On 29 March 1551 Lady Mary Dudley married Henry Sidney, in private; on 17 May 1551 she married him once again, this time in public, at her parents’ house, Ely Place, London. Henry Sidney was 22 in 1551, and he is perhaps best known today as a close companion of Edward VI, who was eight years his junior and who died in his arms. The usual assumption is that the match between Mary and Henry Sidney was arranged by her father, John Dudley, Earl of Warwick, in order to strengthen his influence over the young king. However, this reading is all too simple and in some measure confuses cause and effect.
It is true that Henry Sidney’s father, Sir William, became chamberlain of Prince Edward’s household in 1538, and in 1544 advanced to the position of his steward;1 during these years Henry met the prince and, it is assumed, then and later shared lessons with him. On Edward’s accession in 1547, however, a new household was assembled, with no posts reserved for the Sidneys. It was not before John Dudley took over the government in early 1550 that Henry Sidney was appointed a gentleman of the privy chamber. And it was not before several months into his marriage with Dudley’s daughter that he became one of the “principal gentlemen” of King Edward (July 1551). As such he was one of six men charged with “the singular care” of the royal person, and at every hour three of them at a time were to be on duty in the king’s apartments.2
On 11 October 1551, Edward VI made Henry Sidney a knight; it was on the same day that his father-in-law was created a duke. Obviously it is following his marriage that Henry Sidney’s career really took off: his premier position in the privy chamber; his knighthood; the grant in 1552 of the Kentish manor of Penshurst to his father; his diplomatic mission to the French court in early 1553. His role as the Duke of Northumberland’s son-in-law also made him the close friend of this statesman (“I pray you keep this from my wife”, the duke was to instruct him on a harmless enough matter3).
So, how did Henry Sidney, son and heir of a courtier-gentleman and Knight of the Garter, gain the hand of the eldest daughter of England’s most powerful man? As the eldest daughter, Mary should have been a considerable marriage prize. We do not know how old she was in 1551, whether she was born before or after her brother, Robert, who was born in 1532 (or possibly 1533). It has been suggested that she was born between 1531 and 1535,4 but perhaps she was even the same age as her husband, born in 1529. Since her brother, John, was almost certainly born in late 1530, she may well have come before him, as the third child of her parents. Of course, one might wonder why, at twenty or over, she was not yet married or at least engaged. Whatever her age, there is some evidence that by the spring of 1551 she felt she should take matters into her own hands. It is quite possible that the marriage of Mary Dudley and Henry Sidney was a love match.5
In a 15th century psalter she used as a calendar for important family dates, like the birth dates of her seven children, Mary made an intriguing note:
The marriage of Sir Henry Sidney knight with the Lady Mary Dudley daughter of John, then Earl of Warwick and afterward Duke of Northumberland, was first at Asser the nine-and twenty day of March, in the year of our Lord one thousand, five hundred fifty, and one: and afterward most publicly and honourably solemnized in Ely Place, in Holborne.6
It was certainly not the norm to have two marriage ceremonies, the first of them at Esher, a stately enough place, but none that was related to her or her husband’s family. On the other hand, the description of the second ceremony as “most publicly and honourably solemnized” speaks for itself, and Ely Place in Holborn was then the principal London residence of the Dudleys. It would thus appear that after a secret marriage in March 1551 the young couple may have talked their elders into accepting the fact, which would have been made a lot easier for Sir William Sidney by his daughter-in-law’s high status and for the Earl of Warwick by his son-in-law’s friendship with King Edward.
1 MacCaffrey 2008
2 Jordan 1970 p. 20; Hoak 1976 p. 124; Alford 2002 p. 156
3 Beer 1973 p. 135
4 Adams 2008
5 Adams 2008
6 Brennan 2006 p. 22
Adams, Simon (2008): ‟Sidney, Mary, Lady Sidney (1530×35–1586)“. Oxford Dictionary of National Biography. Online edition.
Alford, Stephen (2002): Kingship and Politics in the Reign of Edward VI. Cambridge University Press.
Beer, B. L. (1973): Northumberland: The Political Career of John Dudley, Earl of Warwick and Duke of Northumberland. The Kent State University Press.
Brennan, Michael (2006): The Sidneys of Penshurst and the Monarchy, 1500-1700. Ashgate.
Hoak, Dale (1976): The King’s Council in the Reign of Edward VI. Cambridge University Press.
Hoak, Dale (2008): “Edward VI (1537–1553)”. Oxford Dictionary of National Biography. Online edition.
Jordan, W. K. (1970): Edward VI: The Threshold of Power. The Dominance of the Duke of Northumberland. George Allen & Unwin.
MacCaffrey, Wallace (2008): “Sidney, Sir Henry (1529–1586)”. Oxford Dictionary of National Biography. Online edition.