Hidden historical heroines (#26: Penelope Rich)

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Penelope Rich, aka Penelope Blount, Countess of Devonshire (January 1563 – 7 July 1607) was a prominent English noblewoman during the reigns of Elizabeth I and James I. She was the sister of Elizabeth’s “toyboy favourite”, Robert Devereux, Earl of Essex and scandalised her contemporaries with her extra-marital activities.

Penelope Devereux was born in 1563, in Chartley Castle in Staffordshire, the eldest child of Walter Devereux, Viscount Hereford, (later also the Earl of Essex) and the unfairly infamous Lettice Knollys (a figure certainly worth her own post). Lettice was the daughter of Catherine Carey –  the daughter of Mary Boleyn – making her Elizabeth’s cousin through her mother, Anne.

Penelope was a star. Impressive pedigree aside, she was a beauty famed Europe-wide, with her golden hair and dark Boleyn eyes. The queen’s miniaturist painted two miniatures of Penelope (when she was Lady Rich – in 1589 and 1590). One was given to James VI of Scotland (later James I of England), highlighting just how much of a sensation she must have been. She was accomplished, too – fluent in French, Italian and Spanish and a gifted dancer and singer; Penelope brought a youthful vigour to the court of the aging Elizabeth.

Penelope’s father died in September 1576; two years later, the widowed Lettice rather outrageously married the queen’s favourite, Robert Dudley (read about Robert and his ill-fated first wife here). This move not only earned Elizabeth’s enmity, but quite possibly scuppered the young Penelope’s marriage prospects. It had been proposed for some time that Penelope would marry Dudley’s nephew and heir Sir Philip Sidney, an impressive courtier slash poet (weren’t they all!). After the marriage between Lettice and Dudley, the negotiations fizzled out.

So it was that the beautiful Penelope Devereux arrived unmarried at court in 1581, aged eighteen. Unsurprisingly, she was snapped up within a couple of months. Her guardian sought and obtained Queen Elizabeth’s consent for Penelope to be married to the powerful Baron, Robert Rich, (later to become the Earl of Warwick). It is said that Penelope protested vehemently against the marriage, but her preference was ignored. She was duly wedded and became Lady Rich, providing her hated husband with seven healthy children.

Despite – or maybe because of – her unhappy domestic situation, Penelope continued to shine at court. Philip Sidney certainly seemed to have still held a torch for the wife he could have had; Penelope is usually taken to be the “Stella” of Sidney’s poetical magnum opus, the Astrophel and Stella sequence of sonnets. Interestingly, after Sidney died from battle wounds, Penelope’s brother Robert (Elizabeth’s new favourite after their stepfather Dudley’s death in 1588) married Sidney’s widow Frances Walsingham – the tangled families of Renaissance nobility!Lady Rich

Perhaps it was knowing just how beloved she was at court, perhaps it was trust in the powerful protection of her brother Robert, but by the mid-1590s Penelope had had enough of her unhappy lot. She was deeply in love with Charles Blount, Baron Mountjoy, a prominent nobleman. By 1595 their affair was an open secret. By 1597 she’d given birth to his son. Lord Rich seethed at the affront, but whilst Robert Deveraux had the queen’s love and favour, he dared not move against his scandalous wife.

In time his patience paid off. Robert Deveraux was executed for treason in 1601 and Lord Rich lost no time in throwing his wife out of his house – along with her two small children by Mountjoy. Luckily, the relationship between the lovers was a strong one, and this was almost what they had been waiting for. Mountjoy brought Lady Rich to live formally with him, to all intents and purposes his wife. They soon had a third child together.

When James I ascended the throne, Mountjoy was created Earl of Devonshire. Despite their unusual marital arrangement, he and Penelope were well respected in the Jacobean court. Penelope was among the ladies who escorted James’ bride – Anne of Denmark – when she entered London in 1603 and duly became one of her Ladies of the Bedchamber.

By 1605 Lord Rich had had quite enough of this ongoing humiliation and sued for divorce. Penelope cheerfully admitted publicly to her adultery, wanting nothing more than to be freed to marry her true love and legitimise their four children. The divorce was granted – Penelope’s request to remarry was not. But Penelope had been defying public opinion for years now, and she and Mountjoy married anyway, in front of their chaplain at home on Boxing Day 1605.

This complete flouting of canon law was too much for James, who banished the erstwhile favourites from court. Although it was obviously meant to be a mark of their disgrace, perhaps it was the happiest time in Penelope’s rather tempestuous life. She was able to live quietly, a wife to her husband in all ways, mothering their young children. Sadly, there was to be no leisurely, loved-up ‘retirement’ for the Duke and Duchess of Devonshire. Mountjoy died just three months after their wedding. Penelope died the following summer, aged only 44, one of the last of the truly great ladies of the Tudor court.

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