The Weald of Kent, Surrey and Sussex
Descendant's report for Dorothea "Sacharissa" Smythe [Spencer], Countess of Sunderland, daughter of Robert Sydney, 2nd Earl of Leicester and Lady Dorothy Sydney [Percy]

© National Portrait Gallery

It is truly remarkable how the fame of this somewhat over-praised, but talented and beautiful, dame has endured. The verses composed in her honour by a now but little-read bard have served to hand her name and story down to posterity surrounded by a halo of romance, which has won for her imperishable renown. Of all the fair women that graced the Court of Charles I ”Sacharissa” has obtained the most enviable reputation, and has been recognised as the most perfect type of an English lady of the seventeenth century; chaste, witty, handsome, and accomplished. The wife of an illustrious nobleman who died the death of a hero on the battlefield, she became the mother of one great statesman and the mother-in-law of another. How little could her fond admirer, the poet Waller, have reckoned that the memory of the bashful maiden that he had wooed in vain, who preferred the quiet seclusion of a country life to the pomps and vanities of the beau monde, and cared nothing for the adulation and flatteries of those whose hearts her charms had stricken, would live as long in history as his own !

"Sacharissa" was a worthy representative of her race, of a race noted for clever women. To Algernon, her brother, she occupied the same position as a dear sister and sage counsellor as had Lady Pembroke to the creator of the Arcadia. She proved herself also an obedient daughter, a devoted wife, and a fond parent during a long career alternately replete with dazzling triumphs and bitter sorrows, an eventful one from its childhood to its close. Flourishing in stirring times, she moved on terms of intimacy amongst the greatest celebrities of those times. Born in the reign of James I, she lived through that of Charles 1, the Commonwealth, and almost the entire reign of the Merry Monarch. The pride of the Court of Charles I, she survived to hear herself acclaimed one of the few talented and spotless women that graced the Court of the Restoration.

Dorothea Sidney was born at Syon House, Brentford, in September or October, 1617. The exact date of her birth is uncertain, but she was baptised at Isleworth, October 5. She was the eldest child of Robert Sidney, Earl of Leicester, and his wife Dorothy, daughter of the Earl of Northumberland. Her early years were chiefly passed in alternate residence at two lovely houses, Petworth and Penshurst; but on the death of her grandfather, and her father's consequent accession to the title, she remained until her marriage at Penshurst. The eldest of a family of fifteen children, she speedily became distinguished for her grace, wit, and beauty, so that by her sixteenth year the fame of her charms had become common property. It was only natural, therefore, that she should at an early age receive the homage of many admirers, the first of whom seems to have been the poet Waller himself.

Edmund Waller was some twelve years her senior, a young man of ancient family and rich estate, a member of Parliament, and a nephew of John Hampden. Although, like his famous uncle, a native of Buckinghamshire, it was from the immediate neighbourhood that he first proceeded to Penshurst, when staying on a visit to his cousins the Wallers of Groombridge Place, that sweet old moated manor-house, which in the course of its venerable history had for ages been tenanted by Wallers, one of whom in the fifteenth century had rendered it famous by maintaining in honourable captivity therein for the space of twenty years the person of the Duke of Orleans, captured by him at the battle of Agincourt. The poet-politician fell at first sight a victim to the charms of the Lady Dorothy, and quickly evinced signs of laying siege to her heart. Curiously enough, notwithstanding his youth, he was a widower, having married at the age of two-and-twenty the daughter and heiress of an opulent alderman, but who only survived her marriage with him two years. But the widower's hopes of winning Lady Dorothy were doomed to defeat. His fair charmer proclaimed her indifference to his addresses, and though her parents hinted that they would, in good time, not object to an alliance between him and another of their daughters, they would not consent to his marrying their "deare Doll." But, before surrendering to this decree, Waller made a forlorn recourse to his Muse, and composed ode after ode in praise of the "matchless" maiden, whom he dubbed the "Sacharissa" of his verse. But, notwithstanding the beauty of his minstrelsy, he was, once and for all, unsuccessful, and he had to abandon the quest in favour of other less talented rivals.

Dorothy finally chose the man of her heart, the young Lord Spencer, with, it need hardly be said, the full approval of her parents, he being generally considered as virtuous as was the rejected lover dissolute and gay, and being possessed also of an, equally fine patrimony. The happy pair, aged respectively nineteen and twenty one, were eventually married, after a short engagement, at Penshurst, on July 20, 1639. The happy married life of the Sunderlands was not destined to reach longevity, in spite of which the young wife was enabled to give birth to a little family of two sons and two daughters. Her husband, too, won such signal success at Court that he was created Earl of Sunderland, although at the date of his creation being but barely twenty-three years old. The residence of the Earl and his Countess, when free from their attendance at the Court, where the charms of "Sacharissa" sustained as great a triumph as they had in the Kentish weald, was made at Althorp, the seat of the Spencers. To " Sacharissa " the outbreak of the Civil War had fallen as a heavy blow, for it presented to her gaze the sad sight not only of her countrymen, of her friends, divided against one another, but even of her very kindred up in arms against their own flesh and blood. Her husband, with reluctance, declared for King Charles, but her brothers and uncle for the Parliament. From the fiery ordeal of Edgehill Lord Sunderland emerged unscathed (even finding time to pay a visit to his wife during the subsequent campaign); but at Newbury he did not prove so lucky, and, charging in the ranks of the royal troop as a volunteer, fell early in the day.

For nine years she remained a widow residing at Althorp and at Penshurst and in 1652 she married Sir Robert Smythe, a wealthy Kentish squire

She died on 5th February 1683/4 and was buried twenty days later Brington Church at Althorp in Northanptonshire

She is immortalised by Waller's poems of which the most popular is:

Go, lovely Rose!
Tell her that wastes her time and me
That now she knows
When I resemble her to thee
How sweet and fair she seems to be.

Tell her that's young
And shuns to have her graces spy'd,
That hadst thou sprung
In deserts where no men abide,
Thou must have, uncommended, died.

Small is the worth
Of beauty, from the light retired;
Bid her come forth,
Suffer herself to be desired,
And not blush so to be admired.

Then die! that she
The common fate of all things rare
May read in thee,
How small a part of time they share
That are so wondrous sweet and fair.


See also The Sidneys of Penshurst and


Generation No. 1
  1. Dorothea "Sacharissa" Smythe [Spencer], Countess of Sunderland was the daughter of Robert Sydney, 2nd Earl of Leicester and Lady Dorothy Sydney [Percy]. She was born c Oct 1617 at Syon House, Brentford, London; christened 5th Oct 1617 at Isleworth, Brentford, London; died 5th Feb 1683/84; buried 25th Feb 1683/84 at Brington Church, Northamptonshire
  She married (1) Henry Spencer on 20th Jul 1639 at Penshurst, Kent. He was born c Oct 1620 at Althorp, Brington, Northamptonshire, son of William Spencer, 2nd Baron Spencer and Lady Penelope Wriothesley; died 20th Sep 1643. They had the following children:
  iDorothy who was born 1640 at Paris, France; died 16th Dec 1670
  iiRobert who was born 1641 at Paris, France; died 28th Sep 1702
  iiiPenelope who was born 1642 at Althorp, Northamptonshire; died c 1645
  ivHarry who was born 1643 at Althorp, Northamptonshire; died Mar 1649 Penshurst, Kent
  She married (2) Robert Smythe on 8th Jul 1652. He was born 1613
   

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