Elizabeth SIDNEY

(C. Rutland)

Born: Nov 1585

Died: Aug 1612 / 1614

Father: Phillip SIDNEY (Sir Knight)

Mother: Frances WALSINGHAM (C. Essex)

Married: Roger MANNERS (5į E. Rutland) 5 Mar 1598

Elizabeth Sidney, Countess of Rutland

by John de Critz the Elder, 1606

Costume designed by Inigo Jones

Elizabeth was the only surviving child of Sir Phillip Sidney, and his wife Frances Walsingham. Sir Phillip Sidney, the poet, military hero and role model for Elizabethan men of letters, died heroically fighting the Spanish in 1586 and his funeral, which was one of the major state events of Elizabethan England, gave him the status of a Protestant martyr. Elizabeth was also the grand-daughter of Sir Henry Sidney and of Sir Francis Walsingham, niece of Mary Sidney, Countess of Pembroke, and step-daughter of Robert Devereux, 2nd Earl of Essex.

Elizabeth Sidney married Roger Manners 5th Earl of Rutland in 1599, shortly before he left England to take part in Essexís abortive campaign in Ireland. Roger also took part in the doomed fiasco of the Essex rebellion, and Elizabeth Manners was said to have been dismayed by the exile from court life which resulted from the punishment for Rogerís part in the revolt. Her feelings seem to have placed a strain on the marriage which was noticed by Ben Jonson, who wrote the first of three poems to her in 1600 "The Epistle to the Countess of Rutland" but he omitted the last verse about the imminent birth of a son to the couple from later editions of the poem after hearing that the Earl was in fact impotent.

Queen Elizabeth died on 24 Mar 1603 and James VI of Scotland was proclaimed James I King of England, France, and Ireland. James crossed the border into England on 6 Apr, but because the plague had broken out in London he made a slow journey south. On 10 Apr James progressed to Roger and Elizabethís seat of Belvoir Castle where he was to stay for two weeks. The success of this royal visit marked the restoration of the Earlís political fortunes after the debacle of the Essex revolt. He received a further mark of royal favour with his appointment as ambassador to Denmark where his job was to invest the Danish King Christian IV with the Order of the Garter and to convey gifts on the christening of his first son. This was an important diplomatic position because of the close links between the Danish and Scottish thrones, as in 1589 King James had married Christianís sister, Anne of Denmark.

Roger Manners seems to have enjoyed his visit to the Danish court at Elsinore. The accountant John Brewer who accompanied the Earl on the trip records what almost seems to be a royal progress of the Earlís party, from Belvoir to Gravesend, by sea to Scarborough and then on to Copenhagen and Elsinore Castle, with lavish spending on food, entertainment, and munificent gifts to the poor at every place visited. The architect and designer Inigo Jones was a member of the party visiting Denmark.

Elizabeth gathered a group of poets and admirers around her, which as well as Ben Jonson, which included Francis Beaumont, a playwright working for Shakespeareís Kingís Men theatre company and Sir Thomas Overbury, who was to be the victim of the most notorious of Jacobean murder conspiracies.

Elizabethís artistic collaborations with Jonson culminated in her dancing in the Masque of Hymenaei, a spectacular court entertainment, written by Jonson and designed by Inigo Jones, that was staged in Whitehall in 1606 to celebrate the marriage of her step-brother Robert Devereux, 3rd Earl of Essex, to Frances Howard, daughter of Thomas Howard, Earl of Suffolk. This marriage was designed by James I and his minister, Robert Cecil, to be a way of reconciling the rival court factions divided by the Essex rebellion. However, the marriage was not a success and was to lead to divorce, scandal, and the Overbury murder.

Some commentators have suggested that her death may have been the result of a revenge attack after she had murdered Roger Manners in Jun 1612 to free herself from an unhappy marriage, so that she could remarry and fulfil her destiny a producing a son in succession to her poet father. According to Chamberlain, after Rogerís death Elizabeth was planning to marry a member of the rival Howard court faction with what may have seemed to Rogerís family and friends, indecent haste. The Oxford DNB (under "Manners, Roger"), however, says that she died "within a fortnight of her husband's funeral, occasioning wild rumours that she had been poisoned by medicine supplied by Sir Walter Raleigh". The entry also reports gossip that Sir Thomas Overbury was in love with her. John Chamberlain reported the rumour that she had been poisoned by Sir Walter Raleigh and her death was the subject of an extremely angry poem by Francis Beaumont, "An Elegy on the Death of the Virtuous Lady Elizabeth Countess of Rutland", that refers to the Earlís impotence and the poor state of her marriage.

However, biographies of her father and grandfather, give the date 1614 for Elizabethís death, and the Earl of Rutland died in 1612.

Playwright Ben Jonson said of her that she was "nothing inferior to her father in poetry". However, none of her poems are known up to now, but I do belive that that I have discovered one of her verses.

Elizabeth was buried in Old St Paulís Cathedral near her father Phillip and grandfather. Her grave was destroyed in Great Fire of London in 1666 when the cathedral was burnt down, so that her effigy in St Maryís Bottesford remains as her only monument.

To Elizabeth, Countess of Rutland

By Ben Jonson

That poets are far rarer births than kings

Your noblest father proved; like whom before,

Or then, or since, about our Musesí springs,

Came not that soul exhausted so their store.

Hence was it that the destinies decreed

(Save that most masculine issue of his brain)

No male unto him; who could so exceed

Nature, they thought, in all that he would fain.

At which she, happily displeased, made you,

On whom, if he were living now to look,

He should those rare and absolute numbers view,

As he would burn or better far his book.


Sparham, Bob:  Elizabeth Sidney 1585-1612. Her Life - Bottesford's Elizabethan Lady Poet - https://www.bottesfordhistory.org.uk/content/people/historic-people/lady-elizabeth-countess-of-rutland/elizabeth-sidney-1585-1612-her-life

Poetry Foundation: https://www.poetryfoundation.org/poems/50670/to-elizabeth-countess-of-rutland

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