Dorothy Spencer, Countess of Sunderland

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Portrait of Dorothy, Countess of Sunderland (Anthony van Dyck)

Dorothy Spencer (née Sidney; later Smythe), Countess of Sunderland (5 October 1617 (baptised) – 5 February 1684), was the wife of Henry Spencer, 1st Earl of Sunderland, and the daughter of Robert Sidney, 2nd Earl of Leicester, and Lady Dorothy Percy.

Lady Dorothy Sidney (or Sydney) was celebrated not only for her beauty but for wit, charm and intelligence. In about 1635, she rejected a marriage proposal from the poet Edmund Waller, who addressed verses to her under the nickname "Sacharissa" (which he based on the Latin word sacharum, meaning "sugar"). In 1639 she married Henry Spencer, and in 1643 he was created 1st Earl of Sunderland in recognition of his service to the king in the English Civil War. It seems to have been a love marriage and had her family's wholehearted approval. He was killed at the First Battle of Newbury shortly afterwards, leaving Dorothy with two children, and pregnant with a third, who died in infancy. Their children were:

The widowed countess lived at Brington, Northamptonshire, but eventually returned to Penshurst Place in Kent to live with her parents. In 1652 she remarried to Sir Robert Smythe of Bidborough, Kent, and had a second son, also named Robert.

Her letters show both her intelligence and clear-sightedness, even about those close to her. While her son and daughter-in-law could see no fault in their eldest son Robert, Dorothy wrote dryly of her grandson: "He has no good nature or humour, is scornful and pretending… comes to me seldom, seems weary in a minute, talks of my company [guests] as though I picked them up in the streets…"

Her death has been attributed to grief caused by her brother Algernon's trial and execution for treason.

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