SIDNEY, Sir Henry (1529-86), of Penshurst, Kent.

Published in The History of Parliament: the House of Commons 1558-1603, ed. P.W. Hasler, 1981
Available from Boydell and Brewer



Mar. 1553

Family and Education

b. 20 July 1529, 1st s. of Sir William Sidney by Anne, da. of Sir Hugh Pagenham, wid. of Thomas Fitzwilliam. m. 29 Mar. 1551, Mary, da. of Sir John Dudley, afterwards Duke of Northumberland, 3s. inc. Philip and Robert 4da. suc. fa. 1553.1 Kntd. 1551; KG 1564.2

Offices Held

Henchman of Henry VIII c.1538; gent. of privy chamber c.1547; royal cupbearer 1550;3 keeper, Richmond park from c.1552; high steward of honour of Otford and of Knole park and master of otterhounds 1553; j.p. Kent from c.1555, many Welsh counties from c.1561; many other English counties from c.1573; vice-treasurer [I] 1556-9; ld. justice 1557-8;4 president, council in the marches of Wales 1559-86; ld. dep. [I] 1565-71, 1575-8; PC July 1575.5


Following the appointment of his father as chamberlain of the household to Prince Edward in 1538, Sidney had become intimate with the prince, and between 1547 and 1553, enjoyed greater royal favour than subsequently. His position was made even stronger by his marriage to Northumberland’s daughter; it was during this period that he received large crown grants of land, including Penshurst and a number of other Kent manors, together with property in the counties of Gloucester, Lincoln, Nottingham, Surrey and Sussex, and the profits of monastic lands in Yorkshire.6

When Edward died, Sidney lost no time in detaching himself from his father-in-law’s party and swearing allegiance to Mary. Although ‘neither liking nor liked as [he] had been’, he kept most of his court offices, earning the favour of Philip of Spain sufficiently for the King to stand godfather to the future Sir Philip Sidney. Between April 1556 and November 1558 he spent most of his time in Ireland, working under the lord deputy, his brother-in-law Thomas Radcliffe, 3rd Earl of Sussex.7

Sidney may have hoped for high office under Elizabeth, for his wife’s brother, Sir Robert Dudley, was the chief favourite at court. But the only new appointment he received was that of lord president of the council in the marches of Wales. There seems no doubt that Cecil was at first hostile to him, probably because of his support for the Dudley marriage scheme, but the two men later became firm friends. In April 1562 Sidney was sent to France to offer mediation in the religious wars, but failed in his mission, and on his return went to Scotland with Elizabeth’s letter postponing her projected interview with Mary Queen of Scots, on the ground of the Duke of Guise’s cruelty to the French protestants. Between 1561 and his departure for Ireland as lord deputy in 1565 he was made a freeman of London, an honorary member of Gray’s Inn, and knight of the shire for Kent. In the 1563 Parliament ‘Mr.’ Sidney had several matters committed to him: felonies (21 Jan.), Mr. Elrington’s Surrey iron mills (30 Jan.) and privilege (5, 8 Feb.).8

The best account of Sidney’s work in Ireland was written by himself, in a long autobiographical letter sent to Walsingham in March 1583. He found ‘everything out of joint’ there—the inhabitants of the Pale complaining bitterly of the injustice of taxation by ‘cess’, Shane O’Neill planning rebellion, and the Irish lords unreliable. In his first six-year period as lord deputy, 1565-71, he campaigned vigorously against O’Neill and the Earl of Desmond, improved communications by building roads and bridges (he found by experience that in many places the only way to cross the Shannon quickly was to swim), and began a number of free schools. He had little time to spare for his private affairs, and later blamed his years in Ireland for his heavy debts. It was probably for financial reasons that arrangements for a marriage between Philip Sidney and Sir William Cecil’s daughter Anne came to nothing. Several letters from Sir Henry survive, dated 1569 or early 1570, about the plan. In one he confessed, ‘Before God, in these matters I am utterly ignorant, as one that never made a marriage in my life’. While the negotiations were still pending, in September 1569, Cecil stood godfather to one of Sidney’s younger sons, whom the father had apparently not yet seen. Writing from Dublin to thank the secretary for ‘making a Christian’ of the child, Sidney claimed at least to have chosen the name, having ‘left order that if it were a boy it should have been a William, if a wench Cycell’.

Elizabeth consistently failed to appreciate Sidney’s difficulties in Ireland, and during both his periods as lord deputy sent him ‘many a bitter letter’ accusing him of extravagance. These, he wrote later, had not only ‘tired’ him, but had so seriously upset Lady Sidney that ‘she fell most grievously sick’, and was unconscious for two days. He felt this particularly as his wife—formerly, he told Walsingham, ‘a most fair lady, to me the fairest’—had lost all her beauty through smallpox following her devoted nursing of Elizabeth, from whom she deserved better treatment. Disputes about the expenses of the Irish administration led to Sidney’s recall in March 1571.9

He arrived back in England in time to attend Parliament, passing through Shrewsbury on his way, where he was asked to deal with a petition about the sale of Welsh cloth. He is not recorded on any committees in 1571, but he spoke in support of Mildmay’s appeal for money to bring Ireland ‘into good order’. Again knight of the shire for Kent in 1572, his only recorded activity was a speech in defence of iron mills, 21 May 1572. He was in Ireland by the time the second session met, and though he was again in England for the third in 1581 his name is not mentioned in the journals. However, if he was present in the House during the session he would, as a Privy Councillor, have been entitled to attend committees on (among other matters) the subsidy (25 Jan. 1581), seditious practices (1 Feb.), encumbrances (4 Feb.), the examination of Arthur Hall (6 Feb.), defence (as Feb.), Dover harbour (6 Mar.) and the Queen’s safety (14 Mar.).10

Between 1571 and 1575 he spent some time at Ludlow, as president of the council of Wales, proving as efficient as he had been in Ireland. Perhaps by comparison with his previous post, he enjoyed his work in Wales, reporting that ‘a better people to govern than the Welsh ... Europe holdeth not’. In 1572 there was a suggestion of making him a peer, but Lady Sidney told Burghley that her husband was not wealthy enough to maintain the necessary state, and the offer was not made.11

Since his departure from Ireland the position there had deteriorated, and in July 1575 he was asked to return, with wider powers and more satisfactory financial arrangements. A few days before he left he was sworn a Privy Councillor. For the next three years he worked tirelessly to restore good government, campaigned in Ulster and the South, and made unsuccessful attempts to commute the hated ‘cess’ for an annual payment of £2,000. By now the value of his administration was better appreciated at home. The Queen might complain that he was ‘ever a costly servant, and had alienated ... her good subjects hearts’, but even his enemies admitted that his firm but moderate policy was much more effective than ‘rougher dealing’. During his last term of office he made repeated but largely unsuccessful efforts to improve the protestant church in Ireland, suggesting that Irish-speaking ministers might be persuaded to come from Scotland. He also appealed time and again for a standing army in Ireland.

Financial difficulties were once more responsible for his recall early in 1578. He refused to be ‘hounded out’ of the country, and remained there for another six months, conducting yet another campaign, this time against Rory Oge O’More. When he finally left Ireland, he was seriously ill at Chester for several weeks.12

For the last eight years of his life he remained an active Privy Councillor, continuing the re-organization of the council of Wales he had begun before 1575. In January 1579 he was sent to Canterbury to escort Prince John Casimir to London. A suggestion in 1582 that he should go back to Ireland came to nothing. He was able to spend more time than formerly at Penshurst, and was included on several local commissions.13

Sidney was a cultured, attractive and genial man. ‘You degenerate from your father’, he wrote to Philip, ‘if you find not yourself most able in wit and body to do anything, when you be most merry’. His household accounts show considerable payments for books, musical instruments and pictures, side by side with entries of his shares in voyages of discovery, and heavy losses at play. By the time he returned from Ireland, however, he was prematurely aged, ‘toothless and trembling’, as he told Walsingham, and embittered by the Queen’s unjust treatment. He died at Ludlow on 5 May 1586; a large train of mourners accompanied his body to Penshurst, the journey and funeral costing over £700.

His will, made in January 1582, was proved on 25 May 1586. The heavy debts he incurred in Ireland had forced him to sell lands which formed part of his wife’s jointure, and he made arrangements to compensate her with property in Kent and Lincolnshire to the value of nearly £170. He asked his brothers-in-law, the Earls of Leicester, Warwick and Huntingdon, and his son-in-law, the Earl of Pembroke, to act as overseers, with Philip, the heir, as executor and residuary legatee.14

Ref Volumes: 1558-1603

Author: N. M. Fuidge


  • 1. DNB; W. Berry, Co. Genealogies, Kent, 47; Collins, Sidney State Pprs. i. 96; CPR, 1553 and App. Edw. VI, p. 7.
  • 2. Lansd. 94, f. 34; 102, f. 89.
  • 3. SP12/159/1; CPR, 1549-51, p. 174; DNB .
  • 4. APC, iv. 242-3; CPR, 1553 and App. Edw. VI, pp. 201-2; 1555-7, p. 82; 1557-8, pp. 2, 457; 1558-60, p. 120.
  • 5. Stowe, 571, f. 53; Flenley, Cal. Reg. Council, Marches of Wales, 11, 30 et passim; CSP Ire. 1509-73, pp. 265, 441; 1574-85, pp. 77, 142; APC, ix. 11.
  • 6. CSP Ire. 1509-73, pp. 133-159 passim; LP Hen. VIII, xiii (1), p. 213; APC, iv. 19, 196, 242-3; HMC De L’Isle and Dudley, i. 253; Lansd. 10, ff. 186-7; CPR, 1553 and App. Edw. VI, pp. 60-2, 242; 1553-4, pp. 215-17.
  • 7. SP12/159/1; DNB; Collins, Sidney State Pprs. i. 98; CSP Ire. 1509-73.
  • 8. Read, Cecil, 245 seq.; HMC De L’Isle and Dudley, i. 241; D’Ewes, 80, 83, 84; CJ, i. 63, 64, 65.
  • 9. SP12/159/1; Lansd. 102, f. 132; E. Rosenberg, Leicester, Patron of Letters, passim; HMC Hatfield, i. 404-5; CSP Ire. 1509-73, pp. 411, 430, 441.
  • 10. Trans. Salop Arch. Soc. (ser. 1), iii. 270; Trinity, Dublin, Thos. Cromwell’s jnl. f. 33; Neale, Parlts. i. 236; D’Ewes, 288, 290, 291, 292, 294, 301, 302, 306.
  • 11. SP12/159/1; CSP Dom. 1547-80, p. 442; 1581-90, pp. 98-9.
  • 12. CSP Dom. Add. 1566-79, p. 287; CSP Ire. 1574-85, pp. 92-3, 142 et passim.
  • 13. DNB; CSP Dom. 1547-80, p. 685.
  • 14. HMC De L’Isle and Dudley, i. 241, 405 et passim; Sidney State Pprs. i. 8-9; Lansd. 50, f. 191 seq.; PCC 27 Windsor.