‘Great Quarrels and Disputes’ or A Bun in the Oven? The Penshurst Claimant and the earldom of Leicester

In today’s blog Dr Robin Eagles, editor of our House of Lords 1715-1790 project, continues our look into the marriages of parliamentarians past. When, in 1781, a man emerged calling himself the earl of Leicester, rumours began to swirl about the origins of his birth…

In October 1781, George Selwyn, conveyed the latest society gossip to the earl of Carlisle. He took evident pleasure in relaying one particularly juicy morsel:

A new character is coming on the stage… an attorney the son of a baker in Kent. He now calls himself Earl of Leicester.

[HMC Carlisle, 526]

Jocelyn, the last of the Sidney earls of Leicester, had died almost 40 years earlier in July 1743. He had spent much of his time as earl in litigation with members of his family and with his estranged wife, Elizabeth Thomas. According to rumours, Jocelyn had married his wife in February 1717 when she was 18, in the expectation of her succeeding to a huge fortune. The only problem was that she needed to survive to the age of 21 to qualify for the money leaving him with a nervous few years to wait to ensure the money was safe. In a period when childbirth was hugely dangerous for women, the greatest threat to his young wife’s safety was having children. So, according to the rumours, Jocelyn chose to be cautious and refused to sleep with her until she came of age. Unfortunately for him, this was clearly not a plan that worked for her and within a few years of the marriage their relationship had collapsed. Jocelyn went his way and ultimately had at least one acknowledged child with another partner; she went hers and was said to have settled with a local baker.

When Jocelyn died, he settled the majority of his property on his illegitimate daughter, Anne, but the will was challenged vigorously by his two nieces (and their husbands) who insisted that he had no right to convey the family seat of Penshurst away from them. After further years of legal wrangling, a compromise was arrived at whereby Anne received a lump sum and inherited various estates in Wales; Penshurst went to one of the nieces: Elizabeth Perry.

View of the house and gardens of the Sidney family at Penshurst Place in Kent, George Vertute, 1744, British Museum

All of this, left the historic estate of Penshurst in a poor state. In 1752, Horace Walpole conducted a tour through Kent and was dismayed by what he found there:

This morning we have been to Penshurst – but, oh! how fallen! – The park seems to have never answered its character: at present it is forlorn; and instead of Sacharissa’s cypher carved on the beeches, I should sooner have expected to have found the milk-woman’s score

Things were no better in the house itself:

The apartments are the grandest I have seen in any of these old palaces, but furnished in a tawdry modern taste. There are loads of portraits; but most of them seem christened by chance, like children at a foundling-hospital

The poor state of the grounds and the mish-mash of styles in the house pointed to the travails Penshurst had suffered after being handed on from brother to brother and then fought over by relations. It remained, though, one of the country’s most splendid estates and a prize well worth securing. It was no doubt with this in mind, as well as the glory of restoration to a historic earldom that brought John Sidney out of the shadows 30 years after Walpole’s visit.

Sidney’s challenge commenced at the opening of the new legal term in November 1781 with ‘a very unusual ceremony’ in the court of Common Pleas. Four knights, girt with swords, were sworn in, who then proceeded to choose twelve more similarly equipped. These sixteen formed the ‘Grand Assize’ to investigate Sidney’s claims as demandant, against Elizabeth Perry, then tenant of Penshurst [St James’s Chronicle or the British Evening Post, 10-13 Nov. 1781]. On 11 February the case was heard and the family’s dirty laundry aired in public.

‘Botheration’, Thomas Rowlandson, 1793, British Museum

The lawyers for Elizabeth Perry made several objections to the claimant’s case: first (and most important) they argued that Earl Jocelyn had only ever had a life interest in the estate, and so was in no position to bequeath it to whom he chose; second that the demandant was a cunning imposter. He was a lawyer, brought up in the area, so had the local knowledge and legal training to make the most of his story. Even so, they were puzzled by his account as the basic arithmetic made no sense. Sidney himself claimed that he was born in 1738, and yet in around 1722 or 1723 (they could not be sure which) ‘there were great quarrels and disputes between Earl Jocelyn and his lady, such as occasioned a separation between them, and they continued separate’: how then could the claimant be who he said he was? Moreover, in a series of legal agreements entered into between the earl and his family prior to his death in 1743, Jocelyn had stated clearly that he had no legitimate issue. Finally, why had it taken the claimant so long to come forward and make his case?

On the other side, the claimant’s lawyers argued that the case against their client was unjust. The delay was not unreasonable: he had been abandoned by both his father and mother and thus had been in no position to bring an expensive legal action until this point. That said, the principal objection brought against him, they urged, was Earl Jocelyn’s will, but the will did not leave Penshurst to Elizabeth Perry: far from it, it actually left the estate to Jocelyn’s illegitimate daughter, Anne. They also contended that the other side had not proved John to be anyone other than he claimed. There had been no divorce between the earl and countess, and no one disputed he was the countess’s son. According to law, then, he was born in wedlock making the earl his legal father.

Modern view of Penshurst Place, Kent via Wikimedia Commons

The claimant’s legal team’s combative efforts to see him restored to his title failed to persuade the jury, who concluded with little hesitation that Elizabeth Perry was the rightful tenant of Penshurst. In May, she followed up on this success by petitioning to be recognized as Baroness Sidney of Penshurst. Her petition was presented to the House of Lords by Lord Shelburne (the Prime Minister) and referred to the Lords committee for privileges, but there it failed on a technicality. When she died the following year, she left her property in trust for her grandchildren, John, Philip, Robert, Ariana and Elizabeth Shelley, children of Sir Bysshe Shelley, grandfather (by his first marriage) of the poet Percy Bysshe.

John Sidney continued to call himself earl of Leicester, and when he died in 1812 his son also embraced the title but was never able to persuade the House of Lords to recognize him. As for Earl Jocelyn’s neglected wife, soon after her estranged husband’s death she had complained to the family lawyer that she had been ‘hardly treated’ by one of his agents and died in obscurity in 1748. It is not known what became of the baker.


Further Reading:

The Trial at Bar, on a Writ of Right and Proceedings before the Grand Assize, in the Court of Common Pleas at Westminster, between John Sidney, Earl of Leicester… and Elizabeth Perry on Monday the 11th of February 1782

William Berry, County Genealogies: Pedigrees of the families of the County of Sussex (1830)

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