Dictionary of National Biography, 1885-1900/Sidney, Henry (1641-1704)

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611914Dictionary of National Biography, 1885-1900, Volume 52 — Sidney, Henry (1641-1704)1897Thomas Seccombe (1866-1923)

SIDNEY or SYDNEY, HENRY, Earl of Romney (1641–1704), fourth and youngest son of Robert, second earl of Leicester [q. v.], and younger brother of Philip, third earl of Leicester [q. v.], of Dorothea Spencer, countess of Sunderland [q. v.], the well-known ‘Sacharissa,’ and of Algernon Sidney [q. v.], the republican, to whom he was junior by nineteen years, was born at Paris in the spring of 1641. Shortly after his birth his father was appointed lord lieutenant of Ireland, and he was brought over to England in October. He was the favourite of his mother Dorothy, daughter of the ninth earl of Northumberland, who at her death in 1659 left him a small estate. He was then travelling abroad under the Calvinist divine, Dr. Thomas Pierce [q. v.], in company with his nephew, a boy a few months older than himself, afterwards second earl of Sunderland. Two years later the same pair were travelling in Languedoc and Spain along with ‘Harry Savile,’ the younger brother of Halifax. By 1664 he was back in England, and making favour at court, where in the summer of 1665 he was appointed groom of the bedchamber to James, duke of York, and a few months later master of the horse to the Duchess of York. The promise given when he was a mere boy (and Lely had painted him for his mother) of being extraordinarily handsome had been amply redeemed. Reresby's verdict that he was the handsomest man of his time was affirmed by such a critic as Anthony Hamilton, who made the proviso, full of significance, that he had too little vivacity ‘pour soutenir le fracas dont menaçoit sa figure.’ He was already ‘known as a terror to husbands,’ and now he and his roguish ally, Henry Savile [q. v.], seem to have vied with each other for the favour of the duchess, who is said on her side to have taken a strong fancy to both of them. There is no doubt that in January 1666 Sidney was the cause of a serious estrangement between the duke and duchess, which was followed by his own abrupt dismissal (cf. Spence, Anecdotes, p. 249). The king, however, seems to have borne him no ill-will, as early in 1667 he was given a captaincy in the ‘Holland’ regiment. In 1672 he was sent as envoy to France, on a congratulatory mission to Louis XIV, and on 7 July 1677 he was appointed master of the robes, with a regular stipend of 500l. per annum; moreover, in February 1678 he was promoted colonel of a regiment of foot, which for some time afterwards bore his name. In 1677 his father, at his death, had left him the estate of Long Itchington in Warwickshire and 25,000l. in money. In 1679 he put up for parliament, contesting the seat of Bramber with his brother Algernon, who seems to have withdrawn in favour of his young and popular rival. He entered the house when the struggle about the Exclusion Bill was approaching its height, and, as sharing the full confidence of Sunderland, he soon obtained a measure of importance. Sunderland's plan was to bring the Prince of Orange over to England, and make him prominent in the English mind. For the express purpose of effecting this, Sidney (with the concurrence of Essex, Halifax, Shaftesbury, and Temple, who were in the scheme) was sent as envoy to the Hague. His instructions were drawn up with consummate cleverness by Sunderland, but the negotiations came to little at the time, owing to the dislocation of parties at home, consequent upon the king's illness in August 1679. Sidney nevertheless succeeded during the summer in gaining the complete confidence of the Prince of Orange. Obtuse in some respects, he was perhaps the first Englishman fully to realise the probability there was of the prince's eventually attaining the English throne.

Early in December 1680, after the rejection of the Exclusion Bill in the lords, Sidney forwarded to the king from the Prince of Orange a Dutch memorial of remonstrance. Sunderland wrote to him on 7 Dec. announcing how the paper had been received at the council. ‘The king was very angry at it, thinking the states ought not to have spoken so plainly and particularly.’ The secretary was ordered to give Sidney a caution with regard to the forwarding of such documents, and, a few months later, in June 1681, the envoy received letters of revocation. He claimed to have done the king special honour by living more like an ambassador than an envoy for as long as his mission lasted. Contrary to expectation, Charles received him kindly at Windsor on 23 June, and shortly afterwards, in accordance with the Prince of Orange's wish, he was appointed general of the British regiments in the service of Holland. He held this post until a few weeks after the accession of James, but the latter does not seem at the first to have distrusted him, as, after Monmouth's rebellion, he was sent back with Bentinck on a mission to the Hague. During 1686–7 he kept himself out of harm's way by travelling in Italy. Early in 1688, however, he was back again in England, and had renewed a long-standing intrigue with the wife of his nephew Sunderland.

In the meantime, unsuspected by the court, he was pursuing negotiations of the utmost moment. The fact that Sidney had the Prince of Orange's confidence was well known to the latter's friends in England. Though indolent and dissolute, he possessed in a rare degree the instinct of intrigue, and Burnet is probably correct in his statement that in Sidney's hands the ‘whole design’ of the invitation to the Prince of Orange was ‘chiefly deposited.’ Of his coadjutors the most prominent seems to have been Edward Russell, earl of Orford [q. v.] His success was so great that from those whom he sounded he received only one dubious answer, Halifax. He got permission to leave England, on condition of not visiting the prince, at the end of August. Disregarding his pledge, he went almost directly to the Hague in company with Zulestein, who was returning thither from the English court, whither he had been sent to congratulate James upon the birth of a son and heir. Sidney bore with him a duplicate copy of the invitation and declaration of adherence to William, signed by the members of the association which he had formed, and including the names of Danby, Shrewsbury, Devonshire, Lord Lumley, the bishop of London (Compton), and Admiral Russell. He conveyed, moreover, the secret assurances of Marlborough; while Sunderland, far from resenting his uncle's intimacy with his wife, made the countess (who communicated everything in cipher to Sidney) the medium of secret intelligence of the utmost value to William.

Together with Schomberg, Burnet, and Herbert, Sidney accompanied the expedition to Torbay. In the events of the next three months he took only a secondary part. On the day after the proclamation of William and Mary, however, he was appointed of the privy council (14 Feb. 1689), two weeks later a gentleman of the bedchamber, and on 16 March a colonel of the king's regiment of footguards. He had been returned for Tamworth in the Convention parliament, but on 9 Sept. he was raised to the peerage as Baron Milton, co. Kent, and Viscount Sydney of Sheppey. He was lord lieutenant of Kent from 1689 to 1692, and again from 1694 to 1704. He accompanied William to Ireland in 1690, was present at the Boyne, and was made one of the lords justices after having received confiscated estates, nearly 50,000 acres in extent, and to the value, it is said, of 17,000l. per annum. In December 1690 he was summoned back to England, and, to the profound mortification of Danby, now earl of Caermarthen, entrusted with the seals as secretary of state. At first Danby could hardly believe in the appointment of a person of a character so facile. When William asked him if he had met the new secretary, leaving his presence, he answered, ‘No, sir! I met nobody but my Lord Sidney.’ ‘He is the new secretary,’ said the king; ‘he will do till I find a fit man; and he will be quite willing to resign when I find such a man.’ Caermarthen remarked that it was new to see a nobleman placed in such an office as a footman was placed in a box at a theatre, merely in order to keep a seat till his betters came ({{sc|Dartmouth, Note on Burnet, ii. 5). True to his purpose, William called upon Sidney to deliver up the seals in little more than a year, and in March 1692 he was sent as lord lieutenant and governor of Ireland, a post of extreme difficulty, in the conduct of which he egregiously failed. The Irish parliament, having been summoned to assemble on 5 Oct. 1692, at once began clamouring against the indulgence meted out to the Irish catholics. Alarmed by their factious energy in the formation of grievance committees, Sidney, after a session of barely six weeks, dissolved the parliament on the ground that they were infringing the Poynings statute (An Account of the Sessions of Parliament in Ireland, London, 1693). The utmost resentment was expressed by the settlers, and protests were carried to London, with the result that William had reluctantly to recall Sidney, who was, however, consoled with the lucrative post of master-general of the ordnance (28 July 1693). Further, on 14 May 1694, he was advanced to be Earl of Romney. Next year Romney moved from his residence in Jermyn Street into St. James's Square (No. 16), and there in November 1695, in his capacity of master of ordnance, he welcomed William back to London after his country progress with a display of pyrotechnics such as had never been seen in England. The storming of Namur was represented in coloured fires and applauded in person by the king, who appeared at a window of Romney's house (Add. MS. 17677). Romney had previously (May 1691) been appointed to command all the foot in the king's absence, and from April to November 1697 he was one of the lords justices of England. Two years later the royal grants of which he had been the recipient were investigated by the house of commons, and under the resumption act he lost most of his Irish estates. From 24 June 1700 until the king's death he occupied the post of groom of the stole. Upon Anne's accession he lost his appointments, and he died (unmarried) of small-pox at his house in St. James's Square on 8 April 1704. He was buried on the 18th in the chancel of St. James's, Piccadilly, where a monument was erected. All his honours became extinct. He appointed as his heirs and executors his nephews, Thomas Pelham, Henry Pelham, and John Sidney, to whom he left his cabinets and papers. The latter descended to the Earls of Chichester, and from them ‘Henry Sidney's Diary and Letters’ (referring mainly to the period 1679–81, which they greatly help to elucidate) was edited by R. W. Blencowe (London, 2 vols. 8vo, 1843).

The important part played by Sidney at the Revolution was partly due to accident, but he had some genuine qualifications for the rôle. According to Macky, he was ‘the great wheel upon which the revolution turned.’ Swift comments that ‘he had not a wheel to turn a mouse,’ and, as for character, had none at all; but his evidence must be regarded as more partial even than usual, inasmuch as he suspected Romney of quashing a memorial which he had addressed to the king in 1699. Algernon Sidney seems to have had an opinion of his brother rather below that of Danby, but, as Blencowe remarks, he had such an exalted opinion of himself that he had little capacity for a just appreciation of others. Romney's ‘Diary’ shows that, pleasure-loving as he was, he had an exceptionally square head where his own interests were concerned, and a decided gift for conciliating people who were irritated against him. He had no scruples about taking advantage of his good looks. His later years were pestered by acrimonious letters on behalf of the numerous children for whom he refused to provide. A certain Grace Wortley, a lady of good family, to whom he allowed 50l. per annum, did her utmost to make a public scandal out of her private distress (cf. her letters in introduction to Sidney's Diary).

A portrait of Sidney as a child, with fair ringlets and presage of great beauty, by Lely, is at Penshurst; a full-length by the same artist, in semi-classical costume, with two greyhounds in leash, is the property of Earl Spencer. Another portrait in later life, by Kneller, is engraved in Doyle's ‘Official Baronage.’

[G. E. C[okayne]'s Complete Peerage; Dalton's English Army Lists, i. 218, iii. 214, 306; Collins's Sydney Papers; Ewald's Life and Times of Algernon Sydney; Sidney's Diary, ed. Blencowe; Boyer's William III, pp. 130, 199, 281 sq.; Pepys's Diary, iii. 340; Luttrell's Brief Hist. Relation, passim; Sir William Temple's Memoirs, vol. ii.; Kennet's Regist. p. 216; Memoirs of Grammont, ed. Vizetelly, ii. 103, 138, 165, 169 sq.; Burnet's Own Time, passim; Rapin's Hist. of England, iii. 400; Dalrymple's Memoirs; Swift's Works, ed. Scott, xii. 236; Hatton Correspondence, ii. 92; Macaulay's Hist. of England, 1883, i. 526, 545–7, ii. 214, 254, 330, 417–19, 539; Ranke's Hist. of England, vol. iv. passim; Christie's Life of Shaftesbury, ii. 339; Bromley's Cat. of British Portraits, p. 212; Granger's Biogr. Hist. of England, iii. 392; Cartwright's Sacharissa, pp. 78, 156, 170, 200, 208, 228, 229 sq.; Dasent's Hist. of St. James's Square, iii. 392.]

T. S.

Dictionary of National Biography, Errata (1904), p.250
N.B.— f.e. stands for from end and l.l. for last line

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Sidney, Henry, Earl of Romney: for 1675 read 1677