Born: ABT 1562
Died: 7 Jul 1607
Father: Walter DEVEREUX (1° E. Essex)
Mother: Lettice KNOLLYS (C. Essex/C. Leicester)
Married 1: Robert RICH (1º E. Warwick) 1581 DIVORCED 15 Nov 1605
1. Robert RICH (2° E. Warwick)
2. Henry RICH (1º E. Holland)
3. Charles RICH (d. 1627)
4. Lettice (Lucy) RICH
5. Penelope RICH
6. Essex RICH
7. Isabel RICH
Married 2: Charles BLOUNT (1º E. Devonshire)
8. Mountjoy BLOUNT (1° E. Newport)
9. Elizabeth BLOUNT
10. John BLOUNT
Miniature of Penelope Devereux, Baroness Rich
Tradition has it that Phillip Sidney was in the royal party when Queen Elizabeth I visited Chartley, the home of the Walter Devereux, Earl of Essex, and that Phillip first met Penelope there, and she was leter to inspire some of his finest verse. The Earl of Essex hoped to arrange a match between Phillip and his daughter Penelope but nothing came of it and on the Earl's death the girl was placed in the care of Catherine Dudley, C. Huntingdon, until she came to court in 1581. Penelope was engaged to Phillip at 14 for a period of about 4 years, but due to ill health, but on 10 Mar 1580/1 her guardian, the Earl of Huntingdon, applied through Lord Burghley for the Queen's consent to the girl's union with another suitor. The Countess succeeded in making for her the best possible marriage match; the young and eligible Lord Rich who had just succeed to his title and considerable property. The marriage proved a disaster. By contrast, Phillip Sidney's marriage in 1583 to Frances, the daughter of Lord Walsingham, turned out to be a supremely happy and blessed choice.
Sir Phillip Sidney wrote his sonnet sequence, "Astrophel and Stella", around 1582 and circulated it in manuscript. It was published in 1591, five years after his death, and became an immediate and much-imitated best seller.
"Stella" was Penelope Devereux, Lady Rich. Sidney died in 1586, immediately becoming a cult figure of astonishing dimensions: the perfect English, Christian, Renaissance knight, virtually the Protestant Saint George. Sidney's sonnets to Stella are extremely chaste; he woos her, and, taking her by surprise on one occasion, manages to steal a kiss, but she is true to her husband. Sidney's incredible cult lasted through the seventeenth century. It flagged a bit in the eighteenth, but revived mightily in the Victorian age.
From the time Sidney died through the late seventeenth century, biographical books and articles kept appearing, none of which mentioned Penelope, Lady Rich. These included an inspiring account of Sidney's last days, written by George Gifford, a clergyman who attended at his bedside. Gifford wrote that Sidney was insufficiently sure of salvation, but then God delivered him: "There came to my remembrance a vanity wherein I had taken delight, whereof I had not rid myself. But I rid myself of it, and presently my joy and comfort returned within a few hours". In 1964, Jean Robertson found a manuscript version of Gifford's memoir, and discovered that between these two sentences was a third which had been deleted from the published versions: "It was my lady Rich".
In 1638 Anne Bradstreet of Massachusetts, a distant cousin of Sidney's, wrote a poem in his praise which was published in London in 1650. The poem mentions their kinship, describes Stella and mildly condemns her, but insists that her love for Sidney was not adulterous. Bradstreet died in 1677, and her poems were republished in Boston in 1678; the reference to kinship to Sidney had been removed as had been the attack on Stella. The revised version cites Spenser's claim that Stella was Sidney's wife.
Penelope and Dorothy Devereux
Lady Rich's reputation went the other way.
Beautiful and highly educated, she was shoved into an arranged marriage with the
dull and detestable Lord Rich in 1581 when she was only 18. While bearing her
husband five children in nine years, she managed to be active in society and
politics, and in time became a patron of poets.
In 1590 she took as her lover the dashing Charles Blount, Lord Mountjoy, by whom she had six more children. Her husband acquiesced in her adultery, being in awe of her brother, the Earl of Essex. After the latter's execution in 1601, Lord Rich cast his wife out. Meanwhile, Mountjoy had replaced Essex as commander in Ireland and was methodically destroying the rebellion that had cost Essex his reputation. When King James came to the throne in 1603, Mountjoy returned from Ireland as a hero, and Lady Rich moved in with him as his wife. Mountjoy and Lady Rich had both supported the cause of James, and he made them favored courtiers, promoting both, and seemingly indifferent to their blatant adultery. Mountjoy became Earl of Devonshire; Lady Rich, daughter of a junior Earl and wife of a junior baron, was given precedence of all barons' wives and almost all earls' daughters.
The Jesuit Father John Gerard attempted to convert her during his years in the Catholic underground in England, but was foiled by Devonshire. After his return to the Continent in 1606, Gerard wrote a Latin account of his missionary work, intended for confidential use within the Jesuit order. It was published in 1870. He described his dealings with Lady Rich and the scandal of her affair with Devonshire, but named neither of them. She is called a "sister to the Earl of Essex"; Devonshire is identified as the conqueror of Ireland. Lady Rich and Lord Devonshire were openly named and their scandal was discussed by a contemporary historian, Robert Johnston, but his Latin account was published in the Netherlands in 1655. George Abbot, Archbishop of Canterbury wrote a lengthy essay on political and religious affairs in 1627 which was published in 1659. Abbot has a paragraph on the scandal, but calls the participants "the Earl of D" and "the Lady R". Peter Heylyn published a biography of Archbishop William Laud in 1668; Laud had been Devonshire's chaplain in 1605 and conducted the illegal marriage of the two lovers. Heylyn does name names, but the whole point of his account is that lady Rich's 1581 marriage was improper, hence she and Devonshire could rightfully wed.
As early as 1589 she began a secret correspondence with the King of Scotland. When her brother fell out of royal favor, Penelope aggravated matters with a saucy letter to the Queen. After the execution of her brother, Robert Devereux, Earl of Essex in 1601, her husband, by her own statement, abandoned her. Thereforth, she lived in open adultery with Lord Mountjoy, but suffered no loss of esteem at court in consequence. Even though Penelope had twice been put under restraint in the past for defending her brother and even though Essex blamed her for inciting him to rebellion, she was not severely punished. Penelope maintained that she had been more like a slave than a sister to Essex and had done what he told her to out of love for him. She was released into Lord Rich’s care.
When James became king in 1603, Penelope was appointed a lady of the bedchamber to Queen Anne. King James I granted her on 17 Aug 1603 'the place and rank of the ancientest Earl of Essex, called Bourchier, whose heir her father was'. By this grant she took precedence of all the baronesses of the kingdom, and of the daughters of all earls, except Arundel, Oxford, Northumberland, and Shrewsbury.
In 1605 Lord Rich sued for divorce, and Lady Rich confessed to committing adultery with a stranger. Lord Rich wanted a new wife, and Lady Rich and Devonshire wanted to marry and legitimize their children. Divorce was granted, but remarriage was forbidden, and legitimizing the children was out of the question. King James was infuriated by the divorce proceedings, banished Lady Rich from his court, and reprimanded Devonshire. The two lovers made an illegal marriage and continued to live as husband and wife until Devonshire died in Apr 1606. Penelope converted to Roman Catholicism late in life. Her former husband, Lord Rich, was at her side when she died in Jul 1607. She was buried in a London church without any marking on her grave. The register simply recorded the burial of "A Lady Devereux".
Devonshire's will provided quite generously for all five of his children. Sylvia Freedman's book also shows that Lady Rich's two sets of children did not overlap, as had previously been believed. She broke off marital relations with Rich before taking up with Blount. The false belief that Lady Rich mingled her husband and lover, and was not even faithful to the letter, caused her to seem more wicked than ever. To many Victorians and some post-Victorians, Lady Rich's scarlet sins absolutely proved that the saintly Sidney could have had nothing to do with her.
James had no objection to adultery among his nobles. But he did expect them to maintain appearances, and was enraged when one of them publicly admitted her offense. After her divorce Lady Rich was regarded as a notorious woman. But that made it all the more important to prevent her name from contaminating the cult of Sir Phillip Sidney.Lady Rich's oldest legitimate son had become the Earl of Warwick, Lord High Admiral of England and a leading figure among the Parliamentary forces opposing King Charles. Her other legitimate son was the Earl of Holland, a powerful politician who kept changing sides, until Parliament settled things by beheading him in 1649. Lady Rich's oldest illegitimate son was the Earl of Newport, a general fighting for the King.
Other families might also have taken umbrage at full disclosure of the story of Astrophel and Stella. Sidney, a moderate Puritan, was a hero to both sides. and his widow's children had a stake in his reputation, if only to deny that he wronged their mother by loving Lady Rich during his marriage negotiations. Frances Walsingham's older son was the Earl of Essex (he was also Lady Rich's nephew), a leading Parliamentary general, while her younger son was the Marquess of Clanricard, one of the King's strongest supporters in Ireland. Frances Walsingham's daughter by her Irish husband was the Marchioness of Winchester, a heroine of the Royalist cause in England. Another man who might have taken offense was the Countess of Pembroke's son, Sidney's nephew and godson, the Earl of Pembroke and Montgomery, a political supporter of the Parliament. lastly there was Sidney's brother's son, the Earl of Leicester, the then head of the House of Sidney. He was disaffected from the King but wouldn't oppose him, so he stayed neutral, while his son and heir, Viscount Lisle, was active in support of Parliament.
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