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Introduction by Philip Sidney to his family home, Penshurst Place

An introduction by Philip Sidney to his family home Penshurst Place
Penshurst Place was already a historic building when it first came into the Sidney family in 1552, given to Lady Mary’s great grandfather Sir William Sidney by King Edward the VI. The baron’s hall was originally built by the wool merchant Sir John de Pulteney between 1341 and 1349. Penshurst was ideally located, a day’s ride from the court in London and the coast and commerce in Europe, a position that would later suit the Sidneys as they juggled their commitments at court with political service and diplomatic missions abroad. The house fell into the hands of the crown in 1521 after Henry VIII had its then owner, Edward Stafford Duke of Buckingham, executed for treason.
It is said that Buckingham’s fate was sealed by a banquet he gave for King Henry at Penshurst which cost a staggering sum of 2,500 pounds– over a million pounds in today’s money– and gave the king the idea that his courtier may be a little too powerful for his own good. Sir William Sidney only lived two years after being presented with Penshurst by Edward VI. And so in 1554, the estate passed on to his son and Lady Mary’s grandfather, Sir Henry Sidney. Sir Henry set about putting the family’s stamp on his new home, building new wings of the house and improving the interior.
Sir Henry also introduced a programme, continued by his son Robert, of rejuvenating Penshurst Gardens, instituting the system of ornamental terraces, yew hedges and orchards that still exists today. Penshurst was immensely important to the Sidney family, above all, as a beloved family home. Lady Mary’s mother, Barbara Gamage, was said to be reluctant to come and join her husband at court in London, being so far in love with sweet Penshurst. The family’s history was intertwined with the estate’s architecture and landscape. A place where Lady Mary’s mother went to feed the deer was called Lady Gamage’s Bower.
And the park was dotted with trees planted to commemorate special family occasions– most famously, the Sidney Oak, popularly believed to have been planted at the birth of Sir Philip Sidney in 1554. The connection between the Sidneys and the site of Penshurst reaches its highest pitch in “To Penshurst,” the country house poem written by Ben Jonson, who resided at Penshurst in 1611, and would later affectionately dedicate the alchemist to Lady Mary. In “To Penshurst,” the Sidneys are depicted as the virtuous just inhabitants of a productive and contented estate, with Penshurst Place at the heart and as the hearth of a thriving rural community.
In Jonson’s poem, Penshurst is an allegory for good husbandry and a social order in which bountiful nature and a benevolent lord of the manor mean that all are provided for. As the family home, Penshurst also made its way into the literary works of the Sidneys. For example, Sir Philip Sidney’s Arcadia contains a description of a house built of fair and strong stone, not affecting so much any extraordinary kind of fineness as an honourable representing of a firm stateliness, handsome without curiosity, and homely without loathsomeness.

Watch this video Introduction by Philip Sidney to his family home, Penshurst Place. Then post a comment on your impressions of the house and its meaning to the family.

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Penshurst Place and the Sidney Family of Writers

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