Dictionary of National Biography, 1885-1900/Rich, Penelope
RICH, PENELOPE, Lady Rich (1562?–1607), was daughter of Walter Devereux, first earl of Essex [q. v.], by his wife Lettice Knollys, who subsequently married Robert Dudley, earl of Leicester. Robert, second earl of Essex, Queen Elizabeth's favourite, was her brother. She was a beautiful child and, when a girl of fourteen, won the admiration of Philip, afterwards famous as Sir Philip Sidney. Her father saw in the young man, who was a friend of her brother and some eight years her senior, a promising husband for her. When he lay dying at Dublin in September 1576, he expressed an earnest hope that a treaty of marriage might be arranged. Two months after his death his secretary, Edward Waterhouse, wrote to Philip's father, Sir Henry Sidney, begging him to carry the match through. Its ‘breaking off,’ Waterhouse told Sir Henry, ‘if the default be on your parts, will turn to more dishonour than can be repaired with any other marriage in England’ (Sidney Papers, i. 147). For nearly four years the engagement appears to have remained in suspense. In the interval Lady Penelope saw much of Philip Sidney, who was repeatedly in her brother's company. He called her Stella and himself Astrophel, and sent her sonnets declaring his love for her. But on 10 March 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. This was Robert, lord Rich, a young man of assured and ample income, whom Huntingdon described as ‘a proper gentleman, and one in years very fit for my lady Penelope Devereux’ (Lansd. MS. 31, f. 105). Rich had just succeeded to the peerage on the death of his father, Robert Rich, second baron Rich of Leighs in Essex. Sidney and his friends represented him as coarse and uneducated, but Leicester, Lady Penelope's stepfather, wrote of him in 1588 as a man greatly respected and loved, ‘a true, faithful servant’ of the queen, and ‘zealous in religion’ (Laughton, Defeat of Spanish Armada, Naval Records Soc. i. 308). The marriage was hurried forward, and probably took place in the spring of 1581. According to a statement put forth many years later in the lady's behalf, she was forced into the marriage, and protested her unwillingness at the wedding ceremony; her wedded life was unhappy from the beginning, and she continued to live with her husband only through the constraint of fear; he not only tormented her, but sought to rob her of her dowry; dread of her powerful brother, Essex, hindered him, however, from offering her any actual violence. How much reliance is to be placed on this description of Rich's marital character is matter for controversy. His own view of the situation is not accessible.
There is no doubt that Lady Penelope had from the first an attenuated regard for the marriage tie. No sooner had she become Lady Rich than she encouraged a renewal of the attentions of her early admirer, Sir Philip Sidney. In a further series of sonnets, which were subsequently collected under the title of ‘Astrophel and Stella’ (1591), Sidney celebrated, within a year of her marriage, his growing affection for her, and his contempt for her husband. He played in his verse on her married name, lamenting that she had ‘no misfortune but that Rich she is,’ and congratulated himself that ‘that rich fool,’ her husband, could never appreciate her worth (see Sonnet xxiv.). Sidney's marriage (in September 1583) does not seem to have interrupted the intimacy. Spenser, in commemorating Sidney's death three years later, asserted that all his thoughts centred to the last in ‘Stella.’
To her he vowed the service of his days;
On her he spent the riches of his wit;
For her he made hymns of immortal praise,
Of only her he sang, he thought, he writ.
Lodowick Bryskett, another of Sidney's friends, gave an exuberant description of Stella's despair on learning of Astrophel's death. Subsequently she marked her appreciation of Philip's devotion by befriending his brother Robert Sidney, in whose behalf she often used her interest at court, and to whose son she stood godmother in January 1595–6 (Sidney Papers, i. 386).
Sidney's passion was more than literary sentiment, and it may well be questioned whether his poetic expressions are consistent with the maintenance of innocent relations between him and Lady Penelope. But it should be remembered that Lady Rich was a lover of literature, and occasionally sought and received not altogether dissimilar homage from other pens. Richard Barnfield dedicated to her his ‘Affectionate Shepherd’ in 1594, and Bartholomew Yonge his ‘Diana of George of Montemayor’ in 1598; while John Davies of Hereford, Henry Constable in ‘Diana’ (Sonnet x.), and others, addressed to her sonnets, in which they referred to her husband with scant respect.
Meanwhile, Lady Penelope was spending her time, to all appearances blamelessly, with her husband at his house at Leighs, Essex, or in London. She became the mother of seven children, and domestic duties frequently occupied her. At the same time she cultivated popularity at court, and contrived to keep on good terms with Sir Robert Cecil, despite his jealousy of her brother (cf. Hatfield MSS. v. 236, 239, 296). But her discontent with her husband did not abate, and she confided her domestic distresses to a new admirer, Charles Blount, eighth lord Mountjoy [q. v.] Before 1595 she became Lord Mountjoy's mistress (cf. Sidney Papers, i. 375), and the three sons and two daughters of whom she became the mother after that date were subsequently acknowledged by Mountjoy to be his children. Lord Rich could hardly have been ignorant of his wife's conduct, but he made no outward sign. He left her with her lover in 1596, when he accompanied her brother on the expedition to Cadiz, and again in the autumn of 1597, when he went to France with the English ambassador, the Earl of Shrewsbury. In April 1597 Lady Rich was attacked by smallpox, but recovered ‘without any blemish to her beautiful face’ (ib. ii. 43).
The disgrace and imprisonment of her brother, the Earl of Essex, in 1599, roused her to great energy. Her brother had maintained very affectionate relations with her, always signing himself in his letters to her, ‘Your brother that dearly loves you.’ She strained every nerve in order to soften the queen's heart towards him. But the letters, jewels, and other presents with which she assailed Elizabeth made little impression. When Essex fell ill in November, Lady Rich forwarded to the queen a long and pathetic letter, appealing for his pardon (Cal. State Papers, Dom. 1580–1625, pp. 398–9; Birch, Queen Elizabeth, ii. 441–2), and she contrived to have the letter published. This act greatly offended the queen, and in February she was ordered to keep her house, and to appear for examination before the council (Sidney Papers, ii. 172; Chamberlain, Letters, temp. Eliz. pp. 65, 76). In September 1600 she nursed Lord Rich through a dangerous illness (ib. ii. 215). When, in January 1601, Essex was organising rebellion, she was frequently with him at Essex house. She was there on the eventful day when the house was besieged by royal troops, and her brother arranged for her safe departure before he surrendered.
After her brother's execution in 1601, her husband, according to her own statement, abandoned her. Thenceforth she lived in open adultery with Lord Mountjoy, but suffered no loss of esteem at court in consequence. In May 1603 she was one of the noble ladies who went to the border to meet Queen Anne and escort her to London. After the accession of James I she received a full share of the favours which were showered on the friends of her late brother, and became one of the most prominent figures in court festivities. The king 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 (The Devereuxs, Earls of Essex, i. 154). On Twelfth night 1605 she took part at court in the performance of Ben Jonson's ‘Masque of Blackness’ (Nichols, Progresses of James I, i. 488). At the same period, by mutual arrangement, a divorce ‘a mensa et thoro’ was obtained by her husband. He at once took advantage of his release to marry Frances, daughter of Lord Chief Justice Sir Christopher Wray, and widow of Sir George Paul of Snarford, Lincolnshire.
Lady Penelope was not long in following the example, and on 20 Dec. 1605 she married her lover (now become Earl of Devonshire) at his house at Wanstead. The celebrant was the earl's chaplain, William Laud. The king, although he had connived at the illicit connection, warmly resented the marriage, and declined to receive the earl or his wife at court. Laud, who was vehemently attacked for his share in the proceedings, expressed deep contrition. Devonshire defended himself in an epistle and discourse addressed to the king, in which Lady Penelope's alleged sufferings at Lord Rich's hands were detailed at length; but the royal ban was not removed. In March 1606, when Devonshire and Rich met in the upper house, ‘foul words passed, and the lie given to Devon’ (Court and Times of James I, i. 161). Devonshire did not long survive the disgrace, and died on 3 April 1606. His widow retired to the country, and followed him to the grave within a twelvemonth (Essex Visitation for 1612, Harl. Soc.).
Lady Penelope's first husband, Lord Rich, was created Earl of Warwick on 2 Aug. 1618, and died on 24 March 1618–9, being buried with his ancestors at Felsted. At Rochford he founded an almshouse for five old men and one old woman (Morant, Essex, i. 102). By him Lady Penelope was mother of Robert Rich, second earl of Warwick [q. v.]; Henry Rich, earl of Holland [q. v.]; Sir Charles Rich (d. 1627); Lettice, wife of Sir George Cary of Cockington; Penelope, wife of Sir Gervase Clifton; Essex, wife of Sir Thomas Cheke of Pirgo; and Isabel, who married twice, and whose portrait by Mytens, belonging to the Earl of Suffolk, is said to resemble her mother.
Lady Penelope's eldest (illegitimate) son by Charles Blount, earl of Devonshire, Mountjoy Blount, afterwards earl of Newport [q. v.], is noticed separately. Other children of the same parentage were named Elizabeth and St. John.
A portrait of an unidentified lady at Lambeth Palace is inscribed on the back, ‘A Countess of Devon,’ and is believed to represent Lady Penelope (Notes and Queries, 7th ser. viii. 110). An unimportant letter to her brother (dated 1599) in her handwriting is in the British Museum (Addit. MS. 12500). Others of her letters to Sir Robert Cecil are at Hatfield.[Brydges's Peers of the Reign of James I, pp. 28 sq., 329 sq.; Devereux's Devereux-Earls of Essex, i. 151–6; Fox-Bourne's Life of Sir Philip Sidney; Duke of Manchester's Court and Society from Elizabeth to Anne, i. 293 seq.; Miss Costello's Memoirs of Eminent Englishwomen; Arber's Garner, i. 467 seq.; Sidney's Astrophel and Stella, ed. A. W. Pollard, pref.; Sidney's Works, ed. Grosart; Sydney Papers, passim; Dugdale's Baronage; Doyle's Official Baronage; art. Blount, Charles,, Earl of Devonshire and eighth Baron Mountjoy.]