Frances Walsingham, Countess of Essex

Frances Walsingham, Dowager Countess of Essex and Countess of Clanricarde (1567 17 February 1633) was an English noblewoman. The daughter of Sir Francis Walsingham, Elizabeth I's Secretary of State, she became the wife of Sir Philip Sidney at age 16. Her second husband was Queen Elizabeth's favourite, Robert Devereaux Earl of Essex, with whom she had five children. Two years after his execution in 1601, she married Richard Burke, Earl of Clanricarde, and went to live with him in Ireland.

Frances Walsingham
Dowager Countess of Essex
Countess of Clanricarde
Frances Walsingham, countess of Essex, and her son Robert by Robert Peake the Elder, 1594
Died17 February 1633(1633-02-17) (aged 65–66)
Noble familyDevereux (by marriage)
Spouse(s)Sir Philip Sidney
The 2nd Earl of Essex
The 4th Earl of Clanricarde
Elizabeth Manners, Countess of Rutland
The 3rd Earl of Essex
Lady Dorothy Devereux
Frances, Duchess of Somerset
The 1st Marquess of Clanricarde
Honora Paulet, Marchioness of Winchester
FatherSir Francis Walsingham
MotherUrsula St. Barbe

Family and first marriage

She was the only surviving child of Sir Francis Walsingham, Secretary of State for Queen Elizabeth I, and Ursula St. Barbe. A lady-in-waiting to Queen Elizabeth, she married Philip Sidney in 1583, a match arranged by her father over the objections of the Queen, possibly because she did not like the prospect of two close councillors forming a power block (Sidney was nephew to Robert, Earl of Leicester). Sidney was appointed Governor of Flushing and left to attend his duties in the Netherlands, but pregnant with her first child, Frances waited until she had given birth. Her daughter was born in 1585 and named Elizabeth after the Queen, who had forgiven the couple and was one of the godparents. In June 1586 Frances left England for the Netherlands to meet her husband. On 22 September, Sidney was injured at the battle of Zutphen, and the wound became infected. Frances, again pregnant, nursed him, but he died on 17 October. She brought his body back to England, where he was given a heroes funeral, but miscarried their child.[1]

Second marriage

In 1590 Frances' father died, leaving her with an annuity of £300; she married again, to Robert Devereux, 2nd Earl of Essex, to whom her previous husband had left his "best sword". The match may have been arranged by her father and took place before he died, however it caused great displeasure to the Queen, (although she forgave them relatively quickly) partly because the couple had not asked for permission beforehand.[2]

Frances had three children who survived infancy with her second husband, these were named Frances, Robert and Dorothy. Robert was executed in 1601 after participating in an attempted coup against the Queen. Frances attempted to see the queen to plead on his behalf, but was not permitted to see her.[2] Her son became the third Earl of Essex.[3]

Third marriage

In 1603, she married her third husband Richard De Burgh (or Burke), Earl of St Albans and Clanricarde. They had one son, Ulick, and two daughters; the first, Honora, and the second known as Margaret or Mary.[1]

Together they lived in both Ireland and England, building great houses in each country. In 1609 they built a mansion at Somerhill in Kent, and around 1618 the construction of Portumna Castle in County Galway, Ireland began.[4]

She died early in 1632 at Somerhill, and was buried at St Peter and St Paul, Tonbridge, where she and her husband have effigies.[1]


By Sir Phillip Sidney

By Robert, Earl of Essex

  • Robert (1592- 1646)[5] later 3rd Earl of Essex
  • Penelope (b. 1593/4, bur. 27 June 1599)[5]
  • Henry (bap. 14 April 1595, d. 7 May 1596)[5]
  • Stillbirths in 1596 and 1598.[5]
  • Frances (b. 30 September 1599-1674), later Duchess of Somerset[5]
  • Dorothy (b. c.20 Dec 1600), later Lady Shirley[5]

By Richard Burke, Earl of Clanricarde

  • Ulick (1604-1657) later Earl, then Marquess of Clanricarde[1]
  • Margaret/Mary m. Hon. Edward Butler of Ballinahinch[1]


  1. Tsakiropoulou, Ioanna (9 May 2019), "Devereux, Frances [née Walsingham; other married names Sidney and Burke], countess of Essex and of Clanricarde (c.1568–1632), noblewoman", Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, Oxford University Press, doi:10.1093/odnb/9780198614128.013.112779, ISBN 9780198614128, retrieved 17 May 2019
  2. Rickman, Johanna (2008). Love, Lust, and License in Early Modern England: Illicit Sex and the Nobility. Ashgate Publishing, Ltd. pp. 57, 52. ISBN 9780754661351.
  3. Hutchinson, Robert (2007) Elizabeth's Spy Master: Francis Walsingham and the Secret War that Saved England. London: Weidenfeld & Nicolson. ISBN 978-0-297-84613-0, pages 266–267
  4. "Portumna Castle, Portumna, County Galway: Buildings of Ireland: National Inventory of Architectural Heritage". Buildings of Ireland. Retrieved 17 May 2019.
  5. Hammer, Paul E.J. (23 September 2004), Matthew, H. C. G.; Harrison, B. (eds.), "The Oxford Dictionary of National Biography", The Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, Oxford University Press, doi:10.1093/ref:odnb/7565, retrieved 18 May 2019
  6. Cokayne, George Edward (1887). Complete peerage of England, Scotland, Ireland, Great Britain and the United Kingdom. London, G. Bell & sons. p. 175. Retrieved 20 May 2015.
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