Remembering a generous lady in Westminster Abbey

CALL ME UNINFORMED but until the afternoon of the 22nd of April 2022 when I attended a service in Westminster Abbey, I had thought that Sidney Sussex College in Cambridge was named after someone called Sidney Sussex. Now, I know better.

On the 22nd, we attended choral Evensong in Westminster Abbey. The choir was that of Sidney Sussex College, and they sung well despite the not too brilliant acoustics in the huge church. After the service, a select group of us, consisting mainly of people associated with the College, moved over to a small side chapel behind and north of the High Altar: The Chapel of St Paul. When we were all crowded into the small chapel, already filled with funerary monuments, the choir of Sidney Sussex squeezed in. They sung a short mass, and then the Master of the College laid a floral wreath at the foot of the monument to Frances Sidney, Countess of Sussex (c1531-1589). This ceremony, commemorating the founding of Sidney Sussex College, has been performed annually since her death.

Frances Sidney, aunt of the poet Phillip Sidney (1554-1587), was a philanthropist. She had inherited a great deal of money when her husband Thomas Radcliffe, Lord Fitzwalter, Lord Deputy of Ireland and from1557 the 3rd Earl of Sussex, died in 1583.  One of her many good deeds is recorded on her colourful stone monument in Westminster Abbey. As per tradition, the Master of Sidney Sussex read out aloud the resumé of Frances’s life as recorded on the monument. The part that is pertinent to the college is as follows:

“…By her last will and testament she instituted a divinitie lectur to be redd in this Collegiate Church and by the same her testament gave also fyve thowsande powndes towards the buildinge of a newe colledge in the Universitie of Cambridge, with sufficient yerelie revenew for the continuall maintenaunce of one Maister, X Fellowes, and XX Schollers, eyther in ye same Colledge or ells in another house in ye said Universitie already builded, comenlie [commonly] called Clare Hall…”

To put it in plainer English, on her death in 1589, she bequeathed £5,000 (worth far more than £ 1 million today) to pay for the building of a new college in the University of Cambridge and to provide an annual revenue sufficient to finance 1 Master, 10 Fellows (i.e., academic teachers) and 20 scholars. The first sentence of the quote states that a “divine lectur” (i.e., prayers) should be said annually in the Abbey. And this is what was being done as we stood assembled in the small chapel. It was a curiously moving occasion especially when the wreath was laid at her monument. Later, one of the clerics who had been present at the ceremony explained to me that not only had Frances Sidney paid for the college, which is named in her memory but also she would have had to pay for the elaborate marble and alabaster monument erected to remember her.

As for the name of the college, Sidney Sussex, this is a shortened version of its full name: The College of the Lady Frances Sidney Sussex.

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