Two Households

Letters from Robert Sidney to Barbara

More than 320 letters from Robert Sidney to Barbara and to his trusted steward Rowland Whyte were preserved and are now at the Kent County Archives Office, Maidstone, Kent. They provide a fascinating insight into the actual functioning of a great estate and the actual domestic relations and responsibilities of husband and wife, by comparison with the theoretical definitions set forth in the sections on Religious and Legal Norms and Advice Books. Though the marriage was not initially a love match, Robert's letters are marked by tenderness and intimacy, as well as high regard for Barbara as domestic helpmeet, manager of his estate during his frequent and often-lamented absences on court duties, and fond mother of his children — for whom he also shows a tender regard; the letters are also marked by a constant anxiety about money and the large expenses of the household. Barbara's letters, sent to Robert at court or abroad, did not, apparently, survive, but some of her attitudes — her reluctance to leave Penshurst to come to court or to Flushing, her care for the standard of hospitality at the estate, her love for her children — can be inferred from Robert's letters.


From Sir Robert to Barbara (from court):

June 3, 1594. Sweetheart, I would not for anything that the ill husbands at the court should know how fond I am grown to send you on this fashion the first dainties I can come by, lest they should think I were quite mad.

From Sir Robert to Barbara (from Flushing):

November 20, 1596. I am glad to hear that Will begins to read. For the schoolmaster for him, I would some were harkened out, but not made choice of until I come into England myself. I would fain have a Frenchman if I could find one out that were fit. For our Oxford young men have seen nothing but the schools, and need for most things themselves to be taught.

August 22, 1597. It is true that in the former of my long letters I wrote that I would have you leave some of your children behind you: but in the latter I left it to yourself, as I do still, since I see you will not be otherwise pleased. For the girls I cannot mislike the care you take of them. But for the boys, you must resolve to let me have my will. For I know better what belongs to a man than you do. Indeed I will have him lie [apart] from his maid, for it is time, and now no more to be in the nursery among women. I will not stick to the schoolmaster whom you speak of £20 a year, if I can hear of his sufficiency. But then will I have the boy delivered to his charge only, and not to have him when he is to teach him, to be troubled with the women [the daughters?]. I pray you sweetheart, resolve to suffer the boy now to be wholly at my charge. For it is reasonable time that being seven years old he should be able to read English.

From the steward Rowland Whyte to Sir Robert (at Flushing):

February 21, 1600. My Lady takes great pains in all your business; by her travail matters go forward. She has been with Mr. Cooke, the judge of Glamorgan, about some causes of yours, who promises to have special care of them.

April 19, 1600. Your letter touching the respecting of servants has much grieved my Lady; the least unkind word you send is to her soul a torment * * * Her expense here she confesses is great. For her house (unless it be when Lord Herbert comes, which is three or four days a week) there is nothing wastefully spent. Little Sir Philip Herbert now lives with her. All your allowances to fund her and her children is bestowed upon them and their bringing up, upon herself very little or nothing. If I did not see her extremely aggrieved at your letter I would not presume to have written thus.

From Sir Robert to Barbara (from court):

November 10, 1607. The auditor told me that you would be here this week, and indeed it is high time that I resolve upon something. For as my state is now I cannot consist, I will not say in respect of mine honor and credit, but even for things of necessary maintenance. And therefore before you come from Penshurst I pray you confer at large with Golding [the accountant] and take his opinion what is to be done. For I never was in that case in my life as I am now. For besides my interests [on] debts, I owe £2000 in London, for the most part of which I either am or shall presently be sued. The household debts and many of them to poor and clamorous persons come to a thousand pound: a sum I think you did not imagine. * * * I should be extremely ashamed if I were not to you and to Golding to discover the greatness, and indeed the foulness, of my wants. As I have said, I have not money to pay the interest [that] grows due nor to buy necessary clothes for this winter nor to pay for man's meat nor horse's meat. * * * So as I fear I shall not be able in a manner to show my head if I make not present sale of something, till somewhat may come in from the king which I have no reason to doubt of, though perhaps it will require some time. Christmas likewise is coming on, >> note 1 which to one that lives in the place that I do brings on a necessary exhausting charge. * * * Think of these thing I pray you: for you see how I acquaint you with the depth of all and do desire your advice."

September 29, 1609 [regarding a prospective steward that Barbara has proposed, one Thomas Morgan]. It is a steward indeed that I want, as I have often told you. For it is not the expense of the kitchen alone but of all the house that is out of order, and cannot be remedied but by the care of a good steward. Whether Thomas Morgan be sufficient for that place is the question. For his honesty I make no doubt, nor of his care and diligence. But the steward of a man's house of my quality must have both the spirit and knowledge to command and experience of all things that belong to a house both within doors and without. Otherwise you will not have that satisfaction that is to be looked for. Besides he must know how to give entertainment to strangers according to their qualities, which is not easily found in one that is not bred where such courses are used. Truly I was exceeding sorry to see you so grieved as you were at my coming from you; and I would have given better token if I had had any time to stay. It is not my desire that you should undertake the charge of the house, to be a grief unto you. * * * For the greatness of the expenses, so as there may be some better course hereafter, never trouble yourself with what is past; if the house be in debt I must pay it and will. But this we must at last resolve, to keep such a house as we may, not as we would: and our friends must bear with us: for we must not be undone. I know you want >> note 2 many things which are fit for you: but truly the debts every half year come so heavily in respect of the house, as (for which I am exceedingly sorry) I am never able to do that for you which in my heart I desire. But as soon as I can bring my estate into any good order I will set out such an allowance as shall beseem my wife, whom I love so well: and besides particular allowances for all your children. But to return to the house, I see I must set down a proportion weekly, above which I will not go; and whatsoever blame may be of it I will take upon me: and you shall be free. Neither is it any way my meaning to take any authority of the house from you and yield accounts to you, and do those things which indeed is unfit for you to trouble yourself withal. For I would have you be mistress and not put yourself to those things which indeed belong to servants. How Morgan will be able to perform these things I know not. For my part I had rather have him than another, because he hath already served me: but on the other side I would be as loth to be forced to put him away again.

July 22, 1618. By my daughter Wroth >> note 3 I sent you word of the honor the King intended to me, which now is performed and passed the great seal, so as now your Ladyship is Countess of Leicester. * * * And sweetheart, many years I pray God you may enjoy this name to my comfort, who will ever be your most loving husband, Leicester.

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