The Correspondence of Lady Penelope Rich

Primary Contributors:

James Daybell and Kim McLean-Fiander

Miniature thought to be of Penelope Devereux, Lady Rich, by Nicholas Hilliard. c.1590. Water-colour and gouache on vellum laid on card, 5.7 by 4.6cm. (Royal Collection, London; image: Wikimedia Commons)

Lady Penelope Rich (1563–1607)

Lady Penelope Rich was the daughter of Walter Devereux, first earl of Essex, and his wife Lettice (née Knollys). Her brother, with whom she had a close and affectionate relationship, was Robert Devereux, second earl of Essex. Together with her sister, Dorothy (later countess of Northumberland), she was tutored by the Cambridge scholar, Mathias Holmes, until their father passed away in 1576 and then at their maternal grandfather’s house, Greys, during the first few months of 1577. In addition to being taught to write an italic hand, both girls received linguistic training in French, Spanish, and Italian, and rudimentary lessons in history, philosophy, rhetoric, and arithmetic, as well as a large dose of reformist theology.

From early 1578 onwards, Penelope and Dorothy moved to the ‘puritan’ household of their guardian, Henry Hastings, where their education and upbringing was overseen by his wife, Catherine, countess of Huntingdon. During childhood and adolescence, Lady Rich developed the refined literary and cultural tastes in poetry and entertainments for which she was later praised. In 1581, she served as a maid of honour and, in November of that same year, she married Robert Rich, first earl of Warwick (Lord Rich). As a patroness, she received numerous dedications. She is reputed, for example, to be the model for ‘Stella’ in Sir Philip Sidney’s sonnet sequence, ‘Astrophil and Stella’. Her cultural interests continued throughout her life and, in James’s reign, she participated in Queen Anne’s court masques. She performed in Samuel Daniel’s Vision of Twelve Goddesses in 1604 and in Ben Jonson’s The Masque of Blackness at the court at Whitehall on 6 January 1605.

Her correspondence reveals her mastery of the complexities of epistolary culture. She enjoyed a wide-ranging correspondence with writers across Europe; she conducted secret correspondence (employing ciphers and codes) and utilized her letters to patronage and diplomatic ends. Her letters register an awareness of courtly and rhetorical conventions as well as the use of stylistic and structural epistolary forms. Uniformly autograph, the letters are penned in a neat italic presentation hand and bear all the hallmarks of a familiarity with letter-writing conventions, such as elaborate modes of address on the address leaves and wax seals that incorporate ribbon or floss.

Her outgoing business letters highlight her role as a political intermediary, operating through the influence of her brother and powerful court connections. Penelope Rich’s considerable epistolary skills are further demonstrated by her intimate involvement in Essex’s overtures to James VI, Elizabeth’s eventual successor, in 1589. At this time, Lady Rich corresponded secretly with the Scottish King through the auspices of Richard Douglas (nephew of the Scottish ambassador to England, Archibald Douglas) and Jean Hotman, a former secretary of the earl of Leicester, who acted as an emissary. Lady Rich became embroiled in her brother’s ill-fated coup d’état, during which period a letter to Queen Elizabeth addressed in her name circulated widely in manuscript and print. She was put under house arrest and interrogated by the Council, but survived and achieved influence during the reign of King James VI and I of Scotland and England. With her husband, she had five children, but she also had an additional six children with Sir Charles Blount, with whom she had an open affair from at least 1590 onwards. She died in 1607.

Partners and Additional Contributors

The WEMLO project is led by co-directors Professor James Daybell (Plymouth University) and Dr Kim McLean-Fiander (University of Victoria). When WEMLO began, much of the metadata for a number of individual women’s correspondence catalogues had been collated independently by James Daybell after years of research in archives around the world. Subsequently, Kim McLean-Fiander oversaw the curation of this metadata.

The WEMLO project has benefitted from the research and editorial expertise of Dr Ian Cooper and Dr Bruna Gushurst-Moore and the design expertise of Dr J. Matthew Huculak. All WEMLO-related catalogues have relied upon the skill and expertise of EMLO Digital Editor, Miranda Lewis. WEMLO would like to thank the team at Cultures of Knowledge and EMLO for their expertise and ongoing support.


The catalogue contains metadata of forty-two letters written between 1580 and 1606. Twenty-seven are in English from Lady Penelope Rich to the following individuals: her brother Robert Devereux, second earl of Essex; Henry Wriothesley, earl of Southampton; Sir Julius Caesar; and members of the court, including Queen Elizabeth I of England; William Cecil, Lord Burghley; and Robert Cecil, earl of Salisbury. Some letters are undated, and some are extant in multiple copies, including Lady Rich’s infamous letter to Queen Elizabeth in which she defends her brother, which was printed in Essex’s Apologie (1600). Six of the letters are in French from Lady Penelope Rich to Jeanne Hotman, wife of Jean Hotman, while seven of the letters are in Spanish addressed to Lady Rich by Antonio Pérez.

Further resources

Selected Bibliography

Daybell, James, ‘Women, Politics and Domesticity: The Scribal Publication of Lady Rich’s Letter to Elizabeth I’, in Anne Lawrence-Mathers and Phillipa Hardman, eds, Women and Writing, c.1340–c.1650: The Domestication of Print Culture (Woodbridge: Boydell and Brewer, 2010), pp. 111–30.

Duncan-Jones, Katherine, ‘Sidney, Stella and Lady Rich’, in J. van Dorsten, D. Baker-Smith, and Arthur F. Kinney , eds, Sir Philip Sidney: 1586 and the Creation of a Legend (Leiden: Brill and Leiden University Press, 1986), pp. 170–92.

Freedman, A., ‘Essex to Stella: two letters from the earl of Essex to Penelope Rich’, English Literary Renaissance, 3 (1973), p. 248 ff.

Freedman, Sylvia, Poor Penelope: Lady Penelope Rich, An Elizabethan Woman (Oxford: Kensal Press, 1983).

Gordon, Andrew, ‘“A fortune of Paper Walls”: The Letters of Francis Bacon and the Earl of Essex’, English Literary Renaissance, 37, 3 (2007), pp. 319–36.

Gordon, Andrew, ‘Copycopia, or the Place of Copied Correspondence in Manuscript Culture: A Case Study’, in James Daybell and Peter Hinds, eds, Material Readings of Early Modern Culture, 1580–1730: Texts and Social Practices (Basingstoke: Palgrave, 2010), pp. 65–82.

Hudson, H.H., ‘Penelope Devereux as Sidney’s Stella’, Huntington Library Bulletin, 7 (1935), pp. 89–129.

Hulse, C., ‘Stella’s Wit: Penelope Rich as Reader of Sidney’s Sonnets’, in M.W. Ferguson, M. Quilligan, and N.J. Vickers, eds, Rewriting the Renaissance: The Discourses of Sexual Difference in Early Modern Europe (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1986), pp. 272–86.

Ioppolo, Grace, ‘“I desire to be helde in your memory”: Reading Penelope Rich Through Her Letters’, in Dymphna Callaghan, ed., The Impact of Feminism in English Renaissance Studies (Basingstoke: Palgrave, 2007), pp. 299–325.

Klawitter, George, ‘Barnfield’s Penelope Devereux, Exalted and Reviled’, in Kenneth Borris and George Klawitter, eds, The Affectionate Shepherd: Celebrating Richard Barnfield (Selinsgrove and London: Susquehanna University Press and Associated University Presses, 2001), pp. 61–82.

Margetts, M., ‘Stella Britanna: The Early Life (1563–1592) of Lady Penelope Devereux, Lady Rich (d. 1607)’ (Ph.D diss., Yale University, 1992).

Margetts, M., ‘A Christening Date for Lady Penelope Rich’, Notes & Queries, 238 (1993), pp. 153–4.

Margetts, M., ‘“The wayes of mine owne hart”: the dating and mind frame of Essex’s “fantasticall” letter’, Bodleian Library Record, 16, 1 (April 1997), pp. 101–10.

Purcell, J.M., Sidney’s Stella (Oxford: OUP, 1934).

Rawson, Maud Stepney, Penelope Rich and Her Circle (London: Hutchinson, 1911).

Ringler, W. W., Astrophil and Stella, The Poems of Sir Philip Sidney (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1962).

Roberts, Josephine A., ‘Sir Philip Sidney and Lady Penelope Rich’, English Literary Renaissance, 15 (1985), pp. 59–77.

Robertson, J., ‘Sir Philip Sidney and Lady Rich’, Review of English Studies, 15 (1964), pp. 296–7.

Ungerer, Gustav, ed., A Spaniard in Elizabethan England: The Correspondence of Antonio Pérez’s Exile, 2 vols (London: Tamesis Books, 1974).

Varlow, Sally, The Lady Penelope: The Lost Tale of Love and Politics in the Court of Elizabeth (London: Andre Deutsch, 2007).

Wall, A. D., ‘Rich [née Devereux], Penelope, Lady Rich (1563–1607)’, Oxford Dictionary of National Biography (Oxford, 2004).


Additional resources

Women’s Early Modern Letters Online [WEMLO] project page

WEMLO network and resources hub



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