Penelope Devereux was born in January 1563 in Staffordshire to parents Walter Devereux, who later became the 1st Earl of Essex, and his wife, Lettice Knollys. Penelope’s siblings that survived infancy were Dorothy, Walter and Robert, who became a favourite of Queen Elizabeth I and was a high-ranking privy counsellor.
Penelope came from a long line of nobles which could be traced back to the arrival of William the Conqueror. Penelope was a granddaughter of Catherine Carey, a close friend of Queen Elizabeth I, and she was also the great-granddaughter of Mary Boleyn, the aunt of Queen Elizabeth I. These connections and her father’s roles in government meant that Penelope and her siblings were in a prime position for good marriage matches and careers from a young age.
The children grew up at Chartley Manor in Staffordshire while their father, Walter, was often away on military campaigns. His hard work and devotion to the crown paid off, and after subduing rebellions in the North of England and in Ireland, the Queen rewarded Walter with the Earldom of Essex; this meant a change in rank for the children, too, and Penelope was elevated to a ‘Lady’.
All was not smooth-sailing in the Essex household, however, while the Earl of Essex was away on a campaign in Ireland – which was failing miserably, Penelope’s mother was said to be having an affair with the Queen’s favourite Sir Robert Dudley, The Earl of Leicester. In 1575 the Spanish ambassador said, “It is said… while Essex was in Ireland his wife had two children by Leicester.” Another source mentions just one child – but there is no proof of either rumour. When The Earl of Essex died of dysentery in Ireland, there was great talk that he had in fact been poisoned at the command of Robert Dudley, but an enquiry was launched and found no traces of poison.
Penelope was thirteen when her father died, and her mother was embroiled in an affair with the Earl of Leicester; these events must have disturbed her childhood. Until this point, the children had lived in a manor house and were well educated, learning many languages. Now that their father was dead, however, the children had lowered prospects and little money as their father had owed a lot of money; Walter had even written to the Queen asking her to provide an education and marriage matches for the children as he knew young Robert would inherit a measly estate. Penelope’s brother Robert was now the second Earl of Essex, “the poorest Earl in the kingdom”, he could scarcely run his own household, let alone provide for his siblings.
In 1577, the children were divided up and sent off to live with guardians; Lettice and the younger children had to leave the family home and moved around from place to place, Robert was taken in by Lord Burghley and Penelope and her siblings Walter and Dorothy went to live with a cousin of their father. This must have been a difficult time, but also taking children in as wards was common practice in this period.
With the older children off living with guardians, Penelope’s mother, Lettice Knollys, secretly married Robert Dudley, Earl of Leicester. A marriage of this rank had to be approved by the Queen, and she was furious when she found out the pair had wed without her consent; Elizabeth banished Robert from the court, and there was a rumour that she boxed the ears of Lettice Knollys before also banishing her. From this point on, the Queen’s relationship with the Earl of Leicester was destroyed, and Leicester and his new wife were ostracised from most social events. Luckily Lettice’s children do not seem to have been damaged by this, as we know Penelope was later welcomed at court.
With her father’s death, a lot changed for Penelope, and that included the plans for her marriage; it had always been presumed that she would marry Sir Philip Sidney, but her guardian, the Earl of Huntingdon, arranged a match for her with Robert Rich, 3rd Baron Rich. Penelope married Baron Rich in 1581 though she had not wanted to go through with the marriage. Penelope and Sir Philip Sidney would continue to have feelings for each other, and Sidney’s famous sonnets Astrophel and Stella were later written about Penelope.
Penelope’s marriage to Baron Rich was not a happy one; she made it clear she was unhappy with her match to a man who was “Rough, uncourtly in manners… dull and uneducated.” Luckily, she was able to escape to court after her marriage to wait on the Queen for long periods of time, where she was welcomed and enjoyed the splendours of court life. At this time, Penelope was doing the best out of her siblings; her brother Robert was rising in rank at court but was already racking up debts by splashing out on expensive clothing, her sister Dorothy had secretly married without the queen’s permission and was out of favour, and her half-brother (the son of her mother and the Earl of Leicester) had died aged just three, leaving Leicester with no heir and her mother bereft.
Over the next decade, Penelope and her husband went on to have seven children, and she was also a well-known beauty, celebrated at court, admired for her singing and dancing. It wasn’t long however before Penelope too began to cause scandal like her siblings, and in 1585, she entered into an affair with Charles Blount, Baron Mountjoy. In a way, Penelope could get away with this behaviour at the time because her brother Robert had become greatly successful and was at this stage one of the Queen’s favourites. Robert had risen in rank in military leadership roles to become Master of the Horse before later becoming a member of the Privy Council and Lord Lieutenant of Ireland.
Soon after this, however, Robert began to make silly mistakes and caused a lot of trouble for the Queen – he and the Queen had a tempestuous relationship; sometimes, they were close, and other times they would hate each other. The final straw for the Queen was when Robert abandoned his post in Ireland and returned to England without permission, and stormed in on the Queen in a state of undress. At first, Essex was just removed from his positions and confined to his own lands, but when he raised a rebellion and marched on London in 1601 demanding to see the Queen, he was finally convicted of treason and executed.
For Penelope, the fall of her brother was catastrophic. When Robert was convicted of treason, he tried to blame other people, and one of these was his own sister Penelope. He said that she had called him a coward and urged him to raise a rebellion against the Queen. Penelope was placed under house arrest because of these accusations, but luckily for her, the Queen decided to take it no further; she could have easily been executed due to her brother’s remarks. We cannot know if Penelope had been a part of The Essex rebellion, but it does seem possible because we do know that she and her brother were both taking part in secret correspondence with the future King James I in order to gain favour with him; this act was, of course, treasonous and proved she was power-hungry at the time.
The great risk taken by Penelope to write to James did pay off, however, as when he became King, he held her in high regard, she was welcomed back into the inner circles at court, and her lover Mountjoy was given the title of Earl of Devonshire. Her marital issues were not as easy to resolve, though, and with her powerful brother now dead, Penelope’s husband was no longer willing to ignore her affair with Devonshire. Penelope had given birth to six children who were fathered by her lover, and her husband had been forced to acknowledge them as his own for years.
In 1605, Baron Rich obtained a divorce from Penelope because of her adultery. Due to Baron Rich still being alive, Penelope and Devonshire were strictly forbidden from marrying, but just as her mother and sister had done before her, Penelope ignored the rules and married Devonshire in secret.
King James I was absolutely furious, he had trusted Penelope and given Devonshire new positions and an Earldom, and when they betrayed him, he banished the couple from the court for good. As a new King from a new dynasty, King James I could not afford to surround himself with people he could not trust. King James felt stupid for trusting Penelope despite the reputation of her family and the never-ending list of scandals; he said to Devonshire after hearing of the marriage that he had “bought himself a fair lady with a black soul.” Penelope may have been charming, beautiful, clever and written about by poets, but she was also scheming, adulterous and clearly untrustworthy.
Penelope and Devonshire continued to live together in disgrace, banished from the court and hated by the King and the courtiers. The couple died soon after this; Devonshire in 1606 and Penelope in 1607.1