Dictionary of National Biography, 1885-1900/Sidney, Robert (1563-1626)
SIDNEY, ROBERT, Viscount Lisle and first Earl of Leicester (1563–1626), born at Penshurst on the 19th and baptised on 28 Nov. 1563, was second son of Sir Henry Sidney [q. v.], by his wife Mary, daughter of John Dudley, duke of Northumberland. Sir Philip Sidney [q. v.] was his elder brother. In 1573 his marriage with a daughter of the twelfth Lord Berkeley was suggested. He entered Christ Church, Oxford, in 1574, his tutor being Robert Dorset, afterwards dean of Chester, and he read history with avidity. His father urged him to make his elder brother Philip his pattern in all things: ‘imitate his virtues, exercises, studies, and actions.’ About 1578 he started on a tour in Germany. Philip sent him two long letters of advice, in one pointing out how he might best profit by the experiences of travel, in the other suggesting a useful method of reading history. Robert was at Prague in November 1580, and suffered much inconvenience from the irregularity with which money was remitted to him by his father. Philip did what he could to supply his needs, and continued to send him good advice urging him, among other things, to take part in ‘any good wars’ that might arise in Europe, and practise fencing and the arts of self-defence.
Soon after his return home he married at St. Donats, on 23 Sept. 1584, Barbara, daughter and heiress of John Gamage of Coity, Glamorganshire. Next month he was at Wilton, and he and his brother Philip stood godfather to Philip, second son of his sister, the Countess of Pembroke [see Herbert, Philip, fourth Earl of Pembroke and Montgomery]. In 1585 he entered parliament as member for Glamorganshire, where the estates of his wife's family lay. He was re-elected for the same constituency in 1592.
In 1585, when Elizabeth resolved to support with an army the united provinces in their struggle with Spain, Sidney accompanied his brother Philip to Flushing (November). His uncle, Leicester, the commander-in-chief, soon appointed him captain of a company of horse, and he saw much active service. Next year he was present at the battle outside Zutphen, when his brother Philip was fatally wounded, and he spent much time with Philip at Arnhem up to the time of his death, on 17 Oct. 1586. Leicester knighted him on 7 Oct., and he acted as chief mourner at his brother's funeral at St. Paul's Cathedral in February 1587. Sir Philip by his will directed his father-in-law Walsingham and his brother Robert to sell his lands so as to meet his own and his father's heavy debts, and for a time Sidney was gravely embarrassed by his efforts to carry out the instruction. He was created M.A. at Oxford on 11 April 1588, at the same time as his friend the Earl of Essex, and in the autumn was sent to Scotland to convey to the Scottish king Elizabeth's thanks for his aid in completing the ruin of the Spanish armada. The death of his uncles, the Earl of Leicester in 1588, and the Earl of Warwick in 1589, each of whom made him his heir, improved his prospects. Meanwhile he was appointed (16 July 1588) governor of the cautionary town of Flushing and of the fort of Rammekins. He spent much time either at his post or in the field in command of a troop of horse. He was wounded at the siege of Steenwyck in June 1592. In November 1593 he was sent on a special mission to Henry IV of France to plead the cause of the French Protestants, and his intelligence and pleasant demeanour ingratiated him with the French king. He returned to London in April 1594. During 1596 and 1597 he energetically aided Sir Francis Vere in his struggle in the Low Countries with Spain, and distinguished himself on 23 Jan. 1597–8 at the great battle of Turnhout, winning the enthusiastic praise of Prince Maurice (Markham, Fighting Veres, pp. 255–261). But he was anxious for employment at home. With Essex, who married his brother Philip's widow in 1590, he engaged in a long and friendly correspondence, and Essex vainly used his influence to procure for Sidney the office of lord chamberlain on the death of Lord Hunsdon. In 1597 he was again returned to parliament—now as M.P. for Kent. During the political disturbances due to Essex's rebellion, Sidney discreetly remained at Flushing; but his visit of inspection to Nieuport in July 1600, and his withdrawal just before the opening of the great engagement there, unjustly exposed him to adverse comment (Sydney Papers, ii. 204; Markham, p. 304; Motley, iv. 28-9).
With the accession of James I he returned to court and was recognised by the new king as an old friend. A peerage was at once conferred on him (13 May 1603), and he became Baron Sidney of Penshurst. In June 1603 he and Lord Southampton met the new French ambassador, Marquis de Rosné, afterwards Duc de Sully, at Canterbury and escorted him to London. Queen Anne of Denmark noticed him favourably, and he was nominated her chamberlain (14 July), the surveyor-general of her revenues (10 Nov. 1603), steward of her Kentish manors, and a member of her council (9 Aug. 1604). He was thenceforth prominent in all court functions. He was created Viscount Lisle on 4 May 1605; the title had been extinct since the death of his uncle, the Earl of Warwick.
Sidney, like his brother, interested himself in colonial exploration. He was a subscriber of 90l. to the second Virginian charter, and on 23 May 1609 was made a member of the Virginia Company. He also belonged to the East India and North-West Passage companies. In 1612, on the marriage of the Princess Elizabeth to the elector palatine, Lord Lisle attended the bridal party in its progress through Holland to Heidelberg, and on taking leave of the princess and her husband visited some German baths (Green, Princesses of England, v. 227, 237, 249). In 1616 he acted as a special envoy to arrange with the united provinces of the Low Countries the surrender of Flushing, of which James had reappointed him governor in 1603, and of the other cautionary towns. The successful accomplishment of this task was rewarded by his creation as K.G. on 26 May 1616, and two years later he was appointed a commissioner to report on the condition of the order. On 2 Aug. 1618 the earldom of Leicester, which had lapsed on the death of his uncle, was revived in his favour, and the ceremony of creation was performed by the king in the hall of the bishop's palace at Salisbury. In 1620 he was nominated a commissioner for ecclesiastical causes, and in 1621 he was admitted to the council of war, which was appointed to consider the feasibility of English intervention in the war in Germany in behalf of the elector palatine.
Leicester spent all his leisure at Penshurst, and his happy domestic life there was charmingly described by Ben Jonson in a poem called ‘Penshurst,’ which appeared in Jonson's ‘Forest.’ According to Jonson, James I visited Leicester at Penshurst when on a hunting expedition. Like his brother Philip, Leicester was interested in music and literature. He was godfather to Robert Dowland [q. v.], who dedicated to him his ‘Musicall Banquet’ in 1610. The words of the songs to which Dowland here set the music are said to have been written by Leicester and Sir Henry Lee [q. v.] Robert Jones (fl. 1616) [q. v.] also dedicated to him his ‘Second Booke of Songs’ in 1601. Leicester died at Penshurst on 13 July 1626, and was buried there on the 16th.
His wife Barbara, whom Ben Jonson eulogised for her wifely virtues, died in May 1621, having borne her husband ten children—two sons and eight daughters. Three folio volumes of letters addressed to her by her husband between 1588 and 1620 are at Penshurst. The eldest son, William, one of whose birthdays Ben Jonson celebrated in a charming poem, was knighted on 8 Jan. 1610–11, and died unmarried in 1613, when Joshua Sylvester published an elegy; the second son, Robert, second earl of Leicester [q. v.], is noticed separately. Of the daughters, Mary married Sir Robert Wroth [q. v.], and made some reputation in literature; Elizabeth Catherine married Sir Lewis Mansell, bart., of Margam; Philippa married Sir John Hobart, son of Sir Henry Hobart [q. v.], and from her descended John Hobart, first earl of Buckinghamshire [q. v.]; and Barbara was wife, first, of Sir Thomas Smythe, viscount Strangford, and, secondly, of Sir Thomas Colepepper.
The first earl married, secondly, Sarah, widow of Sir Thomas Smythe, knt., of Bidborough, Kent, and daughter and heiress of William Blount. She died in 1656.
A picture containing full-length life-size portraits of Leicester and his brother Philip as boys is now at Penshurst. A portrait of him late in life, by Van Somer, is also at Penshurst. There is an engraving of him, while Viscount Lisle, by Simon Pass.
[Sydney Papers, ed. Collins, i. 110 seq. et passim, where numerous letters from him and his steward, Rowland White, are printed in full; Hist. MSS. Comm. 3rd Rep. (papers at Penshurst); Doyle's Official Baronage; G. E. C[okayne]'s Complete Peerage; Cal. State Papers, Dom. 1590–1618; Fox Bourne's Life of Sir Philip Sidney, 1891; Cal. Hatfield MSS.; Willet's Synopsis Papismi, 1600, p. 961; Dugdale's Baronage, ii. 411; Nichols's Leicestershire, i. 540–1, 544; Brown's Genesis of the United States, ii. 1003 seq.]