Born: 27 Oct 1561, Penhurst, Kent, England
Died: 25 Sep 1621, Aldergate, London, Middlesex, England
Father: Henry SIDNEY (Sir Knight)
Mother: Mary DUDLEY
Married: Henry HERBERT (2° E. Pembroke) 21 Apr 1577
1. William HERBERT (3° E. Pembroke)
2. Catherine HERBERT (b. 1581 - d. 1584)
3. Anne HERBERT (b. 1583 - d. ABT 1606)
4. Phillip HERBERT (4° E. Pembroke/ 1° E. Montgomery)
Associated with: Matthew LISTER (Sir Knight)
Mary Sidney, Countess of Pembroke
Miniature by Nicholas Hilliard, c. 1590
Mary Sidney Herbert, the first English woman to achieve a significant literary reputation, is celebrated for her patronage, for her translations, for her original poems praising Queen Elizabeth and her brother Phillip, and especially for her metrical paraphrase of the biblical Psalms.
The third daughter of Sir Henry Sidney and Lady Mary Dudley, she was born on 27 Oct 1561 at Tickenhall near Bewdley, one of her father's official residences as Lord President of the Council in the Marches of Wales; he served as Lord President from 1559 to 1586 and concurrently as Lord Deputy of Ireland from 1565 to 1571 and 1575 to 1578. The fortunes of the Sidneys and the Dudleys were closely tied to the favour of the monarch. Henry Sidney's father had been Prince Edward's chamberlain, so the boys grew up together. When Edward became King, the Sidneys were honoured; when Edward died their fortunes took a downward turn. Lady Sidney was the daughter of Jane Guildford and John Dudley, Duke of Northumberland, who was executed for his attempts to put Lady Jane Grey on the throne. Under Queen Mary the Dudley brothers were imprisoned and their properties were confiscated, but after Elizabeth came to the throne she gave particular favour to them. Lady Sidney served Elizabeth at court until she caught smallpox nursing the Queen; badly scarred by the disease, Lady Sidney spent the rest of her life largely hidden from public sight, yet her wise advice and her family connections were essential to her daughter's social position. Mary Sidney was the niece of Henry Hastings and Catherine Dudley, Earl and Countess of Huntingdon; of Ambrose Dudley and Anne Russell, Earl and Countess of Warwick; and of Robert Dudley, Earl of Leicester, Queen Elizabeth's favourite.
Mary Sidney's brothers were Phillip (1554-86); Robert (1563-1626), later Earl of Leicester, and Thomas (1569-95). She also had three sisters: Margaret, who died in infancy; Elizabeth, who died in Dublin at 1567; and a younger sister, Ambrosia, who died at Ludlow in 1575. She and her sisters were given a superb education, analogous to that of Queen Elizabeth and the learned Cooke sisters. She was schooled in scripture and the classics, trained in rhetoric, and was fluent in French, Italian, and Latin; she may also have known some Greek and Hebrew. Like other aristocratic women, she was also trained in household medicine and administration, and she excelled in the feminine accomplishments of music (voice and lute) and needlework.
She spent her childhood chiefly at Ludlow Castle, where her father, Sir Henry Sidney, resided as President of Wales, and she was carefully educated, acquiring a knowledge of Latin, Greek, and Hebrew. Her brother Phillip was her constant childhood companion. After Ambrosia's death Queen Elizabeth invited young Mary to became a member of the Royal Household in 1575, and accompanied the Queen on her progresses round the country. In 1577 she became the third wife of Henry Herbert, Earl of Pembroke, the eldest son of William, Earl of Pembroke; but this subtile old Earl did see that his faire and witty daughter-in-law would horne his son, and told him so, and advised him to keep her in the Country and not to let her frequent the Court. Robert Dudley, Earl of Leicester advanced a part of her dowry, owing to her father's poverty.
They had four children in rapid succession: William (1580), later third Earl of Pembroke; Catherine (1581); Anne (1583); and Phillip (1584), later Earl of Montgomery and fourth Earl of Pembroke. These early years of her marriage were a time of great joy--and great tragedy. Little Catherine died the same day that Phillip was born in Oct 1584. In 1586 Mary Sidney's father died in May and her mother in Aug. And then, in that same year, her brother Phillip died on 17 Oct from wounds received in Zutphen, where he was fighting with the English forces that hoped to rescue the Netherlands from the rule of Catholic Spain. As a woman she was barred from participating in his elaborate funeral and from publishing in any of the volumes of elegies put out by the universities of Oxford, Cambridge, and Leiden. Overcome by illness and grief, and then fearing invasion by the Spanish Armada, Mary Sidney remained at the Pembroke country estates in Wiltshire for two years. She returned to London in Nov 1588 in a procession that marked her reentry into public life.
She suggested the composition of her brother's Arcadia, which she revised and added to. For in 1586 she lost her mother, her father, and her brother and; when she had recovered from these blows, she applied herself to the literary tasks which Sir Phillip Sidney had left unfinished or had contemplated, and took under her protection the many men of letters to whom he had acted as patron: Edmund Spenser, Samuel Daniel, Nicholas Breton, Thomas Moflat, Thomas Nashe, Gabriel Harvey, John Donne, and Ben Jonson. Her poetry, according to Sir John Harrington, should "outlast Wilton's Walls". Bishop Babington hel. her in the translation of the Psalms.
She was a beautiful lady and had an excellent witt, and had the best breeding that that age could afford. She had a pritty sharpe-ovall face. Her hair was of a reddish yellow. One of her great Gallants was Crooke-back't Robert Cecil, Earl of Salisbury.
In her time, Wilton House was like a College, there were so many learned and ingeniose persons. She was the greatest Patronesse of witt and learning of any Lady in her time. She was a great Chymist, and spent yearly a great deale in that study. She kept for her Laborator in the house Adrian Gilbert (vulgarly called Dr Gilbert) half-brother to Sir Walter Raleigh, who was a great Chymist in those dayes and a Man of excellent naturall Parts; but very Sarcastick, and the greatest Buffoon in the Nation; cared not what he said to man or woman of what quality soever. Twas he that made the curious wall about Rowlington park, which is the parke that adjoynes the howse at Wilton.
The extent of her literary patronage has sometimes been exaggerated, but she did encourage those in her family and household to write, including her brothers Phillip and Robert; her children's tutor Samuel Daniel; her physician Thomas Moffet; her son William; and her niece and namesake Mary Sidney, later Lady Wroth, author of The Countess of Montgomery's Urania, Pamphilia to Amphilanthus, and Love's Victory. The lengthy list of dedications to her indicates that many other writers sought her favour and that of her wealthy husband.
Except for some correspondence, nothing else survives that she may have written. After her husband's death in 1601 she helped to secure her children's future by arranging marriages and positions at court. But after Queen Elizabeth died two years later, her influence at court waned; as her sons achieved positions of prominence under King James I they took over her role as literary patron. In her twenty years as a widow she attempted to put down insurrections in Cardiff, administered her properties, continued writing and translating, built herself the architecturally innovative Houghton House in Bedfordshire (identified by local tradition as John Bunyan's House Beautiful), carried on a flirtation with her handsome and learned young doctor Sir Matthew Lister, Knight. Jack Markham says they were not married. He was, they say, a learned and handsome Gentleman.
She took the waters for her health in the fashionable Continental town of Spa. She died from smallpox on 25 Sep 1621 at her home in London. After a funeral "according to her quality" in St. Paul's Cathedral, a magnificent torchlight procession took her to Wiltshire for burial in Salisbury Cathedral.
An epitaph on the Lady Mary, Countesse of Pembroke (in print somewhere) by William Browne, who wrote the Pastoralls:
Underneath this sable Herse
Lies the Subject of all Verse:
Sydney's Sister, Pembroke's Mother -
Died! ere thou Kill'st such another
Fair, and good, and learnd as SHEE,
Time will throw his Dart at thee.
|to Bios Page|
|to Peerage Page||to Home Page|