Penelope Devereux: an Elizabethan Firebrand

Chapter 2 : Who was Penelope Devereux?

Lady Penelope Devereux

Penelope Devereux was from an ancient and noble yet impoverished family, with bloodlines on her father’s side going back to Edward III and on her mother’s side she was a close cousin of the Queen. (Rumours that her grandmother was Henry VIII’s illegitimate daughter by Mary Boleyn place her even closer to the royal fold, but are unproven.) Her father Walter Devereux, 1st Earl of Essex, had died serving Elizabeth in Ireland, leaving the family coffers almost bare and saddling Penelope’s brother, Robert, the second earl, dubbed ‘the poorest earl in England’, with debts that would have far-reaching consequences for him and his family.

Aged eighteen Penelope arrived at court, charged with promoting the Devereux family. There she dazzled with her striking looks and beautiful singing voice, becoming a favourite of the Queen and also encountered Sidney, a man to whom she had once been betrothed. It is probable that the pair fell for each other at this time; certainly Sidney’s poetry suggests this. But Sidney had neither the title nor the funds to make the kind of match the Devereuxs aspired to for their eldest daughter and so she was married off, against her will, to the exceedingly wealthy, and appropriately named, Baron Rich as a means to replenish the family coffers.

Sir Philip Sidney

Soon after Penelope’s marriage to Rich, Sidney wrote his celebrated sonnet cycle Astrophil and Stella, a ground-breaking work which drew on Plutarch, placing an unobtainable (or almost unattainable) female object of desire at its heart. Inspection of clues in the text, in particular the repeated use of the word ‘rich’ in different contexts, reveal without doubt Stella to be the literary embodiment of Penelope Rich. There is no absolute proof that Penelope and Sidney were lovers in the conventional sense of the word but there is no doubt, if you read the cycle, that Sidney’s feelings for the married Lady Rich were profound. The poems reveal an extraordinary outpouring of passion, which some have interpreted as evidence of an adulterous relationship.

Sidney met his death fighting for the Protestant cause in Europe. By the time he died he had come to represent, as a soldier poet, the epitome of Elizabethan chivalry and his death gave rise to an excessive outpouring of grief. He had touched the hearts of the people. But his liaison with Lady Rich was a blot at the core of his reputation, which if he were to become the flower of protestant manhood for posterity, would have to be explained away. So the interpretation of the sonnets as an imaginary, courtly and chaste romance, symbolising man’s love of God, prevailed. And Penelope, the woman, was, if not quite erased, then blurred in his history.