Frances Sidney, Countess of Sussex ... her portrait hangs in the Hall of Sidney Sussex College, to which she gave her name
Each day during the IOCS summer school at Sidney Sussex we have worshipped in the beautiful college chapel, and three times a day we have been well-fed in the Hall, sitting beneath the portraits of Oliver Cromwell, past Masters of the college, and Lady Sidney Sussex, the founder of the college who gave her name to Sidney Sussex.
But who was Lady Sidney Sussex? Who was the woman with the unusual name that is still recalled over 500 years after her death? How did she give her name to the college that stands on the corner of Sidney Street and Sussex Street?
Frances Radclyffe, Countess of Sussex (1531-1589), was born Frances Sidney, the daughter of Sir William Sidney of Penshurst Place, Kent, and his wife, the former Anne Packenham. Her father was a prominent courtier during the reign of King Henry VIII and Lord Chamberlain to King Edward VI. She was a sister of Sir Henry Sidney, and the aunt of the famous poet Sir Philip Sidney and of the 1st Earl of Leicester.
She was a Lady of the Bedchamber to Queen Elizabeth I in 1555 when she married – as his second wife – Thomas Radclyffe, Viscount FitzWalter, a senior courtier and soldier. He was appointed Lord Deputy of Ireland in 1556 and who succeeded his father as the 3rd Earl of Sussex in 1557.
At Elizabeth’s court, she was an adviser and patron of literature and music. In later life she lived at Bermondsey near the royal palace at Greenwich, and at the magnificent New Hall at Boreham, Essex. At Boreham, her neighbours were the Mildmay family who founded Emmanuel College, a Protestant foundation in Cambridge.
Frances and Thomas Sussex had no children, and so in her will, Lady Sussex left the then small fortune of £5,000, as well as with some plate, to establish a new college at Cambridge “to be called the Lady Frances Sidney Sussex College.”
Lady Frances’s will was written just after the Armada, five years after her husband’s death. He had been a loyal Catholic under Queen Mary and was a fierce rival of Leicester and his protégé, Lady Frances’s nephew, Sir Philip Sidney.
Why did she leave this money to found a college in Cambridge? Was it her own idea, or was she prompted to do so by her theological mentor, the Archbishop of Canterbury, John Whitgift, and his circle?
Archbishop Whitgift had been Lady Margaret Professor of Divinity in Cambridge, and had successively been master of Pembroke and Trinity. As a moderate Calvinist, he was a confirmed enemy of radical Puritanism, and so wanted a serious transformation of the training of English priests. Sidney Sussex College would have been an ideal opportunity to support this as an “advance guard” in the creation of the new nation.
In the fraught political atmosphere of the 1580s, Lady Frances believed others were “complotting” her ruin. A libellous pamphlet by Arthur Hall – a notorious rogue MP who tried to woo her – was burned by her nephews the Harrington family in 1588. Was it because of these accusations and plots that she adopted her motto, Dieu me garde de calomnie, which became the college motto? Was it these libels that moved her to ensure she would be remembered in grand physical monuments? Did she plan her funeral monument at Westminster Abbey and a second “goodly and godly” one at Cambridge to help repair her reputation? And what exactly were the accusations against her?
Lady Frances died in 1589 and her main executors, supervised by Archbishop Whitgift, were Sir John Harrington, who was guardian of the doomed Princess Elizabeth, and the lawyer Henry Grey, Earl of Kent. Without these men, Sidney Sussex would never have been founded.
Lady Sidney Sussex wanted her new college to be a Puritan foundation, “some good and godlie moniment for the mainteynance of good learninge.”
It would have bee easier for the executors to give her money to Clare, as the will allowed. Their plans also faced stiff opposition from the Master and Fellows of Trinity College, which had been founded by Henry VIII, who gave Trinity the freehold to the site, which was once Grey Friars’ House.
So why did these men persist despite the difficulties they faced between the reading of the will in 1589 and Saint Valentine’s Day 1596, when the deed was signed?
Eventually, Queen Elizabeth intervened on their behalf with the Master and Fellows of Trinity College and building work began in 1595, following the plans of the Cambridge architect, Ralph Symons. By 1598, Hall Court, including the Hall and the Master’s Lodge, was ready for occupation.
Today, Sidney has one of the few master’s lodges that is still in heart of the old college. In all, 200 students live on the main college site, and in term-time, meals are served for fellows and students three times a day in the Hall.
Around 1750, the original hall, which was an Elizabethan tie-beamed hall, was extensively remodelled on classical proportions by the Cambridge scholar and architect, James Burrough, who gave it its fine plaster ceiling, the musicians’ gallery. It is a pity, perhaps, that the surviving huge roof is now obscured to view.
The hall was repainted in 2002, and can now be appreciated as one of the finest rococo interiors of Cambridge. Three times a day, as we eat in the hall, the portrait of Lady Sidney Sussex looks down on us benignly.
Most interesting and tantalizing! What exactly were the accusations against her? Any answers?
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