In Stella’s face I read what love and beauty be

Penelope Rich was a notorious Elizabethan beauty, inspiring poetry and praise from the courtly male elite. But as a married women she also achieved a certain notoriety and fame by virtue of a serious of love affairs.   Born into the wealthy Essex family in 1563, Penelope was the daughter of Walter Devereux, first Earl of Essex and his wife, Lettice. Well-educated, she spoke several languages including French, and was accomplished in music. Before his death, her father had sought to have her contracted in marriage to the poet and courtier Philip Sydney, however Sydney opposed the match and seemed disinclined to marry. In 1581 Penelope arrived at court and became one of Elizabeth I’s maids of honour, and by the end of the year she was married to Robert Rich, Lord Rich of Essex, later first Earl of Warwick. The wedding took place in November, and afterwards Penelope developed a habit of visiting her mother, who by now had become wife of the Queen’s favourite, the Earl of Leicester; often staying with her brother Robert, earl of Essex (he of the famous Essex Rebellion of 1603).

At the time of her marriage, Sydney, who had previously discounted marriage to Penelope, appears to have had belated second thoughts, and attending court in 1581 he fell in love with her. Astrophil and Stella, his famous sonnet sequence, is thought to have been inspired by Penelope. There are several puns on the name Rich throughout the sequence, and in Sonnet 35 he claims:

long needy Fame
Doth even grow rich, naming my Stella’s name

No evidence survives to confirm Stella ever read Sydney’s poetry, neither is there proof the two became lovers, but Penelope’s biographer suggests it is likely, since ‘on his deathbed in 1586 Sidney reportedly told the preacher George Gifford of a vanity in which he had taken delight, of which he must now rid himself, naming Lady Rich.’

 

Philip Sydney

 

Penelope and her husband had five children, four of whom survived. But Penelope was not content to lead the life of a wife and mother, trapped in a country house with no diversions. She insisted on attending court, and soon attracted the advances of another courtier, Sir Charles Blount. Their affair became public knowledge in 1590 when he wore her colours at the Accession Day jousting tournament. Blount and Penelope went on to have six children together, the first, Penelope, born in 1592. However the child was given the surname Rich, and her mother continued to spend some time with her husband. She nursed him through a serious illness in 1600 and he appears to have at the very least accepted the situation he found himself in, even permitting all the children to be brought up together. This may have been because by this stage Penelope was quite a powerful force at court. People petitioned her for favours and for mediation with the Queen, and she would request favours for people from Robert Cecil. However after Essex’s debacle in Ireland in 1599, her brother fell dramatically out of favour with the Queen, and Penelope, ill-advisedly attempted to intervene. The result was a humiliating response from Elizabeth, castigating Penelope for daring to meddle, and although the two later resolved their differences, Penelope was never fully forgiven.

In 1603, Penelope’s relationship with court suffered a catastrophic failure when she was named as one of the ring-leaders in Essex’s botched attempt at a coup:

she had dined at Essex House with the leaders the previous night, and went to fetch the earl of Bedford on the morning of the revolt. After the trial, Essex reportedly insisted that she had urged him on by saying that all his friends and followers thought him a coward. She maintained that she had been more like a slave, and that her brother had wrongly accused her. After a brief confinement, and examination by the privy council, she was released.

 

Sir Charles Blount, earl of Devonshire

 

After the death of the Queen, Penelope restored her status and social standing by escorting James I’s wife from the borders, and appearing in a series of masques at court alongside the new queen Anne. In 1605, her marriage to Rich was formally dissolved in the London consistory court, on the grounds of her acknowledged adultery. Although she named no one in the proceedings, she had by this point become involved with the earl of Devonshire, formerly Mountjoy, head of armed forces in Ireland. Remarriage remained illegal while her former spouse lived, but nevertheless the two were married on Boxing Day 1605.  Her new husband prepared a long defence of his marriage to Penelope, writing to James I, claiming that Penelope had ‘protested during the wedding with Rich, that after it Rich had tormented her, and had now not “enjoyed her” for twelve years.’ Their marriage however proved to be short lived. Devonshire died in April the following year, and Penelope outlived him by little more than a year, dying at Westminster in July 1607.

Penelope fascinated men throughout her life. She was celebrated in paintings, poetry, and songs; described as ‘the starre of honor, and the sphere of beautie’. Nicholas Hilliard painted her portrait, and named his daughter after her. The happiness of her relationship with Devonshire was celebrated by John Ford in his elegy Fame’s Memorial.

Sources: DNB; NPG; EBBO

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One comment

  • August 20, 2010 - 7:51 pm | Permalink

    She sounded like a fascinating and rebellious woman. You don’t hear much history about specific women from the era.

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