Dictionary of National Biography, 1885-1900/Spencer, Dorothy

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628032Dictionary of National Biography, 1885-1900, Volume 53 — Spencer, Dorothy1898George Atherton Aitken

SPENCER, DOROTHY, Countess of Sunderland (1617–1684), Waller's ‘Sacharissa,’ was born at Sion House, and baptised at Isleworth on 5 Oct. 1617. She was the eldest child of Robert Sidney, second earl of Leicester [q. v.], who had in the preceding year married Dorothy, daughter of Henry Percy, ninth earl of Northumberland [q. v.] Philip Sidney, third earl of Leicester [q. v.], Algernon Sidney [q. v.], and Henry Sidney, earl of Romney [q. v.], were her brothers.

Before the death, in 1626, of Dorothy's grandfather, Robert Sidney, first earl of Leicester [q. v.], her parents resided at his seat at Penshurst, and the whole of her youth was spent quietly in the country. When she was eighteen, or possibly sooner, Edmund Waller [q. v.], then a young widower, having made her acquaintance when on a visit to his cousins at Groombridge, near Penshurst, began to pay court to Dorothy, and by his verses secured for her a renown which she would not otherwise have enjoyed. The name of Sacharissa, which he bestowed upon her, was formed, ‘as he used to say pleasantly,’ from sacharum—sugar. Johnson says ‘he fixed his heart, perhaps half fondly, perhaps half ambitiously,’ upon the lady. He may have been, as Aubrey says, passionately in love with her, but most of the poems about Sacharissa were ‘occasional,’ for there are no grounds for assuming that she was in his mind when he wrote the songs ‘On a Girdle’ or ‘Go, lovely Rose;’ and if too much may easily be made of an apparent want of passion in Waller's verses, there can be little doubt that his attachment was largely nourished by literary ambitions.

    He catcht at love and filled his arms with bays.

Dorothy at no time gave him any encouragement, but he continued his suit until 1638.

By 1636 the claims of various suitors were exercising the thoughts of Dorothy's mother. ‘Next to what concerns you,’ she wrote to her husband, ‘I confess she is considered by me above anything in this world.’ Lord Russell was suggested as a suitable husband, but in 1637 he married Lady Ann Carr. Proposals were then made on behalf of Lord Devonshire, whose sister, Lady Rich, had been Dorothy's intimate friend. Relatives urged Lady Leicester to come to London to press the suit, and though a large family necessitated economy, Lord Leicester built a town house, to which the family moved in March 1637. But Lord Devonshire hesitated, and finally married Lady Elizabeth Cecil. Lord Lovelace was next suggested, but his character made Lady Leicester uneasy, and her daughter ‘abhorred the man.’ Another admirer was Sir John Temple's son, afterwards Sir William Temple (1628–1698) [q. v.], a lifelong friend of the family. Dorothy Osborne, who subsequently became Temple's wife, more than once alluded laughingly to his admiration for Lady Sunderland, whose portrait always hung in his closet (Letters of Dorothy Osborne).

In 1639 an eligible suitor was found in Henry, lord Spencer, a studious and thoughtful youth, nineteen years old [see under Spencer, Robert, second Earl of Sunderland]. Arrangements having been speedily completed, Dorothy Sidney was married on 20 July 1639, and Waller wrote an excellent letter to Dorothy's sister, Lady Lucy, conveying all good wishes for the happiness of the bride. Lord Leicester was delighted with the match (Hist. MSS. Comm. 8th Rep. pt. ii. pp. 9, 51, 55, 117). In the autumn Lord and Lady Spencer joined the Earl of Leicester in Paris, and there two children were born to them—in 1640 Dorothy, who married, in 1656, Sir George Savile (afterwards Marquis of Halifax) [q. v.]; and in 1641 Sir Robert Spencer (afterwards second Earl of Sunderland) [q. v.] The marriage was a very happy one, but a quiet residence at Althorp was interrupted by the outbreak of the civil war, when Lord Spencer, though anxious for reforms, joined the king's party. In November 1642 Dorothy's third child, Penelope, was born, and in June 1643 Lord Spencer was created Earl of Sunderland; but in the following September he was mortally wounded at the battle of Newbury.

Shortly before his death he provided for his wife, the ‘dearest heart,’ by a jointure on his property, and settled 10,000l. on his elder daughter and 7,000l. on the younger one. A fortnight after the news of her loss had been broken to her, Lady Sunderland gave birth to a son, Henry, but this ‘sweet little boy’ died at the age of five. At her wish the Earl of Leicester was associated with her in the guardianship of her infant son, and for seven years she lived in seclusion at Penshurst with her father. After the execution of Charles I his children were placed for a time in Lord Leicester's care, and were treated with great kindness by the family. On her deathbed the Princess Elizabeth bequeathed sundry articles to Lady Sunderland.

In September 1650 Lady Sunderland left Penshurst for her son's house at Althorp, where for ten or twelve years she devoted herself to her children, and helped many distressed clergymen. Lloyd, in his ‘Memoirs of the Loyalists,’ says of her: ‘She is not to be mentioned without the highest honour in this catalogue of sufferers, to many of whom her house was a sanctuary, her interest a protection, her estate a maintenance, and the livings in her gift a preferment.’ She also effected many improvements at Althorp, and planned the great staircase of the house.

After a widowhood of nine years Lady Sunderland was married ‘out of pity,’ on 8 July 1652, to Robert (afterwards Sir Robert) Smythe of Sutton-at-Hone and Boundes in Kent, an old admirer and a connection of the family [see Smythe, Percy Clinton Sydney, sixth Viscount Strangford]. The wedding was celebrated at Penshurst, but Lord Leicester was not present. Smythe, who was an old college friend of Evelyn (Diary, 9 July 1652), is described by Dorothy Osborne as ‘a very fine gentleman’ who fully deserved his bride. The marriage turned out happily. One child, Robert, was born in 1653. At one time, perhaps after 1662, Lady Sunderland lived at Boundes, one of Smythe's houses, in sight of Penshurst. In 1658 Nathaniel Wanley [q. v.] dedicated to her his ‘Vox Dei, or the Great Duty of Self-Reflection on a Man's own Ways’ (Nichols, Lit. Anecd. i. 530); and in 1660 Dr. Thomas Pierce [q. v.], young Lord Sunderland's tutor, expressed his obligations in the dedication to ‘The Sinner impleaded in his own Court.’ After the Restoration a warrant was issued (14 Oct. 1662) for the payment of 1,000l. a year for five years to Lady Sunderland, in discharge of money lent by the late earl to Charles I; and in 1664 the countess was given the eighth part of profits in certain concealed waste lands, to be discovered at her own charge.

From 1663 to 1667 Lady Sunderland spent much of her time at Rufford, the seat of her son-in-law, George Savile (Lord Halifax). The two were always close friends, and Henry Savile, Lord Halifax's younger brother, was a frequent correspondent. After Lady Halifax's death in 1670, Lady Sunderland devoted herself to the care of Lady Halifax's four children. Her old admirer, Waller, was still among her friends, but, according to a well-known story, on her asking him when he intended to write more verses upon her, he replied, ‘When you are as young again, madam, and as handsome as you were then.’

In March 1679 Lady Sunderland had a serious attack of ague. Her letters to Lord Halifax in 1680 show that her sympathies were with him in the troubles connected with the Exclusion Bill, and that she hated the Earl of Shaftesbury, with whom her son, Lord Sunderland, was working. She died shortly after the execution of her brother, Algernon Sidney (7 Dec. 1683), and was buried on 25 Feb. 1684 in the chapel of the Spencers in Brington church, ‘in linen, for which the forfeiture was paid.’ There is no stone to mark her resting-place; but years afterwards Steele wrote in the ‘Tatler’ (No. 61): ‘The fine women they show me nowadays are at best but pretty girls to me, who have seen Sacharissa, when all the world repeated the poems she inspired.’ It is curious to note that on 29 March 1684 letters of administration were granted at the probate court of Canterbury to Lady Sunderland's creditor, John Benn, her sons, Lord Sunderland and Robert Smythe, having renounced. Robert Smythe, her only child by her second husband, married, before he was twenty, Catherine, daughter of Sir William Stafford of Blatherwick, Northamptonshire, and, settling on the family estates at Sutton-at-Hone, died in 1695.

Lady Sunderland was a favourite subject of Vandyck, whose paintings of her are to be found at Penshurst, Althorp, and Petworth. There are engravings by Lombart and Vertue, and modern reproductions in the biography by Julia Cartwright [now Mrs. Ady] and Mr. Thorn Drury's edition of Waller.

[Most of what is known of Lady Sunderland is collected in Mrs. Ady's Sacharissa, 1893, an interesting work, though marred by inaccuracies and a want of references to authorities. The original sources of information are Henry Sidney's Diaries of the Time of Charles the Second, 1843; the Savile Correspondence (Camden Soc.), 1858; and Some Account of the Life of Rachael Wriothesley, Lady Russell. … To which are added letters from Dorothy Sidney, Countess of Sunderland, to George Savile, Marquis of Halifax, 1819. Mr. Thorn Drury's edition of Waller, in the Muses' Library, should also be consulted. Letters of Lady Sunderland are in the British Museum (Addit. MS. 15914, f. 90) and Mr. Morrison's collection (Hist. MSS. Comm. 9th Rep. ii. 446).]

G. A. A.