Born c.1562 Died 1607
Lady Penelope Rich, the Stella of Sir Philip Sidney's Astrophel and Stella, was the daughter of Walter Devereux, 1st Earl of Essex. She was a child of fourteen when Sir Philip Sidney accompanied the queen on a visit to Lady Essex in 1576, on her way from Kenilworth, and must have been frequently thrown into the society of Sidney, in consequence of the many ties between the two families.
Essex died at Dublin in September 1576. He had sent a message to Philip Sidney from his death-bed expressing his desire that he should marry his daughter, and later his secretary wrote to the young man's father, Sir Henry Sidney, in words which seem to point to the existence of a very definite understanding. Penelope's great-grandmother was a sister of Anne Boleyn and she and her brother Robert were therefore distantly connected with Elizabeth. Perhaps the marriage of Lady Essex with the Earl of Leicester, which destroyed Sidney's prospects as his uncle's heir, had something to do with the breaking off of the proposed match with Penelope.
Her relative and guardian, Henry Hastings, Earl of Huntingdon, secured Burghley's assent in March 1581 for her marriage with Robert Rich, 3rd Baron Rich. Penelope is said to have protested in vain against the alliance with Rich, who is represented as a rough and overbearing husband. The evidence against him is, however, chiefly derived from sources as interested as Sir Philip Sidney's violent denunciation in the twenty-fourth sonnet of Astrophel and Stella, "Rich fooles there be whose base and filthy hart". Sidney's serious love for Penelope appears to date from her marriage with Rich. The earlier sonnets are in praise of her beauty, or treat of the conventional topic of the struggle between reason and love, while the later ones are marked by unmistakable passion. The eighth song of Astrophel and Stella narrates Stella's refusal to accept Sidney as a lover.
Lady Rich was the mother of six children by her husband when she contracted in 1595 an open liaison with Charles Blount, 8th Lord Mountjoy, a brilliant courtier and favourite of Elizabeth, to whom she had long been attached. Rich took no steps against his wife during her brother's lifetime, and she nursed him through an illness in 1600, but they obtained a legal separation in 1601, and Mountjoy acknowledged her five children born after 1595. Mountjoy was created Earl of Devonshire on the accession of James I, and Lady Rich was in high favour at court. In 1605, however, they legitimized their connection by a marriage celebrated by William Laud, the earl's chaplain. This proceeding, carried out in defiance of canon law, was followed by the disgrace of both parties, who were banished from court. Devonshire died on the 3rd of April 1606, and his wife within a year of that date.
Her eldest son by Lord Rich, who became Earl of Warwick in 1618, was Robert Rich, 2nd Earl of Warwick (1587-1658). The second, Henry Rich, Earl of Holland, was beheaded in 1649 for his share in the second Civil War. Her eldest son by Mountjoy, Mountjoy Blount, Baron Mountjoy and Earl of Newport (c. 1597-1665) also figured in the Civil War.
See the editions of Astrophel and Stella by Dr A. B. Grosart, E. Arber and A. W. Pollard; also the various lives of Sir Philip Sidney, and Mrs Aubrey Richardson's Famous Ladies of the English Court (London, 1899). John Ford's Broken Heart has been alleged to have been founded on the history of Lady Rich. Richard Barnfield dedicated his Affectionate Shepherd (1594) to her; Bartholomew Yonge his Diana of George of Montemayor (1598); and sonnets are addressed to her by John Davies of Hereford and by Henry Constable.
Being the entry for RICH, PENELOPE, LADY in the 1911 Encyclopedia Britannica, the text of which lies within the public domain.