‘The subject of much mirth and merriment’: The loves and life of Anne Vavasour

Anne Vavasour came to the court of Elizabeth I in the new year of 1580, probably with her sister Frances as a lady of the bedchamber. Anne quickly became a maid of honour but would be dismissed from the position in 1581 marking the permanent end of her court career. ‘Maid of Honour’ she was not when she suddenly gave birth to her married lover’s child in the maiden’s chamber, after concealing the pregnancy for nine months. Despite her short-lived attendance on the Queen as the lover of two prominent courtiers, Anne would be one of the most talked about ladies during her lifetime, providing the gossips with an almost constant stream of subject matter.

Anne hailed from relatively humble origins as the daughter of Henry Vavasour and Margaret Knyvet, minor gentry from Yorkshire. Although the Vavasours had no real foothold in at court, Anne’s maternal relatives, the Knyvets, were valuable connections near the Queen. It was probably through her uncle, Sir Thomas Knyvet, a gentleman of the Privy Chamber, that Anne would come to the Queen’s retinue.

Peake, Robert, c.1551-1619; Ann Vavasour (1560-1650)
Anne Vavasour by Robert Peake the Elder painted between 1580 and 1590

Like many of the time, Anne’s exact date of birth is unknown but she is thought to have been born between 1560-1563 and was around eighteen when she came to court. Elizabeth encouraged long service and rewarded faithfulness so Anne had the potential for a successful career at court. However, upon coming to court Anne very quickly attracted the attention of the thirty-year-old Earl of Oxford, Edward De Vere, an affair which would prove disastrous for them both. Oxford was an occasional favourite of the Queen, a champion jouster, an excellent poet and playwright and known patron of the arts. He was also quick to temper and had numerous quarrels at court including a long-standing enmity with the Earl of Leicester. He spent occasions under house arrest after arguing with various nobles and had on one occasion travelled abroad without the Queen’s permission invoking her ire. It was later declared to the Privy Council that Anne had fallen pregnant by February 1580 and it had been Oxford’s intent to abscond with her, offering her marriage. This may not have been entirely true as the statements were delivered by Oxford’s enemies at court, and he was already married, although separated, from Anne Cecil, the daughter of Lord Burghley. If Anne was pregnant the baby was miscarried as by July she was pregnant for certain. Successfully hiding the pregnancy for its duration, the first anybody knew of it was when Anne delivered a baby in the maiden’s chamber. Such an event was far less easily hidden and she, with the infant, was placed in the Tower of London that same night.

Anne called the child, a boy, Edward Vere and named Oxford as the father. It was thought that Oxford might attempt to escape abroad to avoid his punishment and so the ports were set to capture him if he made the attempt. Two days later, Oxford was arrested and also sent to the Tower, albeit in far better accommodation than Anne due to his station. Although Oxford never formally acknowledged Edward Vere as his son, he gave a grant of money to Anne and later settled some lands upon him. Baby Edward was removed from his mother’s care while she was in the Tower and placed with Oxford’s cousin Francis Vere.

Through the petitions of his father in law, Oxford was released from the Tower and would later reconcile with his wife. Although he was released in June 1581 Oxford remained under house arrest for another month but was barred from court for a further two years. It is unknown how long Anne was kept at the Tower but we can assume from Elizabeth’s treatment of ladies in a similar position that it was far longer than the months Oxford spent there.

Although Oxford and Anne’s affair ended, at the latest, with their incarceration it continued to have repercussions for years to come. Anne’s family, in particular, Sir Thomas Knyvet and her brother, Thomas Vavasour, had taken great offence to Oxford’s behaviour and there were frequent skirmishes between the two parties in the streets of London. Several servants on both sides were injured, as were Oxford and Knyvet themselves. An attendant in each party was also killed and as late as 1585 Anne’s brother sent a written challenge to Oxford, though it seems to have gone unanswered.

thomas vavasour
“If thy body had been as deformed as thy mind is dishonourable, my house had been yet unspotted, and thyself remained with thy cowardice unknown. I speak this that I fear thou art so much wedded to that shadow of thine that nothing can have force to awake thy base and sleepy spirits. Is not the revenge already taken of thy vildness sufficient, but wilt thou yet use unworthy instruments to provoke my unwitting mind? Or dost thou fear thyself, and therefore has sent thy forlorn kindred, whom as thou hast left nothing to inherit, so thou dost thrust them violently into thy shameful quarrels? If it be so (as I too much doubt), then stay at home thyself, and send my abusers, but if there be yet left any spark of honour in thee, or jot of regard of thy decayed reputation, use not thy birth for an excuse, for I am a gentleman, but meet me thyself alone, and thy lackey to hold thy horse.” Thomas Vavasour’s (pictured) challenge to the Earl of Oxford complete with smack talk.

By now we can assume that Anne had been released from the Tower, as it seems she was secure in the affections of another courtier, Sir Henry Lee. Lee had begun his career as a servant of fourteen in the court of Henry VIII and had risen to become a prominent gentleman under Elizabeth I, administering her residence at Woodstock and serving as her champion in tournaments. Although married to Anne Paget, they don’t appear to have been close and after three children they spent much of their time at a cordial distance. Around the time Thomas Vavasour was issuing his challenge to Oxford, Lee was commissioning a new set of armour adorned with lover’s knots and Anne Vavasour’s initials. Though it is highly unlikely this set was ever intended to be worn in front of the Queen, whose favour he was obliged to carry as her champion. When Lee’s wife died in 1590, Anne lived openly with him as his mistress and the two settled into a happy domesticity.

Anne painted in 1605 by John de Critz probably at Sir Henry Lee’s request

At some point before Anne began living with Lee, though possibly after she became his mistress, Anne married a sea captain John Finch. The circumstances of her marriage are unknown but it does not appear to have been anything more than a marriage for appearance’s sake. Her husband spent much of his recorded life abroad or at sea and no children were born to the couple. It’s possible the marriage was arranged by Anne’s family after her release from the Tower to render her respectable after the prolonged scandal of her affair with Oxford. Alternatively, as Lee paid Finch a regular pension it’s also possible Lee arranged the marriage as a front for any children he and Anne had. Indeed, their son Thomas would be known variously as Vavasour or Finch.

Although their relationship was naturally the subject of gossip and speculation, Anne and Lee lived together without any censure from court. If the Queen had an issue with the affair it was not noted – suggesting that she didn’t and she continued to favour Lee, even after his retirement. Lee continued to oversee her estate at Woodstock and the Queen visited him at his own home in Ditchley, though it is unlikely Anne was present to play hostess to her former mistress. At Ditchley, Anne’s son by Oxford came to live with them and Lee’s numerous bequests to Anne’s relatives in his will paint a picture of a relatively close-knit and happy family.

After Queen Elizabeth’s death, Lee remained a popular, if not frequently present, courtier to the new Stuart regime. In 1608 Queen Anne visited him at Ditchley and this time Anne was certainly present. She, Lee and the Queen dined together and afterwards, the two Anne’s retreated for an evening of conversation. They apparently got on so well later, the Queen presented Anne with a fine jewel valued at over a hundred pounds. Lee was overjoyed, possibly because this may have bee the first time his lover had been shown acceptance by his peers. He wrote a poem for the Queen in response and an observer remarked that the exchange had, “put such new life into the old man, to see his sweet heart so graced.’


Anne of Denmark by John de Critz, also in 1605

Anne and Lee lived together for the rest of his life. In his later years, Lee settled lands and money on her, providing for her in his will and commissioning a joint tomb that she would share with him in death. After twenty-one years at Ditchley together, Lee died in 1611. Although he left Anne well provided for and named her brother as an executor of his will, many of his bequests were challenged by his heir, a cousin also called Sir Henry Lee. Sir Henry took Anne to court on varying occasions in an attempt to recover goods he claimed she had stolen. He accused her of altering an inventory of Lee’s goods at the time of his death and absconding with jewels Lee had allegedly gifted her. Not limiting himself to his cousin’s mistress, Sir Henry also challenged some of the goods Lee left to his son by Anne and Anne’s son by Oxford.


At this point, Anne drops off the fringes of court life completely and little of her life after Lee’s death was recorded. By 1618 she had married a John Richardson (possibly because she had no contact with her first husband Finch) but Sir Henry, obviously aware of her first husband and his cousin’s arrangement with him brought her before the High Commission to face charges of bigamy. Anne was fined £2000 but spared the public penance often required of offending women. After this, Anne fades into obscurity completely. She lived until the age of ninety, a considerable age especially for the time, though we don’t know if this was beside Richardson or not. She died in 1650 though there is some confusion over where she was ultimately laid to rest. Some sources have her beside Henry Lee as he wished, but others claim the church rejected the request due to the nature of their relationship in life. If so, it’s unclear whether Anne was buried elsewhere in the chapel or if they refused her altogether. Regardless of whether she lay there or not, Lee’s tomb contained an image of her kneeling at his feet and an amusing inscription hinting at the fun they shared in life before it was lost when the church was destroyed in later years.

Here lies the good old knight Sir Harry,
Who loved well but would not marry;
While he lived and had his feeling,
She did lie and he was kneeling.
Now he’s dead and cannot feel,
He doth lie and she doth kneel.

Unfinished portrait of Sir Henry Lee in 1600

Selected Primary Sources:
BL MS Lansdowne 99/93 ff. 252-253 (Thomas Vavasour’s Challenge)
TNA PROB 11/136/511 (Thomas Vavasour’s will)
TNA SP 12/154/13 (Roger Townshend statement to the Privy Council)
TNA C 38/25 (‘The Depradations of Anne Vavasour’)
TNA PROB 11/117/490 (Henry Lee’s will)

Selected Secondary Sources:
Sir Henry Lee: Elizabethan Courtier, Dr. Sue Simpson, (2014: Ashgate)
Ladies in Waiting: From the Tudors to the Present Day, Anne Somerset, (2005: Pheonix)

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