SIDNEY, Robert (1563-1626), of Penshurst, Kent.
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Family and Education
b. 19 Nov. 1563, and s. of Sir Henry Sidney, and bro. of Philip educ. Christ Church, Oxf. 1575-9; travelled abroad 1579-81. m. (1) 23 Sept. 1584, Barbara (d.1621), da. and h. of John Gamage of Coity, Glam. by Gwenlleian, wid. of Watkin Thomas, at least 5s. 8da.; (2) 1625, Sarah (d.1655), da. and h. of William Blount, wid. of Thomas Smythe II of Sutton-at-Hone. Kntd. 7 Oct. 1586; suc. bro. 17 Oct. 1586; cr. Baron Sidney 1603; Visct. Lisle 1605; KG 1616; Earl of Leicester 1618.1
J.p. Glam. from C.1584, Kent from 1593, Suss. temp. Jas. I; capt. in the Low Countries 1585-8; capt. of the fort at Rammekins; capt. of light horse, Tilbury 1588; special envoy to Scotland Aug.-Sept. 1588, to France Jan.-Apr. 1594, to the Elector 1613; gov. FlushingJune 15892-May 1616; ld. chamberlain to Queen Anne 14 July 1603-19, surveyor-gen. of her revenues 10 Nov. 1603; member of the Queen’s council 1604, of council in the marches of Wales; commr. eccles. causes 1620; member, council of war for the Palatinate.
While Robert Sidney displayed neither the political acumen and administrative ability of his father, nor the youthful energy and creative genius of his elder brother, it would be unfair to maintain that he owed his position at the court of James I only to birth and influence. Such rewards were just as much due to the many years of loyal service he gave to Elizabeth. During her reign he was able to show that he shared much of his family’s military skill, and the diplomatic tasks which came his way he conducted with tact and efficiency. His failure to secure a number of prominent appointments in the 1590s, when he enjoyed the mixed blessing of the Earl of Essex’s patronage, seems to have exhausted his ambitions, and though he enjoyed James’s favour, he either was not permitted, or, more probably, did not desire to make the move from courtier to statesman. As a result, his later years were passed listening to gossip in the Queen’s presence chamber rather than to political discussion round the council table. He lacked political judgment, was unable to communicate easily, was selfish and indolent, but his intellectual ability, his long experience of continental affairs, and his personal bravery should have earned him better treatment than he received, especially at the hands of Elizabeth. In a way, Sidney’s birth and parentage proved a handicap. ‘Follow your discreet and virtuous brother’s rule’, his father told him, and throughout his life he had to try to live up to Philip’s example. There was nine years’ difference in their ages and throughout his childhood—mainly spent at Ludlow castle, from which his father administered the Welsh marches—and his university career at Oxford, he must have been constantly aware of the fame which Philip was achieving. Clearly, he endeavoured to emulate him. His two years on the Continent were important in deciding his future career. He lived extravagantly, in Germany for the most part, but found time to perfect his knowledge of Dutch and to learn the military skills. If there are any good wars, go to them, Philip told him, accompanying his advice with affectionate greetings and financial aid.3
Sidney made a fortunate marriage. Barbara Gamage brought him lands and wealth, and proved an affectionate and loyal wife. The marriage took place in dramatic circumstances. When Barbara’s father died, Sir Edward Stradling†, of St. Donat’s castle, became her guardian. As one of the wealthiest heiresses in Wales—her estates were worth more than £1,000 a year—she had many suitors, but the Queen ordered that she be brought to court where her future could be decided. Apparently attracted by the young Robert Sidney, however, she persuaded her guardian to arrange an immediate marriage. The story that the ceremony took place in the chapel at St. Donat’s, only a few hours before a messenger arrived from the Queen forbidding it, may have become embellished by the passage of time, but there is no doubt that their union antagonized several prominent people. The outcome was that, combined with his father’s position in the marches and his sister’s marriage to the Earl of Pembroke, Sidney was now one of the most important men on the Welsh border. He was elected to Parliament for Glamorganshire on or near his twenty-first birthday. Sir Henry Sidney asked for Stradling’s support, and Pembroke wrote in a similar vein:
These are to request you that you will give your election, with such friends as you can procure, unto my brother Robert Sidney, that by your means, with the residue of my friends and freeholders there, he may be chosen knight of the shire ... for the which he shall demand no charge of the country at all.
There is no record of any activity by Sidney in this Parliament, although he could have served on the subsidy committee on 24 Feb. 1585, by reason of his being knight of the shires.4
In the autumn of 1585 Sidney joined the expedition to the Low Countries led by his uncle, the Earl of Leicester, and with Sir Philip Sidney among its captains. Philip, who was governor of Flushing, appointed his brother as his deputy, in charge of the fort at Rammekins. Robert fought at Zutphen, where his brother was mortally wounded. Philip’s death, following shortly after that of his father and mother, meant that Robert came into possession of Penshurst and had to live up to Philip’s enhanced and now posthumous reputation.5
The Earl of Leicester, his close relative, assumed the task of looking after his nephew’s interests. He knighted him shortly after Zutphen and, on Sidney’s return to England after two years’ successful campaigning, was instrumental in furthering his career. He may have helped him to acquire a command in the camp at Tilbury in the summer of 1588, and almost certainly persuaded the Queen to make him her special envoy to James VI of Scotland after the defeat of the Armada. Burghley suggested a peerage for him at this time. When Sidney had to hurry back to London on hearing of Leicester’s death, James, who had enjoyed his company, was ‘marvellously sorry’. At a later date, Sidney was to take advantage of this personal familiarity with the Scottish King.6
With the death of his patron, Sidney’s chances of advancement at home lessened considerably, so he resumed his military career on the Continent. After taking part in Norris and Drake’s expedition to Portugal, he was appointed, in the summer of 1589, to the most important post of his life, the governorship of Flushing, which he was to retain until the town was given up to the Dutch in 1616, though he rarely visited it after the death of Elizabeth. Flushing’s strategic importance kept Sidney fully occupied but his view that nothing else mattered as long as Flushing was safe must have irritated those at home. He bombarded ministers with letters bewailing the lack of supplies and money. In 1595, for example, he urged Burghley to take action or the town would be lost:
Calais is a fresh and grievous example of a place thought invincible and lost within eleven days ... I trust her Majesty’s reign shall not be touched for the like mishap.
At that moment strength was added to his words by a Catholic plot to seize the fortress. After Catholic agents had failed to secure a set of keys by bribery, they urged Sidney to join them in overthrowing the Queen, assuring him that they wished him ‘to be a greater man than he is’. He may have exaggerated the dangers to Flushing, but he was certainly no traitor, and it is difficult to understand how such well informed Catholic agents as Griffin Jones and Henry Walpole could have seriously considered the possibility of his being one. Perhaps they were misled by his increasing disgust at the course his career was taking.7
To begin with, an important governorship had seemed the perfect way to increase his chances of advancement, but when the call home to high or lucrative office never came, he realised that he had been passed over. Refused leave of absence, he asserted ‘a horse is more gently used, for yet a bit is sought out ... that may be most pleasing to him’; still, between 1589 and 1603 he spent more time in England than at Flushing. ‘I see Flushing must be the grave of my youth, and, I fear, of my fortune also’, he bewailed in 1597, and two years later:
I have been governor there now ten years and have got neither reputation nor profit, but rather lost thereby, seeing that all of my own rank have been preferred, and some that were behind me set on a level with me or before me. And if now I go back without any sign of the Queen’s acceptance of my service, the world may well say that the place I had I got by chance, since, after so long continuance of it, I am not thought worthy of any more. I know the Queen thinks she has done much for me in giving me the government, and I thank her for it, and yet, but for her service, I could wish I had never known the place.
What perhaps annoyed him most was the government’s apparent indifference towards him after a series of military and diplomatic successes. He was in Brittany, for example, in 1593, and the following year visited Henri IV of France. He saw the French King again in 1596, and, with Sir Francis Vere, led the armies in the field in 1597. His brilliant cavalry charge shattered the enemy at the battle of Turnhout, but a letter from his aunt, the Countess of Warwick, advised him that the Queen ‘will not thank you for being there’. His frustration in such circumstances can be readily understood.8
With hope of promotion turning to despair, it was only natural that he should seek out the support of a powerful patron close to the Queen, and here is the reason for his close ties with the Earl of Essex, who had married Philip Sidney’s widow. At first the Cecils seemed to offer the best prospects of promotion. In 1591 Roland White, Sidney’s indefatigable agent at court, who kept him closely in touch with all the gossip, urged him to stick to Burghley: ‘Old Saturnus is a melancholy and wayward planet, but yet predominant here’; and as late as 1594 Sidney told his wife: ‘I hope to have my Lord Treasurer and Sir Robert Cecil my friends’. But it was becoming clear by that date that the rift between Essex and the Cecils was too great for any man to have a foot in both camps, and Sidney chose the Earl. From about 1594 the letters between them became more and more friendly. ‘More could be done with Essex than by any other means’, White told his master, and Sidney soon began to rely almost entirely on Essex’s influence to gain him a suitable appointment:
When my brother and my uncles died, all their offices, great and small, were given away from me. Since that time I have not left to continue the doing her Majesty’s service, and if nothing will light upon me, I must think I deserve very ill or have very ill luck.
Between about 1593 and 1598 Essex sought by various means to acquire a succession of posts for his new ally at Flushing. These included the offices of vice-chamberlain and lord chamberlain, the presidency of the council in the Welsh marches, together with a seat on the Privy Council and a peerage, and, perhaps most significant of all, the wardenship of the Cinque Ports. As well as a test of Essex’s power at court, this became a battle for supremacy in Kent between Sidney and Lord Cobham. When it appeared that the wardenship might shortly fall vacant, Essex told White that he held ‘nobody so fit’ for the office as Sidney. ‘If my Lord of Essex is able to do anything it will now appear’, White reported, but the doubts which he had always held proved to be justified. Essex overplayed his hand and the office remained in the Cobham family. At this news Sidney, forced to follow the contest from Flushing, gave way to another bout of despair and injured pride. What annoyed him most was the suggestion that because he was not a peer he must be inferior to Lord Cobham:
I am sure I had a grandfather, a duke, and an uncle that in their time bore the greatest sway in England; and my father, though he were no baron, possessed as great places of commandment as her Majesty can give away, and if they were still alive, I durst say I had not done anything why they should be ashamed of me. But her Majesty will have a baron in that place. I would to God that the Spaniards would run away at the title of a baron, or that it would keep our men from running away, otherwise I fear me our country of Kent and Sussex will be honourably left to be spoiled and burnt.
It has sometimes been claimed that Sidney clung to Essex’s party while it was to his advantage but, at the critical moment in 1601, abandoned the Earl to his fate. This suggestion is unwarranted. At least two years earlier their friendship was becoming cooler and, in fact, it was Essex who began the process. As early as 1597 White wrote: ‘That you shall receive benefit by his love I have some cause to doubt’, and in 1599 he warned Sidney that the Earl was not to be trusted. Sidney, for his part, may have realised that his alliance with a falling star was a hindrance. His appearance as spokesman for the government at the time of the Essex rebellion in 1601, to try to persuade Essex to surrender since his cause was lost, was not a sudden treacherous act: it simply suggests that, because of their former relationship, his tongue would probably be the most persuasive. In the same way his renewal of friendly correspondence with Robert Cecil took place a long time before the crisis.9
During the logos Sidney was elected to Parliament twice more. In 1593 he sat for Glamorganshire for the second time, serving on subsidy committees (26 Feb., 1, 3 Mar.) and others concerning alien merchants (6 Mar.), the poor (12 Mar.), maimed soldiers (30 Mar.) and reducing disloyal subjects to their true obedience (4 Apr.). He was in the Netherlands at the time of the 1597 election and must have been delighted to hear from his agent: ‘I understand that my Lord Cobham was much grieved to see that you ... had the chief place given you by the voices of the people, which he would not have believed’. But when Sidney had not arrived in England two weeks later, some attempt seems to have been made to arrange a new election. This came to nothing but it is doubtful whether Sidney returned to England during the course of the Parliament. The journals do not mention his name, and it would be unwise to assume that he took part in the work of the important committees to which the knights of the shire were appointed. There was also a contested election in Kent in 1601, which developed into a struggle between Sidney and Lord Cobham. Sidney supported Sir Henry Neville II, and Cobham Francis Fane. About a month before the election Sidney received at Flushing a report on Neville’s chances of victory.
Finding your lordship’s great desire to advance the party for Sir Henry Neville, I did presently practice in all places near about Penshurst, and the next day sent farther off. I am in good hope that you shall be very well satisfied, and shall carry with you a very good troop ... If your lordship could be here, it would give great encouragement to many that otherwise will be afraid to show themselves against the other competitors ... I hope, by the next, to send you the names, and number, of all such as will go for your lordship out of every quarter.
Sidney did come over, but Cobham’s candidate won the senior seat and Neville the junior. It would be interesting to know how Sidney reacted to Cobham’s downfall in 1603. Even then the lord lieutenancy and the wardenship went to other men. Perhaps county supremacy had, by then, lost its importance for Sidney.10
With the accession of James I, Sidney’s life changed completely. Gone was the frustration, and fear that he was forgotten while rivals gained all the honours. Just as the court gossips predicted, he received immediate tokens of the new sovereign’s favour: the peerage which he had sought for so long, numerous lucrative grants, and a place in the Queen’s household. Now that he was living in England the flow of letters between Flushing and London, so revealing of his hopes and opinions, dries up, and it is not easy to see whether he was at last content or not. The last so years of his life were spent either at court or at his beloved Penshurst. He corresponded with leading men, patronised the arts and new colonial and trading ventures, undertook an occasional diplomatic mission, such as a visit to Germany in 1613, but his life was without dramatic incident. Though he rarely visited Flushing the governorship had become profitable, and when it was at last decided to abandon the town in 1616, he obtained by way of compensation an additional £1,200 a year, the Garter, and a colonelcy for his son. Finally he paid heavily for the earldom of Leicester.11
In his last years Sidney suffered from poor health. He died at Penshurst on Injury 1626, aged 62, and was buried there three days later. He left no will, and administration of his vast estates went to his second wife and to his fourth, but only surviving son, Robert, who succeeded to his titles and possessions.
Ref Volumes: 1558-1603
There is no full biography of Robert Sidney. The main sources used have been; HMC De L’Isle and Dudley, vols. i-v; Collins, Sydney State Pprs. 2 vols; CP; DNB; Doyle, Official Baronetage.
- 1. P. Sidney, Sidneys of Penshurst, passim. geneal. table at end.
- 2. Most sources give the date as July 1588, but he received letters of instruction on his appointment 27 June 1589, CSP For. 1589 (Jan.-July), pp. 343-4; APC, xvii. 421-6.
- 3. HMC De L’Isle and Dudley, ii. 268-71; Collins, i. 271-2, 283-5; Sidneys of Penshurst, 126; CSP For. 1581-2, p. 336; H. R. F. Bourne, Sir Philip Sidney, 176, 213, 225-6, 235-6.
- 4. P. H. Williams, Council in the Marches of Wales, 243-5; Stradling Corresp. ed. Traherne, 3, 11, 21-2, 77; J. Cartwright, ‘Sacharissa ’, 8-9; Lansd. 43, anon. jnl. f. 171.
- 5. HMC De L’Isle and Dudley, ii. 218; CSP For. passim; CSP Span. 1580-6, p. 554; Leycester Corresp. (Cam. Soc. xxvii), 338; Bourne, 323, 340-1, 344; HMC Ancaster, 216, 504.
- 6. CSP For. 1586-7, p. 214; HMC Foljambe, 45, 52; HMC Bath, v. 97; HMC De L’Isle and Dudley, ii. 101; CSP Scot. 1586-8, passim; Read, Walsingham, iii. 340; Camden, Eliz. (1688), pp. 418-19.
- 7. HMC Ancaster, 246, 261-2; Lansd. 77, f. 155; CSP Dom. passim; HMC Hatfield, iv. 293; v. 409-12; xiii. 509; APC, xxviii. 293-5; Chamberlain Letters ed. McClure, i. passim; Birch, Mems. i. 303-7; ii. 251-2.
- 8. HMC Hatfield, vii. 24-6, 28-32, 133, 211; ix. 141-3; Collins, i. 114; Stowe 166, f. 78; C. Markham, The Fighting Veres, 181, 184, 255-6, 261, 304 n.; CSP Dom. 1591-4, pp. 444, 482; 1595-7, passim; 1598-1601, p. 445; HMC De L’Isle and Dudley, ii. 144-8, 472, 474, 477-8; Wright, Queen Eliz. and her Times, ii. 431; Birch, Mems. i. 146-7, 151, 158, 170, 465; Sloane 33, f. 2; Add. 15552, f. 5.
- 9. Collins, i. 331; ii. 87; HMC De L’Isle and Dudley, ii. 153, 238, 246, 276, 281, 314, 389, 391, 397, 398, 421, 473, 479; Birch, Mems. ii. 176; HMC Hatfield, v. 409, 440-2; vii. 12; 13, 62-3, 108-9, 115, 132-3, 198, 225; viii. 29; ix. 157, 188; x. 408, 430; E. K. Chambers, Sir Henry Lee, 170-2; CSP Dom. 1598-1601, p. 550; Neale, Commons, 214-15; Sloane 1856, ff. 11-13.
- 10. D’Ewes, 474, 481, 486, 489, 499, 512, 517; HMC Hatfield, iv. 295; Collins, ii. 62, 231; Neale, 71-5; Manningham Diary (Cam. Soc. xcix), 13.
- 11. HMC De L’Isle and Dudley, iii. 19, 27; v. 107-113, 340; HMC Hatfield, xvi. 163; HMC Downshire, ii. 219; iii. passim; Nichols, Progresses Jas. I, ii. 612-21; iii. 488-9; Collins, i. 118; Chamberlain Letters, i. 542; APC, 1615-16, pp. 514, 541-2, 545-8, 551; Sidneys of Penshurst, 134.