Dictionary of National Biography, 1885-1900/Sidney, Robert (1595-1677)

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611920Dictionary of National Biography, 1885-1900, Volume 52 — Sidney, Robert (1595-1677)1897Charles Harding Firth

SIDNEY, ROBERT, second Earl of Leicester (1595–1677), eldest surviving son of Robert Sidney, first earl of Leicester [q. v.], by his first wife, Barbara, daughter and heiress of John Gamage of Coity, Glamorganshire, was born on 1 Dec. 1595 (Collins, Sydney Papers, i. 120; Doyle, Official Baronage, ii. 347). Sidney matriculated at Christ Church, Oxford, on 27 Feb. 1607, was made a knight of the Bath on 3 June 1610, and was admitted to Gray's Inn on 25 Feb. 1618 (Foster, Alumni Oxon. i. 1449; Gray's Inn Register, p. 149). His father, who was governor of Flushing, gave him the command of a company of foot there (July 1614), and he became colonel of a regiment in the Dutch service two years later (May 1616). He represented Wilton in the parliament of 1614, Kent in that of 1621, and Monmouthshire in 1624 and 1625. After 1618 he was styled Lord Lisle, and succeeded his father as Earl of Leicester on 13 July 1626 (Doyle).

In 1616 Sidney married Dorothy Percy, daughter of Henry, ninth earl of Northumberland, a marriage which led to a close friendship between Algernon Percy, tenth earl, and Sidney, and greatly influenced his subsequent political career (Fonblanque, Annals of the House of Percy, ii. 341). Incidentally it also led to a violent quarrel between Sidney and James Hay, viscount Doncaster, who had married Lucy Percy, which is related at length by Sidney (Collins, i. 121, ii. 371).

Leicester's first public employment was his embassy to Christian IV of Denmark and to the Duke of Holstein (September to November 1632). The exact journal of his embassy, with observations on the king, court, and country which Leicester drew up, Collins promises but fails to print (Sydney Papers, i. 128, ii. 370). James Howell [q. v.], who was Leicester's secretary, gives an account of the incidents of the mission, describing the ‘stoutness’ with which Leicester drank with the Danish king, and praising the swiftness with which he despatched his diplomatic business (Howell, Letters, ed. Jacobs, pp. 294–305, 651, 675).

Leicester's second public employment was his embassy to France, whither he was sent in May 1636. He remained there till May 1641, returning to England for five months in April 1639. His despatches during this mission are printed at length, and contain an interesting picture of the French court; but as the object of Charles I was to obtain French aid in the recovery of the palatinate without giving any adequate return to France, the results of the embassy were of the most trifling description (Collins, i. 129, ii. 374–662; Gardiner, History of England, viii. 61–3). On his return to England Leicester was admitted to the privy council (5 May 1639), and in the following November Strafford, Northumberland, and the queen urged Charles to appoint him secretary of state in place of Sir John Coke. The appointment would have been popular. ‘Leicester, like Northumberland, belonged to that section of the nobility which was distinctly protestant without being puritan, and which was disposed to support the king against rebellion without favouring an arbitrary exertion of the prerogative.’ But Leicester, by his conduct towards French protestantism, had earned for himself the reputation of puritanism, and Laud's hostility was fatal to his candidature (ib. ix. 85; Collins, ii. 618, 623; Blencowe, p. 261; Clarendon, Rebellion, ed. Macray, iv. 41 n.)

On 14 June 1641 Leicester was appointed lord-lieutenant of Ireland in succession to Strafford (Doyle, ii. 348; Gardiner, x. 47). He delayed to start for Ireland, and the outbreak of the Irish rebellion in October 1641, followed by the war between king and parliament, prevented him from going later. With the difficulties of his position he was hardly fitted to cope. Clarendon characterises him as ‘a man of great parts, very conversant in books, and much addicted to the mathematics; and though he had been a soldier … and was afterwards employed in several embassies … was in truth rather a speculative than a practical man, and expected greater certitude in the consultation of business than the business of this world is capable of.’ Both parties claimed his obedience, so that ‘the earl's condition was very slippery and almost impossible to be safely managed by the most dexterous person’ (Clarendon, vi. 304, 387). ‘The parliament,’ wrote Leicester to the Countess of Carlisle, ‘bids me go presently, the king commands me to stay till he despatch me. The supplies of the one and the authority of the other are equally necessary. I know not how to obtain them both, and am more likely to have neither. … I am suspected and distrusted of either side’ (Blencowe, p. xxi, 25 Aug. 1642). On 9 Sept. 1642 he wrote to the Earl of Northumberland, explaining that the king's delay to provide him with his instructions, in spite of repeated petition for them, had prevented him from repairing to Ireland, and that the king's officers had seized the draught-horses which he had provided for the service of Ireland. The publication of this letter gave great offence, which increased still more when Leicester, in spite of the king's command, showed his instructions from the king to the parliament's committee. Finally, on 29 Nov. 1642, just as Leicester was about to embark, the king forbade him to go and summoned him to Oxford (Collins, i. 138; Gardiner, Great Civil War, i. 119; Clarendon, v. 304; Carte, Ormonde, ii. 23, 288). There Leicester remained for the next year in a very uncomfortable position. ‘Though he was of the council and sometimes present, he desired not to have any part of the business, and lay under many reproaches and jealousies which he deserved not; for he was a man of honour and fidelity to the king, and his greatest misfortunes proceeded from the staggering and irresolution of his nature’ (Clarendon, Rebellion, vi. 387). At last the king, who wished to appoint Ormonde lord-lieutenant in his place, ordered Leicester to resign his office, which was effected on 29 Nov. 1643 (Carte, iii. 49, vi. 104, 113). Leicester begged the queen to intercede, that he might not be disgraced without being told of his fault, and protested his faithfulness to the king, but was given no satisfaction (Collins, ii. 673). The king intended to make him governor to Prince Charles, as some compensation; but, as Leicester refused to sign the letter which the peers at Oxford sent to the Scottish privy council to dissuade them from invading England, he lost all chance of this preferment (Blencowe, p. xxix; Clarendon, vii. 324 n.)

In June 1644 Leicester left the king's quarters and retired to Penshurst; nor did he scruple in the following year to entitle himself to the protection of parliament by taking the negative oath (Old Parliamentary History, xiii. 451). His estate had been temporarily sequestered by the Kentish committee, but the sequestration was not maintained (Collins, i. 130). Feeling that parliament was not well disposed towards him, he made no attempt to take his seat in the House of Lords, although he had done nothing which would have justified his exclusion (Blencowe, p. 7). In May 1649 Northumberland recommended his sister, the Countess of Leicester, to take charge of the Princess Elizabeth and her brother, the Duke of Gloucester, and parliament accepted the suggestion (24 May 1649); the royal children resided at Penshurst from 14 June 1649 till 9 Aug. 1650. The children were then removed to Carisbrook in order to be transported to the continent (Commons' Journals, vi. 216, 446; Blencowe, pp. 75, 103; Cary, Memorials of the Civil War, ii. 138; Green, Lives of the Princesses of England, vi. 374–89). The Princess Elizabeth, who died on 8 Sept. 1650, left the Earl of Leicester certain jewels—viz. a necklace of pearl, to be transmitted to the Duke of Gloucester, and a diamond, to be retained by Leicester and his wife. This legacy involved him in a long suit with the government (Collins, i. 132; Cary, ii. 382; Commons' Journals, vii. 65).

Leicester took the engagement to be faithful to the Commonwealth, because he found his law proceedings required him to do so, but did not in any other way commit himself to support the Commonwealth or Protectorate (Blencowe, p. 100). In April 1660 he took his seat once more in the House of Lords, and concurred in the votes for the Restoration. Charles II made him a privy councillor (31 May 1660), but after the adjournment of the convention (September 1660) he retired once more to Penshurst and took no further part in politics. He died on 2 Nov. 1677 (Collins, i. 136; Blencowe, p. 158). His portrait as a child was painted by Vandyck (see Cat. First Loan Exhib. No. 780). The Countess of Leicester died on 20 Aug. 1659 (ib. p. 271). By her he had six sons, of whom four lived to maturity, and nine daughters: (1) Philip, third earl of Leicester [q. v.] (2) Algernon [q. v.], the republican. (3) Robert, born 1626, a captain (1643), and afterwards colonel, of the English regiment in the Dutch service; Sidney and his regiment, later known as the Buffs, were recalled to England in 1665, and placed upon the English establishment; he died unmarried in August 1668; scandal represented him as the real father of the Duke of Monmouth (Collins, i. 161; Dalton, Army Lists, i. 50; Life of James II, i. 492). (4) Henry, afterwards Earl of Romney [q. v.] Of the daughters, Dorothy, the eldest, who was Waller's Sacharissa, is noticed separately, under her husband's name of Spencer [q. v.]; Lucy, the third, married, in 1647, John Pelham, son of Sir Thomas Pelham, bart., and ancestor of Henry Pelham and Thomas, duke of Newcastle; and Isabella, the seventh, married Philip Smythe, viscount Strangford (Collins, i. 147).

[A long account of Leicester's life, but based exclusively on the papers at Penhurst, is given by Collins in the Memoirs of the Lives and Actions of the Sidneys, prefixed to the Sydney Papers, 2 vols. fol. 1746. Leicester's Journal, extending from 1647 to 1654, was printed by R. W. Blencowe in his Sydney Papers, 1825. Leicester was a voluminous writer, and many extracts from his unpublished manuscripts are printed both by Blencowe and Collins. Clarendon's Rebellion, ed. Macray; Doyle's Official Baronage; other authorities mentioned in the article.]

C. H. F.