A scandal repaired – the affair of Penelope Devereux and Charles Blount, Earl of Devonshire

The catalogue of honor, compiled by Thomas Milles and published in 1610, records the names, titles, arms and descendants of the nobility of Great Britain. The entry for Charles Blount, 1st Earl of Devonshire, states simply that he “died in 1606. without any issue lawfully begotten”, however in Cardiff’s copy a section of the page has been excised and later replaced with a handwritten list recording “Natural children which he had by Penelope”. Investigating this intriguing addition revealed a scandalous tale of adultery and forbidden love in the Elizabethan court.

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Penelope_Lady_Rich

Portrait miniature of Penelope Devereux, c.1590 (public domain)

Penelope Devereux (1564-1607), sister to the Earl of Essex, was considered one of the true beauties of the age, inspiring the work of poets, musicians and authors. She was Philip Sidney’s muse, thought to be the inspiration for Stella in his sonnet sequence Astrophel and Stella, and had numerous other poems and sonnets dedicated to her. Even now Penelope continues to inspire the arts with her complicated love-life playing a role in Benjamin Britten’s 1953 opera, Gloriana.

In 1581 Penelope was wed to Robert Rich, 3rd Baron Rich, apparently very much against her will. Although they had six children together, the arranged marriage was never a happy one and Penelope soon began a secret romance with Charles Blount, Baron Mountjoy, who would later be created Earl of Devonshire.

The habit and attire of an Earl, from "The catalogue of honor" (1610)

Attire of an Earl, from “The catalogue of honor”

By 1601, Baron Rich had had enough of Penelope’s adultery and threw her out along with the illegitimate children she’d borne with her lover. Penelope moved in with Blount and their relationship became public. In 1605, Rich sued his wife for divorce, which was granted, but Penelope’s requests to remarry were denied by the Church. In defiance of canon law, Charles and Penelope chose to get married anyway and were wed in an unlicensed ceremony in December 1605, offending the social mores of the aristocracy and leading to the disgrace of both parties and banishment from the court of King James. The couple continued to live together as husband and wife until Blount’s death just a few months later. Penelope Devereux died on 7 July 1607.

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The English Short Title Catalogue (ESTC) states that copies of The catalogue of honor are, like Cardiff’s copy, frequently found mutilated to remove the section referring to Charles Blount’s progeny. When Blount married Penelope he acknowledged their five children together, allowing them to inherit his titles as legitimate heirs and to take their rightful place in The catalogue, but this was perhaps not enough to lift the shame and appease the nobility.

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Adam G. Hooks at the University of Iowa examined several copies of the book and concluded that removal of the section was likely done by the printer himself, William Jaggard, to avoid further offense to the aristocracy and his readers (Blount’s shield has also been altered or printed blank to suggest he had no descendants). However, readers were apparently not as sensitive as Jaggard believed and a previous owner of our copy of The catalogue of honor simply rewrote the entry and repaired the scandal.

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One response to “A scandal repaired – the affair of Penelope Devereux and Charles Blount, Earl of Devonshire

  1. Now that really is scandalous! Probably the front page of their old version of the Daily Mail!

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