Robert Sidney, 1st Earl of Leicester

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Robert Sidney

Robert Sidney, 1st Earl of Leicester from NPG.jpg
Sidney c.1588. At the top left is inscribed his Latin motto: Inveniam Viam Aut Faciam ("I shall find the way or make it")
1st Earl of Leicester
ReignJuly 1618 - 13 July 1626
Successor Robert Sidney
Born19 November 1563
Died13 July 1626 (aged 62)
Noble family Sidney
Spouse(s) Barbara Gamage
Sarah Blount
IssueSir William Sidney
Robert Sidney, 2nd Earl of Leicester
Henry Sidney
Philip Sidney
Lady Mary Wroth
Catherine Sidney
Philippa Sidney
Barbara Sidney
Dorothy Sidney
Elizabeth Sidney
Bridget Sidney
Father Henry Sidney
Mother Mary Dudley

Arms of Sidney: Or, a pheon azure Sydney Coat of arms.svg
Arms of Sidney: Or, a pheon azure

Robert Sidney, 1st Earl of Leicester KG (19 November 1563 13 July 1626), was an English courtier, soldier, and landowner. He was chamberlain to Anne of Denmark.


Family background

Robert Sidney was the second son of Sir Henry Sidney, was a statesman of Elizabethan and Jacobean England. He was also a patron of the arts and a poet. His mother, Mary Sidney née Dudley, was a lady-in-waiting to Queen Elizabeth I and a sister of Robert Dudley, 1st Earl of Leicester, an advisor and favourite of the Queen.


Sidney was educated at Shrewsbury and Christ Church, Oxford, afterwards travelling on the Continent for some years between 1578 and 1583. [1] In 1585 he was elected member of parliament for Glamorganshire; and in the same year he went with his elder brother, Sir Philip Sidney to the Netherlands, where he served in the war against Spain under Robert Dudley. He was present at the Battle of Zutphen where Sir Philip Sidney was mortally wounded, and remained with his brother.

After visiting Scotland on a diplomatic mission in 1588, and France on a similar errand in 1593, he returned to the Netherlands in 1606, where he rendered distinguished service in the war for the next two years. He had been appointed governor of the cautionary town of Flushing in 1588, and he spent much time there. In 1595 he sent his business manager Rowland Whyte to court to lobby for resources for Flushing, and to send him information about events at court including the latest political gossip. Whyte's letters provide a major resource for historians of the period. Whyte himself regularly complains about the indecipherable handwriting of his employer's replies. [2]

In 1603, on the accession of James I, he returned to England. Sidney bought new clothes to meet the king at Lord Harington's house at Burley. [3] James raised him at once to the peerage as Baron Sidney of Penshurst, and he was appointed chamberlain and surveyor to the queen consort, Anne of Denmark. [4] Sidney was involved in the English administration of her jointure lands and her revenues. [5] He dealt with correspondence from county agents, like Thomas Coningsby, and worked on a plan to enlarge the park of Nonsuch Palace to make it a better residence for the queen. [6]

Identified as an influential courtier, the French ambassador the Marquis de Rosny gave him a chain of perfumed gold beads and diamomds with a minature of Henry IV of France. [7] In January 1605, Sidney was involved the production of The Masque of Blackness . Jewels used in the costumes valued at £10,000 were borrowed from goldsmiths including John Spilman, and Sidney became liable for £40 for two lost diamonds. [8] He was created Viscount Lisle. In August 1605 he decided to visit Vlissingen, but a storm forced his ship to land in Spanish territory at Gravelines. A suspicion arose at the English court that he had intended to go there, perhaps to betray the English-held fortress. Sidney managed to clear himself. [9]

He wrote to William Trumbull in September 1614 with news of the queen's illness, she was "much troubled with paines in her legs and feet". [10] In August 1615 he went with Anne of Denmark to Bath, and was joined by his daughter Catherine and her husband Lewis Mansel who travelled from Margam. Catherine came for medical advice in Bath. [11]

In May 1618 he wrote to Sir Thomas Lake, the king's secretary with news of the queen declaration about efforts to reduce household expenses. She had told him that "while she lives she will obey the king in all things ... She therefore desires his majesty to take what order it shall please him, which shall please her also, for being wholly ignorant in household business, she will not any meddle with them". [12]

In July 1618 he became Earl of Leicester. The title had become extinct in 1588 on the death of his uncle Robert Dudley, part of whose property he had inherited. Sidney wrote to his wife that their promotion was due to Anne of Denmark. [13]

He was ill in September 1618 and was attended at Hampton Court by Henry Atkins and Théodore de Mayerne at the request of Anne of Denmark. [14]

Marriage and progeny

Barbara Sidney with six of her children, painted c. 1596 by Marcus Gheeraerts the Younger (1561-1636), collection of Viscount de Lisle, Penshurst Place Gheeraerts Barbara Gamage with Six Children.jpg
Barbara Sidney with six of her children, painted c.1596 by Marcus Gheeraerts the Younger (1561–1636), collection of Viscount de Lisle, Penshurst Place
Arms of Gammage of Coity Castle, Glamorgan: Argent, five fusils in bend gules on a chief azure three escallops of the first GammageArms.png
Arms of Gammage of Coity Castle, Glamorgan: Argent, five fusils in bend gules on a chief azure three escallops of the first
Sidney's second wife, Sarah Blount, inscribed: 1599 Aetatis Suae 19 ("1599: in the 19th year of her age") Sarah Blount Countess of Leicester 1590.jpg
Sidney's second wife, Sarah Blount, inscribed: 1599 Aetatis Suae 19 ("1599: in the 19th year of her age")

Sidney married twice:

Firstly to Barbara Gamage, a noted heiress and beauty, the daughter of John Gamage, of Coity Castle, a Glamorgan gentleman. By his first wife, he had eleven children. [16]

Secondly to Sarah Blount, daughter of William Blount, and widow of Sir Thomas Smythe, by whom he had no children.

Music and poetry

Leicester was a man of taste and a patron of literature, whose cultured mode of life at his country seat, Penshurst Place, was celebrated in verse by Ben Jonson. Robert Sidney was a patron of musicians, as is proved by his being the dedicatee of Robert Jones's First Booke of Songes and Ayres (1600) and A Musicall Banquet (1610) compiled by Robert Dowland, son of the composer John Dowland. Sidney had agreed to be godfather to John Dowland's son, and A Musicall Banquet opens with a Galliard by John Dowland entitled Syr Robert Sidney his Galliard.

Engraved portrait of Sidney by Simon de Passe, 1617 Robert Sidney 1st Earl of Leicester by Simon de Passe 1617.jpg
Engraved portrait of Sidney by Simon de Passe, 1617

Though the brother of one of the most famous poets in the English language, it was not suspected that Robert Sidney had himself been a poet until the 1960s, when his working notebook emerged (in a 19th-century binding) through the dispersal of the Library of Warwick Castle. Subsequent research showed it had been acquired in 1848 after passing through a number of sales beginning with the dispersal of the library at Penshurst in the early 19th century. Sold again at Sotheby's and acquired by the British Library in 1975 (catalogued as Add MS 58435), the autograph is, as its first editor P. J. Croft pointed out, "the largest body of verse to have survived from the Elizabethan period in a text entirely set down by the poet himself".


Heraldic impression of arms of Robert Sidney in one of 55 books purchased by the Bodleian Library with his donation in 1600 of PS100 ArmsRobertSidney1stEarlofLeicester.png
Heraldic impression of arms of Robert Sidney in one of 55 books purchased by the Bodleian Library with his donation in 1600 of £100
Quartered arms Sir Robert Sidney, 1st Earl of Leicester, KG Coat of arms Sir Robert Sidney, 1st Earl of Leicester, KG.png
Quartered arms Sir Robert Sidney, 1st Earl of Leicester, KG

The arms of Robert Sidney, 1st Earl of Leicester showed sixteen quarters as follows: [18]
1. A pheon (Sydney) 2. Barry of ten a lion rampant crowned (Brandon) 3. A lion rampant double queued (Dudley) 4. Two lions passant (Somerie) 5. Barry of six in chief three torteaux a label of three points for difference (Grey, Viscount Lisle) 6. A maunch (Hastings) 7. A wolf's head erased (Lupus, Earl of Chester) 8. Barry of ten as many martlets in orle (de Valence, Earl of Pembroke) 9. A lion rampant (Marshall, Earl of Pembroke) 10. Seven mascles conjoined three and one (Ferrers of Groby) 11. A lion rampant within a bordure engrailed (Talbot) 12. A fess between six crosses crosslet (Beauchamp) 13. Checky, a chevron ermine (Newburgh, Earl of Warwick) 14. A lion statant gardant crowned (Baron de Lisle) 15. A chevron (Tyes) 16. A fess dancetty (West); over-all an inescutcheon of pretence of his wife's paternal arms: quarterly: 1. Five fusils in bend on a chief three escallops (Gamage) 2. Vair (Martel?) 3. Checky, a fess ermine (Turberville of Coity Castle) 4. Three chevrons (Llewellyn)

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  1. This article incorporates text from R.J. McNeill, 'Leicester, Robert Sidney, Earl of (1563-1626)' in Encyclopedia Britannica (1911), Vol XVI, p. 392.
  2. Lisle C. John, 'Rowland Whyte, Elizabethan Letter-Writer', Studies in the Renaissance (1961), pp. 217-235.
  3. Francis Grose, Antiquarian Repertory, 1 (London, 1807), 279
  4. John Leeds Barroll, 'The court of the first Stuart queen', Linda Levy Peck, The Mental World of the Jacobean Court (Cambridge, 1991), p. 203.
  5. Millicent Hay, Life of Robert Sidney, Earl of Leicester (Folger Books, 1984), pp. 210, 216.
  6. Arthur Collins, Letters and Memorials, 2 (London, 1746), pp. 306-312.
  7. Maximilien de Béthune Sully, Memoirs of the Duke of Sully, vol. 2 (London, 1890), p. 421: Mémoire des sages et royales oeconomies d'Estat, (Amsterdam, 1639), p. 272.
  8. Barbara Ravelhofer, The Early Stuart Masque: Dance, Costume, and Music (Oxford, 2006), 130: Diana Scarisbrick, Jewellery in Britain, 1066-1837 (Norwich: Michael Russell, 1994), p. 73.
  9. Horatio Brown, Calendar State Papers, Venice: 1603-1607, vol. 10 (London, 1900), pp. 271 no. 416, 276 no. 427.
  10. HMC Downshire, vol. 5 (London, 1988), p. 22 no. 56.
  11. William Shaw & G. Dyfnallt Owen, HMC 77 Viscount De L'Isle Penshurst, vol. 5 (London, 1961), p. 305.
  12. HNC 4th Report (De La Warr) (London, 1874), p. 282.
  13. William Shaw & G. Dyfnallt Owen, HMC 77 Manuscripts of the Viscount De L'Isle, vol. 5 (London, 1962), p. 416.
  14. William Shaw & G. Dyfnallt Owen, HMC 77 Manuscripts of the Viscount De L'Isle, vol. 5 (London, 1962), p. 418.
  15. These were the arms of the heiress Barbara Gammage borne as an escutcheon of pretence by her husband Robert Sidney, 1st Earl of Leicester, as is visible on the imprints of 55 books donated by him to the Bodleian Library. The earlier arms of Gammage found on various rolls of arms omitted the escallops and place the bend fusilly over all
  16. Margaret P. Hannay, Noel J. Kinnamon and Michael G. Brennan, Domestic Politics and Family Absence: The Correspondence (1588-1621) of Robert Sidney, First Earl of Leicester, and Barbara Gamage Sidney, Countess of Leicester (Aldershot, Ashgate, 2005)
  17. Francis Grose, Antiquarian Repertory, 1 (London, 1807), 281
  18. University of Toronto Library
Peerage of England
New creation Earl of Leicester
Succeeded by
Viscount Lisle