Robert Dudley was fond of children.1 As a young uncle he had taken a fancy to his five-year-old nephew Philip Sidney, an affection which lasted for a lifetime; when he visited William of Orange in 1582 the prince’s wife was impressed by the kindness Leicester showed to her five-year-old daughter Louise Juliana. He deeply regretted that as long as he could not re-marry (fearing Elizabeth’s wrath) he would not leave legitimate heirs to his house, but in his words there is also a natural longing for offspring of his own. Finally in 1578 marry he did, for love, but he also acquired a family of stepchildren by his marriage to Lettice Devereux, an aspect that may have made his choice even more attractive.
By her first husband, Walter Devereux, 1st Earl of Essex, Countess Lettice had four surviving children: Penelope, Dorothy, Robert, and Walter. In September 1578, when she married the Earl of Leicester, they were aged 15, 14, 12, and 9 respectively. Leicester took a close interest in his stepchildren, though at no point was he their official guardian. The young Earl of Essex’ guardian became William Cecil, Lord Burghley. For a few years Robert Devereux lived in Burghley’s London household, which functioned as a boarding school for his aristocratic wards. Dancing took twice as much room in the curriculum as Latin – still, to break up the routine, young Essex (being also his godson) regularly received visits from the Earl of Leicester.2
Lettice’s daughters Penelope and Dorothy moved into a more austere boarding school, the household of the Earl and Countess of Huntingdon in Leicestershire. The Earl of Huntingdon was the girls’ guardian and a relative of their father, while the countess happened to be Leicester’s sister. She took a personal interest in giving young gentlewomen a Puritan upbringing. However, in the case of the Devereux girls her efforts were all in vain: Their love lives became even more interesting than their mother’s.
In Leicester House, Robert Dudley’s grand residence on the Strand, Penelope and her brother Robert had their own rooms: My Lord of Essex’ Chamber, my Lady Rich’s Chamber.3 There were also the portraits of young Essex and his sisters, as well as a double portrait: “two ladyes in one picktwer, my La. Rych and my La. Doryt”.4 The Catholic hate pamphlet, Leicester’s Commonwealth, naturally claimed that the earl’s relationship with his stepdaughters was of a most sinister nature, Leicester’s alleged appetite for women being such that “the keeping of the mother with two or three of her daughters at once or successively is no more with him than the eating of an hen and her chicken together.”
There is, of course, no reason to read anything dark into his concern and affection for Penelope and Dorothy. Penelope, Philip Sidney’s Stella, in 1581 was forced to marry the rich Lord Rich against her clearly expressed wishes. Leicester, like everyone else, believed it was a good match, but the matter did give him some thought, and by the next year he had learnt something: He had heard “some talk of marriage between my well beloved nephew Philip Sidney and the Lady Dorothy Devereux”, and now “my hearty and earnest wish was and is that it be so, for the great good will and liking I have to each party … I do most heartily desire that such love and liking might be between them as might bring a marriage”. He offered the couple an annual income and for Dorothy a dowry of £2,000, added to her father’s bequest.5 But Dorothy had other plans.
In 1583 she secretly married Thomas Perrot, the son of Leicester’s good friend Sir John Perrot, and the two eloped to escape the consequences. Especially the queen’s wrath. Other than Elizabeth, her family forgave Dorothy soon enough, and in October 1584 she received £20 from Leicester as a gift.6 Her brother Robert received the same amount from Leicester in September 1585; apparently the young Earl of Essex, now nearly 20, needed some pocket money to spend at court. He could do with some spoiling, his mother having chided him for his laziness and “undutifulness as a son”. The two earls had just arrived from the country, where Essex had been extremely lucky: “He fell into a ditche & was almost drownd in going a hunting in September.”7
In recent years Leicester and his stepson had frequently toured the country together. They had visited Kenilworth and various towns, like Shrewsbury, Denbigh, and Chester, and Leicester had also been welcomed at Chartley, Essex’ family seat.8 In 1584, while travelling through Oxfordshire to see his illegitimate son (also Robert), Robert Dudley received the honours of his 15-year-old stepson, Walter, who attended Oxford university. Walter Devereux and his fellow student Thomas Clinton stayed four nights with the Earl of Leicester at Woodstock.9
We next hear of Walter during the Armada campaign, where “your son Mr Devereux” won the praises of Lord Howard of Effingham, the Lord Admiral. Walter was to die in battle only a few years later, in France. Other than his younger brother, who was at sea, the Earl of Essex played a prominent part at Tilbury, Leicester’s moment of glory when he received Queen Elizabeth for the famous review of her troops. Since about 1587 Essex had been the queen’s young favourite, the star of the court. He had returned from the Low Countries, where he had served with his stepfather and watched with him at the death bed of Sir Philip Sidney, whose role as Leicester’s political heir he inherited.
During Leicester’s second stay in the Netherlands Essex remained at court, dutifully letting his stepfather know of the latest intrigues. While the queen and her ministers were discussing the recent loss of the important town of Sluys, Essex was waiting in the next room: “What is decreed I know not … I desired her … if they laid any matter to your charge, that she would suspend judgment till she heard yourself speak. I will watch with the best diligence I can, that your enemies may not take advantage of your absence … Your son, most ready to do you service, Essex”.10 Back from the Netherlands at the end of 1587, Leicester was finally prepared to give up, after 29 years, his position of Master of the Horse – to Essex, his stepson. He also managed to procure him the Garter in the spring of 1588.
Robert Devereux was also the occasion of Robert Dudley’s last official appearance. After Leicester’s death a spy reported to King Philip: “The last time I saw him was at the earl of Essex’s review [of troops], at the window with the Queen”. Among the last matters the earl had on his mind in his life was a request by his stepdaughter Penelope, who was keen on the wardship of a young gentleman. Leicester wrote to Burghley, Master of the Wards: “There was yesterday a great-bellied lady to have solicited the same but she was not able to tarry it out, your L. being with her Majesty in my chamber. She hath required her uncle your true servant to solicit this matter”.
Leicester left London to go to the baths at Buxton, but he got only to Cornbury near Oxford when he fell seriously ill. He had been suffering for a while and, who knows, Elizabeth perhaps sensed that he would never come back. She unexpectedly ordered Essex to move into Leicester’s court apartments; perplexed, the younger earl wrote to Leicester to ask for his opinion. Leicester most probably never saw the letter. He had successfully installed his stepson as his political heir. Perhaps too successfully. He would have been dismayed to know that within months of his death Penelope and Essex would enter into a dangerous correspondence with James VI of Scotland – helped on by his now jobless political secretary, Jean Hotman.11 Whith Leicester alive, such reckless behaviour would not have been tolerated.
1 Gristwood 2007 p. 298
2 Nelson 2003 p. 201
3 Jenkins 2002 p. 253
4 HMC Bath V p. 224
5 Freedman 1983 pp. 57 – 58
6 Adams 1995 p. 181
7 Hammer 1999 pp. 14, 15
8 Hammer 1999 pp. 34 – 35
9 Adams 1995 p. 190
10 Jenkins 2002 pp. 341 – 342
11 Freedman 1983 pp. 81 – 83
Calendar of … State Papers Relating to English Affairs … in … Simancas, 1558–1603. (ed. by Martin Hume, 1892–1899).
Leicester’s Commonwealth. (ed. D. C. Peck, 1985). http://www.dpeck.info/write/leic-comm2.htm
Manuscripts of The Marquess of Bath, Volume V: Talbot, Dudley and Devereux Papers 1533–1659. (Historical Manuscripts Commission, 1980).
Adams, Simon (1995): Household Accounts and Disbursement Books of Robert Dudley, Earl of Leicester, 1558–1561, 1584–1586. Cambridge University Press.
Chamberlin, Frederick (1939): Elizabeth and Leycester. Dodd, Mead & Co.
Freedman, Sylvia (1983): Poor Penelope: Lady Penelope Rich. An Elizabethan Woman. The Kensal Press.
Gristwood, Sarah (2007): Elizabeth and Leicester: Power, Passion, Politics. Viking.
Hammer, P. E. J. (1999): The Polarisation of Elizabethan Politics: The Political Career of Robert Devereux, 2nd Earl of Essex, 1585–1597. Cambridge University Press.
Jenkins, Elizabeth (2002): Elizabeth and Leicester. The Phoenix Press.
Lacey, Robert (1971): Robert, Earl of Essex: An Elizabethan Icarus. Weidenfeld & Nicolson.
Nelson, Alan (2003): Monstrous Adversary: The Life of Edward de Vere, 17th Earl of Oxford. Liverpool University Press.
Read, Conyers (1936): “A Letter from Robert, Earl of Leicester, to a Lady”. The Huntington Library Bulletin. No. 9. April 1936.