• Lancaster University

Penshurst Place and the Sidney Family of Writers

Uncover the literary history of Penshurst Place, the 16th-century home of the Sidney family of writers and poets.

1,964 enrolled on this course

Penshurst Place
  • Duration

    4 weeks
  • Weekly study

    3 hours

Learn how Lady Mary Wroth and the Sidney family shaped the English Renaissance

In the 16th century, Penshurst Place was the home to the Sidney family, renowned for their literary works in the age of Shakespeare. The family, including Lady Mary Wroth and her uncle Sir Philip Sidney, wrote poetry and prose that still appeal to audiences today.

On this course, you will be introduced to Penshurst Place, the Sidney family, and their famous works. You will learn how Lady Mary Wroth and Mary Sidney paved the way for female authors in Elizabethan England. You will also review Wroth’s drama ‘Love’s Victory’, which was reenacted and filmed at Penshurst Place in September 2018.

Skip to 0 minutes and 9 seconds When we think of Elizabethan England, authors like Shakespeare and Marlowe spring readily to mind. But this is by no means the whole story. Here at Penshurst Place in Kent, a family of writers reshaped the literary landscape of the time. Penshurst Place has been the home of the Sidney family since 1552. And thanks to the Viscount De L’Isle and staff at Penshurst, we will be using this beautiful country house to study the Sidney family writings. In this course, you will encounter extracts from the Sidney writings with commentary by international experts. By studying readings and performances in a deeply resonant historic setting, you will learn about the Sidneys’ extraordinary literary impact and discover the creative power of Penshurst itself.

Skip to 0 minutes and 58 seconds The Sidneys, no less than Shakespeare, had quill power, the ability to shape the world around them through writing. You will study extracts from the prose, poetry, letters, and translations, and the drama of five Sidney writers which had a transformative effect on English literature from the 16th and 17th centuries right up to the present. The ways we write, or think about love and friendship, about our place in the natural world, about marriage, gender, or belief in times of religious and social change all find echoes in the work of the Sidneys. The Sidney family is especially remarkable because women as well as men had quill power.

Skip to 1 minute and 40 seconds Although women’s writing was unusual in the age of Shakespeare, the Sidney women shared their work within the household, predating the Wordsworths, Shelleys, and the Brontes by over 200 years. You will learn how the Sidney men and women wrote in collaboration and differently from each other according to gender. Having learned how quills and ink were used to craft beautiful love sonnets, you can try taking up the quill yourself. As part of the course, you will read extracts from their romantic dramas and adventure stories, and experiment by designing a costume for one of their plays.

Skip to 2 minutes and 17 seconds By studying the Sidney scripts, which were written for performance in great households, you will uncover a very different type of theatre from the commercial playhouses of Shakespeare. It was one where women could both write and perform. And by watching extracts in production, you can judge how well you think they stand up in comparison as dramatists. The course will introduce you to the Sidneys’ spiritual as well as secular writings, showing how the religious struggles in Europe inform their translation of Christian texts. You’ll also learn how their classical education with Greek and Roman mythology opened up doorways to different depictions of the divine, which often unsettled conventions of gender or sexuality authorised by Christian culture.

Skip to 3 minutes and 3 seconds So join us on this course to experience a taste of how the Sidneys wrote about love, about belief, and how they staged drama in their country houses. Come with us as we explore Penshurst Place and the crucible for creativity that it undoubtedly was for the Sidneys.


  • Week 1

    The Sidney Family and Penshurst Place

    • Introduction to the Course

      Welcome to 'The Sidneys of Penshurst' and to Penshurst Place, home to the remarkable family of male and female writers from the age of Shakespeare.

    • Meet the Sidney Family of Writers

      Who were the Sidney writers and how were they and their writings inter-related?

    • Penshurst Place and Ben Jonson

      Penshurst Place has been the home of the Sidneys since 1552. In this activity we find out about its history and about how it is celebrated in 'To Penshurst' (1612) by Shakespeare's contemporary Ben Jonson.

    • The Sidneys, Nature and Writing

      How do male and female Sidneys create an idealised relationship of sympathy between humans and the natural world in their pastoral writing?

    • Summing Up

      An overview of the key points that have come up in our learning through the steps and in our discussions.

  • Week 2

    The Sidneys and Love

    • The Sidneys and love poetry

      An introduction to the week's work by Alison Findlay

    • Sonnets by Philip Sidney and Robert Sidney

      These sonnets by Sir Philip Sidney and Robert Sidney show how each responded to the Petrarchan tradition of love sonnet writing.

    • Writing Sonnets: calligraphy and decoration

      This activity shows you how to write like the Sidneys using the italic hand. It offers guidance on how to take up the quill yourself, in order to recreate the labour of love in handwriting a sonnet.

    • Lady Mary Wroth's Writing about love

      What happens when a woman writes Petrarchan love sonnets? This activity introduces you to examples from Lady Mary Wroth's sonnet sequence.

    • The Gods of Love: Venus and Cupid

      Romantic love is often explained as the influence of the gods, Venus and Cupid. Here we explore how these figures are characterised in Wroth's play "Love's Victory".

    • Summing Up

      An overview of the key points that have come up in our learning through the steps and in our discussions.

  • Week 3

    The Sidneys and Women’s Household Theatre

    • Household theatre and Shakespeare's Sisters

      This activity introduces you to forms of non-commercial theatre in the age of Shakespeare and how it offered opportunities for women.

    • Philip Sidney "The Lady of May"

      This activity introduces Sir Philip Sidney's entertainment which was a piece of political theatre written for Queen Elizabeth.

    • Shakespeare's Sisters (I) The First Play by an Englishwoman

      Lady Jane Lumley's translation of Euripides' tragedy of Iphigenia at Aulis (c.1557) is the first full length play by an Englishwoman.

    • Shakespeare's Sisters (II) Mary Sidney's "Tragedy of Antony"

      This activity explores Mary Sidney Herbert's dramatic translation of The Tragedy of Antony, completed in 1590 and published in 1592.

    • Music and Performance

      This activity demonstrates how important music was in the Sidney households. We see how it features in the Sidneys' writings and how it works on stage in a scene from Lady Mary Wroth's play "Love's Victory"

    • Shakespeare's Sisters (III) Lady Mary Wroth's "Love's Victory"

      In this activity we see how Lady Mary Wroth uses music to create dramatic effects in her play "Love's Victory"

    • Summing Up

      An overview of the key points that have come up in our learning through the steps and in our discussions.

  • Week 4

    The Sidneys and Religion

    • Introduction: The Sidneys and Religion

      A short introduction to this week's activities and to Penshurst Church and the Sidney family chapel.

    • Reformation and Counter Reformation

      Sir Henry Sidney's funeral sermon demonstrates the struggle and differences between Catholic and Protestant beliefs after the Reformation.

    • "A Discourse of Life and Death" trans. Mary Sidney Herbert

      This activity shows how Mary Sidney Herbert's translation of 'A Discourse of Life and Death' follows the family tradition of Protestant belief.

    • Mary and Philip Sidney's translations of the Psalms of David

      Mary and Philip Sidney's translations of the Psalms of David

    • The classical gods

      This activity considers how the Sidneys made use of alternative forms of religious authority in their writing by drawing on the classical gods of Greek and Roman mythology.

    • Quiz

      Test your knowledge with this quiz

    • Summing up

      An overview of the key points that have come up in our learning through the steps and in our discussions.

Learning on this course

On every step of the course you can meet other learners, share your ideas and join in with active discussions in the comments.

What will you achieve?

By the end of the course, you‘ll be able to...

  • Explore how aristocratic family networks fostered writing by both men and women in the age of Shakespeare
  • Evaluate examples of writings by the Sidney family and their importance as an influence on English literary history
  • Investigate a different type of theatre from Shakespeare's age
  • Explore how individual writers responded to questions of faith and belief in a time of turbulent religious change
  • Investigate how writing shapes the natural environment and the emotions of others both within a family network and beyond.

Who is the course for?

This course is for anyone with an interest in English Renaissance literature and the Sidney family. It would suit recent visitors to Penshurst Place looking to enhance their knowledge, people interested in women’s writing, and students studying Shakespeare and Marlowe.

Who will you learn with?

Alison Findlay is Professor of Renaissance Drama at Lancaster University and Chair of the British Shakespeare Association.

Who developed the course?

Lancaster University

Lancaster University is a collegiate university, with a global reputation as a centre for research, scholarship and teaching with an emphasis on employability.

Learning on FutureLearn

Your learning, your rules

  • Courses are split into weeks, activities, and steps to help you keep track of your learning
  • Learn through a mix of bite-sized videos, long- and short-form articles, audio, and practical activities
  • Stay motivated by using the Progress page to keep track of your step completion and assessment scores

Join a global classroom

  • Experience the power of social learning, and get inspired by an international network of learners
  • Share ideas with your peers and course educators on every step of the course
  • Join the conversation by reading, @ing, liking, bookmarking, and replying to comments from others

Map your progress

  • As you work through the course, use notifications and the Progress page to guide your learning
  • Whenever you’re ready, mark each step as complete, you’re in control
  • Complete 90% of course steps and all of the assessments to earn your certificate

Want to know more about learning on FutureLearn? Using FutureLearn

Learner reviews

Learner reviews cannot be loaded due to your cookie settings. Please and refresh the page to view this content.

Do you know someone who'd love this course? Tell them about it...

You can use the hashtag #FLsidneysofpenshurst to talk about this course on social media.