'Stella, star of heavenly fire
Stella, lodestar of desire.'
Sir Philip Sidney – Astrophil and Stella
When the Earl of Devonshire married the divorced Penelope Devereux, James I is said to have told him he’d ‘bought himself a fair woman with a black soul.’ It marked the end of an illustrious court career for Penelope and her fall from grace was to be devastating.
For many years Penelope had transgressed expected early modern codes of female behaviour, by ‘living in sin’ with Devonshire and bearing his children. It was an open secret, which Elizabeth I and to an extent her successor James I appeared to overlook. Elizabeth’s reputation for the excessively harsh treatment of any sexual transgression in the women of her household was renowned and it is testimony to Penelope’s strength of character and ability to command respect that both monarchs turned a blind eye to her affair.
Penelope had arrived at court in 1581 aged eighteen and was soon reluctantly married off to the fantastically wealthy, and aptly named, Lord Rich as a means to replenish the empty Devereux coffers. Her brother the young Earl of Essex was dubbed the ‘poorest earl in England,’ a humiliation that was to have far reaching consequences for the Devereux family.
Penelope’s beauty was legendary and in her early days at court she caught the eye of Sir Philip Sidney, inspiring his angst-ridden sonnet cycle Astrophil and Stella. It is possible that they had a love affair, though this is unproven but the sonnets offer an understanding of the profundity of Sidney’s feelings for her and his extreme jealousy of Lord Rich. Whether their relationship was consummated or not has been the subject of much speculation and it is impossible to know the truth, but it is undeniable that there was something significant between them.
But Penelope was not simply a woman interested in getting away with adultery, she had a hand in the politics of the Tudor succession, writing secret and treasonous letters of allegiance with James VI in Scotland and supporting him for the English throne after Elizabeth. This was a dangerous game. Penelope’s brother the Earl of Essex had risen spectacularly in Elizabeth’s favour but as was often the case in the Tudor court, his was to be an Icarus story and his fall was equally dramatic. The coup he launched against Elizabeth’s regime was to be the end of him but Penelope, who was inextricably involved in his insurrection, was not only the sole woman one on the list of perpetrators, but the only one who was not tried for her involvement. She was back in favour at court almost before her brother’s body was cold, raising questions about how she achieved this.
When James VI came to the throne as James I of England, Penelope’s secret allegiance would pay off, ensuring her a position of favour in the new court, which she enjoyed for some time with Blount, newly made Earl of Devonshire for his military success in Ireland at her side. As a Jacobean power-couple, she and Devonshire wrongly believed their favour with the new King was insurmountable when, shortly after her divorce from Rich, they married in contravention to James’s specific order that she not remarry during her husband’s lifetime. It was Penelope rather than Devonshire who would feel the full force of James’s wrath when she was banished from court and publically disgraced.
Her amorous links with two great Protestant heroes, Sidney and Devonshire, made her an embarrassment in the context of a po-faced Protestant history and meant her story was swept under the carpet, for fear of sullying the upright reputations of the men who loved her. But hers is the intriguing tale of a woman who deliberately contravened the rigid codes of female modesty, who commanded respect, made secret alliances and had the courage to march to the beat of her own drum against all odds, at a time when women were required to be silent and meek. And so her story merits dusting off and celebrating by a new generation who choose to see the full historical picture rather than the edited male highlights.
Elizabeth Fremantle’s novel about Penelope Devereux WATCH THE LADY will be published by Penguin on June 18th and Simon&Schuster (USA) on June 9th.