Frances Walsingham, the only child of Sir Francis Walsingham and Ursula St. Barbe was born in October, 1567. (1) Her sister, Mary, who was born in 1573, died seven years later. She was brought up at Appuldurcombe, on the Isle of Wight and at Carisbrooke Castle. (2)
Frances served as a lady-in-waiting to Queen Elizabeth before her father arranged for her to marry Philip Sidney. The marriage itself took place on 21st September, 1583, and as part of its settlement Walsingham agreed to underwrite up to £1,500 of Sidney's debts. Henry Woudhuysen has pointed out: "Marriage brought Sidney new homes at Barn Elms in Surrey and Walsingham House in Seething Lane, London, but the relationship between him and his young wife seems to have been detached: his identification with his father-in-law's political outlook appears, however, to have been quite strong." (3)
Sidney was elected to the House of Commons. He was also a writer and had produced the unpublished An Apology for Poetry. He had also written Astrophel and Stella, a work that contains 108 sonnets and 11 songs. It is believed that it was inspired by his love for Penelope Devereux. (4)
In 1585 Frances Sidney gave birth to a daughter, Elizabeth. Soon afterwards, Philip Sidney served under Robert Dudley, Earl of Leicester, in the army that went to the Netherlands. In September 1586 Philip Sidney participated in Leicester's capture of Doesburg and in the famous skirmish at Zutphen, where he and a small body of other horsemen repeatedly charged a much larger Spanish force with almost foolhardy bravery. (5) Sidney was wounded in the battle and died four weeks later on 17th October 1586. (6) It has been argued that "Sir Philip Sidney had seemed to represent an Elizabethan ideal: the literate, gentle, courageous all-round courtier at ease writing verses, fighting battles, on his knees at prayer or on his toes in courtly dances." (7)
In April 1590 Frances' father, Sir Francis Walsingham, died, leaving her with an annuity of £300. The following month she married Robert Devereux, 2nd Earl of Essex. Devereux was described as being "tall, strikingly attractive with dark eyes and auburn hair" who was "intelligent, witty and flirtatious". For many years he had enjoyed a very close relationship with Queen Elizabeth. At court entertainments he would always sit close to Queen Elizabeth and she was often reported to whisper to him or touch him fondly. Despite the thirty-three age gap, members of the Royal Court began to speculate on the nature of their relationship. (8)
Essex decided to keep his marriage to Frances a secret from the Queen. Devereux bore him a son, Robert, in January 1591. When the Queen discovered about the marriage she "stamped and raged and roared when she heard of Essex's marriage... yet by her own standards her fury was curiously short lived." (9) After only a fortnight Essex was welcomed back into her inner-circle. Anna Whitelock, the author of Elizabeth's Bedfellows: An Intimate History of the Queen's Court (2013) compares to to the way she treated Robert Dudley after she found out about his secret marriage: "His relationship with the Queen was very different from that which Elizabeth had shared with Dudley. There had been - on both sides - genuine love and perhaps unrequited ambition for a marriage; whereas Essex's relationship with her was a flirtation which made the ageing Queen feel young and attractive again." (10)
Robert Lacey, the author of Robert, Earl of Essex (1971) has speculated on the reasons why Essex married Frances: "His choice of lady love was strange - or rather displayed the enthusiastic but erratic logic that inspired the rest of his actions.... The lady was not wealthy, for her first husband had left her little but debts... So did the Earl of Essex marry for love? If he did, it was an emotion as fleeting as his other enthusiasms, for he was soon to be as conspicuously unfaithful to his Frances as Sir Philip Sidney had been, and he showed no evidence even of the redeeming low-key affection with which the most dissolute of husbands depend on a steady if slighted life-mate.... Though she bore him five children Frances remained in her husband's life, letters and in Elizabethan history generally a 'gracious silence', never cited in anger or affection - placid, faithful and neutral, so colourless as to be strangely significant. For never once in his life did Robert Devereux manage to construct a relationship that could fairly be described as personal or lasting." (11)
Following his successful raid on the Spanish navy in Cadiz, the Earl of Essex, had a flaming disagreement with Queen Elizabeth. She was furious with Essex for giving the booty from Cadiz to his men. She ordered William Cecil to carry out an investigation into Essex's conduct of the campaign. He was eventually cleared of incompetence but it has been claimed that Elizabeth never forgave him for his actions. (12) Essex had hoped to be appointed to the prestigious and lucrative post of master of the Court of Wards. According to Roger Lockyer the Queen refused to give him what he wanted because she "distrusted his popularity and also resented the imperious manner in which he claimed advancement". (13)
This was a sensible move because on 7th February, 1600, Robert Devereux, Earl of Essex, was visited by a delegation from the Privy Council and was accused of holding unlawful assemblies and fortifying his house. Fearing arrest and execution he placed the delegation under armed guard in his library and the following day set off with a group of two hundred well-armed friends and followers, entered the city. Essex urged the people of London to join with him against the forces that threatened the Queen and the country. This included Robert Cecil and Walter Raleigh. He claimed that his enemies were going to murder him and the "crown of England" was going to be sold to Spain. (14)
At Ludgate Hill his band of men, that included his step-father, Sir Christopher Blount, were met by a company of soldiers. As his followers scattered, several men were killed and Blount was seriously wounded. Essex and about 50 men managed to escape but when he tried to return to Essex House he found it surrounded by the Queen's soldiers. Essex surrendered and was imprisoned in the Tower of London. (15)
On 19th February, 1601, Essex and some of his men were tried at Westminster Hall. He was accused of plotting to deprive the Queen of her crown and life as well as inciting Londoners to rebel. Essex protested that "he never wished harm to his sovereign". The coup, he claimed was merely intended to secure access for Essex to the Queen". He believed that if he was able to gain an audience with Elizabeth, and she heard his grievances, he would be restored to her favour. Essex was found guilty of treason and was executed on 25th February. (16)
In 1603, Frances married her third husband Richard De Burgh, Earl of St Albans. They had one son, Ulick Burke, 1st Marquess of Clanricarde, and a daughter, Honora, who became the second wife of John Paulet, 5th Marquess of Winchester. (17)
Frances Walsingham Sidney Devereux De Burgh, aged 66, died on 17th February 1633.
So when the Earl of Essex went to woo he wooed secretly, and the Court kept his secret for the sake of a quiet life. Yet his choice of lady love was strange - or rather displayed the enthusiastic but erratic logic that inspired the rest of his actions. Having inherited Sir Philip Sidney's sword after the Netherlands expedition, and having been hailed as the successor to the Protestant hero's mantle, Robert Devereux, after the Lisbon raid, paid court to the shepherd knight's widow, Frances; it was a chivalrous, charmingly medieval conceit fancifully linked to the Old Testament tradition of brothers caring for each other's widows. And what were Sidney and Essex if not brothers-in-arms? Yet there seemed no other good reason for such a match. The lady was not wealthy, for her first husband had left her little but debts, and her father, Sir Francis Walsingham, was very near his end. As a power in high places such a father-in-law was a spent force, and when he died his body was secretly buried at midnight in St Paul's for fear that his creditors should seize it.
So did the Earl of Essex marry for love? If he did, it was an emotion as fleeting as his other enthusiasms, for he was soon to be as conspicuously unfaithful to his Frances as Sir Philip Sidney had been, and he showed no evidence even of the redeeming low-key affection with which the most dissolute of husbands depend on a steady if slighted life-mate. After his trial in 1601 he expressed no farewell to his wife, formal or informal. Though she bore him five children Frances remained in her husband's life, letters and in Elizabethan history generally a "gracious silence", never cited in anger or affection - placid, faithful and neutral, so colourless as to be strangely significant. For never once in his life did Robert Devereux manage to construct a relationship that could fairly be described as personal or lasting.