Magazine article History Today

Penshurst Place, Kent

Magazine article History Today

Penshurst Place, Kent

Article excerpt

The story of the Sidneys and Shelleys at Penshurst goes back to the glamorous, dangerous world of Tudor politics. The Sidneys were Surrey country gentry who rose in the world through service to Henry VIII. The soldier Sir William Sidney (1482-1554) was tutor and steward to Henry's son, the future Edward VI, from the prince's babyhood. In 1552 he was rewarded with the Penshurst estate in Kent. Sir William's son, Henry, was the young king's closest boyhood friend and it was in his arms, tradition has it, that Edward VI breathed his last.

Penshurst Place was old even then. As it stands today in the local sandstone and red brick, the house is the gracious accumulation of seven centuries, and the princely great hall, 60ft high and big enough to quarter half an army in, was completed in 1341 for a rich London financier, Sir John de Pulteney. A succession of royal dukes enlarged the house until in 1519 the last of them, the 3rd Duke of Buckingham, made the lethal mistake of entertaining Henry VIII in such sumptuous splendour -- spending close to 1 [pounds sterling] million in today's money -- that the paranoid monarch had his head off his shoulders within two years. The estate then became royal property -- and Henry VIII stayed at Penshurst while courting Anne Boleyn at nearby Hever - until it was given to the Sidneys.

Sir Henry Sidney (1529-86), Edward VI's childhood friend, grew up at court and married above himself. His wife was Mary Dudley, daughter of the powerful Duke of Northumberland. This might have fatally embroiled him in the plotting against `Bloody' Mary, but he was adroit enough to steer his way clear and faithfully served both Mary I and Elizabeth I. He named his first son after Queen Mary's husband Philip II of Spain, who graciously dandled the prodigious infant on his knee. Sidney's wife Mary nursed Elizabeth through smallpox in 1562, contracted the disease herself and was so hideously disfigured that she wore a mask in public all the rest of her life. Her husband remained devoted to her and in a touching story in their son's Arcadia a woman's face is destroyed by acid, then her beauty is restored by magic. Her brother Robert Dudley, Earl of Leicester, was Elizabeth's principal favourite and the queen loved sweet Penshurst', which she often visited.

Sir Henry shifted tons of earth at Penshurst to create the gardens and made additions to the house, where his son, godson of Philip of Spain and the chief ornament of the Sidney line, was born. Poet, courtier, soldier and widely-travelled patron of learning, Sir Philip Sidney (1554-86), blazed through his brief life like a comet. Red-haired and long-nosed, hot-tempered and impetuous, fiercely proud of his Dudley ancestry, he has come down to posterity as the perfect gentleman: honourable, chivalrous, generous and brave.

Mortally wounded at only thirty-one in a skirmish in the Netherlands, and desperately thirsty, Sir Philip saw a dying soldier wistfully eyeing his water bottle and gave it to him with the immortal words: `Thy necessity is yet greater than mine'. Doubt has been cast on this famous story, which is not recorded until years afterwards, but Philip Sidney was a man of whom it could be unhesitatingly believed and his death caused such a sense of loss that he was given a state funeral, an honour not accorded another commoner until Lord Nelson in 1806. The funeral helm with the Sidney porcupine crest is at Penshurst. (The handsome old Leicester Arms Inn in the village was once the Porcupine).

Sir Philip and his father and mother all died in the same year and Penshurst went to his younger brother, Robert Sidney (1563-1626), a soldier whom he had encouraged to find `good wars' to practise on in Europe. Robert provided Penshurst with its long gallery and married a rich Glamorgan heiress named Barbara Gamage only two hours before a message from Elizabeth I arrived, forbidding the match. There is a delightful Gheeraerts portrait at Penshurst of Barbara and their children - six solemn Elizabethan moppets dressed to the nines - and Ben Jonson wrote a poem about the charm of life at Penshurst in her day. …

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