Two Households

The Sidneys of Penshurst

[Click on image to enlarge] Penshurst was the country house of Robert Sidney, Lord Lisle, his wife, Barbara Sidney, and their children. Pictures and private letters afford some insight into the actual functioning of this family and household, as regards domestic relations, the education of children, economic difficulties, and the roles of household members.

Penshurst was one of the great country houses in the Elizabethan and Jacobean periods. It was a center of literary and cultural activity and of gracious hospitality; Ben Jonson's famous poem To Penshurst (NAEL 8, 1.1434) alludes especially to that last quality. Robert Sidney was the younger brother of the poet Sir Philip Sidney (NAEL 8, 1.947) and the Countess of Pembroke (NAEL 8, 1.993); his daughter was the poet and writer of romance Lady Mary Wroth (NAEL 8, 1.1451). Robert became head of the family at his brother Philip's death in 1586. Like Philip he also fought in the Low Countries, served as governor of the English stronghold there (Flushing), and wrote poetry. A manuscript volume of his love sonnets has recently been discovered and published. A prominent courtier in the reign of James I, he was made Lord Chamberlain to Queen Anne in 1603, Viscount Lisle in 1605, and Earl of Leicester in 1618.


Lady Sidney and Her Children

The Welsh heiress Barbara Gamage brought a large fortune to Robert Sidney at their marriage on September 23, 1584, when she was twenty-two and he a year or so younger. The marriage was hastily arranged by her guardians after her father's death to subvert designs by other kinsfolk and suitors to gain control of her and her wealth. Lady Sidney bore twelve children, eight girls and four boys, of whom two sons died in infancy.

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The Marcus Gheeraerts portrait of Lady Sidney and six of her children hangs at Penshurst Place, in the collection of Viscount de L'Isle, VC, KG. It portrays her as a fruitful wife and nurturing mother. Barbara's hands rest on her two sons (who are still in skirts — not yet "breeched"), betokening her special care of them as vessels of family continuity; the central figure is the presumptive heir, William, though in fact his early death made the second son, Robert, the heir. The daughters are arranged in two pairs, with the mother's nurturing gesture replicated by the elder of each pair; the oldest daughter is Mary, later the writer Mary Wroth (NAEL 8, 1.1451).


Penshurst Place

Penshurst Place, Kent (South Front). Jonson's poem To Penshurst (NAEL 8, 1.1434) begins by contrasting the Sidney house, appropriately enough, with recent and much more ostentatious houses like the Sackvilles' Knole, built especially for show. The Sidneys occupied Penshurst only from about 1550, though Jonson's poem associates it and the course of life there with the permanence and stability of nature itself.

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