was a part of a Queen’s personality and of her central identity. And it really helped to reinforce the image of magnificence that a Queen had. And, you know, the jewels were used for so many different things: they were used for display, obviously, but they could also be used as gifts in order to try and cement somebody’s loyalty and as bribes as well. We see a couple of examples of that during this period. They had a more symbolic role in terms of the crown jewels that a Queen would wear at her coronation. So, they played all sorts of roles that were all a fundamental part of being a Queen in that period.

Rana Nawas: (22:13)
And did different queens have different tastes or different sort of styles?

Nicola Tallis: (22:18)
Yeah, very much so. So, you can see, even though it’s a near period of a hundred years, just say a hundred years, that that fashion has very rapidly changed during that time. And at the start of the period, jewels are quite simplistic and by the end you see, with Catherine Parr, that she was quite often playing a role in designing her jewels and that they’ve quite often got royal themes, you see lots of crowns and you see lots of initials as well. She was very fond of initial jewels. We often think of Ann Berlin today, as being the most iconic Queen of the Tudor period, who wore initial jewels with her famous A and B necklaces. But actually that was a trend that was carried through by most of Henry VIII wives and particularly Catherine Parr who was really fond of initial jewels as well.

Rana Nawas: (23:09)
Interesting. Sounds like I got to get me one.

Nicola Tallis: (23:11)

Rana Nawas: (23:13)
Although if it’s Henry VIII’s wives, I’m not sure it would go well.

Nicola Tallis: (23:14)
Yeah. Maybe not.

Rana Nawas: (23:18)
Which woman in history do you feel you most relate to?

Nicola Tallis: (23:21)
Henry VIII’s last wife, Catherine Parr, who is my favourite of all of the wives and I find her really fascinating. And the reason being, I think she was just so ambitious and so driven and despite the fact that she was obviously a woman in a male dominated world, she didn’t let that dictate who she was or her identity. She was the first Queen of England to publish two books. So I think that sort of gave me a huge admiration and respect for her, that she was able to do that against all odds. And I sort of feel in a similar situation, where against all odds, I’ve actually been able to do the same thing; published two books.

Rana Nawas: (24:07)
Yeah. Now you weren’t encouraged to become a historian. How did you become one? What was your path?

Nicola Tallis: (24:16)
What was my path? It wasn’t a straight forward one at all. So yeah, as you say, I’ve always loved history, but when I was at school, my history teacher didn’t see a future in it for me at all and had just kind of said to me, “no, you really need to think of something else because you just won’t be able to do this.”

Rana Nawas: (24:39)
A he or a she?

Nicola Tallis: (24:39)
A he. Yep. And I went and trained as a beautician. It was okay, but it wasn’t what I was wanting to do really. And then I ripped a ligament in my wrist. And when I was at home with a plastic cast, I thought, what am I going to do with myself? And I began to read other people’s books, history books, and it really reignited my passion and my enthusiasm and I thought, well, it’s now or never. So, I was fortunate enough to get a place at university and I worked really hard any came out of it with a first class degree. So I was very fortunate. And then I went onto my Masters and my PhD.

Rana Nawas: (25:26)
You finished your PhD?

Nicola Tallis: (25:27)
I finished my PhD, yes!

Rana Nawas: (25:29)
Now tell me, have you written to that teacher?

Nicola Tallis: (25:31)
As soon as I published my first book, I wrote to that teacher saying, “this is my book! Here we go.”

Rana Nawas: (25:39)
“I think I made it.”

Nicola Tallis: (25:40)
Yeah, exactly, exactly. He’s still at the same school.

Rana Nawas: (25:43)
Oh Wow!. It’s great that he didn’t crush your spirit.

Nicola Tallis: (25:47)
No, I know. I never got a reply to my letter.

Rana Nawas: (25:49)
Nicola, this has been such a delight. Thank you so much. Where can listeners find your work or buy your books?

Nicola Tallis: (25:57)
They can find them online, on Amazon or any good bookstore. They are all over the place, hopefully, these days.

Rana Nawas: (26:04)
Great. We’ll put some links in the show notes.

Nicola Tallis: (26:06)
Thank you. Thank you for having me!

Rana Nawas: (26:09)
I hope you enjoyed today’s episode. I’d love to hear from you, so please head over to to give feedback. While you’re there, you can find all episodes and show notes and sign up for our monthly newsletter. Wherever you’re listening right now, do remember to hit the subscribe button to be notified of future episodes and please write a review when you can, to let others know what to expect. Thanks, and have a great day!

End Of Transcript