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Rich, Penelope (c. 1562–1607)

Rich, Penelope (c. 1562–1607)

English noblewoman who inspired Philip Sidney's Astrophel and Stella. Name variations: Lady Penelope Rich; Penelope Blount; Penelope Devereux; Stella. Born Penelope Devereux around 1562 (some sources cite 1560); died on July 7, 1607, in Westminster, London, England; daughter of Walter Devereux, 1st earl of Essex, and Lettice Knollys (c. 1541–1634, a cousin of Elizabeth I); married Robert Rich, 3rd Baron Rich, later earl of Warwick, in 1581 (divorced 1605); married Charles Blount, 8th Lord Mountjoy, earl of Devonshire, in 1605 (died 1606); children: (first marriage) six, including Robert Rich (1587–1658), 2nd earl of Warwick, and Henry Rich (1590–1649, beheaded), earl of Holland; (second marriage) five, including eldest son Mountjoy Blount (c. 1597–1665), Baron Mountjoy and earl of Newport.

A great-grandniece of Anne Boleyn and the inspiration for one of the most famous sonnet sequences in English literature, Penelope Rich inherited her fiery temperament and famous beauty from her mother Lettice Knollys, who was a cousin of Queen Elizabeth I. Lettice frequently irritated England's most famous monarch to distraction, and as she grew up Penelope did the same. On one occasion when Elizabeth was visiting Penelope's father Walter Devereux, 1st earl of Essex, Penelope so irritated the queen that Elizabeth banished the girl to her room. Later in life, Penelope would correspond under an assumed name with nobles in Scotland who were plotting against Elizabeth. When her brother Robert Devereux, earl of Essex, was in disfavor at court, Penelope wrote Elizabeth a sarcastic letter that provoked the queen to have Penelope confined to her house.

When she was 14, Penelope Rich caught the eye of the celebrated poet and soldier Sir Philip Sidney. At one point, Penelope's father suggested a marriage between Sidney and his daughter, and there is some speculation that they may have been engaged. But Devereux died in 1576, and Penelope and her siblings became the wards of Henry Hastings, earl of Huntingdon, who was a strict Puritan. He betrothed Penelope to Robert Rich, 3rd Baron Rich. She resisted vigorously, but despite her complaints was married to Robert Rich in 1581. After her marriage, she paid somewhat more attention than she had previously bothered to Sidney, who wrote one of the greatest sonnet sequences of the English language, Astrophel and Stella, about her. Published in 1591, five years after Sidney's death from a wound sustained at the battle of Zutphen, the 108 sonnets of the sequence were hugely popular, reinvigorating the sonnet form, and are believed to have influenced Shakespeare. The sonnets detail an unhappy, apparently unconsummated love (Stella refuses Astrophel, and he kisses her only once, while she is asleep), and the exact relationship between Penelope and Sidney after her marriage is unclear. On the other hand, it is quite clear that her marriage was not happy, although she gave birth to six children with Robert.

Penelope's assertiveness was to prove lethal to her younger brother Robert Devereux, the second earl of Essex. Though a favorite of Queen Elizabeth in his early years, Robert was high-strung and quick to anger, even in the presence of the queen. His political service to Elizabeth was marked by many successes and failures and, as a result of one of his later failures, he was tried for contempt and disobedience in June 1600. He lost his lands and was confined to his house. He soon regained his liberty, but continued to play politics badly. Goaded on by Penelope, who was no friend to the queen, Robert and some followers attempted a rebellion to force Elizabeth to fire some of his political enemies from her advisory council. The insurrection failed miserably, and Robert surrendered. He was imprisoned, condemned to death, and beheaded on February 25, 1601.

Her brother's execution did not dampen Rich's rebelliousness, but she did not risk her neck in open antagonism of the queen. (Her son Henry Rich would later be beheaded for his part in the civil war during the reign of Charles I.) Penelope remained popular at court, taking part in masques by Samuel Daniel and Ben Jonson presented there. As well, poets Henry Constable and John Davies also addressed sonnets to her, and several poets dedicated their works in her honor. However, her married life became a scandal. Before she had ever married Robert Rich, Penelope had been in love with Charles Blount, 8th Lord Mountjoy, to whom she had secretly promised herself in marriage. Around 1595, while still married, she began an open relationship with Blount, who was another favorite of the queen's. They had five children, whose paternity he acknowledged, and Rich legally was separated from her husband in 1601. In November 1605, she was formally granted a divorce from Robert Rich; one condition of the divorce decree was that neither party would ever marry again. Penelope would have nothing of it, and a little over a month later, on December 26, 1605, she married Blount. In doing so, she openly broke church law, and her children with Blount were declared illegitimate. Both she and Blount were banished from the queen's court, where they had held high standing. Blount died less than six months later, and Penelope died within a year of his death. John Ford's 1633 tragedy The Broken Heart, while set in Sparta, is alleged to have been inspired by Penelope Rich's life.

sources:

The Concise Dictionary of National Biography. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1992.

Drabble, Margaret, ed. The Oxford Companion to English Literature. 5th ed. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1985.

Patrick Moore , Associate Professor of English, University of Arkansas at Little Rock

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