Elizabeth Sidney, Connections 4

The Portrait of an Unknown Lady

By Bob Sparham

Detail of The Unknown Lady Marcus Gheeraerts II
Detail of The Unknown Lady Marcus Gheeraerts II

In my hypothesis the shape of the Lady’s necklace and colour of her waistcoat are not just coincidental with Items from Thomas Screven records from the Rutland accounts but they show that Elizabeth Sidney/Manners was wearing a gown made up of nine yards of silk philezelle when she had her portrait painted.

This however leaves me the central problem of why if this was a portrait painted around the time of the marriage of Elizabeth Sidney to Roger Manners was the prospective bride shown as pregnant when she in fact remained childless throughout the marriage? The answer to this question lies I feel with the fact that that Elizabeth was not bringing the usual financial dowry to the marriage (there was little money in her paternal grandparents, the Sidney family and her maternal grandfather the spymaster Sir Francis Walsingham, had practically bankrupted himself paying for her father’s funeral) but instead she was bringing a genetic dowry, the chance to father the grandson of Sir Philip Sidney, who was not just a dead poet but rather the focus of a personality cult, which made him the lost hero, England’s champion, the paradigm of all the Elizabethan gentlemanly virtues.

Some of the extent of the Sidney cult can, I feel be understood by reading the poem Nereus (1584) written by Scipio Gentili son of the Italian Protestant convert Mattaeo Gentili and brother of Alberico Gentili who became Oxford’s Professor of Civil Law in 1587. Describing Scipio’s literary career Dana Sutton writes:- “By the time he came to London, age eighteen, he was able to publish a volume of metaphrases of selected Psalms. His return visit beginning in 1584 was marked by a veritable spate of publications, all but the last consisting of more Latin poetry. These consisted of a second volume of Psalm metaphrases, three volumes of Latin translations of portions of Tasso’s Gerusalemme Liberata, all published in 1584, Nereus, printed in the same year, and a commentary on Tasso, written in Italian, printed two years later.

These publications collectively illustrate the most important fact about Gentili’s stay in England: his ongoing relationship with Sir Philip Sidney, for both of his Psalm volumes, and one of his Tasso ones, are dedicated to Sidney, and Gentili’s only original poem written in England, Nereus, is an epyllion written to celebrate the birth of Sir Philip’s daughter”


In her introduction to Nereus, Sutton outlines its description of the glittering prospects for the Sidney family:- Nereus was written on the occasion of the birth of Sir Philip Sidney’s daughter Elizabeth (the future Countess of Rutland), but a great deal of the poem is devoted to forecasting the future of the son she will someday bear. The prophetic sea-god Nereus’ predictions concerning Sidney’s future grandson are extraordinary: he will discover new territories in the Indies, civilize the natives, and name the land after himself (116 – 120 – it will no doubt interest some readers to see the British imperial ideal enunciated as early as 1584); he will be glorious in war, conquering the Spaniards and others (131 – 144); in peace, through his efforts, “Justice will return once more to mortal assemblies, and to their cities, and will bestow her happy fruit on their citizens” (152 – 154 – the reason for Justice’s prior absence is not explained, and is perhaps best left uninvestigated). At a couple of points the reader is assured that Elizabeth will still be alive, and that he will achieve all these things under her friendly auspices (119, 146 – 50, 159). A prudent touch, for otherwise the reader might easily gain the impression that Nereus is predicting Sidney’s grandson will be King of England” (9)

A flavour of Nerus can be gained by reading this section of Sutton’s translation of the Latin poem which describes the future marriage of Elizabeth Sidney:- “We will bring bigger and better, when first she is a bride joined to a husband fair as snow. At which time the gods will rejoice even more than did at the marriage-rites of ancient Peleus and the goddess of the sea. Nor will they rejoice in vain: for not even Peleus’ boy himself, promised by the Fates, Achilles, created such great hope for his grandfather Neptune, and for the king of the gods, as does the one who will be born of this girl, now small, but someday (the Fates and the Parcae willing) a Sidney bride, to his grandfather Sidney. But you, by whom these destinies are being sung, partner-goddess, begin with me these prophetic verses” (10)

The sentiments and conceits of these verses may seem excessive to the modern reader, however to contemporary poets such as Ben Jonson, the life and example of the ‘god-like Sidney’ was a real influence both on his choice of subjects and upon the direction of his work particularly in his book of poems, The Forest. which is a celebration of the Sidney family, Jonson knew Elizabeth well, she became one of his patrons around 1599 and he wrote four poems about her. In one of these Epistle To Elizabeth, Countess of Rutland. 1600. Jonson addressed the prospects of Roger and Elizabeth becoming parents and their hopes of her having a son. The poem was written when Roger was serving with the Dutch in the Netherlands shortly after taking part in the Earl of Essex in his disastrous campaign to subdue the rebellion of the Earl of Tyrone in Ireland. The final stanzas read originally :-

And show how, to the life, my soul presents 86

Your form impressed there: not with tickling rhymes,

Or commonplaces, filched, that take these times,

But high and noble manner, such as flies

From brains entranced and filled with ecstasies,

Moods which the god-like Sidney oft did prove,

And your brave friend and mine so well did love

Who, wheresoe’er he be, on what dear coast,

Now thinking on you, though to England lost,

For that firm grace he holds in your regard,

I, that am grateful for him, have prepared

This hasty sacrifice; wherein I rear

A vow as new and ominous as the year:

Before his swift and circled race be run,

My best of wishes, may you bear a son. (11)

Unfortunately the relationship between Jonson and Roger Manners the 5th Earl of Rutland your brave friend and mine, was to prove fragile. It did not survive an argument between Roger and Elizabeth when after coming home unexpectedly he loftily accused her of giving table room to poets i.e. social inferiors behind his back. Amongst the underlings being entertained by Elizabeth was Ben Jonson who seems not to have been amused by the description. When in subsequent discussion it was revealed the Rutland’s martial difficulties were caused by Roger’s impotence (which was deeply ironic in the context of Scipio Gentili’s prophetic verses) Jonson responded by removing the last section of the poem so that it read:-

And show how, to the life, my soul presents

Your form impressed there: not with tickling rhymes,

Or commonplaces, filched, that take these times,

But high and noble manner, such as flies

From brains entranced and filled with ecstasies,

Moods which the god-like Sidney oft did prove,

And your brave friend and mine so well did love

Who, wheresoe’er he be

┬áThe rest is lost …….(12)

However when the portrait was painted c.1595 the problems with the Rutland marriage were then far in the future so that I feel that the golden promise of fatherhood offered by Elizabeth’s inheritance of the Sidney blood, would then have made her spectacularly eligible prospective bride. It is this prospect which I believe was being celebrated in the painting now known as the Portrait of an Unknown Lady by Marcus Gheeraerts II, and this genetic dowry was the motive for the pregnancy portrait of the young maiden Elizabeth Sidney.


1. The Historical Manuscripts Commission, The Papers of His Grace the Duke of Rutland KG. now preserved at BelvoirCastle, HMSO, London. 1898. Vol. 5.

2. Roy Strong. The English Icon: Elizabethan & Jacobean Portraiture.London 1969

3. C Hertford & P & E Simpson eds. Ben Jonson. Vol VII. Oxford. 1941

4. Ibid. Vol. VII pp xviii-xix

5. Ibid. Vol. X p.467

6. The Historical Manuscripts Commission, The Papers of His Grace the Duke of Rutland. Vol. 5. Op Cit p 414.

7. Ibid. Vol. 5.pp 417-9

8. Dana F. Sutton. Scipio Gentili’s Nereus (1584) A critical hypertext critical edition, The University of California, Irvine. Posted March 17, 1999, Revised August 30, 2000 The Philological Museum, The University of Birmingham website http://www.philological.bham.ac.uk/nereus/ Introduction Sections 2 & 3

9. Ibid. Introduction Section 4.


11. Ben Jonson. Epistle To Elizabeth, Countess of Rutland.1600. In Ian Donaldson ed. The Oxford Authors Ben Jonson. OUP. 1985 pp298-300

12. Ibid. p300 see also note 93 ff. p679

This page was added on 30/11/2007.

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