SIDNEY, Sir Robert (1595-1677), of Penshurst, Kent and Baynard's Castle, London

Published in The History of Parliament: the House of Commons 1604-1629, ed. Andrew Thrush and John P. Ferris, 2010
Available from Cambridge University Press




Family and Education

b. 1 Dec. 1595,1 4th but o. surv. s. of Robert Sidney†, 1st earl of Leicester and his 1st w. Barbara, da. and h. of John Gamage of Coity, Glam. educ. Household of Prince Henry 1605; Christ Church, Oxf. 1607; travelled abroad (Brussels) 1613; G. Inn 1618; embassy (Germany) 1619.2 m. (with £6,000) 1615, Dorothy (d. 19 Aug. 1659), da. of Henry Percy, 9th earl of Northumberland, 6s. (2 d.v.p.) 9da. (5 d.v.p.) 3 cr. KB 2 June 1610;4 styled Visct. L’Isle 2 Aug. 1618; suc. fa. as 2nd earl of Leicester 1626. d. 2 Nov. 1677.

Offices Held

Capt. ft., Flushing garrison 1611-16, col. English regt. in Dutch service 1616-23.5

Steward, Otford manor, Kent 1613,6 manor of E. Peckham, E. Farleigh and Boxley 1627, manor of Maidstone 1627;7 commr. sewers, Kent (Gravesend to Penshurst) 1628-at least 1639,8 Kent and Suss. border 1616-at least 1632,9 Kent 1628,10 Dengemarsh and Southbrook, Kent 1645,11 subsidy, Kent 1624;12 j.p. Kent 1625-at least 1642;13 commr. Forced Loan, Kent 1626,14 new buildings, London 1630,15 oyer and terminer, Home circ. 1635-42, Midland circ. 1639-42, Oxf. circ. 1639-42;16 ld. lt. [I] 1641-3,17 Kent and Canterbury 1642 [nom. by Parl.];18 v.-adm. Munster, Ire. 1641;19 commr. (roy.) for safeguarding Oxf. and receiving money, plate, arms and munition 1643.20

Amb. (extraordinary), Denmark 1632, France 1636-41;21 PC 1639, 1660;22 Speaker, House of Lords 7-12 Mar. 1642.23

Freeman, Merchant Adventurers’ Co. 1632;24 gov. Mineral and Battery Works Co. 1660-2.25


Sidney was ‘of a very reserved nature’ according to Clarendon (Edward Hyde†), being ‘very conversant in books and much addicted to mathematics’. In adulthood he bore a striking resemblance to his uncle Sir Philip Sidney†, whom he never knew.26 His paternal grandfather, Sir Henry Sidney†, acquired Penshurst and several other Kent manors following his marriage to Mary, daughter of John Dudley, duke of Northumberland, and dominated Kent parliamentary elections during the first half of Elizabeth’s reign. Sir Henry’s death in 1586, closely followed by the deaths of his eldest son Sir Philip and his brother-in-law Robert Dudley, earl of Leicester, resulted in the eclipse of his family’s influence by the Brookes of Cobham as his second son and heir, Sir Robert, was frequently absent abroad, being governor of Flushing. Towards the end of Elizabeth’s reign Sir Robert, this Member’s father, recovered some of his family’s former influence by allying himself with the 2nd earl of Essex, and in 1597 he was returned as senior knight for Kent. On James’s accession his position improved still further with the fall of Henry Brooke†, 11th Lord Cobham, and his ennoblement, first as Baron Sidney (1603) and then as Viscount L’Isle (1605). He was also appointed chamberlain to Anne of Denmark. However, he was not chosen to replace Cobham either as Kent’s lord lieutenant or lord warden of the Cinque Ports.27 He may not have been overly disappointed, as by now he was directing much of his energy towards rebuilding Penshurst. Despite an annual income of almost £3,400 in 1603, he became heavily indebted, and was forced to sell most of his family’s outlying properties in Wales, Lincolnshire and Sussex.28

Sidney himself was born a ‘goodly fat’ baby in 1595, surviving measles, though his face remained pock-marked for the rest of his life.29 At the age of four he was taken to Court, where he ‘played the wag so prettily that all took pleasure in him’.30 Following James’s accession he was educated in the Household of Prince Henry, but in August 1605 the king had him expelled for stabbing his schoolmaster, who had threatened to whip him.31 He subsequently studied at Christ Church, Oxford, where his tutor praised his industry, acquiring a thorough grounding in Classics and mastering Latin, French, Italian and Spanish. He also developed a passion for mathematics.32 On the creation of the prince of Wales in June 1610 he was made a knight of the Bath. He remained at Oxford until at least the end of 1610,33 and in April 1611 he continued his family’s military tradition by taking charge of a foot company, joining his elder brother Sir William at Flushing where their father was governor. Following his brother’s death in December 1612 Sidney became his father’s heir apparent and assumed command of the senior company at Flushing.34 In the summer of 1613 he temporarily set aside his military duties and toured the Spanish Netherlands, although to his father’s relief he declined to visit the Court at Brussels.35

By the beginning of 1613 Lord L’Isle was actively seeking a bride for young Sidney. In January he invited himself to dine with Sir Henry Savile†, offering to conclude a match with Savile’s only daughter, Elizabeth. Though he reportedly found Sidney to be ‘a very proper gentleman and exceedingly well given every way’, Savile reluctantly declined, as his daughter was already betrothed to Sir William Sidley. Consequently, L’Isle subsequently entered into discussion with William Cecil†, Lord Burghley, for a marriage with one of Burghley’s daughters, but this negotiation also foundered.36 The hunt for a bride was interrupted shortly thereafter by the summoning of Parliament. Sidney, although still a minor, was returned for Wilton, a borough controlled by his brother-in-law William Herbert, 3rd earl of Pembroke. He made no recorded speeches, but was named to four legislative committees. One concerned a bill to naturalize the daughters of his fellow soldier Sir Horace Vere (17 May), another dealt with the estate of the late Sir Robert Wroth II*, whose widow was Sidney’s aunt (25 May), while a third concerned the naturalization of Walter Stewart* (23 May). The remaining bill committee concerned Welsh ordinances (18 Apr.), which may have interested him because much of Pembroke’s estates lay in Wales and his own father retained some property there. Apart from these appointments, he was named on 14 Apr. to attend the joint conference concerning the bill to naturalize the Elector Palatine’s children, and on 28 May he was one of the 40 Members chosen to accompany the Speaker the next day with a message to the king regarding the Common’s recent suspension of business.37 While in the chamber Sidney made selective notes, which he later wrote up under various subject headings. His digest, though short, is a valuable source of information for the poorly recorded Parliament. Indeed, in several places Sidney noted speeches ignored or thinly described elsewhere, such as those concerned with the French Company’s patent.38

Following the dissolution, L’Isle resumed the search for a suitable bride for Sidney, expressing interest in a daughter of the imprisoned Henry Percy, 9th earl of Northumberland, who indicated through Sir Francis Darcy* that he would offer a dowry of £5,000.39 However, L’Isle wanted £6,000 in hand and a further £350 when the countess of Northumberland died, and therefore opened negotiations for the hand of the only daughter of his Kentish neighbour Thomas Watson*, the Exchequer teller. Lady L’Isle was particularly keen to pursue this match as Watson had no sons, but by now Sidney had fallen in love with Dorothy Percy, one of Northumberland’s daughters, and soon thereafter he wed her secretly. When news of the marriage inevitably leaked out both L’Isle and Northumberland were at first offended.40 In 1618, however, Northumberland paid a dowry of £6,000 while L’Isle settled an annuity of £200 on the couple to supplement Sidney’s pay as a soldier.41 One consequence of Sidney’s marriage to Dorothy Percy was that it brought him into close contact with Northumberland’s client, the renowned mathematician and keen astronomer Thomas Harriott. Over the next few years Sidney and Harriott became well acquainted and indeed, years later, Sidney described Harriott as having been ‘my particular friend and preceptor’. When Harriott died in 1621 Sidney inherited half of his papers, which he passed on to Northumberland.42

Sidney was promoted to the colonelcy of an English regiment in Dutch service following the sale of the Cautionary Towns in May 1616, when his father retired as governor of Flushing with a pension. In August 1618 the latter used his son’s dowry to help purchase the earldom of Leicester, whereupon Sidney assumed the style of Lord L’Isle himself. In the following year Sidney accompanied his kinsman by marriage, James Hay, Viscount Doncaster, on a diplomatic errand to mediate between the Elector Palatine and the emperor over the Bohemian crisis. His travelling companions included John Donne*, whose collected sermons he would purchase in 1622.43 He journeyed only as far as Heidelberg, returning to England at the beginning of August.44 On rejoining his regiment the following year, he came under pressure to resign his commission from his father, who protested his inability to continue subsidizing his son’s expenses.45 Sidney himself soon began to find difficulty in managing on his colonel’s pay and the meagre £200 allowed him each year by his father, and asked for an increase in the latter so that he and his family could settle permanently in the United Provinces and avoid the twice yearly cost of journeying across the Channel.46 However, his father refused, and in February 1621 he was forced to borrow £600 at interest from his Kentish neighbour, Sir Henry Neville II*.47

Following the failure of the Addled Parliament, Sidney may have feared, like many of his countrymen, that there would be no more parliaments, as among his family’s papers is a copy of Ralegh’s 1615 treatise ‘The Prerogative of Parliaments in England proved’.48 However, a fresh Parliament was summoned in November 1620, whereupon he was returned as senior knight for Kent. It may have been soon thereafter that he acquired a copy of ‘A Discourse of the Practice and Privelidge of the highe Court of Parleament in England collected out of the common lawes of this land’, an anonymous treatise dealing with election law and parliamentary privilege.49 He played only a minor role in the Common’s proceedings. On 15 Feb. he was appointed to attend the next day’s joint conference on the recusancy petition, and on 7 Mar. his military experience meant that he was appointed to help draft a bill regarding muster-masters and finding arms. On 12 Mar. he was required to attend the joint conference on monopolies the following morning, and four days later he was appointed to the committee to consider Viscount Montagu’s land bill, which was told to meet the next day.50 However, he seems to have left London for Penshurst on 22 Mar., perhaps on account of the health of his mother, who died in May. Parliament was adjourned over the summer, and in July Sidney sailed to Rotterdam in a man-of-war with Sir Francis Nethersole* and Sir William Harington*, rejoining his regiment in mid-August. Though his father wrote to him in September to remind him that Parliament would reassemble on 14 Nov., ‘afore which time I hope you will be here’, it was not until 8 Dec. that he landed at Gravesend. From there he journeyed to Penshurst, and seems not to have reached London until the 19th, on which day Parliament was prorogued.51

In the spring of 1622 Sidney fell ill, complaining of a ‘dead palsy on all my right side’, which was numb and stiff. He was treated by the Court physician, Dr. Theodore Mayerne, at a cost of £20, and soon afterwards seems to have made a full recovery. At around the same time Sir Charles Rich* offered to purchase his colonelcy for £2,000 in cash plus an annuity, payable for life, of £300.52 Sidney was sorely tempted, as his financial situation had not improved. He was still paying the interest on the loan he had received from Neville,53 and was reluctant to borrow yet more money to finance his return to the Netherlands. Moreover, since his mother had died his father had become entirely dependent on him for company,54 and he was reluctant to curb his own spending habits. Like any other young nobleman of the time, Sidney did not expect to live parsimoniously but to spend liberally on personal pleasures. His own particular vices were smoking and gambling. Over the course of four days in February 1622 he frittered away £18 on ‘play’, probably cards, though he also enjoyed ‘shuffleboard’ (shove-ha’penny) and tennis. His passion for purchasing books also ate into his limited finances. In 1619 he bought the king’s Meditation on the Lord’s Prayer, recently published, and the Elizabethan geometrical treatise Pantometria, written by Richard and Leonard Digges. He also paid to copy and bind two works on martial discipline.55 In 1621 he acquired and rebound the works of the second century Greek satirist Lucian, and in the following year purchased a ‘cosmography book’, suggesting that Harriott had succeeded in interesting him in astronomy. He also added to his collection a copy of John Selden*’s highly respected study of ancient idolatry, De Diis Syris Syntagmata of 1617.56 Faced with a deteriorating financial situation, Sidney did not rejoin his regiment, but negotiated the sale of his commission to Sir Edward Harwood, his lieutenant-colonel. The purchase, which cost Harwood only around £1,700, was concluded in May 1623.57

In August 1622 Sidney quarrelled violently at Petworth, his father-in-law’s house, with his kinsman Doncaster, now earl of Carlisle. The two men had previously enjoyed a close friendship, but over the last six months Doncaster had pointedly ignored Sidney, even over the dinner table. When Sidney enquired to know the reason for this ill treatment, Doncaster ended up calling him a liar and Sidney struck him in the face.58 Despite the intervention of Buckingham, Lennox, Leicester and Northumberland the dispute festered, although the two were reconciled by the beginning of 1628.59 When Parliament was next summoned in 1624, Sidney represented Monmouthshire, a seat secured for him by his brother-in-law, Pembroke. Pembroke held Sidney in high regard, later assuring him that that he held ‘the first place in my estimation’. Indeed, he seems to have sided with Sidney in the latter’s quarrel with Carlisle, and in 1626 he fell out with Carlisle over the matter.60 Shortly after Parliament assembled on 19 Feb. 1624, Sidney dined at the Mermaid tavern, near Baynard’s Castle.61 Situated at the lower end of Bread Street close to the river, this was almost certainly the inn which had previously hosted meetings of the Mermaid tavern group of poets and writers. Among the more prominent members of this group was Ben Jonson, who during the middle years of James’s reign had enjoyed the patronage of Sidney’s father and brother-in-law, the earl of Pembroke.62

Although Sidney was in London when Parliament convened, there is no firm evidence that he attended the Commons before 5 Apr., when he was once again named to the committee to consider Viscount Montagu’s land bill. He was mentioned only twice more in the Parliament’s records, once on 26 Apr. when he was required to help consider the Virginia Company’s petition, and again on 30 Apr., when he was named to attend the following day’s conference on bills regarding the Exchequer.63 Although he made no recorded contributions in the foreign policy debates of 1624, Sidney shared the fear of Spain and militant Catholicism then prevalent in the Commons. Writing to Sir Dudley Carleton* in January 1623, he had declared that ‘the whore of Babylon, in these days the whore of Rome, rides now upon a Spanish beast, which would devour, or at least subdue, the whole world’.64 His worries also extended to rising Catholicism at home, and on 15 Apr. 1624, while still at Westminster, he bought a copy of John Gee’s newly published The Foot out of the Snare; or, Detection of Practices and Impostures of Priests and Jesuits, which warned against Catholic opinions which the author himself had recently renounced.65

Sidney was again returned for Monmouthshire to the 1625 Parliament, but whether he attended either the Westminster or Oxford sittings is unknown. He seems not to have sought re-election in 1626, and thereafter he sat in the Lords, having inherited his father’s earldom. However, as earl of Leicester he continued to take a close interest in the Commons. Among his papers is a manuscript compilation of speeches made in April 1628 by Sir Dudley Digges, Sir Edward Coke, (Sir) Robert Heath and (Sir) Francis Ashley concerning the liberties of the subject, and also a copy of ‘A True Relation of all the Proceedings in Parliament’ recounting the events in the Commons of 1629.66 His links with Members of the Lower House remained extensive. In the two months leading up to the 1628 session his dinner guests at Essex House included Sir Henry Vane, Sir Benjamin Rudyard, Sir Thomas Cheke, Sir George Goring, (Sir) Edward Leech, (Sir) William Croft, (Sir) Walter Devereux, Sir William Herbert, Sir John Hippisley, Henry Jermyn and Edward Alford, all of whom sat in the Commons in 1628-9. They also included his brother-in-law Henry Percy, Member for Marlborough from the end of March, and Sir Francis Knollys, perhaps Sir Francis Knollys II, who represented Reading.67

Leicester served as extraordinary ambassador to Denmark in 1632 and in 1636 was sent to Paris to negotiate an accord with France aimed at inducing Spain and Bavaria to restore the Palatinate to the king’s brother-in-law. The French were impressed with Leicester’s diplomatic skills,68 and although the negotiations ultimately proved fruitless he remained in post until 1641. During a brief visit to England in 1639 he was appointed to the Privy Council. Soon afterwards his brother-in-law, the earl of Northumberland (Algernon, Lord Percy*) tried to secure his appointment as secretary of state in succession to the ageing (Sir) John Coke*, but though Coke was displaced Leicester’s advancement was blocked by Archbishop Laud, who considered him a puritan.69 Leicester himself retorted that he had never been called a puritan ‘by any body that was not a papist’ and declared that his views were those of ‘the Christian faith established in the Church of England’.70 He eventually gained promotion in June 1641, when he was chosen to succeed Thomas Wentworth*, earl of Strafford, as lord lieutenant of Ireland. Prevented from taking up his new post by the king, who on the outbreak of Civil War summoned him to Oxford, Leicester refused to help fight the Parliament, which earned him ‘many reproaches and jealousies’.71 Consequently, in November 1643 Charles compelled him to resign his office. He retired to Penshurst where he immersed himself in his studies, although his estates were briefly threatened with sequestration by the Parliament.72 At the Restoration he was readmitted to the Privy Council and resumed his seat in the House of Lords, but his emergence from retirement was brief. He died on 2 Nov. 1677 and was buried at Penshurst. By his will, drawn up on 28 Sept. 1665, he left legacies in excess of £30,000.73 He was succeeded as 3rd earl of Leicester by his eldest son, Philip, an enthusiastic republican, who sat in both the Short and Long Parliaments. His second surviving son, Algernon, inherited his scholarly leanings and was returned as Member for Cardiff in 1646.

Ref Volumes: 1604-1629

Author: Andrew Thrush


  • 1. Sidney Letters ed. A. Collins, i. 120.
  • 2. Al. Ox.; GI Admiss.; R.E. Schreiber, The 1st Carlisle (Trans. Amer. Phil. Soc. lxxix. pt. 7), p. 24.
  • 3. Sidney Letters, i. 143, 147; Cent. Kent. Stud. U1475/T327/12.
  • 4. Shaw, Knights of Eng. i. 158.
  • 5. E351/276; CSP Dom. 1611-18, p. 370; Chamberlain Letters ed. N.E. McClure, ii. 307.
  • 6. C66/2007/14.
  • 7. E315/311, p. 22.
  • 8. C181/3, f. 248; 181/5, f. 129v.
  • 9. C181/2, f. 247; 181/4, ff. 38, 106.
  • 10. C181/3, f. 248.
  • 11. C181/5, f. 260.
  • 12. C212/22/23.
  • 13. Cal. of Assize Recs. Kent Indictments, Jas. I ed. J.S. Cockburn, 158; Cal. of Assize Recs. Kent Indictments, Chas. I ed. J.S. Cockburn, 421.
  • 14. Harl. 6846, f. 36v.
  • 15. T. Rymer, Foedera, viii. pt. 3, p. 114.
  • 16. C181/4, f. 198; 181/5, ff. 140-1, 218, 219v, 221v.
  • 17. C66/2892/18; Docquets of Letters Patent 1642-6 ed. W.H. Black, 369.
  • 18. A. and O. i. 1.
  • 19. HCA 30/820, no.54.
  • 20. Docquets of Letters Patent, 30.
  • 21. Handlist of British Diplomatic Representatives comp. G.M. Bell, 34, 111.
  • 22. PC2/50, p. 335; Sidney Letters, i. 135.
  • 23. LJ, iv. 633b-42a.
  • 24. Add. 28079, f. 59.
  • 25. BL, Loan 16, pt. 2, ff. 125v, 126v.
  • 26. Clarendon, Hist. of the Rebellion ed. W.D. Macray, i. 434; ii. 531; M.V. Hay, ‘Life of Robert Sidney, Earl of Leicester 1563-1626’, (Arizona State Univ. Ph.D. thesis, 1979), p. 322.
  • 27. J. Eales, ‘Rise of Ideological Pols. in Kent, 1558-1640’, in Early Modern Kent, 1540-1640 ed. M. Zell, 288-91.
  • 28. Hay, 325-6, 329, 377.
  • 29. HMC De L’Isle and Dudley, ii. 193; Hay, 322.
  • 30. HMC De L’Isle and Dudley, ii. 457.
  • 31. Illustrations of British History ed. E. Lodge, iii. 170-1.
  • 32. Sidney Letters, i. 121, 145.
  • 33. HMC De L’Isle and Dudley, iv. 229, 234-5.
  • 34. Ibid. 68.
  • 35. HMC Downshire, iv. 154, 158, 169.
  • 36. Chamberlain Letters, i. 436, 494, 512.
  • 37. CJ, i. 465a, 468a, 487b, 494a, 496a, 501a.
  • 38. Cent. Kent. Stud. U1475/F24, pp. 1-6. These notes are printed almost in their entirety in HMC De L’Isle and Dudley, v. 174-8.
  • 39. HMC De L’Isle and Dudley, v. 222-3.
  • 40. Carew Letters ed. J. Maclean (Cam. Soc. lxxvi), 30.
  • 41. Sidney Letters, i. 121.
  • 42. Cent. Kent. Stud. U1475/Z1/4, pp. 477-8; Oxford DNB.
  • 43. Cent. Kent. Stud. U1475/A41/4, unfol. payment of 3 Nov. 1622.
  • 44. Cent. Kent. Stud. 1475/A41/1, ff. 6-14v.
  • 45. Chamberlain Letters, ii. 307; Sidney Letters, ii. 351.
  • 46. SP84/106, f. 167v.
  • 47. Cent. Kent. Stud. 1475/A41/2, f. 1.
  • 48. Cent. Kent. Stud. U1475/Z7. It is, of course, possible that it was his father who acquired this tract.
  • 49. Cent. Kent. Stud. U1475/U79. Internal evidence suggests that the tract was written no earlier than 26 Nov. 1620.
  • 50. CJ, i. 522b, 543a, 551a, 556b.
  • 51. Cent. Kent. Stud. U1475/A41/2, ff. 1v, 8v-9v, 15-26.
  • 52. SP84/106, f. 167; 84/111, f. 55; Cent. Kent. Stud. U1475/A41/3, unfol. payment of 18 May 1622.
  • 53. Cent. Kent. Stud. U1475/A41/3, unfol. payments of 17 Mar. and 20 Sept. 1622.
  • 54. SP84/106, f. 167v.
  • 55. Cent. Kent. Stud. U1475/A41/1, ff. 2, 4v. For his book purchases at the start of 1620, see ibid. f. 15v.
  • 56. Cent. Kent. Stud. U1475/A41/2, ff. 22, 26; 1475/A41/3, unfol. payment of 25 July 1622.
  • 57. SP84/106, f. 167r-v; 84/111, ff. 55v-6; 84/112, ff. 20, 146r-v.
  • 58. Sidney Letters, i. 121-7.
  • 59. Chamberlain Letters, ii. 451; Sidney Letters, ii. 355; Cent. Kent. Stud. U1475/A28/1, unfol. entries regarding dinner and supper 2 Jan. 1628; CSP Dom. 1629-31, p. 366.
  • 60. Sidney Letters, ii. 369.
  • 61. Cent. Kent. Stud. U1475/A41/7A, unfol.
  • 62. On the Mermaid’s location, see K. Rogers, Mermaid and Mitre Taverns in Old London, 1, 8, 10 (we are grateful to Michelle O’Callaghan for this ref.). On Jonson and the Sidneys, see R.C. Evans, Ben Jonson and the Poetics of Patronage, 118-29.
  • 63. CJ, i. 691a, 695a, 755a.
  • 64. SP84/111, f. 55.
  • 65. Cent. Kent. Stud. U1475/A41/7A, unfol.
  • 66. Cent. Kent. Stud. U1475/U76, U77.
  • 67. Cent. Kent. Stud. U1475/A28/1, unfol. Alford is described as ‘Mr. Alfort’; Henry Percy is referred to merely as ‘Mr. Percy’.
  • 68. T. Birch, Ct. and Times of Chas. I, ii. 249; CSP Dom. 1636-7, p. 336.
  • 69. K. Sharpe, Personal Rule of Chas. I, 156, 205; Oxford DNB.
  • 70. Sharpe, 740; J. Scott, Algernon Sidney and the English Republic, 1623-77, p. 53; CSP Dom. 1640-1, p. 98.
  • 71. Clarendon, ii. 531.
  • 72. CCAM, 467.
  • 73. Sidney Letters, i. 146-7.