Penelope Devereux: an Elizabethan Firebrand

Chapter 5 : Honoured and Dishonoured

Penelope and Blount went on to become a power couple at the court of James I – Blount was made the Earl of Devonshire for his services in Ireland. But Penelope’s story didn’t end there. Eventually Rich gained permission to divorce his long-estranged wife, but the King’s stipulation was that she was not to remarry during Rich’s lifetime.

The lovers, believing their royal favour to be unassailable, married anyway. But they had been wrong in their assessment of the King’s lenience; he was notoriously conventional when it came to the sanctity of marriage and somewhat inevitably blamed Penelope for the misdemeanour, famously calling her

‘a fair woman with a black soul’

as a result; and that ignominious reputation stuck.

She was banished from court and Blount died soon after, leaving her fighting his distant relatives in the law courts for hers and her children’s inheritance. After a prolonged legal struggle, which marked her publically as an adulteress, she won; but the damage to her reputation was irreparable. And sadly her muted triumph was short lived as she lived only mere months to enjoy it.

Rather than have the Earl of Devonshire’s glorious standing sullied for posterity by association with a discredited adulteress, it was easier for the guardians of morality, those who chronicled the story of Protestant England, to slip Penelope’s story under the carpet. It is only more recently that we have come to see women such as Penelope Devereux in a new light. Her courage and her ability to manipulate the power structure, her refusal to be limited by expectations of a morality that had one rule for men and another for women, and above all her ability to survive makes her someone whose story is well worth telling.

Elizabeth Fremantle’s novel about Penelope Devereux, WATCH THE LADY, will be published on 18th June 2015.

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For more information see her website